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EAST LANSING, Mich. — The conceptual foundation for Material Effects, and the first thing you encounter upon entering the first-floor gallery of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, is a documentary film by Antje Majewski about influential Senegalese artist Issa Samb. La Coquille: Conversation entre Issa Samb et Antje Majewski captures the artist in his courtyard studio, a space filled with a dynamic treasure trove of objects (or a hoard, depending on how you view such things), which not only form the material basis for his sculptures and performances, but, in the view of the artist, speak directly to him.
“The object in and of itself possesses a force, a life, that signifies, and does so independently of our volition, of our needs, of our wishes and our aesthetic concerns,” Samb says in the video. The inherent power and history of objects as identity markers is certainly a useful framework for this show, which features the work of six artists from West Africa. The daunting task of somehow finding six particular artists to represent Africa fell to Yesomi Umolu, and the show is a sign-off on her work as guest curator for the MSU Broad, before taking up a new position as exhibitions director for the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Using her native Nigeria as a kind of base of operations, Umolu embarked on a far-reaching survey of West African artists, making between 30 and 40 studio visits and participating in innumerable conversations before settling on the artists featured at the Broad. Samb is the lone Senegalese artist, joined by two from Nigeria — performance artist Jelili Atiku and research-based installation artist Otobong Nkanga — as well as three contributors from Ghana. Bernard Akoi-Jackson staged an opening night performance in the installation he created; in the small, tapering gallery behind that, German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku has an arresting display of mixed-media sculptures and video; and in the main gallery, an entire two-story wall of the Broad is dominated by “Post No Bill” (2015), a multimedia installation by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama.
There is barely time to absorb the video before being drawn into Mahama’s piece, which is made of hundreds of cocoa-bean sacks, worn beyond utility through multiple uses, first for cocoa, then for the personal transport of commodities like vegetables, and finally to carry coal, which leaves the burlap marked and unusable. Mahama amasses these sacks via basic trade economy, then employs laborers to help him assemble them into massive tapestries that are tailored to his installation spaces. He often displays his work in public venues, such as condominium buildings or bridges, but in the case of Material Effects, Mahama has shrouded a vaulting section of the Broad’s oddly canted architecture in a bespoke garb of dirty burlap. This is accompanied by a soundscape that forms a kind of audial tapestry, perhaps seeking to replicate both the native source of these materials and the public venues where his work would normally be shown.
Positioned quietly between Mahama’s piece and the documentary video is Nkanga’s installation (2012), comprised of multiple pieces that investigate the kolanut — the product of a native African tree that, Umolu explained to me, is integral to Nigerian village life. Not only do the trees hold symbolic significance and often act as the physical center of a village, the kolanut held great value historically, with a single one traditionally offered as a woman’s dowry, and went on to become a significant modern commodity as well, once the trees were exported and established in South America, where they became a foundational and eponymous ingredient in Coca-Cola products. Nkanga’s installation fuses arts and science, with a tabletop glass rig that slowly drips rendered kolanut onto the table’s surface (leaving a material trace over the course of the exhibition), samples of actual kolanuts, and breakdowns of the structure and chemical composition of the plant. All of this is juxtaposed against two exquisite tapestries, woven by Nkanga into a kind of collage that draws together the biological, geographic, and human considerations of the kolaberry.
On the performance art side, the remainder of the large gallery is devoted to a line of mannequins with red hoods obscuring their heads and piles of clothing at their feet. The garments bear the names of the MSU dance students who worked with Atiku to create an adaptation of one of his performance pieces within the space (the original performance runs on a video loop adjacent to the mannequins). Atiku’s work is as dramatically political as it is aesthetic, dealing with war violence. Though the piece reflects generally on war and the material traces that violence inflicts on culture and community, the imagery of the red-hooded figures is drawn from Atiku’s personal experience and is a way of processing his own witnessing of a person injured from the fallout of an explosion, with blood from an open wound obscuring the person’s entire head.
Somewhat more playful in display, but no less serious in intent, was Akoi-Jackson’s opening night performance, which played with the intersection of African identity and bureaucracy, fabricating a false figure in the image of African royalty and, in this persona, silently presiding over an office administrating some kind of false colonial business. Those attending the members’ preview were sent through lines, made to fill out, sign, and thumbprint surveys, and ushered through a series of open-ended and unexplained tasks, sitting in a six-desk office assembled on a plinth in the middle of the gallery. Adorned in blue and gold body paint and quasi-ceremonial garb with wild patterns, Akoi-Jackson silently wandered the gallery with hands open beatifically, intermittently brandishing a handsaw or a decanter of water; gallery aides instructed participants to don red jumpsuits and file timed paperwork to some undefined end. Ultimately the rituals of administration, and the participants’ largely unquestioning observance of them, drew some uncomfortable conclusions about the unspoken “rules” of society, whether they pertain to getting a driver’s license or attending an art opening. Akoi-Jackson, for his part, remained stoic throughout his 90-minute performance, but the discerning viewer might have detected a mischievous twinkle in his eye — and even a cursory conversation with him out of character reveals a playful iconoclast who is no champion of rules in any setting.
Tucked behind this Kafkaesque scene is the work Zohra Opoku — truly not to be missed, and striking directly at the heart of the exhibition’s theme of material as a proxy for humanity. Sculptures of teak and cord serve as portraits, outlining clothing patterns that act as stand-ins for their subjects: “My Mother,” “My Father,” etc. The strongly formal and geometric composition of these figures does not deprive them of personality, instead helping to make them appear universal, like patterns for prototypes of these family figures that are so personal to the artist.
It is unimaginable that any six artists could completely represent even a small region within a place as vast and many-layered as Africa, but with Material Effects, Umolu has done an impressive job of transporting the objects and the artists of Africa here to Michigan, where, in exchange, they can transport us back to Africa. That the gallery feels alive with a humming pulse of lands many thousands of miles away does much to confirm Issa Samb’s thesis: that these objects contain a discernible power, one that can be used to seed connections between cultures a world apart.
Material Effects continues at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum (547 E Circle Drive, East Lansing, Michigan) through April 8.