ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Three years ago, as Laura De Becker prepared to assume her position as the inaugural Helmut and Candis Stern Associate Curator of African Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), she did so with the personal determination to create an exhibition that would put UMMA’s expansive, largely historical, African art holdings in conversation with the contemporary art of the continent.
During a tour through the exhibition, Beyond Borders: Global Africa , with Hyperallergic, De Becker, who holds a PhD from the University of East Anglia, characterized UMMA’s African collection as “Starting in the 1930s, [from] mostly local collectors who donated their collections —with especially strong work from Central Africa.” DeBecker is a specialist in Central African art and came to UMMA following a fellowship at Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“The contemporary art market in South Africa is very strong, very vibrant,” she said, “so I really wanted to bring some of that dynamism here.”
In addition to bridging the connection between selections from UMMA’s approximately 1800-object collection and the contemporary moment in African art, De Becker also uses Beyond Borders to highlight some of the troubling questions about the longstanding imposition of identity and region being inflicted on Africa by outsiders, particularly colonists.
“I think it’s really interesting to reflect on what is the history of borders, what they mean in our current age of networks,” said De Becker; “and all of these borders that have been applied to and used to make sense of African art, have histories themselves — and are flawed.” De Becker points out that many of the national boundaries within Africa were drawn up during the scramble among colonial powers to claim territory there, and did not respect the distribution of common languages, religions, cultures, and kingdoms that were previously the predominant means of social organization. “Even just identifying artists by their geographical origin can be problematic,” she said.
The case-in-point for this argument is a set of three masks that are one of the first objects a viewer to the show might encounter. De Becker juxtaposes three mask forms: two 20th-century wooden masks, respectively attributed to the Dan people of Côte d’Ivorie and Liberia, the Mende people of Sierra Leone, and one multi-media mask from circa 1890, attributed to the Chokwe people of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zambia. Though it is possible to distinguish stylistic differences in the design of the masks — the helmet-style Mende mask that would cover the whole head of a female elder during Sande rituals that guided females through rites of womanhood, or the detailed, braided hair of the Chokwe mask, rendered in rust-colored cloth — De Becker is quick to emphasize how much these works have in common. “Most historical African art is classified according to ethnic group,” she explained.
We used to use the word “tribe,” but we don’t anymore, because of the connection to colonization — though “ethnic group” is just a politically correct term with the same problem. The whole world of historical African art is structured around those lines. Because the whole field is focused on what makes an artwork Yoruba versus Ibo, for example, we forget to focus on what they have in common — the exchanges and encounters.
With Beyond Borders, De Becker has intentionally sought to present contemporary and historical works that defy easy classification.
While members of the African diaspora often identify with a disconnect or emotional rift between themselves and their ancestral homeland, it is profoundly disturbing to acknowledge that even for Africans born and raised in their place of origin, there is often a sense of alienation due to the systematic imposition of borders and definitions by colonial forces who took it upon themselves to reshape Africa.
“When we speak about the Yoruba,” said De Becker,
That’s actually a group that includes millions and millions of Yoruba-speaking people, that basically live across many countries in West Africa — and those countries have just cut through a culturally-related region. But then, to call something Yoruba suggests a kind of homogeneity that did not exist at all — there were several Yoruba-speaking kingdoms that competed with each other. The nuance is lost completely.
Beyond Borders has assembled a stunning assortment of contemporary works that gracefully navigate ideas of interstitial identity. A video work by Nandipha Mntambo, “Ukungenisa” (2008) features the artist donning one of the hide-assemblage garments (she is known to also present as sculptures) atop a pristine, white matador costume. Thus clothed, she performs a series of gestures within an empty bullring, Praça de Touros, in Maputo, Mozambique. This bullring is a holdover from Portuguese occupation of the territory, and Mntambo cuts an arresting and graceful figure, as she displays the traditional red cape that beckons for conflict with an unseen opponent. De Becker has interpolated further complications in the idea of nationality in the wall text of each work in the show, which lists not only the artist’s country of origin (Swaziland, for Mntambo), but where they currently reside and/or practice.
Another juxtaposition — one that works most easily as the poster child for cross-historical themes of the show, is a stunning self-portrait by Chéri Samba (born Democratic Republic of the Congo), “Hommage aux Anciens Créateurs (A Tribute to Earlier Artists)” (1999). The center is dominated by Samba’s image and bracketed on either side by a kind of annotated proscenium in French, outlining the work’s inspiration. The foreground of the image presents a collection of historical African sculptural figurines. Not only does Samba acknowledge the work of these “ancient creators,” but in his text, he grapples with the fact that he encountered these objects at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich. According to the exhibition catalogue, Samba was “astonished to discover that the Swiss dealer Hans Coray, who owned these works and one of the most important collections of African art in Europe, had never visited Africa.”
Adding an additional meta-analytical layer to the painting, De Becker has arranged a breathtaking array of figurines from UMMA’s historical collection — any one of which could be easily switched out for those in Samba’s self-portrait. The same displacement of artifacts and alienation from their source and creators is at work before our eyes. In presenting these artifacts, De Becker made the conscious decision to switch from the commonly used “Artist Unknown” to the more accurate “Artist Unrecorded”— acknowledging that the deficiency lies in the house of those who took these works without recording the artist, not that anyone failed to understand themselves as artists, or their work as deserving individualized attribution.
The sense I have, wandering through the incredible richness of Beyond Borders, is akin to the guilt I feel when attending a zoological park. I know this is not the rightful home of the tiger, but I also love to see a tiger — or at least the outline of one, in its diminished capacity within captivity. And how else am I to achieve this proximity to get a closeup visual understanding of a tiger to begin with? These artifacts have an incredibly troubling heritage, but they are also profoundly beautiful and affecting; De Becker does a wonderful job of placing them in conversation with artists who are alive and more empowered than their predecessors to reflect on the issues of identity that have been at play in Africa for centuries.
There is an absolutely stunning example from the 2009 series, The Black Ocean, by William Adjété Wilson, which riffs on the traditional medium of Asafo flags, made by the Fante people of coastal Ghana for some 400 years. In Wilson’s flags, which cannily pick up the numbering system by which different Asafo trade companies identified themselves, colonial encounters are documented, using the same bright figuration in piecework as the original flags. The piece “No. 8, Colonization” depicts a African man with a rope around his neck, carrying an ungainly package on his back that holds a jumble of colonial flags, ivory tusks, and a coconut tree. A British figure is leading him past a graveyard of little white crosses, to the foot of a train track, upon which sits a mythological vehicle belching smoke and inhabited by what looks like a small dinosaur inside a camouflaged tank. The image is evocative and readable in its own right, but it is also instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the practice of Asafo flag-making, and its history as a form of cultural resistance.
These are just a few highlights from an exhibition packed with arresting artifacts and major names, including a Kehinde Wiley work with a model posed in an iteration of an Obafemi Awolowo statue in Lagos against a background taken from Dutch wax print. There is a set of 2008 small collage works on paper by Wangechi Mutu; a stunning wood and metal statue by Alison Saar with obvious connections to the nail-driven nkisi nkondi figures of Central Africa; and a scene-stealing installation by Kudzanai Chiurai, “Leviathan” (2016) that features three wooden boats bearing dress forms in custom-printed fabrics, representing the cultural bleed between Africa and the Christian missionaries, who served as a spearhead for white (Christian) supremacy in Africa. For lovers of African art, old and new, or those looking for some of the most poignant and beautiful thought leadership on contemporary ideas of African identity and art, Beyond Borders at UMMA is a must-see.