After the End: Timing Socialism in Contemporary African Art presents an excavation of aesthetic responses to socialism in Africa. The exhibition offers a selection of works from artists with personal relationships to, and experiences of, socialism in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. Focused on the liminal space between the promise that came with independence from colonial rule and the reality of the end of the Cold War, each artwork attempts to make meaning from the dramatic political shifts of this time period by interrogating the historicism, nostalgia, and specificity of that moment.
The exhibition does not present the artworks in any linear way — works mounted next to each other do not relate to each other chronologically or even by country of origin. Or, I should say do not only connect in those ways. Instead, visitors are left to draw our own connections as we navigate the circuit of the gallery. Each work stands independently, the general presentation is scattered yet connected by something conditional and almost imperceptible like a constellation.
Angela Ferreira’s “For Mozambique (model nº1, nº2)” (2008) are two sculptural installations of archival materials which act as physical and thematic anchors for the exhibition. The larger of the two, “model nº2,” is a two-channel video piece projected on a tall, leaning, wooden structure which serves as both a base and sound system for the material. Excerpts of films from Jean Rouch’s and Jean-Luc Godard’s government-sponsored time in Mozambique blend with the folksy sounds of Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique” music video, alluding to the late 1970s as a time of great promise and artistic creation as the country transitioned from Portuguese rule to a socialist government headed by Samora Machel. The multifunctional projection kiosk is a monument to the euphoria and optimism felt even in its architecture, which is heavily inspired by structures used by the Russian Communist Party to mobilize public opinion. By using an agitprop-inspired kiosk to project these images and examine this history, Ferreira reconciles the utilitarian and mechanized forms of modern society with the creative movements they inspired.
Similar to Ferreira, Nástio Mosquito and Mezgebu Tesema are interested in the ways formal decisions can reflect the socialist structures and policies put in place in the late 1970s and 1980s. In “Nastia’s Manifesto” (2008), Mosquito takes on one of his many personas — this time a feminine alter ego with a thick Russian accent — and appropriates the form of a manifesto. As a preamble to a set of motivational, yet ominous phrases the narrator proclaims that the manifesto will be entirely “hypocritical, ironic, and do not give a fuck.” Projected from above as a series of animated graphics on a circular platform, the phrases spoken by the commanding voice are amoral — at once using motivational language from life coaches like “Fuck original, be genuine” to more capitalist notions like “Get paid big money (even if you suck).” The artist deconstructs and reconfigures the basic form of a manifesto as a public declaration of political aims almost as a warning against how socialist terms and tools can be decontextualized and co-opted for other aims.
Demonstrating a high level of proficiency, Mezgebu Tesema similarly demonstrates his interest in expanding traditional forms to reveal new meanings. In the trompe l’oeil painting “Standing on the Frame” (2015), a young woman leans against the edge of a wooden frame — a frame that juts out, levitating on its own plane which seamlessly intersects but is not a part of the large Addis Abba landscape which acts as her backdrop. The figure’s precarious position speaks to the uncertainty produced around people’s identities in the aftermath of social upheaval.
Angela Ferreira’s work also gives us a look at the end of socialism in Mozambique. Contrasting the utopic nature of “For Mozambique”, “MediaFax 2” (2011) is a monument to those, specifically the slain journalist Carlos Cardoso, who strove to reject state control over information and expose government corruption. The piece itself is meant to resemble a fax machine: Two, connected, black cylinders resting on wooden plinths vaguely resemble makeshift telephones, while vibrantly colored pillows lay on an adjacent plinth like printed pages waiting to be picked up or used. The form and title are both references to MediaFAX: a daily newspaper that was headed by the slain Mozambican journalist, Carlos Cardoso which was the first to disseminate information via fax as a means of escaping government control and evading geographic borders.
Angolan photographer, performer and multimedia artist, Kiluanji Kia Henda also engages with the ways that colonialism lingered in popular consciousness. With humor and irony, he challenges notions of identity, politics, and modernity that are at the center of socialism’s humanist aims. Central to “The Bad Guys and the Good Guys” (2010–2016) is a figure that at a glance looks extraterrestrial, but with time can be perceived to be holding a Chokwe mask. The narrative unfolds through various frames as the figure traverses deserted landscapes as text quotes from the CNN documentary series Cold War make legible the vested interests of various foreign agents in Angola’s civil war. Henda continues to play on expectations of narratives about African independence with “Spaceship Icarus 13” (2008) — a fictionalized retelling of a voyage to space which never took place. In reframing an empty movie theatre as a space center and laborers as astronauts, Henda presents an alternate future by reimagining the past.
Kebedech Tekleab’s multilayered piece “The Future Unfolding” (2003) visualizes the atemporal and expansive approach to the production of historical knowledge which echoes throughout the exhibition. Rolled up on one end but unfurling/almost peeling at the other, the piece suggests a continuous motion. Time here is anxiously suspended suggesting the contemporary moment is about a multi-faceted, nonlinear understanding of history that avoids typical characterization. “The Future Unfolding” is an apt coda for an exhibition which does not define, but instead successfully invites us to encounter the experiences and imagined possibilities around socialism in African countries.
After the End: Timing Socialism in Contemporary African Art continues at the Wallach Art Gallery (within the Lenfest Center for the Arts, Columbia University, 615 West 129th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through October 6. It was curated by Álvaro Luís Lima.