On December 11, performance artist and sculptor Angela Freiberger offered a succinct and touching “Homage to Mandela” at the Tambaran Gallery. The Brazilian Freiberger grew up surrounded by postcolonial Afro-Brazilian slave culture, including the religious practices of Candomblé and Macumba. Her piece, which she describes as “an action for the African people,” used mostly black-and-white objects like beads, feathers, and face paint to “mix the colonizing culture” into the indigenous culture. At one point, she scraped one of her white marble sculptures against her face, blending the black-and-white face paint into a silvery gray, pushing past symbolic racial divides to honor the man who played such a huge role in toppling apartheid in South Africa.
The performance took place as part of Dialogue, a show pairing tribal African and contemporary art that was curated by Yulia Topchiy and Virginia Inés Vergara and organized by CoWorker Projects. In the gallery, a wooden neck rest from South Africa sits near Robert Wilson’s “Headrest for Madame Butterfly.” A wildly colorful, hip-hop-inspired work by Glendalys Medina is paired with a Goli Mask from the Ivory Coast.
The influence of African art on Western art is not a new discussion, having begun over a century ago in Europe. In 2008 the Goethe Institute and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin mounted The Tropics – Views from the Middle of the Globe, which compared and contrasted divergent cultural practices and examined the projection of Europe’s cultural ethos onto the former colonies. Dialogue does not venture in that direction, but keeps itself focused on the design and aesthetic elements inherent in each piece.
Considering the show’s location in a private gallery on the Upper East Side, this approach opens up a host of questions aimed squarely at issues of wealth, acquisition, and interpretation. What becomes of an object after it is objectified? Is any culture immune from this experience, and should it be? Who owns an aesthetic in today’s global environment: the originating culture? its decedents? the institutions and individuals who’ve tried to preserve the objects and remnants of that culture? These are thorny questions, as evinced by the spate of international lawsuits (including those by Native Americans within the United States) whose outcomes have far-reaching repercussions.
Frieberger’s performance transcended all of it. She lit a candle and bowed her head in symbolic prayer. She used one of her marble sculptures as a vessel for clear water with which to wash her face, then interwove black-and-white beads, feathers, and flowers through her tightly knotted hair — simple yet profound acts. At the end, she walked around the gallery handing out flowers, a private ritual made public, process as transformation.
Angela Freiberger’s “Homage to Mandela” took place at Tambaran Gallery (5 E. 82nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on December 11.