Africa NYC - Part I The Visual Arts

Africa in New York
Part I - Checking into the Contemporary African Art Gallery & beyond in NYC

The movement of people around the globe is a growing phenomenon, and it's no secret that the people of Africa have spread around the world, to the point where the African diaspora has reached a sort of critical momentum in many areas. Cities like Paris, home to artist like Cheri Samba, and London, home to Yinka Shonibare, among others, have become major centres not only receptive to artists who hail from Africa - and therefore important markets for their work - but also to a thriving ex-pat scene of people who create new works in their new home. To those former colonial powers I'll add the city of New York, a pot that sizzles with a vast and diverse cultural bouillon.

So What is "African Art"?

Naturally, there exists a longstanding tradition of arts produced by African Americans born in the U.S., but for the purposes of this piece, I'll be talking about work that has a direct contemporary connection to Africa. Even with that loose definition, the term can be problematic. Contemporary African Art Gallery owner Bill Karg recalls when, several years ago, an artist refused to continue showing at his gallery simply because it had the word "Africa" in its name. It's true that to this day, some people still associate the phrase with tribal exotica, and not simply as part of the global stream of artistic production. "Some people walk in and ask - where are the masks?" he notes ruefully.

The Upper West Side Gallery is an excellent place to start if you want to explore what's current in African art, and Karg says though he's sure most of the artists he shows would consider themselves internationalists at this point, he defines the term simply as art by Africans about Africa.

There is a main show and a number of other pieces in the gallery when I visit, and it's true that the soft abstractions of Viye Diba would find themselves at home in any space that shows contemporary work. The fabulous male torso sculpture in serpentine by Zimbabwean Kripsen Matekenya has a universal appeal. There are photographs, mixed media pieces, computer manipulated works, prints and acrylics.

The single most striking piece belongs to the gallery collection, Tagomizer by artist El Anatsui. Born in Ghana and having spent much of his career in Nigeria, he's an internationally shown and recognized artist whose works fetch into six figures. Tagomizer, like all of El Anatsui's hanging pieces, consists of flattened aluminum seals taken from literally thousands of liquor bottles, along with the round pieces from the caps, and sometimes spiralling round pieces, created in a workshop with up to 20 assistants and sewn together with copper wire - check out a video here. He calls the pieces fabric, and Tagomizer shimmers and undulates with a kind of hypnotic "industrial" beauty. (The piece shown in the photograph is called Man's Cloth, and hangs in the British Museum.)

*(NB - El Anatsui had a talk about his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on September 30 in preparation for his first ever career retrospective show that will kick off at the Royal Ontario Museum in fall 2010, then traveling to New York City for the grand reopening of the Museum for African Art in its new digs (being constructed in the pic to the left & at the bottom)- more about that too, below. Tagomizer will be part of that show.)

Viye Diba's painted pieces have an organic feel in both the typically soft edged forms and warm hues, the textural feel of cloth, with stitching, wood, and the other materials he uses adding a three dimensional feel to that effect. I find the rhythms and welcoming heat of Dakar in his work. Diba uses found materials because of the dearth of large canvasses and other materials in his native Senegal, and the canvasses he does use are stitched together in bands that correspond to the width of the hand looms so common all over Africa. That dimension, that width, is also the rough measurement of the strips of aluminum and copper fabric stitched together in El Anatsui's piece. It's a reality and a signature of the continent in the same way that the Group of Seven shared an iconic view of the landscape we now think of as quintessentially Canadian. It's contemporary art that happens to be African in flavour. That seems a realistic way of thinking about it. (Image is of "Suspension Cord".)

While both El Anatsui and Viye Diba have remained in Africa, some artists come to stay, like Manhattan based Ouattara Watts, born in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, and Tesfaye Tessema, an Ethiopian born multi media artist who's made the U.S. his home for many years.

The Studio Museum in Harlem is a frequent hotspot of African (along with African American) culture, and MoCADA, or the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, is an obvious hub and forum for just that, curating shows like the one earlier this year that showcased the first retrospective of collaborative work between South African artist Samson Mnisi and New York artist Cannon Hersey.

You can check all the hot contemporary art galleries in town at any given time and find shows of work that just happen to be African in flavour, it seems to be riding a wave of general acceptance that's long overdue. Perhaps most indicative of that in a symbolic way is the construction of the brand new Museum of African Art, taking its rightful place on Museum Mile on 5th Avenue just down the street from the Guggenheim and the Met. The El Anatsui retrospective is timed to reach New York hopefully to coincide exactly with its grand reopening in 2011.

PS - if you plan to visit the Contemporary African Art Gallery, please do as I say - which is to contact Bill Karg via the information on the website and arrange to view by appointment - and not as I did - which was barge into the building and just walk in!