Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works of Africa
Los Angeles, CA
In general, the paltry sum of media images that reaches across the Atlantic from Africa tells us only that the news is bad. We are offered negative glimpses of violence, disease, and famine, or all-American, heroic visions of superstars or millionaires jetting in to aid or adopt. These views and gestures do little to effect structural change or nuanced perceptions of Africa, for they possess nothing of the multiplicity of voices, hues, and rhythms of life parceled out day by day. Mary Nooter Roberts’s carefully calibrated and choreographed Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works of Africa at the Fowler Museum at UCLA comes as a welcome antidote to mass media representations of Africa and mega- exhibitions attempting to tackle that same subject or to slot in African-based artists as examples among so many global “others.” Roberts’s intimate show features subtle representations, describing a particularity of place and experience often missing elsewhere. The curatorial selections represent precisely the kinds of time- and experience- intensive works that viewers tend to hustle past when they are included among too large a number of works. Here, seven projects by five artists are offered up for quiet contemplation. The attenuated temporalities of film and video allow for the expression of complex messages and sensibilities. The framing topic, almost incomprehensibly vast, features artists who attend to African subjects from a trans-continental perspective. These artworks encourage an investment of attention and a turning away from everyday, media distractions, particularly those views of an Africa ravished by hardship or spectacularly fantasized as the continent of pirates and wild beasts.
In Continental Rifts, the exhibition design functions like a series of postcolonial crossings through small, staggered rooms, creating circuits of exchange and smudging continental delineations. While the subjects and approaches vary greatly, a number of thematic threads draw the work together:the valuing of depictions of daily life, the fluctuations and temporal shifts of memory and its importance as a link to the past, a present sense of identity, and hopes for future resolution. A sense of loss and desire for sustained contact is registered, particularly for the “ex-patriots” of Africa, whether migration occurred recently or generations ago. Landscape figures importantly, with water views prominent in many of the works emphasizing notions of both spatial and imaginary passage. The viewer is prompted along a narrative line from the monumental, mythologizing work of South African artist Georgia Papageorge, to the more intimate two-screen projection by her compatriot Berni Searle. Searle’s work is linked to Yto Barrada’s by dint of its geographic locus, the Strait of Gibraltar. Finally, three works about Angola are included: two installations by Claudia Cristovao; and a film by the veteran and, remarkably, the only male artist of the group, Alfredo Jaar. Much of what is demanded of the viewer here involves a dislocation toward the landscapes of a re-imaged and imagined Africa, conceived beyond cartographic configuration.
Papageorge’s monumental video projection with sound, Africa Rifting: Lines of Fire, Namibia/Brazil (2001), is inspired by the continental rift called the Gondwanaland schism that produced, one-hundred-thirty- million years ago, the separate continents of Africa and South America. The split is figured by Papageorge in hundreds of yards of red cloth that stain the earth’s skin, gashing, and binding it, and suggesting both wounds and healing. The large-scale image is frequently halved into a sweep of scarlet against the dull dun of sand or the bolting blue of sky. The formally stunning video documents two separate portions of a single earthwork that involved the unfurling of these bright ribbons through the fantastic, lava-towered landscape of Torres, Brazil, and the erection of a series of red banners in Namibia. In each location the fabric forms a portion of a giant red “x” with terminal points at the coastlines, one on either side of the splitting point between continents. The title focuses on one side of the rift, not referring directly to South America; this likely stems from Papageorge’s view of this work as one in an ongoing series of projects, all involving lengths of crimson cloth as arterial suture lines, which symbolically mend the lasting divisions caused by apartheid and internecine conflict within Africa. Africa Rifting, particularly, evokes the cultural connection of trans-Atlantic African Diaspora, the spirit of Yemonja, Yoruba goddess of the Atlantic ocean, and the space of the Dark Passage.
If the work is reminiscent of Christo and Jeanne-Claude in its ambition of scale, it calls up the soul of Ana Mendieta. Papageorge began her artistic training and practice in her late thirties after losing her two-year-old daughter Marianthe to cancer; this film is dedicated to her. Notions of repairing rifts on levels spanning the achingly personal to the socio-political to the geological are the underlying motivation behind this work. These are difficult leaps of scale to make–particularly that between the human and the geologic. It is only by virtue of the dramatic beauty of this presentation that viewers might follow Papageorge across.
From the screening room of Africa Rifting, a beautiful sight line reveals another flash of red fabric that beckons the viewer toward Berni Searle’s work. Searle is best known for her performances in which her body is caked in various spices. The two-channel video projection in this exhibition, Home and Away (2003), also focuses on the artist’s body. On one of the screens Searle appears wearing a translucent white skirt over a red satin undergarment, floating on her back in the Mediterranean Sea. The figure drifts in and out of frame. Ambient sounds of water slosh rhythmically and are punctuated by Searle’s voice conjugating three verbs: “I love, you love, he loves…”; “I fear, you fear, she fears…”; and “I leave, you leave, he leaves…” Pointedly, the verb “to fear” is the only one of the three with a feminine pronoun; as Searle is heard to articulate “fear,” roiling water threatens to overcome her, producing a single instance of tension in an otherwise pacific state of suspension. On the facing screen, the projection begins with what one imagines to be Searle’s point of view up at the sky before the lens moves downward to offer the view of the coastline. As the projections draw to a close, they show an accelerating motorboat’s wake, calling up the sense of journey.
Home and Away, Searle’s first work filmed and produced outside of the studio, was shot at the Strait of Gibraltar. This slender spit of water that separates Africa from Europe is a watery grave for many who have attempted migration and failed. The location, too, is the stuff of myth, of Hercules’s Tenth Labor where he sheared a path between the continents. Searle’s act of floating is a liminal gesture; as with the title of the piece, she exists neither here nor there, but in the passage between.
The Strait of Gibraltar, as a dangerous point of crossing for African emigrants with sights set on Europe, has been a site of intense concentration for Yto Barrada, who was born in Paris to Moroccan parents and currently lives in Tangier, where she directs the Cinematheque de Tanger. Her work focuses on the rapidly shifting cityscape, subject to a current real estate boom and promotion of tourism. Her work insists on that which might be lost in this process of massive urban makeover. Barrada documents the sites of change at the subtlest levels, concentrating in the photographs that accompany her film on a border crossing of the loveliest sort. Five photographs from the Iris tingitana series (2006-2008) document her seeking out the flower, native to Tangiers but now disappearing as the city is reconfigured. She finds it in deserted lots, on constructions sites. In January Weeds (2008), two daisies are captured against a green ground of foliage; they appear as two eyes, fixed on the viewer. In more recent work, Barrada politicizes the poetic, as she imagines strewing bombs painstakingly crafted of folded paper containing the seeds of native plants to counteract developers’ generic pink geraniums and gray concrete.1
Barrada’s video projection The Botanist (2007) deals with a form of gentle resistance as well. The film involves a tour of the garden of Umberto Pasti, novelist, expert on Islamic ceramics, and passionate amateur botanist. In his garden in northern Morocco, he cultivates threatened local species. The garden itself is the main subject of the film, shot from the low viewpoint of plants and shrubs. The human actors, a small group of visitors to Pasti’s refuge, are seen only from the neck down. Pasti’s hand reaches to caress the petals of a flower while he narrates the appearances and near disappearances of various plant species in the region, both native and imported. Simultaneously, Morocco’s history of social and cultural exchange is allegorized. Speaking of a rare iris, he describes a poem he wrote mourning the fact that if a rare flower exists in a singular location, it seems always as if a road is destined to be built on top of it.
Claudia Cristovao’s seven-channel video installation Fata Morgana (2005-6) features five small screens on which Angola-born residents of Portugal describe their relationships to Africa. These retornados left in the mid- seventies when Angola declared its freedom and the civil war that would last decades broke out. At that time, the speakers were young children with only a few memories of Africa. Now adults, they recount their imagined views of a home they barely remember and the lives that might have unfolded, otherwise, in a place they can only imagine. Two other installation elements add to this witnessing of loss and longing. As viewers enter the room, they must duck to avoid a thin cloth, highly responsive to any shifting air currents, upon which is projected what initially seems to be a still image depicting a landscape of a plain and far-lying hills. This element serves as a materialization of a mirage for it shimmers and dims as viewers move. Upon prolonged viewing, a single moving element appears within the image: a small figure, perhaps on horseback, crosses the hay-colored landscape carrying what might be a black banner (or the flag of Angola, which is black, red, and yellow). Additionally, behind the monitors of the five filmed subjects, is a larger wall projection that shows a literal “house of sand.” This building, abandoned after a diamond rush in Namibia and colonized by the desert with dunes and veils of dust, acts as a powerful metaphor for the vicissitudes of memory.
Gaston Bachelard wrote “we return to the old house, after an odyssey of many years, to find that the most delicate gestures, the earliest gestures, suddenly come alive.”2
Invocation of memory as a powerful connection to a formerly inhabited place is raised by another video installation by Cristovao, Le voyage imaginaire (2008), which functions as an epilogue to Fata Morgana. It consists of a two-channel video projection onto screens that rest on the floor, wedged in the corners of the room facing one another. Here Cristovao focuses on the story of Auri, a man who appears on one screen narrating his family’s rushed departure from Angola and the fact that, upon leaving, they had buried their treasures in the back yard. He speaks of his ambitions to return and uncover them, to perhaps give them to the people who live there now: “I can walk right into that story, say ‘I was there and your house is still standing.’ Or, ‘we found nothing.’ Or…” The narration ends here, leaving viewers suspended between narratives. On the second screen, we are taken on a visual journey that begins with an aerial view of the town of Auri’s imagining. As he narrates the directions to the abandoned family home, the perspective shifts to street level, then into a place of habitation. Glimpses appear of plants in tin boxes, an empty chair, a pair of well-worn sneakers placed atop a wall. These images take on the qualities of nearly forgotten memories as they flash by, impossible to grasp and hold in the mind.
Compelled by rage at the fact that the New York Times had reported–in a few lines buried on page seven–the finding of thirty-five thousand bodies in Rwanda, Alfredo Jaar set off on a years-long path of questioning strategies of representation of Africa within Western culture and media. Jaar’s film Muxima (2005), a visual poem of varied performances of the Angolan folksong “Muxima,” reconceptualizes documentary filmmaking to emphasize an intimate, witnessing presence. Muxima means “heart” in Kimbundu, and Jaar’s film posits the heart of Angola in its music, a blend of African rhythms and the melancholic Portuguese lyricism of fado. Muxima pays homage to the folksong that gives the piece both its title and its structure. The film is divided into ten compressed cantos that offer varied performances of “Muxima.” From them, it is possible to trace the history of Angola across the span of the latter half of the 20th Century, from the 1950s, during the period of colonization when the song was written by an Angolan freedom fighter, through the joys of liberation, to the pains of civil war, and into the uncertain yet guardedly hopeful present.
In Muxima‘s opening shot, blurred blooms of color and bright glints of light ease into focus to reveal women grouped together around brightly colored plastic wash buckets, at their labors scrubbing sheets in “another day of life.”3 The first canto presents a single image that appears again near the film’s end. It shows a grouping of six boys lined up against a backdrop of oil tanks and the harbor. Each holds his right hand to his heart, except for the boy in the upper right corner who gestures with his left arm. This inconspicuous but poignant deviation acts as a punctum, the photographic detail that punctures and haunts.4 The second canto opens with the prow of a motorboat jutting forward, signaling the mythic river journey (no longer toward the heart of darkness, but simply toward the heart). The viewpoint shifts to show the skimmed surface of the water as it sparkles and splashes. The next segment offers a view of a sign posted on a gate that reads: “The most important is to resolve the problems of the people.”
As the film continues, each canto spins out two or three thematic threads–the church, Angola’s socialist history, HIV/AIDS, the treachery of unexploded landmines, missing family members, the persistence and hope of youth–often heightening the dismaying juxtaposition of the extreme poverty of Angola’s population against its oil- and diamond-based wealth as a nation. The third canto depicts Angola’s layered history. Scenes show crumbling colonial-era sculptures of conquerors that have been knocked from their pedestals; they are figures left without feet on which to stand. Intercut are views of a burnt out military plane and the stark contemporary preponderance of urban shacks in a sprawling shantytown, roofs held in place by rocks and rubble. The ninth canto shows a patient’s hand, her IV drip, her chipped nail polish, then cuts to scenes of oil- derricks, cuts again back to the hospital, then to a woman with her back to the viewer praying with her arms raised in a church tinted the Virgin Mary’s shade of blue. The rendition of the song “Muxima” heard here is that of Waldemar Bastos; slow and thickly grained, his voice wavers with emotion. When the woman drops her arms, the song ends as the prayer does.
Art historian Griselda Pollock describes Jaar’s work as “…not the production of images, but the creation and choreography of the viewer’s encounter with and reflection upon the encounter with images in an image-saturated culture structured by its unprocessed relation to Africa.”5 She argues that the artist achieves this via representational strategies that encourage attentiveness to an elsewhere that might otherwise get overlooked.6 Days after viewing, the poignant strains of Muxima continue to resonate. One image from the film stands to figure the manner in which mainstream media images distort and blot out the complexities of a continent: a blank screen in an empty outdoor theater at twilight haunts the viewer like a half-formed memory. The camera moves slowly over empty seats, and yet, we hear the sounds of hurried footsteps and frantic breath. Clearly these sounds issue from a body, perhaps Jaar’s own, compelled to search for a fuller, more nuanced image of Angola, for Angola. Continental Rifts functions similarly in prompting the viewer to slow down and sustain a view to the specificities of an Africa deterritorialized, with multiple lines of flight extending far beyond continental delineation.7
Claire Daigle is a writer and Assistant Professor in the History and Theory of Contemporary Art at the San Francisco Art Institute.
- Yto Barrada, Visiting artist lecture, San Francisco Art Institute, February 27, 2009.↵
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 15.↵
- Another Day of Life is the title of journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s narrative history of Angola’s painful process of liberation and ensuing civil war (New York: Vintage Books, 2001).↵
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 26-27.↵
- Griselda Pollock, “Not- Forgetting Africa: The Dialectics of Attention/Inattention, Seeing/Denying, and Knowing/Understanding in the Positioning of the Viewer by the Work of Alfredo Jaar,” Alfredo Jaar: La Politique des Images (Lausanne, Zurich: Musee Cantonal des Beaux-arts and JPR/ringier, 2007), 132.↵
- Ibid, 113-118. Pollock compellingly likens Jaar’s strategies to those of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Landscape with Fall of Icarus (c. 1558).↵
- The terms are borrowed from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).↵