The writer Abdourahman A. Waberi continues his collaboration with Africultures, focusing here on the works exhibited at the Africa-Europe confrontation at the 7th Stuttgart Biennial (Germany), and in particular on the work of a young South African artist.
Scored out geographic maps (1) retracing the fragile contours of a reinvented world alone capable of conveying a completely personal mythology was the first of the works by a young South African artist born in 1975 to be noticed. A re-enchanted world which constantly jolts the myths of purity, of righteousness and the exaltation of a white, Christian race which, not so very long ago, held the reigns of power under apartheid. Moshekwa Langa has indeed vigourously disfigured the map of the world as if to wipe the conquests and the colonizations off the surface of the globe for ever.
At an early age, Moshekwa Langa, a precocious child in a milieu hardly conducive to artistic development – he was raised by his mother in the rural KwaNdebele – developed his own composite and astute alphabet out of maps, photos from the family album, pages ripped from rough notebooks, pages stolen from the directory, and others also covered in mathematic symbols and chemical formulae. These signs, banal, economic and universal as they are, accomplish no less of a long journey before our eyes as our young man is talented enough for diversions and travesty. His works are like child’s play in certain respects, and yet more experimented artists with richer means could not achieve the same effect. This is perhaps one of the keys to his rapid and phenomenal success (2) – an inventiveness allied with an economy of means, even if, given his youth, his work is not completely free from redundancy and drifting. The other explanation is that Moshekwa Langa is intuitively in tune with the great historic and artistic interrogations profoundly marked by the post-modern deconstructionism of our time. The sites, the networks of territories, the settlement patterns and their inscriptions, the globalization of tastes, the blending of artistic codes, the weakening, or even disappearance, of the old temples of culture, or the absence of a unifying discourse are its projections. Let us pause for a moment to consider three examples of his work.
Here, Moshekwa Langa reinvents the old trade routes which a few centuries ago gave Europe and America an economic advantage over the rest of the world. History and geography often go hand in hand, exploding the physical traces and the mental frontiers. Elsewhere, basing himself on his rural experience, he breaks down the differences between the town and the countryside, the centre and the margins. Elsewhere still, school boy sketches recall old photos of Afrikaner farmers – the whole aiming to bring out a subterranean genealogy in the form of the palimpsest (3). A new way of expressing the post-apartheid era and the « Rainbow Nation », one of whose modern icons he has become? Or the contours « of an imaginary country » (Salman Rushdie) for dreamy children?
The element of playfulness if often very pronounced in his work, a concrete example being the puzzles put together and exhibited like paintings next to others which are scrambled up and spread out on a large white table. The whole is sombre – no enigmas to be resolved, no discourses. Imagination is not held in check, and better still, the most is made of the time and place: « my work has no logical narrative« , as he puts it. This work (4) was shown at the 7th Arts Triennial in Stuttgart (5) whose theme was precisely the confrontation between African artists and their European colleagues. The Africa in question did not include North Africa, which was a pity but not surprizing given that the German school of thought also considers the Maghreb as part of the Arab world.
The exhibition curator Werner Meyer, a gallery owner in the region, claims to have wanted to avoid a sense of déjà-vu by not focusing on the Euro-American confrontation expected by the public and institutions. One can only agree with his choices as most of the major names of the contemporary African scene (Mickaël Bethé-Selassié, El Loko, Jane Alexander, Tayou, Romuald Hazoumé, Abdoulaye Konaté, Moustapha Dimé, Douglas Camp etc.) were present, although there were regrettable absences such as the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow. The Europeans were not outdone, with confirmed talents like the French artists Christian Boltanski and Fabrice Hybert, or the Ukrainian Ilya Kabakov, to cite but a few.
Some things had of course already been seen elsewhere (thanks to the Revue noire!) like the well-known artworks of the ex-Zaïrians Body Isek Kingelez and Pume, Georges Adéagbo’s philosophical journeys, or Bethé-Selassié’s superbly colourful bestiary. One cannot help but be annoyed by Hazoumé’s kitsch masks, or moved by Fernando Alvim’s itinerant multimedia exhibit Difumbe (disturbing Janus baby heads sunk, drowned in aquariums) evoking the interminable Angolan war.
The uninformed spectator will have frequently risked losing his/her bearings by striving to look for outward signs of Africanness in the works exhibited. This triennial, hosted by a rich banking institution, will at least have served to demolish the old hackneyed expression authenticity and its culturalist alibis which are still useful in justifying the exclusions and sectioning off that do not always reveal its true colours.
1. The maps, drawings and collages (untitled) were in particular exhibited at the House of World Cultures in Berlin in 1995. It was the young artist’s first appearance and engendered much debate. Some critics didn’t find him « African enough », whilst others reproached him for using the abstruse phraseology of the white conceptual artists. He scoffs at labels and lets them say what they like.
2. « Everyone wants a piece of him » as a South African journalist noted. In 1997, for example, the young prodigy attended the major arts rendezvous, notably the La Havane, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Berlin and Linz (Austria) biennials, whilst also attending a residence in Amsterdam.
3. The Huntingpiece (installation with photos, puzzles, aluminium), 1998.
4. The Triennial der Kleinplastik (Südwest LB Forum, Stuttgart) was held from 17.10.1988 to 17.1.1999. The catalogue is unfortunately only available in German.///Article N° : 5340