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REVIEW: At WCMA, remarkable ‘African Art Against the State’ (of the world)

“As artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.” -- Lalla A. Essaydi

Williamstown — This fascinating little exhibition, “African Art Against the State,” at the Williams College Museum of Art is rather undersold by its title. It has been curated by Williams College Assistant Professor of Art, Michelle Apotsos, and she explains that when she refers to “the state” she has in mind “a shadowy entity that is also known as ‘the system,’ ‘the machine,’ and even ‘the man’ [which] includes any oppressive sociopolitical, cultural, spiritual, or even environmental structure that controls a populace …” With her focus broadened this far, Apotsos has not only put together an enlightening and provocative show, she has also been able to bring together some remarkable work.

Igbo People, Helmet Mask, 20th Century, wood, pigment, and cloth. Gift of Robert and Suzanne Bach.
Igbo People, Helmet Mask, 20th Century, wood, pigment, and cloth. Gift of Robert and Suzanne Bach.

Among the highlights are Fabrice Monteiro’s spectacular photographs from his series The Prophecy. Their subject is the environmental devastation that faces contemporary Senegal and in each one Monteiro pictures an embodied spirit shown ensnared in modern society’s excesses. In The Prophecy, Untitled #1 for example, the spirit rises in a trash heap that spreads like a canker across the countryside. Her bizarre costume – like all of them in this series – was made by the Senegalese fashion designer Doulsy. Her head is enveloped in black plastic, and she is clothed in discarded shopping bags and candy wrappers, tattered fabric, and crushed bottles, shoes and toys. In her hand she holds a baby doll by its foot, and around her curls the smoke that rises above the smoldering garbage. It is an unforgettable image, and one that Monteiro hopes might make his Senegalese audience pause to think about their casual despoliation of the natural world around them. “The whole of West Africa believes in spirits,” he explains, “and the idea was to use those spirits to deliver a message.”

Much of the success of this show rests upon how it places contemporary art in the context of older traditions. At the simplest level present-day art is shown side by side with older artifacts. There is a fascinating Helmet Mask sculpture here made by an unknown artist among the Igbo People of West Africa sometime during the twentieth century. Constructed at the height of the European colonization, this colon sculpture uses traditional African representational skills but depicts someone wearing a European pith helmet. The artist’s intent was apparently satirical – as though by subjecting the colonizers to a ridiculous representation, their power might be diminished.

Lalla A. Essaydi, Converging Territories, #10, 2003, C-print mounted on Plexiglas. Museum Purchase, Kathyrn Hurd Fund. © Howard Yezerski Gallery.
Lalla A. Essaydi, Converging Territories, #10, 2003, C-print mounted on Plexiglas. Museum Purchase, Kathyrn Hurd Fund. © Howard Yezerski Gallery.

Another stand-out piece here is Lalla A. Essaydi’s Converging Territories, #10. This large-scale photograph is part of the WCMA permanent collection, but it is good to have another chance to look at it in the context of this exhibition. Essaydi grew up in Morocco but she earned her MFA in Boston and now lives in New York City. In this self-portrait she asks us to see her in all her complexity: “as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim.  In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.” She uses calligraphy as a culturally loaded technique to begin to shake up some of these stereotypes. In traditional Muslim culture calligraphy is an almost exclusively male art, but Essaydi disrupts that convention by using henna – which is more usually used by women to decorate their bodies for special occasions such as weddings – to create it. It is only hinted at in this particular photograph, but once her work has entered this world of sexual difference it explores a vast range of issues around North African women, and particularly how they have been perceived in the West. Perhaps it time for WCMA to organize a solo show of her work.

There is a great deal more to ponder and enjoy in Michelle Apotsos’ show, including particularly memorable pieces by Yinka Shonibare, David Goldblatt, Zanele Muholi, Fathi Hassan, and Zwelethu Mthethwa. It will be here at WCMA right through the spring and summer (it closes August 28) and you would be foolish to miss it.

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