Great Escapes

04.04.14

Saatchi Resurrects Ancient Pangaea with Show Featuring South American and African Artists

Saatchi is bringing together artists from two continents that used to be united, exploring the playful works that obscure—and highlights—the conflicts faced by their modern societies.
Charles Saatchi—the loved and loathed art collector who was an early patron of such Young British Artists as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin—is looking a little further afield in the latest exhibition to grace his London gallery. Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America takes its title from the mammoth ancient landmass that formed approximately 300 million years ago and broke apart 100 million years later. Today, with a major survey that will remain on display until August 31, the Saatchi Gallery reunites Africa and South America off the King’s Road in Chelsea, a kind of supercontinent of contemporary art.

Pangaea brings together the work of sixteen artists, ranging from internationally renowned to up-and-comers, from Africa and Latin America. The artworks by all involved attest to the diversity and creative energy of the formerly conjoined continents.

Nowhere is the energy more apparent than in the first gallery space. There should perhaps be a warning by the door—if you’re squeamish, take a deep breath—because upon entry, you find yourself suddenly surrounded by giant creepy crawlies. Rafael Gómezbarros’s Casa Tomada (2013) takes over the entirety of an otherwise empty room: 440 fiberglass ants adorn four white walls, each nearly a yard long, with six tantalizingly ticklish legs. These faceless and thankfully fangless insects might at first give the comic impression of scuttling in search of food. In fact, according to Gómezbarros, the ants address the plight of the millions of displaced persons across the world seeking asylum as a result of armed conflict.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

This happens again and again in Pangaea: the seemingly playful signifies something else unequivocally serious and real. In the second gallery space—warning, don’t look up, the ants traverse the threshold—are seven acrylic and mixed media canvases by the young artist Aboudia. At first glance, all you see is noise; the works are covered with graffiti-like markings and splashed with vibrant color. Figures emerge from the chaos with child-like faces sporting big grins. Look harder, and beyond the big grins see the big teeth: the children are dressed in military uniforms and carry bright white guns. Aboudia’s canvases allude to child soldiers in the torn political state of his home in the Republic of the Ivory Coast. These scrawled kids toting sinister weapons evoke the violence in the aftermath of the 2011 elections in the former capital city of Abidjan.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

José Lerma is another artist whose work seems at first like child’s play. Vast canvases are covered with layers of ball-pen doodles—reminiscent of absent-minded scrawlings in a notebook—and cartoon-style drawings that make little sense amidst the chaos. Like Aboudia’s works, the effect is noise: as the exhibition catalogue puts it, the canvases are “struggling for air to breathe.” Lerma’s subject matter emerges when he returns with paint and other household products—in the gallery, one work rests on a keyboard, another is propped up by a synthesizer and speakers, and another is veiled with a pink military parachute—and transforms the works into monumental portraits and effigies. As he references both popular culture and powerful historical figures—King Charles II of England’s silhouette emerges from baby pink nylon—Lerma’s art suggests an approach to the eternal themes of love, power, and war that knows no temporal bounds.

Pangea is all about the cultural and social facets of particular peoples and places. In Benin-based photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s C-prints, Desmoiselles de Porto Novo (2012), female models pose topless in traditional African dress in the artist’s grand colonial home. The women look out at the viewer from behind their wooden ceremonial masks—the subject matter confirms the title’s nod to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—with coarsely painted features and blank stares. Agbodjélou’s house, complete with antique furnishings and imposing décor, is one of the many mansions built in Porto Novo at the end of the 19th century by Africans returning from South America after the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In this historically loaded setting, Agbodjélou reclaims control for the colonized ‘other’ in the form of a masked female gaze.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

Mário Macilau’s documentary photographs of daily life in his native Maputo, Mozambique toss race aside and engage fiercely with it at the same time. His social snapshots reveal the unhappy repercussions of tyranny and poverty in a picturesque Africa. Peace (The Zionist series) (2010) is a prime example of the way in which he both documents reality and constructs a narrative: a close-up of an African girl hidden beneath a white shawl and coated with white powder is, all at once, beautiful, enchanting, brutal, and overwhelming. The dazzling white makes the black around the girl’s eyes startlingly bold, the bruised color of her skin and lips a rich mystery. All of Macilau’s photographs on display at Saatchi are printed on cotton rag paper. Despite the brightly lit gallery space, they remain natural and raw.

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Saatchi Gallery, London

Oscar Murillo’s mixed media works also look a little tattered and torn, and no wonder. Like two of his pieces laid out like carpets, all of his works begin life on the studio floor. Materials and mediums are interchangeable—a metaphor, we learn, for mixing and breaking hierarchies of race, class, and more. The canvas of Dark Americano (2012) is covered with both oil paint and dirt. Murillo was born in Colombia and emigrated to London as a child, where he adopted a foreign language and cultural customs. In an act of resilience and an effort to strengthen his western identity, he uses the written language and food stuffs that are unquestionably, as the title suggests, American. Cappuccino anyone?

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America is on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London from April 2 until August 31, 2014.

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EVENING STANDARD – LONDON

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America, Saatchi Gallery – exhibition review

A globetrotting new show offers astonishing enchantment and terrible beauty — if you ignore the curatorial gobbledegook crawling over it, says Brian Sewell

Wow factor: Rafael Gómezbarros’s ant installation (Picture: Sam Drake)

Updated: 12:19, 03 April 2014

The title of Charles Saatchi’s new exhibition is Pangaea, a 20th-century word that conjures 20th-century fantasies of the world in its infancy when all the current continents were one. Imagine a single great landmass creaking as the primordial thrusts of its volcanic core did battle with the cooling forces of its single surrounding ocean until, some 200 million years ago, with one gigantic crack, it broke asunder. This first crack, roughly around the Tropic of Cancer, divided Pangaea into two smaller supercontinents: Laurasia, which we define as North America, Greenland, Europe and Asia (excluding India), and Gondwanaland, which comprised India, Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica. When later cracks appeared, and into them the mighty ocean poured, they too were divided. Thus were formed the familiar lesser masses of Eurasia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica and the Americas, and with them the humbler oceans of our atlases.

What, then, should we expect of this first-ever Pangaean exhibition? Art and artefacts made by whatever proto-human pre-Palaeolithic creatures preceded man 200 million years ago, occupying a land so vast that it is beyond imagining? Alas, that is beyond the tenacity of purpose of even Charles Saatchi, and he has reached back only to the second phase of Earth’s development, to Gondwanaland — not the whole of it but Africa and South America, two modern continents that were once in the comfortable contiguity of spoons and lovers, not separated by the cruel Atlantic. With them he plays the sorcerer, brings them into the present day and argues that there are parallels in their respective modern cultures — parallels neither drawn from them nor emerging from a distant past but imposed by the “increasingly globalised art world” of the present.

I have been making this point for 30 years, for 30 years ago it was already clear that international media had engendered international forms of contemporary art and that nothing could prevent some fashionable foolishness in Manhattan from being almost immediately mimicked in Moscow and Mumbai. Now it is no longer almost. It is immediate. There had been international movements before — ancient Roman all over Europe and the Near East, Byzantine from Anatolia to Aachen, the Gothic of the north just reaching south over the Alps, the Italian Renaissance informing the architecture of even England, the Baroque reaching Batavia, Neoclassicism spreading to America and Australia — but all these took decades, even centuries, to mature, conform to rules and develop authority. In the International Silliness of most contemporary art, however, everything has become as suddenly ubiquitous as fried chicken and the caffé latte, with even human faeces as a popular medium. There is nothing specifically English about the work of Hirst and Emin, our super-paragons. They are merely international.

Roll on: Fredy Alzate’s ball of bricks

Let us forget Pangaea and Gondwanaland and instead look for some distinguishing quality that sets apart Saatchi’s African and Latin artists, all of whom have surprisingly long biographies that prove them to be thoroughly international, already widely celebrated and certainly not new kids on the block.

The exhibition opens with an installation in which enormous ants, half a metre long and with a leg span of almost a metre, climb the walls and crowd into a corner, as ants do. It is as infinitely extensible, repeatable and transferable as any Field by Antony Gormley, and is easy to imagine on the exterior of the Hayward Gallery or any of the facilities built for the Olympic Games. It is, however, an allegory of sorts and we are expected to interpret it as addressing the plight of the world’s asylum- seekers. Alas, I completely missed the point. But it has something of a wow factor and is at once astonishing, and then (worse still for its maker, Rafael Gómezbarros, a Colombian) gives pleasure, amusement and delight. It would be a wonderful decoration for a fashionable restaurant or in the entrance hall of Deutsche Bank, where it could take on an entirely different meaning.

 

From the exhibition guide I understand thatFredyAlzate (Colombia) “explores the inherent contradictions ofuncontainable urban development” but what I saw in his huge ball of bricks was only an enchanting and desirable object, demanding to be touched.

 

I was impressed too by the vast wall-hanging of Ibrahim Mahama (Ghana), a gloomy, oppressive, Arte Povera decoration of old coal sacks sewn together, worn, torn and filthy. But again I missed the political and social argument and saw instead pathetic beauty, a beauty that could so readily be adapted to the stage. It could be a backdrop to Wagner’s Ring or any example of Italian verismo but I dare say that if one suggested its acquisition by English National Opera, the perverse panjandrums there would use it for Der Rosenkavalier and La Traviata.

From the exhibition guide I understand that Fredy Alzate (Colombia) “explores the inherent contradictions of uncontainable urban development” but what I saw in his huge ball of bricks was only an enchanting and desirable object, the whimsical welding of two tiny Byzantine domes into a globe, an amusing garden ornament, a thing that one must have for its mischievous thinginess, demanding to be touched.

Astonishing: Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2013 Even in what I thought the explicit photographs of Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou (Benin), I missed the point. As they depict the Demoiselles of Porto-Novo — nubile young women wearing over their faces what appear to be ancient tribal masks — I took them to be a commentary on their indifference to the practice of prostitution by both the prostitute and the client. Agbodjélou makes us the clients and in his haunting corridors and enfilades our purpose is to discover sex at its raw simplest, the whole woman no more than a substitute for the urgent hand, the business profoundly primitive and as old as the hills. These photographs are still, silent, poignant, beautiful and terrible, in the best sense of that word. Agbodjélou’s intention, however, was quite other and has something to do with the reversal of colonisation and slavery.

One thing, then, is clear: these artists from Gondwanaland are as dependent on curatorial interpretation as any in western Europe. Among the 16 I have found four — a high quota — who seem, within their own parameters, to have some considerable virtue. But, according to the curator, Gabriela Salgado, I have utterly misunderstood their work and perceived what is not there. But should I trust her? She has, from the Royal College of Art, an MA in curating contemporary art, of which one essential discipline is glib command of the prolix international gobbledegook that only such curators speak; she is, indeed, an instrument of the “increasingly globalised art world” that now regiments the artist rather than releases him.

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America is at the Saatchi Gallery, SW3 (020 7811 3070, saatchigallery.com) until August 31. Daily 10am-6pm. Admission free.

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 THE INDEPENDENT – LONDON

Huge ants are the stars of the show at the Saatchi Gallery

Colombian artist Rafael Gómezbarros’ horrifying insects are among the highlights of an uneven show of work from Africa and Latin America

The visitor to Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America at the Saatchi Gallery is confronted by sculptures of huge ants, crawling all over the walls of the first room. They are monstrous – the size of human babies. They clamber over one another, desperate to gorge on some hidden patch of honey. Some are solitary, others cluster in corners. They call to mind Kafka’s travelling salesman Gregor, who transformed into an insect overnight and spent the rest of his days crawling up and down his bedroom walls.

Rather than Western alienation, however, these ants signify the plight of migrant workers in Latin America. The installation is the work of Colombian artist Rafael Gómezbarros, and it is a powerful, viscerally unnerving beginning to the exhibition.

“Pangaea” refers to the pre-human landmass that once united Africa and Latin America, before it began to break apart 200 million years ago. These two very different nations were once a “supercontinent”. The work of 16 contemporary artists has been “brought together by the utopian notion of a unified Pangaea”, according to Argentinian-born, London-based curator Gabriela Salgado. If you google “Pangaea”, you find that it’s also the name of a vegan store and an organic skincare company. The term has been claimed by “one love” hippiedom. It seems suspect to me: rather than utopian, the exhibition runs the risk of committing the Modernist crime of lumping all “primitive” art together under one banner.

However, it is self-aware. Some of the artists are outstanding, some are mediocre. Whatever you think of Charles Saatchi, he did a great thing by donating the gallery to the public in 2010 and providing free admission. There are mostly paintings, but also photography, installation, and some sculpture. The most compelling works are those that do not appear in thrall to the Western art tradition and assert their own distinct visual language.

 

The next room is the most spectacular by far. It is filled with paintings by Aboudia, a young artist from Ivory Coast, who is thrillingly talented. His is the kind of art I love: formally brilliant and suffused with a death-defying energy, an insistence on life. These large canvases radiate a special kind of exuberance, though their subject matter is the trauma of the country’s civil war.

Aboudia’s life has transformed over the last few years: in 2011, he was painting the escalation of violence in Abidjan, following the disputed presidential elections. He had been homeless. His work came to the attention of the new Jack Bell Gallery in London, which specialises in African art. Now celebrities such as A-Rod, the American baseball star, are buying his work. And you can see why

Aboudia has been compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat; he too started off as a street artist. He creates layers of collage of found-images on canvases, before painting over them in thick, bright colours.

His paintings show figures, shocked by violence. Le Couloir de la Mort (2011) is a staggering painting that is slow to reveal its story. The canvas is dominated by blackness, but a figure with a white skull for a head hovers to the right, splattered by green paint, which is suggestive of blood. His eyes are shocked and cartoonish; he appears horrified by what he has done. His weapon is pointed at a girl on the left. She is drawn very faintly. She is holding her hand up, seemingly begging the skull man not to shoot. But the faintness of her form suggests that it is too late. She appears like a ghost, or the chalk outline of a body on a pavement. The skull man’s body is effaced by dark red paint. It seems that he is doused in blood that is not his own, a sign of his guilt. The painting is searing.

Another phenomenal work by Aboudia is Enfant dans la Rue 1 (2013). It shows a white naked figure lying across the bottom of the canvas. With a claw-like grip, he holds on top of him a red-brown figure, who turns towards the viewer with Aboudia’s trademark expression of stunned terror. The white figure is seemingly violating the brown figure from behind. This is an apt and forceful symbol of colonialism and the on-going injustices of global trade.

Above, photographs of tribal objects have been pasted on to the canvas, as well as photographs of African women’s hairstyles. These images point to a history mired in plunder: the fetish for “primitive” art in the West, the objectification of Africa as an ethnographic case study, the dominance of a Western beauty ideal, which makes hair a political issue.

African art in particular seems to be emerging fast in the global art market. Last year, the first contemporary African art fair, 1:54, was held in London. Of course, not merely race and ethnicity but class is a factor in defining these artists’ oeuvres. Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou from Benin is another outstanding artist represented by Jack Bell Gallery. Rather than depicting street scenes of violence, Untitled Triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo Series) (2012) consists of sumptuous colour photographs of the interior of a colonial mansion, which has belonged to the artist’s family for generations. His grandfather built it in 1890 after making a lot of money selling lemonade to the French and Portuguese armies. Benin was key to the slave trade: 12 million slaves once departed from the country’s ports.

The central image of the triptych is grave and unsettling. A bare-breasted woman from Porto Novo leans against a vivid blue wall. She wears a white painted Egungun mask, which she has unhooked from the nail in the wall above her head. To the right, there is a Pentecostal religious calendar. Because the viewer can’t see her face, the image is inscrutable. Is she mocking the viewer by mimicking the conventions of Western “primitivism”?

The series possibly references Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which marked the beginning of cubism. The painting shows five naked females, some of whom are wearing African masks. Picasso reworked the painting after visiting the African and Oceanic collections in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris, and the geometric forms and bold lines recall some of the art of the continent. But the rich and complex histories on which the Modernists drew for inspiration were often not credited as such. Instead, they were perceived as “backward”.

Not all of the work in this exhibition is strong. It is uneven. There is too much abstract painting, which makes no impression and seems indebted to the Western tradition. I wasn’t convinced by the Pop Art-inspired room. However, I liked the work of Ibrahim Mahama, Boris Nzebo and Oscar Murillo. And the frenzied, mixed-media expressionist drawings of black South African artist David Koloane stand out. They are wonderful.

Now in his seventies, Koloane co-founded the first black art gallery in Johannesburg under apartheid. The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (2007-8) is a startling, eerie drawing of dogs with glowing yellow eyes roaming under a full moon. Owls watch over women in pink dresses marked with crosses. The dog is a recurring symbol of greed and police brutality in Koloane’s work. While well-fed dogs bark behind the high-security fences of wealthy whites, mongrels prowl the black townships and scavenge. “Apartheid was a politics of space more than anything,” Koloane has said. “Claiming art is also reclaiming space.”

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (saatchigallery.com) today to 31 August

 

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The October Paintings

a new suite of oil on canvas paintings, all 4×4 feet by Vincent Galen Johnson in Los Angeles.

 

Untitled The October Paintings work #1: This work explores relations in color and light and experiments with layering down painting medium and then pushing paint directly into the medium. It is created with rags and both dry and paint soaked rags and loaded brushes. The effect is atmospheric and evocative of landscape painting.

Untitled The October Paintings work #2: This work is created by scraping away layers of paint and applying paint with fine brushwork in certain areas. It is an abstract work that plays upon the body of abstract paintings of mythical vistas by Cy Twombly that I saw at the Menil Collection.

Untitled The October Paintings work #3: This work is is rendered impressing large areas of paint and medium into the canvas and using a painting knife to mis and redistribute the paint across the entire canvas surface. The effect is that the represented non-objective field appears to be disintegrating. Nothing appears fixed; the substrate areas seem to desire to advance to the foreground.

Untitled The October Paintings work #4: This work is about eliminates spacial depth and is another which I see a bit of Twomby's influence. The surface is heavily worked with brushes and rags, incidents of local color effectively distinguish themselves in the overall pictorial view. Its quite the opposite of the other works created in this series.

Untitled The October Paintings work #5: This work segregates then enfolds layers of color with a painting knife and while releasing undercurrents of highlight colors from underneath its darkness. There is a structural integrity in the picture that allows the underneath to become visible while the overall representation is boldly dark.

Untitled The October Paintings work #6: This work represents a slow moving live red universe. It is as if a small sample of the sun were re-presented as a photographed object using paint. The overall red-orange color dominates yet color elements create the full picture.

Untitled The October Paintings work #7: This work adapts a more local distribution strategy in terms of paint by using loaded rags. It also confirms my interest in representing objects in formation. This is a magical forrest of color and light.

Untitled The October Paintings work #8: This work is created by mixing wide bands of color with a painting knife, then adding a smoky middle area. The upper bands transform their colors as they move to the lower portion of the canvas. The look is that of a forrest of color.

Untitled The October Paintings work #9: This work uses a bold light blue exception recovered from the scraped away layers of paint as its centering visual anchor. Provocative and delicate colors float in the pictorial window.

Untitled The October Paintings work #10: This work is a dense black-green pictorial field with aspects and elements of builds of local color and white paint touches. The work appears to have both depth and a fixed surface.

Untitled The October Paintings work #11: This is  my gold paint picture. In it are aspects of long held influences from Japanese art. The small objects appear to be strange orbs comprised of one or two colors beyond the gold body each inhabits.