On 1st April, the Saatchi Gallery will open Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America. Taking its title from the prehistoric landmass that conjoined Africa and America, this major survey reunites the two former sister continents by bringing together the work of 16 of their contemporary artists.
The exhibition celebrates and explores the parallels between their distinctly diverse cultures and creative practices, as they begin to receive recognition in the increasingly globalised art world.
In Europe and the USA, art has typically advanced through a constant renewal of innovative ideas and movements. We are now experiencing an important global shift as artists seek to explore new art in regions outside their immediate geographical and historic context for inspiration.
The desire by artists and their audiences to discover fresh influences from a broader body of work has inspired the recent preoccupation of museums to broaden their Eurocentric collections.
Against this backdrop, the artists in Pangaea: New Art From Africa And Latin America, respond to present day complexities in diverse and innovative ways. Years of colonial rule, rapid urban expansion, migration and political and economic unrest remain subjects for many of the artists whose reflections on the richness of their environment translate into an intense visual experience.
Rafael Gómezbarros’ Casa Tomada has taken over the facade of numerous national monuments. The giant ants address issues of diaspora and internal displacement suffered in Colombia for several decades due to the armed conflict wreaking havoc on the country.
Antonio Malta Campos’ bold paintings emerge from a single pattern that organically grows over time and gives way to recognisable forms and a perceived narrative.
Vincent Michea’s bold paintings are inspired by the architecture and population of his hometown Dakar, Senegal’s largest city with a constantly changing landscape.
Aboudia’s vast canvases are occupied by a multitude of characters displaying menacing weapons, and are a record of the sudden escalation of violence following electoral chaos in the city of Abidjan in 2011.
While a few artists from Africa and Latin America have gained international acclaim, a vast number remain relatively unknown. The full scope of work on display in this exhibition, which includes new painting, photography, installation and sculpture, encapsulates this sense of diversity – a bubbling energy surfacing in the two great continents that were once Pangaea.
Recent shows at the Saatchi gallery have been met with mixed receptions, so the gallery has fallen back on a stalwart of the Saatchi stable and focussed on emerging artists from a specific region of the world — in this case Latin America and Africa. These two parts of the world were bound together as part of the super continent Pangaea many millions of years ago, hence the title of the exhibition. But this title serves more as a device to bring these two sets of artists together and the similarities between the two continents ends there.
The exhibition opens with a high impact installation by Rafael Gomezbarros in which a swarm of giant ants covers the walls. Many are amassed in one corner of the gallery as if that’s where they are emerging from. It’s a creepy sight and is also a representation of the number of Colombians who have been displaced due to armed conflict over the last 50 years.
The exhibition then follows a chequered path as we encounter many artists who feel derivative of European artists such as Picasso, Lichtenstein and Caulfield. However, Fredy Alzate’s sphere of bricks does a great job of summing up sprawling urban development by displaying a structure that has collapsed in on itself into a ball.
Upstairs features some of the better artists in this exhibition with one excellent gallery containing Dillon Marsh’s photography of the humanoid shapes of weaver bird nests, Mario Marcilau’s intimate portraits and David Koloane’s terrifying depiction of urban life, where yellow eyed dogs scavenge in the night.
Though this exhibition may not be a full return to form, it’s a big improvement on the last few shows and is the gallery’s strongest exhibition since ‘Out of Focus’ two years ago.
Pangaea is on at Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road, SW3 4RY until 31 August. Admission is free. Also still on at Saatchi gallery are the emerging artists in New Order II.
THE DAILY BEAST
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America
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Gómezbarros’ ants are most horrifying when you look at them up close. Each is made from two casts of human skulls, bound together by dirty white cloth, like bandages. Their legs are sticks cut from trees. These objects of death seem very alive; they appear to swarm in the corners of your vision. They symbolise how the world too often sees the migrant worker: as vermin.
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