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Reviewed by:
  • Contested Terrains
  • NJ Hynes (bio)
Contested Terrains Tate Modern, London July 29-October 16, 2011 Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos January 21-March 3, 2012

Contested Terrains at the Tate Modern in London is a small show in a major contemporary art institution, presenting four "emerging" artists whose selected works address the tricky relationship between the past and the present on the African continent. It's a clever, provocative show, significant not only for its focus and framing but also for the shift in institutional policy that it represents. The show was cocurated by the Tate Modern in London and the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Lagos and conceived as a joint exhibition that would travel to both venues.

This level of reciprocity was rare in the past. Until recently, unless an exhibition originated on the African continent (e.g., the Dakar, Bamako, and Joburg/Cape Town biennales), it was unlikely to be seen there. For decades it was argued that there were no appropriate facilities in Africa to exhibit the large shows organized by star curators for American or European institutions, beginning with Magiciens de la terre (1989), Africa Explores (1991), Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (1995), and Africa Art of a Continent (1995) and including The Short Century (2001) and African Art Now (2006). With South Africa's victory over apartheid, some exhibitions began to travel to Johannesburg and Cape Town, including the influential Africa Remix in 2006. But genuine collaborations remain rare. Although the Tate has shown work about contemporary Africa—the Lagos section of the 2001 exhibition Century City, for example—Contested Terrains is the Tate's first collaboration with a contemporary art institution on the African continent.

The exhibition grew out of curatorial exchanges; each cocurator spent time in both London and Lagos. The exchanges were instigated by the Tate and supported by the World Collections Programme; Tate curator Kerryn Greenberg stayed with the CCA in Lagos, while CCA curator Jude Angowith was hosted in London by Gasworks, part of the influential Triangle Trust, which has long promoted international art workshops and exchange. The curators insist that these exchanges were vital to their work, in terms of both understanding each other's audiences and being introduced to new artists; this is not the same exhibition, Greenberg has said, as it would have been if she had curated it on her own.

In London, Contested Terrains appears in the Tate's second-floor gallery. It's an auspicious position, nestled against the exterior wall, with a large glass door facing the main riverside entrance. The gallery was opened in 2004 specifically as a space for "new and emerging" artists; it is a contemporary art space featuring artists working in Africa, rather than a specially designated, peripheral "African" space.

Behind a temporary wall, the first room glows with large light boxes containing portraits of four men and one woman. Dressed in long gowns, they face the camera squarely, with dignified

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Adolphus Opara, Orisa Egbe [deity of destiny]—Mrs Osunyita from Emissaries of an Iconic Religion, 2009.

© Adolphus Opara 2011

[End Page 152]

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Michael MacGarry, Fetish VI, 2010.

© Michael MacGarry

ease, and hold objects—a staff, a fly whisk, a stake—that we intuitively recognize as powerful. While to non-African eyes the images may suggest something old, pagan, and oddly familiar—the African as exotic—these subjects surprise the viewer with their composure. Their gaze toward the camera is steady and calm, their hands carefully arranged. The background, filled with colors, textures, and objects, feels rich with symbolism, open to reading and decoding, as in a European Renaissance portrait. We are viewing individuals who appear in control of their image and at ease with themselves, people who represent the polytheistic tradition and its contemporary power.

Artist Adolphus Opara explains that the Yoruba diviners in these photographs are often seen as evil and "fetish" by Christian Nigerians, yet they are a persistent part of contemporary life and of West Africa's cultural history.1 By presenting them with dignity, surrounded by the objects of their choice, he places them...


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