- Shifting Views: People and Politics in Contemporary African Art
curated by Shannen Hill with Kevin Tervala
Baltimore Museum of Art
December 18, 2016–December 10, 2017
Shifting Views: People & Politics in Contemporary African Art is the third in a series of thematic exhibitions of African art installed in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA) new Focus Gallery. The gallery debuted with Diverging Streams: Eastern Nigerian Art (April 26, 2015–April 17, 2016) followed by Design for Mobile Living: Art from Eastern Africa (June 1–November 27, 2016). Located adjacent to the recently (April 2015) reopened renovated and expanded galleries for African art, its 680 square feet fosters an intimate space for engagement through close looking, finding connections, critical thinking, and quiet reflection (Fig. 1).
Shifting Views, curated by Shannon Hill, Associate Curator for African Arts, with Kevin Tervala, former Curatorial Fellow in the Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Pacific Islands, features twenty-four works on paper by seven artists from the museum’s growing collection of contemporary art: David Goldblatt, Gavin Jantjes, William Kentridge, Julie Mehretu, Senam Okudzeto, Robin Rhode, and Diane Victor. Installed against muted gray walls, they illustrate a mastery of techniques: drawing, photography, printmaking, and a novel manipulation of captured carbon soot deposits. Viewers are invited to rethink profound themes of dislocation, racism, and loss, while locating connections to our own life and times— political, personal, and social, past and present histories.
The comfortable gallery size invites varying routes. My eye and aesthetic preferences led me the first time around. A second, longer look got me thinking about the historical/social time frames in which these seven artists were working. The earliest work is by acclaimed documentary photographer David Goldblatt. Margaret Mcingana, who later became famous as the singer Margaret Singana, Zola, Soweto, October 1970 is a large format (40.6 cm × 50.8) portrait (Fig. 2). In this photograph the room’s looming interior wall is as much a part of the subject as Ms. Mcingana reclining in the middleground of the composition. Notably, it is the first photograph that Goldblatt took in the Soweto township, and he remarks that
houses [were] designed specifically to discourage people from putting down roots. They wanted people who lived here to be labourers in the so-called white economy and to go back home to their tribal homelands. So that wall, that hellish wall, was a symbol to me of the claustrophobic tightness of that place(Goldblatt 2014).
About this same time (1974–75), artist/activist Gavin Jantjes was at work on his critical commentary A South African Colouring Book. Two of the eleven composite prints from the full portfolio Edition #4/20 are displayed here: True Colors of the State (n.d.) and Color this Labor Dirt Cheap (n.d.). The artist collected and overlayed selected photographs, newsprint, drawings, and texts representative of appalling apartheid injustices and ensuing explosive conflicts. In True Colors of the State Jantjes appropriates photographer Laurie Bloomfield’s shot depicting resistance by black South Africans to racial rezoning policies near Durban. Presented as a child’s coloring book page, the title of the suite at first relays a fond memory of a childhood activity of coloring printed line drawings—but the artist rapidly shifts the mood and meaning to the adult world by applying acerbic titles of instruction echoing the structural oppression and racial discrimination lived by blacks and coloreds in South Africa under the Afrikaner Nationalist Party rule. The print includes a color bar referring to racial classifications in South Africa at the time. Jantjes has explained:
The racial label put on a non-white child at birth is not only a badge of a race, it is a permanent brand of inferiority, the brand of class distinction. Throughout his life his race label will warn all concerned which doors are open to him, and which are closed(Janjes 1974–75).
Jantjes’s work was banned in South Africa and the artist went into exile in 1982.
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