Amidst Zaha Hadid’s light-filled labyrinth of concrete and steel is the pulsating, brightly coloured work of Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj. Filling the cool contours of Rome’s 21st art museum with African zest is his installation Le salon bibliothèque. Realised specifically for African Metropolis, a vibrant cacophonous exhibition of work by artists from over two dozen African countries, Hajjaj has created a bookshop in his Moroccan pop style, comprising multi-hued patterned stools, and coffee tables and reused plastic crates. A little library with a selection of books on Africa tempt the visitor — all of which have been selected by the artists involved in the exhibition as per the request of its curators, Simon Njami and Elena Motisi. More of his hotly hued works in his hipster style subjects dressed in Moroccan garb align the walls. Africa has come to Rome.
Hajjaj’s work offers a light-hearted entrée to this profound multi-faceted show on African art. Soon after, the mood becomes more contemplative as the many layers of the continent’s diverse cultural scene are revealed. Just a few steps away is a Kenyan Paul Onditi’s World Disorder II (2017), a painting made in mixed media on digital polyester inkjet plate whereby a bustling city landscape is rising and collapsing, fusing architectural structures with natural elements, and presenting the rush of energy, life and survival, found in most African metropolises.
Kia Henda. The Merchant of Venice. 2010. inkjet print on cotton paper, 170x110cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Fonti, Naples.
Turn the corner and you’ll find a gleaming white animal skull whose twisted horns cast shadows on the floor. Proud and self-assured, South African Nicholas Hlobo’s Waxhotyiswa engekakhawulwa (2017), offers an uncanny and edgy elegance at the heart of the exhibition. The work’s undulating ribbons offer a bit of glamour to the skull’s gruesome nature, exploring as the artist’s work does, issues around ethnicity, masculinity and sexuality identity.
The works unfold through a series of five chapters in a language of photography, textiles and found junk. In much of the art what is beautiful wrestles with the repulsive, offering the everyday dichotomy of the African cities of today. In one space, VERTIGO #2, a large canvas and fabric work by Tuatara Watts from Ivory Coast, hangs on a wall, its child-like figures and gentle scribbling begs us to stop and listen. “Before looking at this work, listen to it,” is written on the wall caption. Often combining art and music with recycled materials from everyday life, Watts desires the spectator to transcend the materiality of his artwork in order to contemplate the state of our times. Moreover, his patchwork canvas resembles the architectural structure surrounding it—yet another reference to an urban identity.
We’re prompted to follow suite by Lavar Munroe’s cute and slightly malevolent cardboard Gun Dogs (2017), dressed in beads and fabric, each one stationed on one of Hadid’s cool white stairs threatening to bite your heels as you venture upward. Are they protecting visitors or the artwork?
Delio Jasse. Cidade em movimento. 2016.Courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary
Nearby is El Anatsui’s undulating red and golden hued folds in his Stressed World (2011), a title that seems in contrast to the work’s uplifting quality. Anatsui’s elegant installation similarly flows with Hadid’s undulating architectural curves. As soon as you turn around, you’ll catch sight of Ghanaian Godfried Donkor’s New Olympians (2018) series in which the artist depicts men and women going about their day-to-day activities in poses derived from the world of Senegalese wrestling, and incorporates references to urban culture and mythology. There is magic in the mundane, Godfried seems to state.
Also in the opening display is one of the show’s most poignant works: Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Falling Houses (2014). The installation comprises a village of cardboard boxes, each imbued with colourful prints of everyday scenes and objects. Hung upside down from the ceiling, the visitor immediately senses tension. The artist’s inspiration? Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. The world is collapsing. Tayou’s upside down houses are filled with human emotions: happiness, fear, despair, and sadness.
A determined grand battement, gentle pirouette and outstretched arms to fifth position portray the boys and girls taking ballet class in Kibera, Uganda. Shot by Sarah Waiswa, Ballet in Kibera (2017) captures ballet class in Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum. The contrast between the elegant positions of ballet’s traditional postures and the surroundings slums couldn’t be greater. But what these images offer is hope for a new African identity.
Ouattara Watts. VERTIGO # 2. 2011. Mixed media. Private Collection, New York
Dance has always played a fundamental role in African culture—it’s more than just entertainment, dance is a rite of passage. Due to the high price of ballet lessons, dance here is a privilege and with that comes a sense of power and status. “I wanted to capture the state between imagination and reality, in the absence of social barriers, blurring the lines between audience and performer,” says the artist.
References to African fashion are found in several works. Nigerian Abdulrazaq Awofeso’s miniature doll-like structures reveal the artist’s research into the differences between human aspirations and behavioural etiquette, a practice beginning in 2015. Through his work he ponders how the use of African dress in various forms is the result of the inability to reveal one’s true character. What hides behind the accessories? He asks.
Fashion returns in the work of designer Lamine Badian. His brand Xuly uses recycled materials transforming them into modern garments.
The scope of African Metropolis is to present the complex structure of a metropolis in which urban space is seen as the point of congregation for diverse cultures and experiences. While Njami certainly made use of Hadid’s undulating architecture, evoking a sense of urbanity—the title seems misplaced.
The challenge here was to justify placing a wide range of African artworks seen through the framework of an urban lens. Does this work? Rather than concentrate on the idea of metropolis and its relationship to African art, one drifted off into sub-themes afforded by the artworks’ references to identity issues, ethnicity, textiles, and modernity. Africa’s diversity can hardly be retained in one exhibition let alone a city—the works beg to be seen like the continent itself for their particular elements and ideas. While the quality of work rises and falls, Njami has unleashed several of Africa’s top gems and in a visual format that entrances as much as it captivates.
African Metropolis: An Imaginary City is on view until 21 October. maxxi.art