This exhibition brings together recent prints by Julie Mehretu, a video projection by Wangechi Mutu, paintings by Odili Donald Odita and Owusu-Ankomah, and installations by Senam Okudzeto and Barthélémy Toguo. These artists are 'citizens of the world', or 'Afropolitans', to use the term coined by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu in an essay first published in The LIP and reprinted in the exhibition catalogue. As she writes, "Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many."
Mehretu, born in Addis Ababa to an Ethiopian father and American mother of European descent, was raised in the USA, studied in Dakar and is based in New York. The prints on this exhibition were produced by her at Crown Point Studios in San Francisco, and are her response to the catastrophic devastation wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
Mutu was born and raised in Kenya, spent two years at a school in Wales and furthered her studies at the Cooper Union in New York and Yale University. Her video work on this exhibition was filmed in Texas on the US-Mexico border, a site of migration and violence currently at the centre of much political controversy in the States.
Okudzeto was born in Chicago to an African American mother and a Ghanaian father, spent most of her childhood in Ghana and Nigeria, and now lives between London, Basel and Accra. The watercolours on this show are drawn from bodies of work that have been exhibited, among other places, at Harvard University in the USA, where Okudzeto was recently a Radcliffe research fellow, but have been specifically reconfigured, on site, for the gallery in Cape Town.
Toguo painted his watercolours in Paris, found banana boxes and mosquito netting in Cape Town, and augmented his installation with a wooden stamp carved on his visit - part of a series of stamps which mock the bureaucratic processes entwined with travel and migration. He lives between France and Cameroon, where he is currently setting up the Bandjoun Station in a response to the lack of exhibition venues and sites of cultural exchange in Cameroon.
Owusu-Ankomah, who lives in Lilienthal, Germany, also maintains strong links to his home country. He regularly travels to Ghana, and in 2004 he held a solo exhibition at the National Art Museum in Accra. Yet his imagery, which once drew primarily on the Adinkra sign system of the Akan, now incorporates symbols from antiquity through to contemporary culture, from African, Asian and European sources.
Odita, who was born in Nigeria but has lived virtually all his life in the USA, carefully articulates his desire to work in an abstracted format that subverts preconceptions of contemporary African art. He writes: "African culture is so interregnal to Western culture, and yet the continent continues to exist as a region denigrated in the mind of the world. I wish to rechannel the negative thinking around Africa, speak from the centre of its present beauty, and expand upon what I know and understand about the history of this wonderful and mysterious place."
Artists with African connections living elsewhere in the world are, as a matter of course, negotiating their relative distance and closeness to the continent. The varied ways in which they do this encourage viewers to resist reductive assumptions around geographical and national classifications. Their disparate aesthetic sensibilities, drawing on their different life histories and their fluid movements between capitals and continents, explode preconceptions that the adjectives of 'contemporary' and 'African' in any way limit or confine their art practice. In turn, the dialogue in South Africa with these artists will continue to stretch and tease South Africans' understandings of our relative distances to Africa and the world.
Related press: No place like home for African-born artists, by Joost Bosland and Michael Stevenson (Sunday Times, 29 October 2006) PDF