African art at WCMA

A limber woman holds out an arm wrapped in vines. Her skirt is the broad, sand-colored trunk of a baobab tree. Around her, brush is burning to bare ground.

Photographer Fabrice Monteiro created this scene with costume designer Jah Gal.

“The baobab is the symbol of Senegal,” Monteiro said. “It has a mystical connotation — we never take out a baobab. People say a spirit of a dead person lives in each one, and they can never cut one down.”

This baobab is witnessing trees dying in slash-and-burn fires. A former model, Monteiro brings the techniques of fashion photography to highlight wasted places — an oil slick beach or a dumping ground coated with plastic bags.

He lives and works in Dakar, Senegal, and he spoke from his home city about work that has come to Williamstown, to the Williams College Museum of Art, in “African Art Against the State,” a new show curated by assistant professor of art Michelle Apotsos.

Apotsos has curated a mix of traditional and contemporary artwork. The contemporary artists are global, she said. Some live and work in Africa; some were born in Africa and no longer live there or were born to African parents living in other countries.

Yinka Shonibare, a sculptor living in London, has dressed headless mannequins in Victorian British clothing made from African cloth. In this layered work, Shonibare asks who these people are and where they fit in time and space. The work plays into the tensions he has dealt with, Apotsos said. He has grown up and lived between London and Lagos, Nigeria. People in the art world press him to define himself as an artist from one place or the other, and he will not.

His work plays into two of the show’s main themes, she said. She has three: the biases people deal with day to day, the influence of empire, and the environment. And she uses the idea of the state in many ways — the system, the machine, the man — any kind of force the artwork confronts.

In Lalla Essaydi’s photographs, women are telling the story. Essaydi grew up in Morocco and now lives in New York, and her work finds beauty in her native country. Here women are writing in script, in red-brown henna, on their clothing, on their skin and  in the spaces around them.

Traditionally men write this Arabic script, often to transcribe writings from the Quran, Apotsos said. Essaydi writes from her own journals and tales, though she has not translated the words.

This often appears as an artform in itself, Apotsos said. In many Islamic cultures it is the voice of God; it is a way to make God visible. In sacred spaces, the swirling script on walls becomes a source of meditation.

Nubian artist Fathi Hassan also creates abstract collages of script and symbols — words, dates, patterns meant to evoke feeling. He lets ink bleed into the paper, Apotsos said, holding a sense of loss. When Egypt built the Aswan dam, Nubian lands flooded and more than 100,000 Nubians lost their homes. Hassan now lives in Italy, and his work he remembers the  art, culture, history and people displaced in the flood.

Traditional African art was often meant to shape large forces people could not control — insect plagues, crop failures. In the contemporary world, Apotsos said, artists have shone a light on oil pollution, deforestation, devastation Western companies have often caused.

Monteiro first became aware of the costs because he surfs.

“Some days you couldn’t get into the water,” he said

Dakar has no water treatment, and canals around the city lead to the sea. Domestic and industrial garbage runs into the canals and into the ocean. At its the most dramatic, “the water was full of chemicals — your throat would hurt when you swim.”

With recycled trash and found materials he has created a series of spirits rising out of the trash heaps and poisoned water. He thinks of them as djinn come to earth to prophesy and warn.

In South Africa, David Goldblatt documents mining or blue asbestos fibers at a dump near a river. The town downstream is a ghost town now.

His candid images expose deep divisions, Apotsos said. His grandparents came to South Africa from Lithuania as Jewish immigrants trying to escape persecution, and as a white African photographer he has chronicled apartheid. He has also photographed informal roadside monuments to black South Africans who died under torture.

South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa turns his lens on home places. Often rural workers come to the cities to find work and end up in slums, Apotsos said. Mthethwa shows the places they have made their own for the first time in ways they couldn’t under Apartheid.

“His work is just beautiful, sensitive, visually vibrant,” she said.

And to add another level of artist against the state — he is on trial for murder. He has pled innocent to an assault on Nokuphila Kumalo, a 23-year-old sex worker, in 2013. The trial has no end in sight, Apotsos said.

“His artwork has been used as a force for great good,” she said. “What happens if he is convicted?”

Acting as an artist against the state may be dangerous. Zanele Muholi has risked burglary, attack and open hostility for her art and her daily life as a gay artist in South Africa, where Lesbian women are killed, assaulted and forced into “corrective rape.” Her photographs often show women alone or with partners

“Few artists can face the pressure she faces and present a sensitive portrayal of relationships,” Apotsos said. Her works “are about intimacy, loving and content relationships. Her aesthetic is lush and tonal and beautiful. The women’s bodies are silky, tangible, tactile, and that helps create emotional impact even more.”

They are powerful on their own, she said, finds them even more powerful in context.

“Looking at these photographs and knowing these women are dead is heartbreaking,” she said.


If you go …

What: ‘African Art Against the State’ curator’s insights, talk and tour

When: Noon, Thursday, Feb. 25

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown

Admission: Free



This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle’s Sunday magazine. Thanks to features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh. In the image at the top, slash-and-burn fires consume brush in photograph # 6 in the ‘Prophesy’ series by Fabrice Monteiro: Photo courtesy of WCMA.

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