Universes in Universe / Caravan / 50th Venice Biennial / Fault Lines
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La Biennale di Venezia, 50th International Art Exhibition, 15th June - 2nd November 2003
- Press information -

Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes
Curated by Gilane Tawadros and produced by the Forum for African Arts

In geological terms, fault lines reveal themselves as fractures in the earth’s surface but they also mark a break in the continuity of the strata. Fault lines may be a sign of significant shifts, or even of impending disaster, but they also create new landscapes. Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes brings together contemporary artists from Africa and the African diaspora whose works trace the fault lines that are shaping contemporary experience locally and globally. These fault lines have been etched into the physical fabric of our world through the effects of colonialism and postcolonialism, of migration and globalisation. Their reverberations echo through contemporary lived experience and in the work of these 15 artists working across a range of media from painting and sculpture through to architecture, photography and installation. Their works span five decades, four continents and three generations, resisting any notion of an authentic or one-dimensional African experience.

One of the most important artists of his generation Frank Bowling created map paintings in the late1960s and early 1970s which combine his investigations into the formal properties of picture making with his political preoccupations. Bowling not only put the political into ‘Pop Art’ but also put postcolonial concerns into contemporary art, thereby creating a sublime tension between form and content and laying the ground for subsequent generations of artists for whom aesthetic and political concerns are never mutually exclusive. In the work of the celebrated Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, it is the negotiation between tradition and modernity within a defiantly nationalist idiom that is articulated through his vision of an ‘architecture for the poor.’ Mirroring more or less the trajectory of modern Egypt, Fathy’s architecture moves ‘from colonisation to independence to development and its aftermath entangled with grand dreams of regional pre-eminence’.

By contrast, Wael Shawky’s contemporary asphalt city is a hybrid metropolis, part-rural, part-urban, constructed out of the blackest, most unyielding residues of petroleum. An ironic commentary on the contradictory effects of modernisation on contemporary Egyptian society, this dystopian city is the by-product of mass migration and globalisation. Kader Attia’s intimate portraits of transvestites and transsexuals give physical form to the experiences of Algerian migrants and sans papiers who live their lives on the periphery of France’s capital city, both literally and metaphorically. Excluded and alienated from both Algeria and France, the figures who populate Attia’s work represent the lived experience of globalisation and its disaffected and disenfranchised ‘non-citizens’.

The intimate relationship between past and present is the subject of Salem Mekuria’s beautiful film installation that evokes the periodic breaks in continuity and stability - the eruption of conflict, war, famine and exodus – in Ethiopia’s recent history and the co-existence of past, present and future in the daily lives of Ethiopians. Resonant of recent events that have taken place in Kosovo and Rwanda, Zarina Bhimji’s haunting images of an evacuated Ugandan landscape are concerned with the physical traces of migration and exile, of elimination and erasure as it is engraved upon the physical landscape of contemporary Africa. As Bhimji describes them, the images are about ‘listening to difference… listening to changes in tone, difference of colour’. Defying the political violence that has riven Algeria from the colonial struggle to present-day conflicts, Samta Benyahia’s architectural installation (a tribute to the great Algerian writer Kateb Yacine) creates a utopian space in which the past and present are no longer in conflict with one another; here a multiplicity of viewpoints becomes possible at one and the same time.

The possibility of reconciling different worldviews underpins the photographs of Rotimi Fani-Kayode who creates a photographic world in which ‘the body is the focal point for an exploration of the relationship between erotic fantasy and ancestral spiritual values2. Just as Fani-Kayode challenges the codes of photographic convention by moving away from the idea of an objective, material reality, Clifford Charles’ drawings represent a move away from the sentimental and melancholic images of post-apartheid South Africa. These compelling abstract ink drawings chart a new visual and physical space in the post-apartheid era; their dark, inky surfaces creating a multilayered blackness that spills over the white surface of the paper.

Political and social violence is a recurrent theme. Laylah Ali’s cartoon-like gouache paintings are deeply disturbing and ambiguous narratives that suggest repeated episodes of violence and conflict, underpinned by the dynamics of race and power. Inspired by the graphic style of comic strips, Ali constructs a world in which the identities of her varied Greenhead characters are difficult to pin down and their behaviour both ambivalent and contradictory. Pitso Chinzima and Veliswa Gwintsa’s installation addresses the cumulative effects of relentless, social violence as a global phenomenon that militates against the efforts of ordinary people to realise a full and meaningful existence. Rejecting the notion that social violence is a peculiarly South African experience, Chinzima and Gwintsa suggest that violence is one of the more troubling effects of globalisation and its discontents.

Fifty years after the revolution that dispensed with colonial rule, Moataz Nasr’s mesmerising video installation presents a powerful critique of the cynicism of politicians and the indifference of their electorate in post-revolutionary, postcolonial Egypt. Meanwhile the work of Sabah Naim’s film and installation works visualise the widening gap between two often incommensurate worlds: the international arena of the media and global politics and the everyday world of ordinary Egyptians and their daily effort to survive. Everyday struggles have taken the place of the nationalist struggles in this new postcolonial world order while waiting has replaced action. Moshekwa Langa’s collages and installations reflect upon the continuous displacements and shifts not only in linguistic and visual representation but equally in the physical landscape of contemporary Africa. In this installation of large-scale drawings and video works, he presents a story in twelve parts, a ‘non story’ in three acts in which people are waiting to get on a bus, waiting in doorways passing the time or just smoking and waiting, waiting, waiting….

Gilane Tawadros is director of the inIVA (Institute of International Visual Arts) in London: www.iniva.org


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