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The ironic eye

Artists create perspectives on African colonialism that are tinted with tragedy, didacticism and beauty mixed with sadness.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2002


Artists create perspectives on African colonialism that are tinted with tragedy, didacticism and beauty mixed with sadness.

TAMPA -- Taking in an art show is a process of consumption. A gallery of Monets is as smooth as vichyssoise; Vermeers are like a fine red wine with deep undertones. The Dadaists require lots of chewing. Fragonard, strawberries and frothy cream. Jeff Koons? Cheese.

But that sort of pat analogy, which is part of the bigger notion that art appreciation is all about personal taste, is elusive in an exhibition as rich and complicated as "The Field's Edge: Africa, Diaspora, Lens" at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, which is more like a series of exotic dishes you know are good without knowing exactly what they are.

You won't be helped much by the introductory statement that describes "The Field's Edge" as "a multimedia exhibition that explores the relationship between contemporary art and colonial ethnography."

What this show is about are the ways (both obvious and obscure) in which colonialism (both as it was practiced centuries ago and now) can affect individuals and groups (in both intimate, domestic ways and in broader political ones). And in choosing only art and examples of ethnography created by cameras, the organizers were able to set up all those contrasts with a kind of shorthand.

Didactic, yes, and didacticism is necessary to an exhibition such as "The Field's Edge," but what's more important is to open your mind to the unique ways nine artists filter the world through a lens.

They could not be more different, from Carrie Mae Weems, an African-American still photographer who is probably the biggest name in the show, to Teboho Mahlatsi, a young African filmmaker whose 35mm short, Young Man Drowning is a blunt, brutal slice of lost, wasted lives in South Africa.

And therein lies another example of contrasts in this show: The tone of the work seems to be either slyly ironic or painfully earnest, with the irony quotient generally increasing the farther away geographically the artist is from Africa.

Fatimah Tuggar is a Nigerian-born, Yale-educated artist who uses digitally manipulated prints with Disney-bright colors and perky window-dressing to create deadpan portraits of "the good life," African-style. In People Watching, "happy natives" are posed for a tourist safari. In Iyali (Family), an attractive couple pose with their two daughters, dressed in tribal finery and juxtaposed into the living room of a chic Manhattan apartment, a portrait of the Cleavers behind them over the sofa. The babysitters keeping watch over the kids in Minding the livingroom are armed guards. It's hilarious. Then you take in the archival postcard photo from the Smithsonian Institution displayed nearby showing 19th century Africans trying to emulate Westerners dressed in top hats, tails and long white dresses and you realize Tuggar's work is also sad. And angry. We don't need your suburban aspirations, she suggests, so why do we want them?

If you had to classify Berni Searle, you'd probably call her a performance artist, except that she "performs" for a camera, then presents the piece as a series of still photographs, converting an ephemeral, kinetic art form into a permanent, static document. In Still, eight large black-and-white panels are arranged in a circle, showing Searle, nude, kneading flour into bread dough -- obvious stuff-and-staff-of-life imagery -- but she also drenches herself in the flour and leaves a pile of it on the floor beneath the images, her crouching form outlined in it.

Like the other African-Americans represented in this exhibition, Lorna Simpson's take on the issues of displacement, and establishing a sense of home and community in its wake, is more detached than that of her African colleagues. Simpson, who has two installations on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, is represented here by two works. Both are elegant, spare and beautiful. Wigs uses hair and hairpieces reproduced as waterless lithographs (a process no one, even Alexa Favata, the museum's assistant director who has a degree in printmaking, could explain to me) on felt, with commentaries, sometimes with racial stereotypes, alluding to our obsession with appearances.

The work of South African Colin Richards, raw in tone and formal in presentation, is a witness to the brutal death of South African activist Stephen Biko. Veil I-VI, Veil VII and Veil VIII is a series of grainy photographs of the bloodstained cell where Biko likely died draped in torn bedsheets like shrouds.

Videos by African-Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Compos-Pons and South African Thembinkosi Goniwe explore cultural rituals. They are childhood games in Compos-Pons' While the Girls Are Playing, presented as charming, comforting memories. The moving images are projected into spaces encircled with silk organdy anchored by flowers made of glass. It's a little like watching an avant-garde fashion show.

For Goniwe, youthful customs are furtive and slightly sinister; he simulates ritual castration and dismemberment, rites of passage for some tribes, who have run afoul of the South African government's well-meaning but doomed attempts to institutionalize such practices to make them less life-threatening. The white-washed man in this work is as much a pawn as the sanitized warriors in Fatimah Tuggar's photographs.

"The Field's Edge" will be impenetrable and discomforting to those who do not take time with it, who do not go further than its obvious polemical readings. That so much diversity can be wrested from a limiting theme and medium is a reminder that for all our generalities, we can only understand art -- and people -- if we begin with the singular.

Review

"The Field's Edge: Africa, Diaspora, Lens," is at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, through Dec. 21. The exhibition, curated by Rory Bester and Amanda Carlson, includes work by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Teboho Mahlatsi, Odili Donald Odita, Colin Richards, Berni Searle, Lorna Simpson, Fatima Tuggar and Carrie Mae Weems. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. (813) 974-2849.

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