‘Against the State’ is sharp, timely and critical

Yinka Shonibare MBE’s “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (Parasol)” is a work charged with political content, past and present. Emory Strawn/ Photo Editor.
Yinka Shonibare MBE’s “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (Parasol)” is a work charged with political content, past and present. Emory Strawn/ Photo Editor.

Political art is not new. It’s been around as long as politics have, or since the first person desired – and acquired – power over others. A new exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), African Art Against the State, curated by Assistant Professor of Art Michelle Apotsos, with a select section, Politics of the Environment, organized by students in the Winter Study course “Art History 15: Exhibition Design for the Arts of Africa” (Ada Berktay ’16, Brian Coakley ’18, Tayana Fincher ’17, Wilfred Guerron ’17, Sarah Ritzmann ’17 and Yolanda Zhao ’18), highlights this dynamic. The show may seem pointedly timely, but that’s because it was, is and always will be.

State works because the pieces are innately political. They do not feel like propaganda; rather, they are political because of what they were made to represent (or do, given that many of the works were once functioning objects). The Bamana people’s “Kònò Cult Animal Mask” is rough and battered; it has a long face, the snout marked by uneven clumps of hair held down by strips of metal driven through the wood.

The mask was worn by Malian men to police society, punish antisocial behavior and restore peace. It couldn’t have been too popular. The mask isn’t old – 20th century – but it definitely is used. Was it shaped into this state after many years of use? A sharp line splits the left-hand side of the mask. Cracked. By accident or attack?

It’s no coincidence that the mask is hung right at eye level. You see your reflection in the casing, your eyes directly in the empty sockets. Who do you become? It’s unsettling that force and brutality can so easily consume you when you realize your own authority, however minor – even if it’s authority meant to keep the peace.

The artist(s) is unknown, but the hands of his/her/their craft are clear – the wood is nicked in places and carved unevenly. It’s a reminder that the state is simply power in the hands of someone who’s taken it too far. The anonymity of the artist of “Kònò Cult Animal Mask” and of several other works in the exhibition is significant; the objects are made by the people, for the people. It’s the complete opposite of what we see in Western art history – and in the Prendergast galleries just across the way – wherein the artist is a venerated figure and his or her subject an important, wealthy patron.

This display of utilitarian objects made by unnamed artists is refreshing, and shows the various cultures’ humility. Or is it their oppression? Is it a history of colonial occupation looming overhead, preventing the emergence of the individual and the personal?

The “state” is ominous and vague; Apotsos defines it as any “oppressive sociopolitical, cultural, spiritual or even environmental structure that controls a populace that has little recourse to empowerment.” Here, a very clear theme has been given to the exhibition: African art against, opposed to, in protest of the state. Do the pieces indeed work well in fulfilling the exhibition’s mission? Do they convey a sense of averseness toward power in the wrong hands, even if they seem stagnant from years of disuse?

The answer is yes – and so much more. The show engages and intimidates; the storied past of the objects and pieces on view makes you think, makes you laugh, makes you feel absolutely uncomfortable. State emanates vitality.

Some of this vitality, however, is taken away by the organization of the exhibition itself. State is split into three subcategories: Politics of Existence, Politics of Empire and Politics of the Environment – though helpful in its intention, the division at times feels contrived. Looking at David Goldblatt’s apartheid-era photographs of two families, one black and one white, the former dancing, the latter sleeping, there is much more permeating the images than just “the Empire.” The frame ends up pushing a somewhat constrictive view on the pieces in their respective categories; the immediate impact of some works may be lessened because we are only seeing them through one of three lenses.

This may not entirely fall on the curator, however – given the awkward octagonal gallery the exhibition is curated in and the implied circular path through the room, the divisions may have been the best way to deal with the space.

Entering and walking along the right side of the gallery, you come across two of George Osodi’s large photographs, “Oloola 1” and “Oloola 2.” We see “2” first; it’s a photo of a sign for a circumcision service. The men, painted in white, are calm and expressionless, proceeding with a circumcision on a young boy peacefully, as a rite of passage.

What we don’t see is the forced circumcision and removal of the Nigerian women’s clitorises without anesthesia. Instead, what we do see – Oloola 1” –  is perhaps much more harrowing. The tools. Blunt, rusted, Y-shaped, definitely not sterile. Laid out on a black table, so we’re not certain if the stains are water or blood. Probably the latter. The photograph is blurry, but it makes the image that much more immediate, as if Osodi snapped it just after a procedure.

The photographs are repulsive, but important. It’s the image we come up with in our mind that’s so much worse. This is one aspect of what makes State so powerful. Each piece seems to be perched in this precarious zone, not quite blatantly political or graphically unsettling, yet charged with a sinister undertone courtesy of “the state.”

Seydou Keita’s “Untitled” is less distressing but equally arresting. In the 1940s and 1950s, Keita photographed the Malian bamakois (middle class) dressed in Western styles.

Is the woman depicted a figure under a colonial grip, or is she considered modern, global, riding in on the wave of Western civilization? What does it mean to be global these days? We seem to be convinced it means to be American, European, Western and nothing else. The woman wears a plaid dress with ruffled shoulders; she is leaning on a radio, framed by a large paisley cloth. Though on closer look, it’s nicely defiant that a large conch shell still remains the centerpiece of her beaded necklace, proudly presented over her Western clothing.

Stepping back from the exhibition for a bit, however, we wonder how significant it really is. What does it mean that the art in this exhibit is in a Western museum, loaned by family collections and displayed out of context – and in a small college museum in Western Mass.? The art is in an institution that perpetuates Western ideals, even as it seeks to exemplify the opposite.

This is not art of the diaspora, this is not art that is immediately contemporary. We are seeing this exhibition, learning about the injustices of the state in Africa. But then what? Do we just learn and move on? Does that not make us bystanders?

Keep that in mind when looking at Yinka Shonibare MBE’s “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (Parasol).” It’s loud, it’s flamboyant, it’s a lot to take in at first, but it’s worth a quiet and careful observation. Shonibare deftly blends Western and African elements in his work; the figures are dressed in traditional colonial attire, but in wild, bright Nigerian prints.

The figures are headless, reminiscent of mannequins. But they aren’t quite plastic, lifeless – the skin is light brown; the people could be white or black, maybe even one white, one black. The hands are full of life, flexed with ridges in the bones and wrinkles in the knuckles. They are headless perhaps because the piece applies not to one individual but to all Africans, because it appears to be universal; or perhaps they are headless because their identity has been eaten up and neglected, deemed unimportant to Western culture.

The figures are in an almost comical, vulgar pose, the male figure thrusting his groin toward the backside of the woman, who is leaned over and balancing on a parasol. It’s a violating scene, one we would definitely be uncomfortable with in public. Bystanders – and voyeurs.

Music permeates the gallery. Activists and groups from Youssou N’Dour to Tinariwen sing from the speaker beneath an iPad at the entrance. We don’t understand the language, but we feel the vigor in their voice – it presents a nice, authentic touch to the exhibition.

But if you find yourself alone, maybe pause the music. See the pieces in quiet, feel the raw energy of the carved wood and acrylic soaked in paper instead. Let the pieces resonate. They hum with an insuppressible energy. They’ll draw you to look, and maybe to think what can be changed.

Let them.

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