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Contested Terrains (Art Review)

Walking into Level 2 Gallery at the Tate Modern, one of Britain’s foremost art landscapes to view Contested Terrains, the first thing that comes to mind is why are the halls empty? This is an exhibition that is supposed to be breaking down artistic barriers and bring talents from the African continent to a global audience.  The fact that Level 2 Gallery is the Tate Modern’s ‘dedicated space for emerging and recently established international artists, and serves as the platform for bilateral collaborations with other art organisations around the world,’ would at least stir up some excitement from art lovers. But on this particular day, the case is the reverse. Nevertheless, Contested Terrains is an exhibition of creative ingenuity. You are instantly immersed in the first set of portraits by Adolphus Opara from Nigeria.  It feels like a private viewing, where you can have an intimate conversation with the artists.

An exhibition of recent work by four contemporary artists working in Africa, co-curated by Tate and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, it is the first time the Tate Modern has collaborated with an African based art institution. Through their work, ‘the artists reclaim and subvert assumptions about Africa’s past and present, exploring current political and social concerns both at a domestic level and across the world.’  The others artists, whose work was also on display include: Sammy Baloji, Democratic Republic of Congo, Michael MacGarry of South Africa and Kader Attia, a French-born artist of Algerian descent.

Opara’s work, Emissaries of An Iconic Religion, explores the cultural negation of traditional religious practices by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Produced in 2009, his portraits of diviners from the Osun and Osogbo regions of South-Western Nigeria, is a narrative discourse of indigenous religious beliefs, relevance and function within their community. The men and one woman, dressed in colourful outfits, are seen holding objects which symbolise their power. Opara said he wanted to present the ‘subject in a way that gives the diviners pride. It was also about creating a body of work that gave people an opportunity to appreciate a religion that is timeless and documents a traditional that has travelled the world and is still in existence.’



MacGarry and Attia’s work are a total opposite of Opara’s work. MacGarry’s collection, The Ossuary, is made up of sculpted ivory objects that serve as the ‘mechanisms of control and inform the transfer of ideas, values and products from the so-called ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’ and investigate the ongoing ramifications of imperialism on Africa.’ While Attia, through his use of a slide show installation, Open Your Eyes, presents masks and sculptures which have been repaired and then juxtaposed with the before and after photographs of soldiers, whose faces were damaged during WWI. Attia’s slideshow uses an interspersed set of phrase which include, ‘the myth of perfection.’ His work also explores the conflict that exists between tradition and modernity, and the relationship between the past and present while exposing the ‘unquantifiable cost of war and the limitations of repair.’

Baloji, Untitled 25, MeÌ moire, 2006

Baloji’s use of photography to explore history is equally as mesmerising as Opara’s homage to Yoruba diviners. In his photomontage, he uses the mining company, Gecamines, founded in 1906 by Belgian colonisers, later taken over by the late Mobutu S’sese Seko’s government in 1966, as the foundation for his story. Skilfully, he superimposes archival images of European officials and Congolese labourers who built the mine in its glory days over the images that depict the current state of the mines.  What glares at you is the decline in productivity and what we end up with is a metaphoric journey about the political and economic decay and ruins the DRC as a nation has experienced in recent times.  The layers of meanings in Baloji’s images once again reminds us about the hunger for natural resources, push for industrialisation and the exploitation that comes with imperialism and in today’s world, the greed of global capitalism without consideration of its aftermath when it is not seen through.

The exhibition is bound to leave different impressions on different individuals. In my opinion, Opara and Baloji’s photomontages made the exhibition what it is. While there, I took the liberty of asking others for their opinion about the public’s response to the exhibition. Brian, an artist of South African and Nigerian heritage said: “It’s hard to judge because there are some other engagements where people get more involved.  There’s no defined message as to what this exhibition is about.” He compares it to the Kingdoms of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa exhibition, which was at the British Museum in 2010 and was well received by the public. He adds he was able to take his family to see the Ife exhibition but with Contest Terrains, he was not sure how they will respond.  It is his belief that Contested Terrains is a modern conception of African art and the aim is to “obviously showcase and sell African art outside the continent as much as possible.”



Ed Cross, a British artist and collector, who also runs an art gallery which promotes African artists and contemporary African art, enthused about Opara’s work. He said: “I loved the subject matter of Opara’s work. The mere fact that he patiently and methodically, found and established a respectful relationship with each of these Yoruba priests. The works are shot in digital format in such a way that there is lot of “noise” in the images – as in a kind of expressionist colour distortion. The textures of the images are further enriched by some kind of scratching intervention by the photographer. “Personally I struggle with the digital image – preferring the organic/chemical nature of the analog technology (possibly a function of my age!). Opara’s earlier work is in analog format and it is his Rugball series that I found sublime – another respectful and exhaustive study of this anarchic fusion of rugby and football which was played with passion on the beaches of Lagos.”

Opara, Baloji, MacGarry and Attia, successfully demonstrate thorough their work that history is an excavation process and is never a smooth sequence of events. Whatever the outcome, history remains an area of contested terrain that forces us to ask who owns it? Those, whose story it is or those that document it. In fact, can anyone own history? Contest Terrains, in spite of its originality and ingenuity raises questions about the accessibility of modern contemporary African art and how it is been perceived and received.

 Contested Terrains was at the Tate Modern,London. It will be at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, from January 21 through to March 3, 2012.



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