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Monday, 23 June 2014

Chikwa in blockbuster Frankfurt show

… as Europe continues to veer towards Africa

By Andrew Mulenga
Zambia’s Lawrence Chikwa is among a group of African artists currently showing in a high profile exhibition entitled The Divine Comedy (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory Revisited by Contemporary African Artists in the Museum für Moderne Kunst – MMK (Museum of Modern Art) in Frankfurt, Germany. 

His work entitled Possibility to Create in Hell features alongside the work of some of the biggest names in contemporary African art on the global scene.

Coming from twenty African countries the artists are taking a look at Divine Comedy the classic from western literature written between 1307 and 1321 by the Italian poet Dante and twenty-three of the works including Chikwa’s were produced explicitly for this occasion. 

Chikwa’s Possibility to Create in Hell - Courtesy: MMK
“Taking their own widely differing cultural and religious backgrounds as a starting point, the artists investigate individual thematic sequences of the Divine Comedy,” states the press release from MMK who planned the event in collaboration with international curator Simon Njami.

“In his epic poem, Dante reflected on theological, philosophical and moral matters that still bear relevance for the issues facing society, politics and the economy today, but also questions of faith. The exhibition proceeds on the premise that Dante’s visions are applicable to many cultures and many religions,” continues the release.

It quotes Njami explaining: “The concern here is not with the Divine Comedy or Dante. It is with something truly universal. Something that touches us all to the very core, regardless of our beliefs or convictions: our relationship to the afterlife.”

And although it only went on display in March The Lusaka-based artist’s work was completed in 2009 and the preparations for the show took six years. Chikwa explains the opportunity came through a gallery he is affiliated to in Switzerland, a connection he made while studying at the Ecole d’ Art d Valais in Sierre, from where he graduated with a BA Fine Art in 2006.

The work is an allegory, just like Dante in the poem travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; Chikwa’s Possibility to Create in Hell has a dual narrative. Certainly it references the notion of hell, but it arouses the imagination to ponder the possibility of being able, as a soul to create anything in that realm. It also suggests the African situation as a hellish atmosphere wrought with war, disease and poverty and alludes to the miraculous ability by which an artist is able to produce anything under these conditions.

“I’m looking at it in an African context where many things seem impossible and where empowerment of creativity is in short supply not just because of wars and poverty,” explains Chikwa.

Of course those are the artist’s own words,but perhaps it can also be read this way, the African condition is Chikwa’s hell, the Frankfurt exhibition is his purgatory from where he awaits artistic judgement and depending on the success of the exhibition he will ascend to an artistic heaven abound with opportunities on the lucrative international circuit. 

As can be expected of Chikwa, the work is complex; he is a conceptual artist through and through so one must not expect seeing a pretty painting hanging on the wall.
It is a puzzling combination of mixed media set on a large canvas that flows down to the floor. The main visual is the painted silhouette of a black baobab tree that starts from the top of the canvas ending in strips of flame-like tassels.

The baobab – a symbol of life, wisdom or knowledge in several African customs -- is riddled with actual Bibles and other religious books in various languages including Italian and French; these are sewn into the large canvas and have strings loosely hanging from them. There is no telling what they reference; the same applies to the deep blue house-like outline behind the baobab.

Unapologetic, idea-driven works like this are often choked by the complexities of metaphor and couched in exasperatingly complex theory, it is often aimed at challenging perceptions and accepted belief systems which does not seem to sit well with the Zambian viewer, as can be noted from Chikwa’s past exhibitions such as Translations (The Endless Way) - 2008 and The Challenge to Create in A classified world today -  2011, held in Lusaka, which received mixed reactions the sharpest coming from fellow artists.

The 40 year-old belongs to the third wave of European schooled Zambian artists most of whom studied in Scandinavia and Switzerland at the dawn of the new millennium where they adopted or at least intensified their affinity for new media and conceptual art unlike their England trained forerunners who embraced the more conservative methods of painting and sculpture a decade earlier.  

His type of radical creative expression, however, has become the preference for international curators such as Njami and their western clients like the MMK, it is the type that will get you in to the blue-chip Biennale, art fair or exhibition.

Nevertheless, also quoted in the MMK release is the museum’s director Susanne Gaensheimer who hints that the exhibition was an opportunity for the institution to provide a platform for the African artists.

“In recent years the hitherto Western-dominated contemporary art discourse has come increasingly under the influence of non-European protagonists, theorists, artists and curators. In our society—defined as it is by globalization, migration and the crossing of cultural boundaries—it is of great importance for us to contribute to shaping these developments with exhibitions such as ‘The Divine Comedy’”, states Gaensheimer. The MMK also suggests the exhibition: “aims to inquire into the significance of African artists’ work not primarily in the post-colonial context, but above all with regard to their aesthetics”.

However, one may be forgiven to observe that the international curators hired by instituions such as MMK are a very small group who rarely select anyone outside their line of vision, a line of vision that has been blurred when it comes to focusing on Zambia so this is a coup for Chikwa and an indication that he may be included in future shows of this nature seeing he has now caught the discerning eye of an international curator, which is not easy.

Carol Becker, Dean of Faculty at Columbia University School of the Arts gives mention of these international curators in the Art Journal during their rise to prominence in 1999, she points out: “Some who move through such an elite world of art, culture, writing, production and exhibition now seem to answer only to the art world. Even though the work seems to be social motivated, the only real consequence of such critical effort is the degree to which the work is found acceptable, unacceptable or exceptional by the art world, measured by reviews it receives – the quality of the paper trail it generates and relatedly the sales it ultimately accomplishes”.
As for these curators being “non-European “as the MMK director alludes, maybe so, but those of so-called African decent are as pretty much as African as Picasso.  It can be argued that the West only selects them as exotic colourants and flavourings to their contemporary art casserole, and in the West’s collective mind the artists this pantheon chooses are probably as exotic as the gatekeepers themselves.

Interestingly, similar to the MMK show but in a totally unconnected exhibition entitled “Here Africa / Ici l’Afrique - Contemporary Africa through the eyes of its artists” currently running at Château de Penthes in Geneva, a show that “assembles, for the first time in Switzerland, contemporary African art with more than 70 works by 24 artists from 17 African countries” the participating artists were selected “…for their great contribution to the aesthetic and cultural development of their continent, as well as for their involvement in key questions regarding African people.” This show is put together by international curator Adelina von Fürstenberg-Herdringen, an Istanbul-born Swiss of Armenian ethnicity. This parallel exhibition reaffirms that Africa is really a hot topic in Europe.

But despite Africa’s deep artistic pool, the same names – mainly of artists who do not even live on the continent -- often surface in these western funded global African exhibitions. For instance the celebrated artists Zineb Sedira sometimes listed as either French or Algerian and Yinka Shonibare (Member of the Order of the British Empire) sometimes listed as British or Nigerian are featured in both the German and the Swiss exhibitions mentioned here as is the new darling of the global contemporary African art scene Edson Chagas of Angola who was inducted into the power circle after his country was awarded the coveted Golden Lion Award for the best pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. Speaking of which, it was the leading German art magazine ART in an article by the senior editor Ute Thun entitled "ANGOLA! WO IST ANGOLA?" (translated ANGOLA! WHERE IS ANGOLA?") that outwardly made fun of Sub-Saharan Africa’s first recipient of the accolade.

Nonetheless, as much as Zambians can celebrate having one son of the soil in the ongoing Frankfurt exhibition, it should be noted that the South Africans were afforded a more generous number, featuring all their – already international – big guns namely Jane Alexander, Wim Botha, Frances Goodman, Nicholas Hlobo, Nandipha Mntambo, Guy Tillim, Andrew Tshabangu, Minnette Vári and Kendell Geers who also apears in the Swiss show. Again it would not be wrong to speculate that the large number of South Africans in the show is due to the fact that Njami curated the first ever Johannesburg Art Fair in 2008 and may have maintained connections with galleries from that time onwards. 

Unquestionably, these continue to be good times in terms of visibility for contemporary African artists in blockbuster exhibitions across Europe and it is about time because it has been a long time coming.

The first show that is attributed to being seminal in promoting African visibility on the contemporary scene is Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) 1989 at Centre Pompidou in Paris France. It was organised by Frenchman Jean-Hubert Martin, although widely considered a success, ten years later the show was mutilated by Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe two globe-trotting curators of Nigerian decent who have now literally written the book on contemporary African art shaping much of the dialogue as it is today. 

In Reading the Contemporary, the co-edited book that would arguably lead to their apotheosis – among other monumental accomplishments -- the two authors charged Magiciens de la Terre of pitting non G-7 artists in a “curious” position against their counterparts, and thus exoticizing Third World Artists. Well Third world artists will always be exoticised, that is the whole point of exhibitions like Magiciens de la Terre, Here Africa / Ici l’Afrique or The Divine Comedy. The most we can do is utilize this exoticism to our benefit as Africans after years of marginalization.
Now it is about 15 years since the publishing of that book and the two authors along with Njami and others can also be held accountable for mishandling the opportunity given to them as they continue to recycle the same names in what have been the most important breakthrough contemporary art exhibitions of our times.

Therefore, as much as there is cause for the celebration of African visibility, there is also a need to open up this seemingly exclusive club to new players, as has been indicated with the inclusion of an artist from Zambia bearing in mind that there are a lot more Chikwa’s, where he came from and this is something that organisers of exhibitions like The Divine Comedy should take into consideration. There are African artists out there who live the discourse, not theorize it, they live the struggle and without the supporting structures for cutting-edge contemporary art production can attest to the Possibility to Create in Hell.

The Divine Comedy (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory Revisited by Contemporary African Artists will be on display at the MMK until 27 July. Also featured in the show are Fernando Alvim (Angola), Ghada Amer (Egypt), Joël Andrianomearisoa (Madagascar), Kader Attia (France), Sammy Baloji (Congo), Berry Bickle (Zimbabwe), Bili Bidjocka (Cameroon), Zoulikha Bouabdellah (Russia), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe), Dimitri Fagbohoun (Benin), Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny  (Ivory Coast), Jellel Gasteli (Tunisia), Pélagie Gbaguidi (Senegal), Mouna Karray (Tunisia), Amal Kenawy (Egypt), Majida Khattari (Morocco), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Jems Koko Bi (Ivory Coast), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), Nicène Kossentini (Tunisia), Ndary Lo (Senegal), Ato Malinda (Kenya), Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroon), Julie Mehretu (Ethiopia), Myriam Mihindou (Gabon), Aïda Muluneh (Ethiopia), Hassan Musa (Sudan), Wangechi Mutu (Kenya), Mwangi Hutter (Germany), Youssef Nabil (Egypt), Lamia Naji (Marocco), Moataz Nasr (Egypt), Cheikh Niass (Senegal), Maurice Pefura (France) and Dominique Zinkpè (Benin)


  1. Very well written article, one of my favourites :-)

    1. Thank you Gladys but there is more to be said, don’t you reckon it is itching for a sequel