Exhibition review: Saatchi’s “Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America”

“Pangaea” refers us back some two hundred million years, when the young planet was home to a vast super-continent in which Africa and South America fit snugly together like two jigsaw pieces. It is this vision of a united prehistoric utopia  – of transcendent global connections – which has inspired the latest exhibition at the Saatchi gallery, London.

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Of course these continents are now separated by nearly 3000 km of Atlantic ocean and any link between the two contemporary cultures is no more established because this was once not the case. Yet in seeking to draw some underlying parallels curator Gabriela Salgada makes an important point about the increasingly globalized and ubiquitous nature of the art world and its audiences; an art world which no longer concedes to national or even continental boundaries.

The exhibition consists of 15 artists, some already well known and others not so, who are diverse and exciting in their approaches but linked throughout by recurring themes and often returning as in the following examples, to questions of civil war, migration, colonial pasts, political unrest and socioeconomic inequality.

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The exhibition’s initial showstopper is Rafael Gomezbarros’ Casa Tomada“, a giant ant installation comprising of 440 insects each half a meter long, which swarm and cluster upon the gallery walls in the first room. The spectator, suddenly dwarfed by the experience, might be initially alarmed, delighted, even amused by the sight. Yet on closer inspection the ants are not what they seem; their bodies are made from casts of human skulls bound together with bandages, their splayed legs wiry and skeletal, the combination of materials used (fiberglass with coal and resin) give them a rusty, decaying yet tough and resilient appearance.

Gomezbarros in fact employs the ant as a metaphor for the migrant worker.  Ordinarily the ant is viewed as a pest but can also be understood in terms of its strength and tenacity as a species (they are able to carry many times their own body weight and labour in order to support large and complex colonies). Here as they swarm together, perhaps fleeing from danger in their erratic clusters, they represent the plight of millions of people who have been displaced from their homes, and specifically the refugees from Gomezbarros’ native Colombia, which has suffered from more than half a century of civil war. The artist’s work draws our attention back to the suffering of asylum-seekers which goes largely ignored by the international community and by bringing these homeless, nameless individuals back into the public eye Gomezbarros attempts to make the invisible visible and give those that are silent a voice.

 

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Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s “Demoiselles de Porto-Novo” series of photographs are similarly loaded with meaning. His images of bare chested women, wearing traditional ceremonial masks and residing in the  doorways and corridors of colonial-style 19th century African mansions, attempt to reverse our expectations of the gaze and the Eurocentric understanding of seeing and being seen.

As unashamedly naked and confrontational as the prostitute in Manet’s “Olympia“, and as potentially treacherous as those in Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the women in these photographs are beautiful, elusive, alluring yet dangerous and disconcerting. They subvert notions of not only sexual, but racial ownership, and deconstruct the power relations embedded within a history of colonialism and slavery in the West African Republic of Benin.

 

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Ibrahim Mahama’s “Untitled” installation consumes a vast space with dirty, torn, sewn together coal sacks (commonly known in Ghana as Juke sacks). Like the ants, the size of this work has an almost debilitating effect, looming upwards one imagines being trapped in an oppressive, gloomy cave. The material looks like it could be leather, or skin; a gigantic flayed carcass. The sheer quantity and weight of the sacks and the compilation of so many, meticulously sewn, reminds us of hard and grueling labor – the blood, sweat and tears – which remains in many parts of the world the beating heart of the economy.

These Juke sacks, the staple of African market places, are imported by Ghana Cocoa Board but then reused for charcoal and to transport other commodities. Each bears various scrawled markings which tells the story of if its movements within the trade system and thus each becomes a material document for the chain of supply and demand amongst the people of Ghana.

 

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Aboudia’s vast acrylic and mixed-media paintings, 7 of which are on show at “Pangaea“, give contemporary political violence a historic and monumental scale. This piece “Djoly du Mogoba” responds to the 2011 electoral disaster in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when the presidential incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after loosing the elections, and wide-spread violence ensued. The artist was forced to take refuge in an underground studio at the time.

In this giant, frieze-like image, white faced soldiers stand in a row like ghoulish automatons equipped with large weapons. It is hard to tell but they might be children- the child soldiers who also fought and died in the Second Ivorian Civil War. They are interspersed by red faces with grimacing orange teeth, perhaps some kind of devil creature, or death masks, waiting ominously in the shadows for fate to take its turn. Aboudia’s painterly technique is cartoonish and child-like  but with none of the corresponding naivety. His brush marks are angry, red drips down the top part of the canvas like blood.

As with Gomezbarros we get the sense in this art work of the anguish and the indignation of those who watch their home nations get torn apart by civil war. However like the giant ants, Aboudia’s figures are also resilient, defiant, insistent on life even in the face of death. It is this which gives depth to Aboudia’s painting and in fact to all the artworks in this exhibition; through whatever hardship and adversity people are facing across the globe, the hopeful and tenacious human spirit remains.

Overall the exhibition succeeds in presenting artists that, despite the variety of their work, are surprisingly in-sync and create a fascinating and dynamic dialogue with each other. Needless to say that has nothing to do with the mythical unison of a prehistoric super-continent, but rather down to a thoughtful and vibrant selection of contemporary, international artists for whom geography now poses no limits.

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America” is showing at the Saatchi gallery until the 2nd November 2014.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

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