Tate Modern embraces Africa

Contemporary African art will reach a wider international audience through a new partnership between Britain

Contested Terrains at London’s Tate Modern brings together four artists living in Africa whose work confronts misrepresentations of the continent’s past and present. The title of the exhibition resonates not only with the pieces on display, but contains a wider significance for a land that has been and remains – in so many ways – disputed territory. 

Using different media, the artists explore the ongoing effects of colonialism, the clash between modernity and tradition, the unquantifiable costs of war and violence, and the ramifications of global capitalism. 

Nigerian-born Adolphus Opara’s series of photographs entitled ‘Emissaries of an Iconic Religion’, depict Yoruba diviners from south-west Nigeria, posed in a formal style reminiscent of classical Victorian portraiture. Each one is pictured with instruments that Opara describes as “the symbols of their authority… their strength, their power” – a religious authority first challenged by missionaries and now threatened by the rise of Pentecostalism. 

The unsettling sculptures of South African artist Michael Mc Garry include a stuffed vervet monkey strapped to crutches whose face is occluded by a sharp quartz crystal (pictured opposite) and an AK-47 simultaneously rendered inoperable and transformed into an object of spiritual power by being studded with nails, akin to the traditional Nkondi sculptures of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) used to cure illnesses and ward off evil spirits. 

Kader Attia lives and works in Berlin and Algiers. His slide show installation, ‘Open Your Eyes’, juxtaposes close-up images of restored African artefacts with photographs of soldiers, injured during World War I, before and after they have undergone crude cosmetic surgery. By contrast, Sammy Baloji’s photomontages superimpose archival images of European officials and Congolese labourers, taken during the heyday of the Gécamines mining company, over present-day images of the same abandoned sites in the DRC’s resource-rich region of Katanga, Baloji’s birthplace. 

Co-curated by Tate Modern and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Contested Terrains is the first annual exhibition arising from a new partnership between the British gallery and Nigeria’s Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB). “This important partnership between Tate and GTB marks the recognition of the significance of modern and contemporary art in Africa,” says Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern. “This is the beginning of being able to give African art the focus it deserves with audiences around the world.” 

Supported by GTB, Tate Modern is also in the process of appointing an international art curator charged with developing links and exchanging knowledge and expertise with artists based in Africa. GTB will provide the Tate with an acquisition fund enabling the gallery to purchase works of art from the region, to add to the more than 100 African pieces that are currently held in its collection. 

That abstraction in traditional African art had a powerful influence on avant-garde European artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Amedeo Modigliani, has long been acknowledged. Their interest in the continent’s pre-colonial sculpture and textiles was often described as Primitivism – now a highly contentious term denoting a patronising conception of non-Western culture and another of Africa’s contested terrains. It is hoped that the Tate’s focus on artwork from the continent will deepen understanding and increase awareness of the impact that Africa has had on modern art. 

Contested Terrains continues at Tate Modern, London, until 16 October. The exhibition transfers to CCA Lagos from 21 January to 3 March 2012


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