Relief Plaque with Bird Hunt, Benin – Nigeria ca. 1650 / 17th Century Bronze. 16.9 x 13.3 inches / 43 x 34 cm. Kotalla 03300807. Provenance: Collection Paul Garn. Dresden, Germany. Purchased in 1920/30, Paris. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners Fine Art.
By David Rohn
Wolfgang Roth and Partners’ current show ‘AFRICA’ is a catch-all of photographs of African subjects by Native and non–Native African artists from the present back to the 1930’s and a substantial group of Benin Bronze sculptures from the 12th-19th centuries. Although the show is a curatorial mixed bag, the appearance of these antique bronze works from the African Kingdom of Benin in Miami is an opportunity to catch something rare. In the 15 years this observer has lived in Miami there have been no exhibitions of African Art comparable to this one and since the local museums are widely focused on Contemporary Art, there is little likelihood that there will be another one anytime soon.
The photographers in the show include Leni Riefenstahl, the famous pro-Nazi filmmaker and movie star who became a public relations symbol for the Third Reich; Peter Beard, an American artist and social figure who has lived in Africa for decades; and African photographers Philip Kwame Apagya, Malick Sibide and Samuel Fosso. All together they form a mix of periods, from the 1930’s to the present.
Even though the show is at a stretch nothing more than a general glimpse at African-related art without a concise curatorial agenda, its diverse elements do offer some validation in the form of welcome information about Africa today (even if inadvertently) as seen by people who are from there, have lived there or have simply just visited the country’s central /western region – and after all it is African Heritage Month ‘isn’t it?
Royal Pair, Ife-Style-Nigeria ca. 18th Century Bronze. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners Fine Art.
A former British possession, Benin City (200 miles west of Lagos, in Nigeria (and not to be confused with Benin the country)) was the center of a rich West African culture that produced some of the Africa’s most acclaimed art. The 20 or so bronzes are reminiscent of the wood materials most typically associated with African sculpture, but while the forms are familiar their permanence and formal sophistication are a sharp reminder that African Art had a profound influence on early modernists like Picasso, Braque, Arp, Gonzalez, Giacometti, Brancusi, and Miro among so many others who were shaken out of their European academicism by exposure to these vital works. Similarly the lyrical bas reliefs and imposing sculptures of royal figures define a civilization that reportedly awed Portuguese visitors in the 1400’s no less than the British in the 1800’s. In fact the legend is that the British originally thought these works couldn’t have been made by the Natives and must have been made by somebody else.
Among the most striking pieces here are a 12th century perforated mask that probably held additional embellishments; the highly sophisticated bas reliefs of hunting and sacrifice scenes; and the sculpture of the Royal pair (above).
Most of this type of antiquity wound up in British and German Museums. The pieces exhibited here were collected by Paul Garn from Dresden, Germany, who assembled them through purchases in Paris in the 1920’s. With regard to the Riefenstahl works (which appear to suffer from having been enlarged beyond the limitations that the technology of their own era could have prepared them for) these photos of elegantly sensual African tribes people wearing nothing but oil or ash seem a surprising subject for a proponent of an Aryan master race.
Leni Riefenstahl, On the Way to the Wrestling Festival, 2001. Lambda Crystal Archive. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners Fine Art.
But Riefenstahl was described by the Economist as the greatest woman filmmaker of the 20th century, and as striking as these photos are they seem to remain a footnote to her unfortunate association with Hitler and Goebbels. At this point it may be worth mentioning that Benin City’s wealth and sophistication is generally attributed to its militaristic culture (which is thought to have included crack female combatants) and its participation in the Slave Trade with Europeans. Point being: there are advantages to allowing for an intellectual separation of artists and art from the political contexts they may spring from.
By contrast, Beard’s photos deal more with the relationship between the animals of the region and western man. His photos, with glitter paint, snap shot sequences of charging animals or drawings super-imposed on them seem to respond to Africa in a somewhat personal, anecdotal, maybe even ‘African’ way. Then again Beard has lived in Africa while Riefenstahl only visited.
Beard, Peter,Tsavo North on the Athi Tiva (Side Bull Elephant), 1965. Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners Fine Art.
They seem to represent the presence of upper class non-Africans who have loved the place enough to document it; an aspect of African history that goes back to the Romans, and probably before them.
The three African photographers presented (Samuel Fosso, Philip Kwame Apagya and Malik Sidibe) seem to tell a story of aspiration and idealization, and the distinct sense of [post] colonialism in their consistent tendency to define their African subjects within a non-African context.
Samuel Fosso, Self Portrait, 1976. Gelatin Silver Print. Edition of 5. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners, Fine Art.
Samuel Fosso’s self portraits from 1970’s Cameroon are personal images that depict with different versions of himself who the photographer might be. Celebrity must be a universal ideal, but Kung Fu fighters and Japanese sailors are also about macho men. They seem down-to-earth and strangely cerebral compared with some comparable ‘Western’ work such as that of Cindy Sherman; perhaps because in Fosso’s case the subject/artist doesn’t mime the character, but is simply present in the costume.
Philip Kwame Apagya, Ghetto Blaster, 1958 / 1998. Chromogenic Print. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners, Fine Art.
Ghanan Philip Kwame Apagya, the youngest of the three, shows photos of people – many of which in traditional African clothing – integrated into hand painted backdrops of airplanes, electronics and western-style mansions. His subjects smile as if they were figures in an advertisement for the products or lifestyle symbols depicted in the backdrops. If these were of Western origin they would be ironic condemnations of materialism; in this case however, their intent is more ambiguous. His models probably don’t have these ‘things’ and so with that in mind the images seem more like magical evocations of what might be….one day.
It’ s easy enough to condemn all our gadgets as materialism when you have them, but probably a lot different when they may never be accessible to you. And paradoxically, the lightness of these photos suggest that these subjects (and perhaps the photographer) realize that these ‘things’ don’t really fundamentally change your life, regardless of how helpful and fun they might be.
Malick Sidibe, Nuit de Noel (Happy Club), 1963 / 208. Gelatin Silver Print. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners, Fine Art.
Malik Sidibe, described in the gallery’s literature as ‘The Godfather of African Photography,’ is represented in the exhibition by a number of different works whose dates span several decades; much of it describable as ‘genre’, and not without interest. The most striking has to be ‘Nuit de Noel’ (Christmas Night) which shows a young African couple dancing gently with their foreheads touching as if celebrating a blissful moment together. Dressed in Western ‘American Bandstand’ clothes and apparently celebrating Christmas, the couple seem to be in touch with something that their Western cousins may have sacrificed for modernity; or in any case replaced with jitterbug rebellion.
Each of these three artists present photographic images that suggest an interest in defining themselves if not completely then at least partly in a non-African context whether through their clothes, cars, painted objects, or roles. Not unlike other cultural translations, the results become something distinctly different from the subject matter’s point of departure.
This show in a selective, somewhat general way provides several different types of artists’ response to Africa, but in the end is ultimately a reminder of the way in which cultures cross-pollinate and re-echo each other. This not only reinforces the value of the human imagination, but also confirms that for centuries the global culture has exhibited parallel and unifying themes.
Leni Riefenstahl, Nuba Girl Jamila, 2001. Lambda Crystal Archive. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Roth and Partners, Fine Art.
So although Reifenstahl’s photos of beautifully buff African tribes people seem at first glance to refute an idea of a ‘Master Race’ (which we have to assume she accepted at some level), perhaps it is moreover an inherent interest in perfectly formed people that lies behind her personal history and these admiring, expressive photos. After all, how different (except for skin color) are these photos of women from ones we have seen of triumphant Third Reich athletes in the famous 1938 Olympic Games?
In the case of the Bronzes, we see work that is reminiscent of Byzantine and Medieval ‘European’ Art, but maybe the point is that as Rome fell it’s classical artistic tradition morphed into something that was influenced by colonial Anatolian, African and Celtic art. And need we readdress the influence of ‘Western’ culture on the contemporary African photographers?
What is interesting is the way that each time one culture responds to another, it comes up with something new that really sheds light on the response as well as the original reference. The Benin bronze bas relief of the hunting scene (title image above) is so similar to the spatial sense of Giotto’s Quattrocento painting of Saint Francis Preaching to The Birds that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine they’d both been made in the same general time and place; in fact, they pretty much were.
The real point seems to be that cultures have been cross-pollinating, sharing and exchanging ideas and bouncing off of and re-discovering their own old ideas in the new ones presented by their neighbors for as long as we tell: Gothic Architecture finds it’s forms in Islamic fortresses, and then influences Art Nouveau, and later, skyscrapers in New York and Dubai. Japanese woodblock Prints inspire Post Impressionist Artists and eventually leads to Western Animation, and then back again to contemporary Japanese Anime. Whether accidentally or not, this show winds up being a reminder of how cultures interact artistically in a way that ties art from nearly the last 1000 years together. It’s up until March 21st and worth seeing [.]
For more information please visit: www.wrpfineart.com