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February 11 - March 28, 2009 at M. Hanks, Santa Monica
February 22 - June 14, 2009 at Fowler Museum at UCLA, West Los Angeles

by Daniella Walsh

As Los Angeles has turned into to one of the most diverse metropolises in the world, museums, galleries and private collectors have had access to art from all over the world, but comparatively little emphasis has been placed on the contribution by African American artists and artists from Africa itself. Happily that is changing rapidly. Works by African American artists ranging from the 1950s to the present can be seen at M. Hanks Gallery in a show titled “Distinctly LA: An African American Perspective.”

Georgia Papageorge,
"Africa Rifting: Lines of Fire, Namibia/Brazil," 2001, video still.

El Anatsui, "Versatility,"
2006, aluminum, copper wire, fabric.
(Photo courtesy Reed Hutchinson)

Moussa Tine, "Altitude,"
2001, recycled metal
(Photo courtesy Don Cole)

Alfredo Jaar, "Muxima,"
2005, still from digital film.
(Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York)

Meant to coincide with Black History Month, this group exhibition includes Samella Lewis’ “Woman in the Field,” a figurative painting of a field worker whose features, while primarily black, reflect the diverse ethnicities of people who have toiled in California’s fields. Looking straight at the viewer, the figure’s stance embodies weariness, wariness and also pride. The latter suggests a tribute to all who labor to bring food to our tables.

Several pieces, such as Dominique Moody’s assemblage “Bajun Bann’ Blues,” an untitled June Edmonds painting, and John Riddle’s mixed media collage “South African Airlines” echo folk sources from which much African American art has sprung. Edmonds’ interloping circles of brightly colored shapes recall Ferris wheels and also hand-sewn quilts that form the roots of so-called women’s art.

Riddle’s whimsical airliner speaks of the diaspora of African Americans and later immigrants. Imbedded images include an outline of Pyramids symbolizing the beginnings of civilization, green mountains, loosely suggested groups of people and the statue of Liberty, icon of noble precepts and ironic realities. While a modern jet forms the nose of the little plane, the tail denotes a World War I vintage. The sum-total invites rumination on progress and those who define it.

Then again, Roland Charles’ photograph from the “First AME Church Series: Drum” testifies to the power of heritage and tradition. Focused on a dramatically lit set of drums on an otherwise empty stage, the piece reminds one of times and places when news (besides music) was delivered, as people used to say, “through the drum.”

Perhaps William Payaud’s “Angel’s Flight” captures the spirit of a young LA best. Named for the foolishly eviscerated street rail system, the 1951 painting evokes the work of then popular French artist Bernard Buffet. But rather than appearing dated, this work evokes a sense hope and anticipation, like the night on the town the young couple, shown against a backdrop of city architecture, is about to enjoy.

Contemporary art based on African themes or multi-media art by native African artists is showcased at two concurrent exhibitions at the Fowler Museum.

“Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works of Africa” features digital media--photography, video and film--by an international group of five young artists who either grew up in Africa, are bound to the continent by ancestral heritage, or have strong emotional or spiritual connections to it.

As news stories dwell on the effects of wars, ethnic strife and subsequent migration, they only offer limited insights into what it is like to carry the homeland in one’s memories, cultural life, or merely in one’s genes. To some extent, these artists are filling an awareness gap, providing that their audiences have the knowledge, empathy and imagination to decipher works filled with highly personal symbology, veiled socio-political criticism or both.

Yto Barrada, for example, was born in Paris, grew up in Morocco and lives in Tangier. His series of photographs, titled “Iris tingitana” after an endangered species of flower, is a case in point. The young boy portrayed in “Oxalis Crown--Pedicaris Forest--Rmilet, Tangier” looks misplaced and disgruntled, posed against a barren landscape. He makes one think about the countless children caught between cultures and belonging to none. Another photograph, “Hôtel Ahlen, Tangier,” exudes a sense of forlornness similar to that of the flower-crowned boy.

Chilean Alfredo Jaar has worked in Rwanda and Angola, where he shot the film “Muximan,” featuring a smiling group of children holding an arm to their chests in a manner similar to kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. An odd gesture perhaps, given the setting, but then it might also mean that their obvious rapport with the artist comes from their hearts. Another still from the same film shows a couple sitting with their back to the camera. Dressed nearly identically, an overlaying image of an open umbrella separates the pair visually. It’s a strange image that leaves one to ponder the mysteries of human relationships.

Anyone who has any doubt about the globalization of art need only to look at Georgia Papageorge’s video “Africa Rifting: Lines of Fire, Namibia/Brazil.” Christo-inspired red cloth streamers drift across a beach and a wall of rocks, slashing across the wall like a stream of blood in one frame and billowing joyously, across the beach in another. The piece addresses divisions, both natural and artificial, and the often disastrous consequences of the latter.

A favorite along those lines, even though it’s implications nowadays are often tragic, is South African native Berni Searl’s “Home and Away.” Here, someone of hard to define gender floats in the ocean in one frame, and appears to have been swallowed by waves in another. The images bring to mind someone having succumbed to the elements while making passage to a different life. Countless migrants who literally perished at sea, or the metaphorical transience of life come to mind.

The companion exhibition “Transformations” showcases non-digital contemporary African art that is distinguished by inventive use of (often recycled) materials, as well as earthy beauty (think, lack of pretentiousness) and visual vigor. These qualities appear in Wosene Worke Kosrof’s painting “Ethiopia: Where It All Begins.” The works are traditional in so far that they include painting, sculpture, linocut prints and assemblage, but they otherwise depart from stereotypical neo-tribal art. One of the highlights here is “Versatility” by Ghana’s El Anatsui (whose 2007 Fowler Museum exhibition sparked a powerful impression), an imposing curtain of aluminum scraps, copper wire and cloth. Similarly, Senegalese artist Moussa Tine’s “Altitude” is a sculpture based on masks and costumes of tribal dancers constructed from recycled metal.

In times when most of the news coming out of Africa deals with fratricidal conflict and political mayhem, “Transformations” lives up to its promise. Even in the toughest places and times, art keeps the spirit alive--something we too may well remember just now.