I’m excited to be discussing”What About Africa?” an exhibit at the Witteveen Visual Art Centre in the Jordaan district in Amsterdam. My friend and I stumbled upon it while gallery-hopping nearby. The gallery sits inconspicuously on a side street, its window pane devoid of decoration. Instead, a yellow sign positioned perpendicular to the building’s brick wall indicates that there is a gallery within.
Once inside, it becomes very clear that there is nothing timid about “What About Africa?” The exhibit is a compilation of fourteen African artists’ work. The three artists I have explored in depth here, Thierry Ossou, Barthélémy Toguo, and Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, come from different countries and are at different stages in their careers. Ossou is in Amsterdam on his artist’s residency while Toguo and Bondo have already established themselves as major figures in the contemporary art world.
If you would like to read more about the origins of this exhibit, and look at the online magazine, check out the Witteveen Visual Art’s website, here.
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The first artist who caught my eye was Thierry Ossou, a self-taught artist from Benin. Ossou first came to Amsterdam for an artist’s residency at the Rijksacademie. The selected works at the Witteveen Visual Art Centre are part of a series called “The Poetry of Our Time.” The series reflects on everyday life through the use of acrylic paint, glue, paper, and hot coals. Ossou prefers to work on paper rather than canvas. The way he layers paper and burns through it with hot coals creates a multi-dimensional relief. On his artist profile on the Rijksacademie website, he is quoted saying that “[paper] can be torn, pasted together with other pieces of paper, and thus grow almost indefinitely.”
This is a work entitled “Contemporary Psalm” (2015).
Here is a detail of the same work.
While looking at this painting, I was not entirely sure where to start. I did not immediately recognize any motifs besides the obvious and garish face in the top left. The shapes and lines were unrecognizable to me, but I could not stop staring at “Contemporary Psalm,” trying to make sense of it. And so, I took a step back and thought about what the word ‘psalm’ means. A psalm is a sacred song or poem, usually from the bible. It contains religious verses written by David and other key Christian figures. It follows, then, that a contemporary psalm would be an act of artistic, even religious expression, that reflects one’s devotion today. There would also be the possibility that such a name could be coined ironically, if the artist were cynical towards organized religion, or the state of contemporary society.
From looking at the face of the figure here, burnt with coals and twisted into an ugly expression of fear, I gathered that Ossou titled this work ironically. There is pinkish pigment gathered at the figure’s open mouth, giving the appearance of blood. The lines making up the figure’s neck are so narrow it makes it look as if he is choking, or that he is connected to his body by the tiniest, delicate strands of tissue. The spiral representing the figure’s body is turbulent and spinning out of control. It winds its way several times down the body and then charges up the side of the painting and across the top. The figure is tethered to this white zipper-like line. Perhaps Ossou means for this to represent the lack of individual autonomy in modern society, particularly for those against whom direct, cultural and structural violence have been particularly cruel. A tiny little figure in the viewer’s top left, constructed from bits of white paper, is also tethered to this chain. It suggests that the central figure is not the only one bound by society’s constraints.
On the viewer’s right there is a white conglomeration of paper and paste. Four sharp lines extend from it. Perhaps the figure is spiraling towards these dangerous spikes. I am not certain what these spikes represent, but their shape alone- jagged and precise- adds to the violence of the scene. That alone is worth noting.
Psalm 91 reads: Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. Ossou seems to be quoting a new and different text- that of present reality. Contemporary Psalm might read: Whoever dwells in the world today is forever bound by a chain of limitations.
The narrative I have presented is one interpretation. It may or may not be Ossou’s intended interpretation, and I urge you to make connections between line, form, and color independently. How else could these motifs be related?
I believe a similar interpretation could be applied to another of Ossou’s paper masterpieces, “The Beautiful Dutch III” (2015).
The fractured windmill suggests a breaking down of contemporary Dutch society… into what is up to conjecture. I would say that given the extreme Islamophobia rampant in the Netherlands, this splintering is racial. The arms of this figure appear caught in the windmill. Perhaps Ossou feels that Dutch culture is caught between the past and the present. After all, windmills are a highly recognizable Dutch motif. The garish spiral and burnt face of the figure, which I previously analyzed as representing a fraught social system, create a dichotomy with the windmill motif. How, Ossou seems to be asking, can the Dutch make sense of themselves when they are a nation of different layers? Immigrants make up an increasingly large population in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is one of the most international cities in Europe. These layers- cultural, temporal, and socioeconomic- manifest themselves in layered paper, representing the fractured state of a multi-faceted community.
But it is not entirely grim. After all, Ossou has been quoted saying, “Remember, without suffering there is no happiness.” Perhaps the spiral truly does need to unwind before the layers of Dutch society can fit together neatly, into a colorful, multi-cultural puzzle.
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The second artist I’d like to discuss is Barthélémy Toguo, an artist from Cameroon. On his website, he writes that one of his goals is to engage more young people in art. His watercolor paintings are also influenced by daily life, but are considerably more light-hearted. Toguo enjoys the process of altering reality in unexpected and and blithe ways. Even when the subject of his work is serious in nature, his depiction is often whimsical. For Toguo, aesthetic interest is elevated to the same status as meaning.
Here is an interesting work, whose title I was sadly unable to find online. I decided to include it regardless, because it was one of my favorite works in the entire exhibition.
Note the careful blending of watercolor hues in this detail.
The strange cord that connects all of these faces through the mouth reminds me of the zipper chain in Ossou’s two works. Here, the chord looks bizarrely biological. What could Toguo be saying by linking these faceless heads in such a manner? Perhaps he is making racial commentary; that we are all of us connected despite our different appearances. Or maybe it is a commentary on the information age. We are always connected to one another through phones and tablets. It is as if an invisible cord stretches between us wherever we go, and we are never truly alone. If this is the case, then the use of the cord attached to people’s tongues is a very humorous one. It cheekily suggests that we have so little control of ourselves, it is as if we are all attached to one, big, human leash.
The screws sticking out of the human heads add to the scientific aura of this painting. They remind me of a closed system, a concept I learned about in high school science. A closed system is a system that is not affected by outside forces, and doesn’t exchange matter with its surroundings. If you ever had to make an ecosystem in a plastic bottle when you were thirteen, that was a closed system. Once the cap is screwed on, the matter inside grows, dies, and regrows without any help from outside forces. (Well, maybe the sun is needed. Unless the sun is part of the closed system..? The details are foggy here, but I’m an art history major, so cut me some slack). Anyway, these heads all seem to be part of one ecosystem. If a screw were unplugged from one of their scalps, perhaps some gooey green or red tissue would flood out. This mental image is both slightly disgusting and extremely funny, in my opinion. This makes sense, given Toguo’s self-proclaimed, light-hearted approach to art.
Bizarrely enough, in addition to being funny and gooey, this painting is aesthetically quite pleasing. The way the cranberry pigment flows into the green pigment is really beautiful. I like how the two mix to create a rich brown in certain areas, but also allow one another to create little tributaries of paint inside one another. Take a look at the detail above to appreciate what I mean.
I was also fascinated by this work from the same series:
This work also features a closed system, but with strange bulbous bodies rather than fragmented heads. This serves to remove the human form from its pedestal of superiority, reducing it to a mere cog in a biological system. Perhaps Toguo is poking fun at the superiority complex humans have over other species by depicting them as helpless, infantile, and dependent beings. Or maybe it is simply a psychedelic and humorous image meant to make one stop and laugh. Either way, it made me stop and reevaluate how seriously I take myself. After all, we are all just people, and we are more closely related to chimps than we like to think!
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The third artist who stood out to be in this exhibit was Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, a well-regarded artist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His central focus is on globalization, and the cultural encounters that have resulted from this. On his website he writes, “[Globalization] is an expression of resistance to homogenization, to the creation of a world of uniform people, but also a reaction to the confusion of aesthetic codes and cultural references.” Bondo’s work explores what cultural identity means in today’s increasingly multicultural society. He touches on social, political, and economic issues, as well as the violence in, and exploitation of, Africa.
Here we have a mixed-media work, “Untitled” (2015).
Here is a detail of the same work.
I was fascinated by Bondo’s use of fashion magazines as a medium. The cut-outs form the face and neck of this figure, while a winding line of cobalt blue distends from his scalp and down the left side of the canvas. Pigment is absent from the figure’s eyes. The use of magazines obscures the figure from demonstrating an obvious skin tone. However, the scraps of paper chosen are on the darker side, and form plum-colored lips. Given these facts and Bondo’s own identity as a man from The Democratic Republic of the Congo, I would guess that this work is a commentary on racial identity in contemporary society. Bondo seems to be questioning what, exactly, designates race. If one’s skin is covered with colorful magazines, can his or her race even be identified? Is race skin-deep, or is it a question of identity? What happens when you are descended from people who are many different colors (and shapes, and sizes, and ethnicities, etc)? This particular figure does not have eyes. Nor does he have a body, or even a top to his head. Is this magazine-skin a mask, then?
I do not think that Bondo is taking a side. Rather, he is asking a series of pointed questions about race, and asking viewers to actually think about HOW we classify race. Furthermore, the use of fashion magazines is painfully ironic, because they have historically depicted many more white models than models of any other ethnicity. And here, in this untitled work, magazines featuring white women have been used to construct a racially-ambiguous mask. Bondo’s work forces the viewer to rethink how he, and the world, understand race.
Lastly, I cannot really end this analysis without making note of the blue squiggly line. Is it a string attached to the mask, meant to tie around the wearer’s neck? It contrasts strongly against the black background and draws the viewer’s eye around the canvas. If you have any ideas about what this could represent, please let me know. I am interested in hearing some interpretations.
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To conclude, I would like to bring up something that was bothering me as I wrote this post. Do I, as a white female, have the agency to write about an exhibit of African artists? Ultimately, I decided that it is important to share the work of all artists, especially since artists of color are underrepresented in the art world. I have never written a disclaimer like this, despite having written about the exhibits of trans and non-white artists. But it seemed especially important in this exhibit, because there were no wall plaques explaining each work. I relied on my visual analysis skills to draw conclusions. I also consulted each artist’s personal page, and I urge you to do the same.
I stress: take the time to research these artists. Look at their websites, which I have linked to throughout this post, and read their personal statements.
As much as I enjoy drawing conclusions from my own observations, I recognize that my position as a white female may make it more difficult or even impossible for me to make certain connections. This goes for cis privilege and male privilege as well. And that is why it is important, when dealing with the art (or literature! or poetry!) of trans/female/non-white artists, to do some extra research.
All of that being said, I really enjoyed “What About Africa?” The artwork was stunning and cohesive. Analyzing these works was an exciting challenge, and reading their personal statements later online was interesting as well. I cannot wait to see what Thierry Ossou, Barthélémy Toguo, and Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo do next.
Thanks for reading! Until next time…
xoxo, Chloe ❤