High’s new African art exhibit: ancient land, creative future

In one simple display in the new High Museum of Art exhibit “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design,” we see the familiar outline of the African continent, with much of the rest of the world tucked inside.

Called “The True Size of Africa,” it is a map that is freed from the distortions of the familiar Mercator projection. (Mercator maps tend to exaggerate the size of land masses near the poles.) It shows how other countries and subcontinents could fit in Africa’s 30 million square kilometers, which easily swallows China, India, Europe and Japan, with the United Kingdom fitting (almost) neatly inside Madagascar. “Africa is simply huge,” writes creator Kai Krause, “much, much bigger than we all thought.”

“Making Africa” makes its American debut at the High Museum, and opens to the public with a party Friday night. Like the continent, this display is also big — the biggest exhibition of African art and design ever presented at the High.

“There’s too much,” said the High’s curator of African art Carol Thompson, “that’s Okwui’s style. There’s always surplus; there is something for everyone.”

Okwui is Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, and artistic director of the Venice Biennale in 2015. Enwezor was the advising curator for the “Making Africa” exhibit, which was created by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain. Thompson first saw the show in Spain in August 2016, going to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona every day for a week without running out of things to contemplate and enjoy.

Thompson, during a recent walk-through,  adds that “one of Okwui’s primary goals is to change the way people look at Africa,” which is why the exhibit opens with a metaphorical eye-opener, the whimsical/fantastical sculptures of Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru called “C-Stunners.”

With creations from 120 different artists, the exhibit offers video, technology, fashion, sculpture, magazines, paintings, architecture and other examples of “design” in its broadest sense.

Including several pieces from the High’s permanent collection, the exhibit shows an Africa that is young, urban and growing rapidly. “It is focused very heavily on urban Africa rather than rural traditions, because that has so often been neglected,” said Thompson.

Here are a few of the sights within:

  • ”C-Stunners,” by Kabiru, are 16 offbeat sculptures posing as exotic eyewear. One looks like a radar dish, another a jet engine, a third an insect’s eyeballs. The fanciful creations are meant to offer a shift in perspective, to suggest a new way of seeing Africa.
  • “Ponte City,” by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, is a monumental study of a notorious Johannesburg skyscraper that began life as a luxury destination and, with the end of apartheid in South Africa, decayed into a gang-infested, garbage-filled eyesore. The two artists methodically photographed every window, every door, and every TV screen in the 54-story structure, and then assembled those images into three 12-foot-tall light boxes.
  • Taali M., a French singer of Congolese, Chadian and Egyptian heritage, sought a website as mysterious and primal as her music. Her web designer, Pierre-Christophe Gam, came up with a colorful, cryptic fantasy of ancient and modern symbols, and we are immersed in that world.

“Sometimes people associate Africa with trauma,” said Thompson, and work by Gonçalo Mabunda embodies that trauma. Mabunda, of Mozambique, refashions deactivated pistols, machine guns, rifles, and belts of spent shells into ceremonial seats and thrones.

One of his objects was created from the armaments left over from the 27-year civil war in Angola. The dark meaning of the work is obvious, but the catalog urges a nuanced reading of Mabunda, and his insistence on “the transformative power of art.”

And there is a thread of optimism running through the show, most obvious in a project in which dancers from around the continent created their own videos set to Pharrell Williams’ infectious tune, “Happy.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

Coca-Cola taps into nostalgia with new fruit-flavored sodas
Coca-Cola taps into nostalgia with new fruit-flavored sodas
Coca-Cola is going back to its roots with two new artisanal sodas. Coca-Cola Georgia Peach and Coca-Cola California Raspberry hit grocery stores, restaurants and bars across the country this week.  Although the Atlanta-based brand has been moving away from full sugar beverages with recent rebranding efforts such as Coke Zero Sugar,...
11 Atlanta date ideas that will wow for less than $30
11 Atlanta date ideas that will wow for less than $30

While it's swell to indulge in a lavish evening out every now and then, there are plenty of Atlanta date ideas that are heavy on fun and light on your wallet. Whether you're trying to liven up your regular date night or impress a first date for less, you'll spend $30 or less for the hip yet affordable dates below. (Just remember to use any money saved...
Faith calendar

Cultural concert: The concert, Sankofa: A Salute to the Music of Black Composers, will showcase artful songs and spiritual arrangements of opera singers from the Atlanta Opera Chorus and Capital City Opera as well as music educators. The event will be a celebration of voice and heritage with a reception to follow. The performance will be...
Briefs: 94.9/The Bull’s morning producer Freckles leaves, former Star host Cassiday Proctor gives birth live on air
Briefs: 94.9/The Bull’s morning producer Freckles leaves, former Star host Cassiday Proctor gives birth live on air

Posted Friday, February 23, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog Freckles (real name Emily Raines) is leaving 94.9/The Bull after seven years as producer of the Jason Pullman and Kristen Gates morning show. She made the announcement today on air. Freckles grew up in Powder Springs and attended...
Teen Vogue columnist: Billy Graham was “evil”

Tributes have poured in from around the world in the days since the Rev. Billy Graham died, but a Teen Vogue columnist has blasted the evangelist in a series of tweets, including one describing him as “evil.” “The big news today is that Billy Graham was still alive this whole...
More Stories