#truth #history #narrative #Afropolitan #multiculturalism #future
In an age when fact and falsehood are often indistinguishable, The Ease of Fiction is a title that gives pause. The exhibition, now at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, was curated by Dexter Wimberly for the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina. Having been invited to participate in the exhibition’s collateral programming as a speaker during its Los Angeles run, I was mistrustful of the proposition to give way to fiction, abdicating the fight for truth when the very concept is being called into question all around us. On the other hand, a fiction need not contain untruths—perhaps personal and political realities are easier or less painful to understand if represented another way. Finding such other ways of understanding was the focus of my talk with participating artist Sherin Guirguis in December 2016, and it is a question I wish to explore further here.
The exhibition of four artists at the California African American Museum incorporates nonlinear narratives, representation, and abstraction into its definition of “fiction.” Yet for the most part, the subject matter mined by the artists is historical or autobiographical. As such, the underlying assumption is that fiction might be truth offered under a different name. In Guirguis’ large-scale paintings on paper, the Egyptian-born artist makes reference to the mashrabiya screens at Huda Shaarawi’s residence and in the windows of the Cairo train station where the early-20th-century feminist activist removed her veil in defiance of the mandate that men dictate the terms of her body. These are verifiable historical facts and real places. Still, the rich, drip-streaked marks of Guirguis’ paintings, and the soft glow of vermilion that emanates from behind their intricately cut surfaces, suggest an alternate understanding that prioritizes intuition, embodiment, and affect over official narratives.
One truth that proves to be a fiction is that of cultural uniformity among communities of African heritage, a notion promoted through midcentury Pan-Africanist and Caribbean discourse as a counter-narrative to the totalizing universalism of European cultural values. Such idealizations of Africa overlook the continent’s racial, geographic, and linguistic diversity, resulting in well-meaning but primitivizing assumptions from Americans of all races who fail to recognize the cosmopolitanism of the continent. The Ease of Fiction is notable because it expands CAAM’s constituency of African Americans to include artists born in Africa who later emigrated to the United States. Their inclusion brings a vision of Afropolitanism—of a multicultural, urban, globally connected continent—to an institution anchored in America’s Black traditions.
The large paintings of Meleko Mokgosi reference postcolonial narratives in his native Botswana as well as South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Working in the scale of history painting, Mogosi shows us destitution amid a livestock famine, contrasted with the Edwardian elegance of a state affair. His historical remix emphasizes the abandonment of ancient, agricultural ways of life in favor of developing the urban landscape and urbane culture. Afropolitanism’s utopian narrative of global mobility and development has an underside, which Mogosi reveals, as public manipulations and official lies are exposed to be the machinations of petty individuals.
Nigerian-born ruby onyinyeche amanze uses drawing and painting to imagine highly detailed interior landscapes populated with spirit animals, astronauts, and powerful women. Her texture-rich works exude a sparkly energy, referencing fashion and advertising images through photo transfer alongside graphite, ink, acrylic, and colored pencil. Though less overtly political than Mogosi, amanze also speaks the language of the contemporary African city—built from the hope and disappointment of postcolonial promises and state-run development schemes, and now developing, erratically, at an explosive pace. Animism collides with consumerism in a space of boundless expectations and false starts. Less focused on research than Guirguis or Mogosi, amanze experiments with psychedelic visuals and visionary poetics. Her truths are personal ones: unstable, untranslatable, and unassailable.
Duhirwe Rushemeza, born in Rwanda, uses materials including iron oxide to reflect on the specificity of place in a globally interconnected world. Her works in the exhibition display the liveliness and hybridity of the Afropolitan youth, full of color and vigor. The thick impasto surfaces of her abstract paintings and sculptures suggest accumulations of material, experience, and loss. Though as turned on and tuned in as any other Millennials on Earth, young Africans must also contend with the legacies of recent wars, famines, and epidemics. Rushemeza’s work emerges from the conditions of “carrying on” under such circumstances, and is ripe with a life force that defies them. We need not hide our pain in order to power through it.
In the coming months and years, Americans will learn new truths about ourselves and the world around us. We will experience firsthand the self-inflicted failures that plague postcolonial regimes. The revolutionary optimism that swept in a new regime lasts about a decade, after which a bitter awakening from years of ethnic factionalism reveals that a few clever opportunists have absconded with the nation’s spoils and left a splintered public holding the bill. So as we in the nation’s cities prepare for the petty tirades of our tyrant-in-a-teapot President-elect, and for the political knee-capping we are to receive as bulwarks against the Gentrifier-in-Chief, we can do more than hope that our cities will remain fortresses against the homogenization and corporatization of our culture. We can adopt an Afropolitan consciousness that recognizes multiculturalism as the very nature of an urban polis.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.
The Ease of Fiction is on view at the California African American Museum through February 19, 2017.