On Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi’s Curation
RICHARD TAITTINGER GALLERY*
What is Africa? Africa is the second largest continent in the world with the second largest population. A landmass that spreads 7,417 km (4,609 mi) from its Northern most point to its Southern most tip, it is a place where at least 2,000 languages are spoken throughout at least 3,000 different tribes. Africa is the land of the most sought after natural resources including gold, diamonds, salt, petroleum and cocoa beans. If the Fertile Crescent is the birth of modern civilization, Africa is the womb of Humanity. It is the place where the human race bloomed in its evolutionary process and has nourished the human race for millennia upon millennia. A locus of great diversity to say the very least, the modern vision and perception of Africa has been relegated to a primitive ‘nation’ by the over generalization that lumps the African experience into one conglomerate safari of monkeys, tigers, elephants, lions, and tribesman with spears. Disregarding the fact that tigers have never lived in the wild in Africa, and that Africa is not a single nation, but a continent of 54 countries that yield exceptionally different experience due to custom, region, climate, etc. This is Africa in its broadest sense, and as the global economy shifts and heavy pocketbooks tip the scales in the balance of wealth in industries across the board, there is a new thought towards Africa. Fresh value is being assigned and a new place is being set on the global table.
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is a Nigerian Sculptor, Curator and Art Historian who has his first curated exhibition in New York at the Richard Taittinger Gallery. Posing an infamous question that addresses this New World seating chart, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” is a group show of African Artists and is, in a sense, Nzewi’s gauntlet to the Art World. A challenge for assessment based on experience and substance, not preconceived notions and comfortable pastimes. Named, of course, after the controversial Sidney Poirtier feature, this exhibition is a poignant display of how time is always bringing new perspectives to the table whether they are wanted or not.
In light of the massive swell of interest in African Art, Smooth, as he is commonly called, was approached by Richard Taittinger through a mutual friend to do a guest curation focused on African artists that are internationally known, but never before exhibited in the US. This ‘new’, untapped market; fresh and vital, holds virtue in its driving pursuit to find voices that have been largely ignored throughout modern history and that have an indispensable perspective to add to the cultural value of humanity. If treated simply as a commodity, however, the real value of African artists will never be realized. And so the beauty of the collaboration between Smooth and Richard is that they both are determined to reveal authentic value with “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” and offer a sincere perspective of artistic credibility. They both want their actions to carry the weight of their ideals and to follow the paths destiny has lain beneath their feet. From their boyhood do they share a love of art, and each have retained their boyish innocence when you speak to them about what it is they love to do.
Smooth started drawing when he was very young, and writing detective stories fashioning himself as the lead character that would always end up saving the day. He decided to pursue his natural inclinations by going to art school and counts himself fortunate that his parents were agreeable with his decision. When it came time to choose a major at the University of Nigeria, he chose Sculpture because volume had always been something that called to his spirit, though he says his paintings were good as well. Studying under El Anatsui his final year of University, Smooth had the opportunity to explore not only his skill as a sculptor, but also to curate his first exhibition. The thread that is his love of volume led him to sculpture, and it is the same thread that runs through his curatorial capacity. It is what drove his desire to receive a PhD in Art History from Emory University after completing a Museum Studies course in South Africa, that he might be thorough in his life’s undertaking.
“The basis of art is to give a transcendental experience,” he says from an Art Historian perspective. Context, purpose and skill have been the objective means by which the assessment of art has been made; yet context and purpose have become conflated with the rush to acquire symbols of value. Art Dealers and Artists alike have lost sight of the meaning that is Art. Art is the vehicle to capture a moment, to create a moment, to reveal the hidden mysteries, to light the way for others, as if a beacon upon the shore of understanding.
“When I’m making a show, I want the audience to have a visual experience… without losing the civic context in the exhibition, which is to shape our consciousness; and also the didactic experience which comes with exhibition making, I want these three things to be present in a show.” For Smooth, curating is not just the placement of art on a wall to create a pleasant visual experience -- curating is the composition of meaning, a contextual conversation that goes to sing the song of the exhibition in which the title is the leading melody. Referencing the quote from artist Chika Okeke-Agulu, that says “Folks can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that African artists have now taken and secured their seat at the dinner table, invited or not!” Smooth has come to the perfect play of terms with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, and laid the groundwork for a monumental statement that is not afraid to impugn the parameter of the market driven mediation of “African Art.” What is that? African Art? Can it be fit it into the pigeonhole of tribal masks and ancestral dance when the variance in tradition is so vast? With all the new colorations and new iterations that have appeared through modernization and globalization, is it fair to consign a group of people to the lowest common denominator of an idea and expect or allow nothing more from them just because of where they come from?
This is the State of the Art Market in which Nzewi set out to problematize, and in meeting Richard Taittinger, found the perfect opportunity upon which to expound. Richard wanted to do an African show, no doubt because it is the word sated in the lips of the Zeitgeist, but knew it must be spoken differently than the dialect of common usage. Taittinger is not content to sit comfortably within the bounds of the Contemporary Market, but seeks to push the borders far and wide to encompass the truth that lay beyond the well tread sales floor; that truth which provides inestimable worth to the cultural value of Humanity. The Richard Taittinger Gallery is “more than a commercial space. It is a platform to exchange ideas,” Richard says of his mission in Art. It is a place of readymade invitations for those who have something substantial to bring to the table and that will not be relegated to the margins due to conflicts of business interests. These are the 21st Century Artists, these are the Art Lovers and Curators that the Richard Taittinger Gallery seeks to bring together. What Taittinger was striving to speak in the name Africa, he found articulated perfectly by Nzewi.
“You come into the space, and the first thing that hits you is the Art Market.” Shares Smooth of the acrylic and paper on canvas work entitled ‘Private Viewing’ by Chike Obeagu.
Directly to your left when you walk through the door of the gallery, it is the opening thesis that speaks to the whole concept of the show: an introduction into the commerce driven fashioning of the Contemporary Art Experience. The next thing your eye is drawn to is across the gallery at 45° to your right, the photograph that used to promote the exhibition entitled ‘Diner des Anonymes’ (Anonymous Dinner) from the Pandora series of Halida Boughriet.
The photo shows a young boy of African descent seated at a table. There is a younger boy, underneath the table, also of African descent, but North African, with a complexion much lighter. They could be born and raised in Africa, or born and raised abroad. How do you factor in their African-ness to the spectrum of value and acceptability? At the opposite end of the table from the seated boy stands a rigid fair skinned woman, most likely Caucasian, though she too could be North African. Hollow authority? A caretaker? The table is full of things; plates, glasses, crystal flasks, a teapot, a vase; these things are all empty. There is a basketball, some apples, and a small bunch of grapes in a bowl; little bits of nourishment, significant indications of acceptable social terms; a demonstration of the empty and forlorn experience for those of African Descent.
When you are called to turn around and see ‘Isi Ewu Na Knowbi’, another acrylic and paper on canvas by Chike Obeagu, you see the commentary of Nzewi unfold. In a restaurant scene with tables full and poses disengaged, you have been introduced to the theme of the show, then met with the context to which the exhibition is addressing, life spanned between fullness and frivolity, emptiness and vacancy on a wire of perceived value.
Nzewi hung the autobiographical work, ‘The Sentiment of the Flesh’ by Beatrice Wanjiku next to the autobiographical work ‘Family Portrait’ series of Amalia Ramanakarihina, next to Onyeke Ibe’s ‘Identity (Self Portrait 1)’ to show connection through self-inquiry. He hung next to ‘Identity (Self Portrait 1)’ an architectural work of Ibe that is the allusion to the earth that makes the home, the most central structure. This then connects to the architectural photos of public monuments by Amina Menia that celebrate different types of structures mankind has built.
Next to Menia’s photos are the silkscreened ‘Logos of Non-Profit Organizations Working in Kenya (some of which are imaginary)’ by Sam Hopkins.
From public monuments to public organizations and on to the Nigerian sociological drawings and cotton fabric on canvas of Uche Uzorka who sees the billboards of Lagos as an eloquent way to speak of different structures that hold society in place within the endless layers and density of a mega-metropolis.
“When the board says ‘Post No Bills’, people still go ahead and post bills,” explains Smooth, and through time, they get ripped off, more get put on, and a new image begins to appear. This is an example of Neoillusion, that which is perpetually creating new images and realities. Uzorka’s resonance with the spirit being held to state the trace of time, he adds in faces with hollow eyes and open mouths as the haunting spirit of the past that seems to be lurking around every corner.
In a group show, Nzewi likes to show the practice of the artist, so he chooses complementarily contrasting works from each artist. So next to the billboard entitled “Also Known As No Place Like Home (Tear and Wear)” of Uche Uzorka, are his drawings reflecting on the Nigerian civil war. The first, ‘Alien Indigene, Alien Citizen’, is of the bloodletting that shocked the world, and you can feel the sensation of thick and heavy melee in the curling lines. In and out from each other, in the colors of the Biafran flag, “he goes back to the past to locate the present,” shares Smooth. Uzorka seems to be saying that if the violence of the past had been dealt with productively, there would be no reason for contemporary bloodletting, in reference to Boko Haram. This is Uche Uzorka’s individual experience and response as a political statement of mishandled Nigerian history. Across from the political work of Uzorka is the political work of Kenyan artist, Ephram Solomon’s ‘Forbidden Fruit’ series, whose backgrounds are all checkered, like the boards on which chess is played to move the pawns of kings’ and queens’ control. The public is the pawn, Ephram’s subjects are the public, they are his own political assessments on every canvas.
To the left of Solomon is an astute blend of African-ness and Europeanism by Gopal Dagnogo, who himself is African and European. Born in Cote d’Ivoire and growing up in Paris, Dagnogo studied art in Paris and in Burkina Faso and puts the vibrancy and vitality of African culture with the sensibilities of French life into heavily layered acrylic and pastel on canvas. They are like a dream where faint recollections of things from your past pass in and out as a coming together of many places into one space; after thoughts, like the African mask tucked away beneath the Rococo chair, Smooth points out “how he carefully slides the mask under the chair… so that the emphasis can really be on Contemporary Art,” as he stands smiling while describing “End Of An Era - No.4” by Dagnogo.
Elucidating on his own intention, Smooth says, “One of the things I tried to say with this exhibition in relation to what I call the “Burden of African-ness”, [is that] people tend to want to look at Africa in very specific ways and this exhibition allows one to problematize that notion.
“[As artists], we make art from a specific point of view which I call a ‘context of familiarity’. For example: Jeff Koons is American. His work is a reflection of the American Social Imagination; American Pop Culture, in the same way Andy Warhol’s work was a reflection on the American sense of Pop. [So] what happens is that sense of Pop becomes universalized. It becomes a stand in for mass culture everywhere. But then for an African artist who is dealing with Pop Culture in Lagos, for example, no one would universalize that experience. They would always want that experience to be mediated through a certain set of values called, ‘African Values’. So you see, that is the disingenuous way value is given — mediated — in the Art World. And for me, the exhibition allows one to really engage, to problematize the way values are assigned.”
This is why the question of value so urgently needs to be addressed. In this modern world, the standard of value has been eroded to a fickle course; controlled by greed, the requirements are no longer the same as they once were. There is no common set of values assigned when assessing Contemporary Art, only particular trends based on the Market’s momentary sentiment. So who and what determines what truly matters? Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, one of the most percipient and pioneering art scholars of the 20th Century, said this on the cultural value of Art in his lecture “The Christian And Oriental, Or True, Philosophy Of Art’ given in 1943:
“The study of art, if it is to have any cultural value will demand two difficult operations.., in the first place an understanding and acceptance of the whole point of view from which the necessity for the work arose, and in the second place a bringing to life in ourselves of the form in which the artist conceived the work and by which he judged it. The student of art, if he is to do more than accumulate facts, must also sacrifice himself: the wider the scope of his study in time and space, the more must he cease to be a provincial, the more he must universalize himself, whatever may be his own temperament and training. He must assimilate whole cultures that seem strange to him, and must also be able to elevate his own levels of reference from those of observation to that of the vision of ideal forms. He must rather love than be curious about the subject of his study. It is just because so much is demanded that the study of “art” can have a cultural value, that is to say may become a means of growth.”
Since Art in the 21st Century has been driven toward industry instead of the grand practice of revelation, the knowledge once used to create and discern value is no longer employed to state the terms for cultural significance. Study of Art has been traded for the Selling of Art, and Art has become simply another means of commerce used as a controlling interest for the interests already in control. It is through the guidelines and structures deemed acceptable to furthering these interests in which the current Evaluators of Market Worth operate. And it is in these restrictions that Art is treading water, staying afloat, but not truly moving forward. As Smooth says, “The basis of Art is to bring a transcendental experience.” Artists are meant to be divine messengers that uncloak the mystery and lead Humanity to its highest form. “Artists are our guides,” says Richard, “Artists help us to understand our time.” Those Artists that find strength through their art and are not swayed by easy money and empty politics are the artists that Smooth has selected for “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” Representatives for the immense Human experience that is the African perspective, “These are Artists that insist on their agency,” says Nzewi with pride. They were chosen to deputize the African Continent because of the sincere intention with which they speak Contemporarily about their personal experience of being African from Africa in a world that remains stilled in unresolved histories.
As Coomaraswamy said, “It is just because so much is demanded that the study of “art” can have a cultural value, that is to say may become a means of growth.” These African voices that have been silenced for so long, are coming to be heard as an opportunity for growth; an opportunity to address the real effects of past action, and to embrace the idea that we are all One. Like a guest come to dinner after a very long journey, their story is the one you want to hear most. At the Richard Taittinger Gallery you will find this story: authentic Contemporary Art of the African Experience that spans the realms of mediums and ideas as a figurative equivalent to the continental 7,417 km North to South; and from as varying backgrounds as their ancestral tribes, do the voices sing loudly of their individual experience, not to be limited under a loaded banner reading “African.” “There is really nothing called African Art, in the same way there is nothing really called European Art” says Smooth. It is all just Art, practiced by Artists from different locations with different angles and views on life shaped by their surroundings. The value comes from what goes in to the work, not where the work comes from. It is all Art. It is all Human. But when the question is asked, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” The answer is Africa.
*ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF RICHARD TAITTINGER GALLERY - Except for headshot of Smooth Nzewi, Courtesy of Sevendaysvt.com