Postcolonial Bell Jar

Astrup Fearnley Museum’s presentation of contemporary African art gives the impression that the ripple effects of colonialism are an exclusively African issue.

Fabrice Monteiro, Prophecy #6, 2013.

The geographic group exhibition – which takes as its point of departure the art scene of a city, a country, or an entire continent – has been a recurring feature of Astrup Fearnley Museum’s programming during Gunnar Kvaran’s nineteen years as director. It has a close kinship with the museum’s financialised take on contemporary art and its understanding of its own role within the art system: works acquired in connection with the exhibitions should help raise or consolidate artist’s trajectories in the top tier of the art world, and the money should establish or strengthen regional outposts (galleries, fairs, biennials) which feed back into the system. The procedure adheres to art historian Pamela M. Lee’s description of the art world as “both object and agent of globalisation,” rather than a literal attempt at representing a place.

Alpha Crucis may be Astrup Fearnley’s last exhibition of this format, given that Kvaran will hand the directorship over to Solveig Øvstebø in May. Works of art by a total of seventeen artists from sub-Saharan African countries Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Benin, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa have been selected by the French curator and gallerist André Magnin, who was one of three curators of the much-discussed exhibition Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the Earth) at Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Today, that exhibition is best remembered for what might still be considered a radical gesture: bringing together art from all continents and selecting half of the artists from countries outside the West.

Magnin’s selection for Alpha Crucis – mainly painting and photography, but also sculpture, installation, and drawing – emphasises portraits and representations of the human body. Many revolve around how contemporary African identities are performed, and some works also capture a more global black identity or indulge futuristic speculations. Congolese artist JP Mika’s five hyper-detailed paintings, all portraits, most of them full-figure, depict women and men in flamboyant retro-inspired clothing. Beauté Scooter (Beauty Scooter, 2016) shows a woman on a bright white scooter wearing red heels, large crystal earrings, and a close-fitting white dress in patterned cotton and chiffon. She radiates confident cool against a backdrop of clashing eccentric floral patterns. Mika’s focus on style markers such as clothing, textures, and material possessions is an eye-catching staging of consumer-oriented and cosmopolitan individualism that portrays Congolese identity as more than just poverty and violent conflict.

Chéri Samba, also from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a generation older than Mika, was among the artists who took part in Magiciens. Realised in a graphic style that is part poster, part medical illustration, the painting Je suis les poumons et le coeur du monde (I am the lungs and heart of the world, 2019) shows a realistic portrait of Samba’s head floating over lungs and a heart against a backdrop depicting the Congo and the African continent; a telephone handset is connected to blood vessels which spread out across the image. It seems to prescribe Samba’s production as incorporated into the financialised art system outlined above, as his paintings are sold through European galleries and are sought after in the secondary market. But if Congo is the heart and lungs of the world, it must be because the country mines many of the minerals used to make telephones and parts for network infrastructure – especially cobalt – under dismal conditions. As such, Samba’s lung and heart metaphor also suggests that global capitalism, in which the artist is also embedded, has normalised the exploitation of human and natural resources in the Global South as a part of its functions.

JP Mika, Sango Malamu (La Bonne Nouvelle), 2019.

By contrast, Nicholas Hlobo’s wall-hung paper and textile piece Nalo ikhwezi alinyulu (Even the star is not pure, 2015) is delicate and minimal. Multicoloured threads criss-cross and pierce the paper, evoking scars and medical stitches. According to one of the essays in the catalogue, the work references the regulation of ethnicity and race by the state during the apartheid regime in the artist’s home country, South Africa. The textile work The rebirth of the black Venus (2010) by Billie Zangewa, also from South Africa, depicts the artist naked and hovering over an urban landscape against a backdrop of burnt orange silk. The figure’s arms are outstretched in an unapologetic occupation of space, contrasting the chaste pose of Botticelli’s Venus, which the image is modelled on.

The body is the central figure in Alpha Crucis. It is a metaphor for globalisation, but also a locus of identity and politics. This is hardly surprising given that the body is central to postcolonial theory, for example in Achille Mbembe’s “necropolitics,” a theory of how the power to cause death is created and used. In his analysis of colonialism in Africa, Mbembe argues that European states saw their colonies as outside civilisation and regarded the people residing there as ‘barbaric’, devoid of human qualities. This was how the colonial authorities could take lives without hesitation and by any means imaginable. Mbembe points out that many present-day African states have weak sovereignty, often as a direct result of the racial divisions imposed during the colonial period, so that necropolitical power falls to rebels, warlords, and militias who use it to advance their own financial interests. Although not a direct theme of Alpha Crucis, the concept of necropolitics nevertheless provides an explanation for why the after-effects of colonialism are reaffirmed through the body as a metaphor.

The logo of the oil company Lundin was missing from the Alpha Crucis press materials, and Astrup Fearnley has confirmed that the controversial sponsorship has expired. Still, Lundin’s activities in Sudan from 1997 to 2003, where the company almost certainly paid armed groups to secure its financial interests, are a good example of how necropolitics are practiced today. During the debates which followed the sponsorship deal, the museum argued that Lundin’s Norwegian division was uninvolved in the crimes in Sudan, despite being part of the same corporate structure. That line of argumentation reiterates a colonial geographical divide, where bodies situated ‘outside’ can be freely exploited.*

Chéri Samba, Je suis les poumons et le coeur du monde, 2019.

The exhibition format’s built-in desire for a global (market-based) conversation is also problematised by the many works which argue that the world outside the highest echelons of the art world is not without borders. The world is still full of racial and class-based divisions, and the high unemployment rates in many former colonies, such as South Africa, is symptomatic of how neoliberal capitalism deems large groups of people redundant, thereby exerting a form of necropolitics. One of the reasons the exhibition doesn’t appear to take its global mandate seriously resides in the fact that it presents these ripple effects of colonialism as African problems, leaving the influence of European politics, lifestyles, and business practices on life in Africa largely unaddressed.

Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop’s photo series Liberty: A Universal Chronology of Black Protest (2016–17) shows necropolitical conditions as a global phenomenon by restaging historical events where black people have protested or rebelled against oppression in various parts of the world. Explanatory wall texts link a picture of a group of uniformed black men to a massacre in a military camp outside Dakar in Senegal in 1944. The soldiers, who had returned from combat in Europe, protested because they didn’t receive the pay they were promised. In an exhibition that does not engage with the idea of ​​a global black identity from multiple angles, these works end up as parenthetical allusions and their concerns are not explored in depth.

Until recently, Magnin was the director of the Pigozzi Collection, a private collection of contemporary African art begun after the Magiciens exhibition. Through donations, the collection has placed works by Chéri Samba and other African artists in the world’s leading museum collections. Alpha Crucis was presumably envisioned as a celebration of private contributions to the expansion of contemporary art’s perspective and reach in the wake of Magiciens, but instead creates an impression of looking in on the problematics of colonialism from the outside. In his curatorial essay for Documenta 11 (2002), Okwui Enwezor writes, “the postcolonial today is a world of proximities. It is a world of nearness, not an elsewhere.” Much has changed since then, and with the rise of xenophobic nationalism worldwide there seem to be fewer reasons to be optimistic about a world of nearness. Alpha Crucis is a missed opportunity for taking a closer look at the changing conditions for postcolonial struggle in a world of reinforced borders.

Omar Victor Diop, Selma, 1965, 2016, from the series Liberty: A Universal Chronology of Black Protest.

* In 2018, I took part in Talent Norge’s collaboration with Astrup Fearnley Museum and wrote a text for the exhibition Sun and Spring in January. This exhibition was also discussed in light of the museum’s Lundin sponsorship, for example by Ane Hjort Guttu, writing in the Norwegian arts magazine Billedkunst.