All aboard: A Ghanaian woman poses in front of a 
    painted backdrop in this Kwame Apagya photo.
All aboard: A Ghanaian woman poses in front of a painted backdrop in this Kwame Apagya photo.
Courtesy of the MFAH

Africa, Via Switzerland

Quick -- name 15 African countries. Come on, you can do it; out of 54 African countries, surely you can name 15. If you can't, don't despair: Our own president thinks the continent of Africa is a country. And our geographic unfamiliarity is just the tip of the misconceptual iceberg. The African continent is the birthplace of mankind, the cradle of civilization and home to 797 million people speaking more than 1,000 different languages -- and most of us don't know shit about it.

"African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection," on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a revelation. It's filled with fresh, smart and gorgeous work. But like every individual collection, it represents one person's taste and point of view. Jean Pigozzi began collecting contemporary African art 15 years ago, after he saw the 1989 exhibition "Magiciens de la terre" at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. André Magnin curated that exhibition and is now curator for Pigozzi's private collection, the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) in Geneva.

The MFAH show took the lead role in Houston's "Citywide Celebration of African Art," which includes exhibitions of CAAC artists at other venues. The Democratic Republic of Congo's Chéri Samba, one of the world's best-known and most in-demand African artists, has works on view at the MFAH, along with a solo show at the Texas Southern University Museum. At the MFAH, Samba comments on his fame and other issues in marvelously hyperreal and intoxicatingly colored paintings that incorporate text -- biting commentary on art, politics and the politics of art. Hommage aux anciens créateurs (A Tribute to Earlier Artists) (1999) tells about the experience of visiting a Zurich anthropological museum "at official request." Samba paints himself seated at a desk with some of the African sculptural figures he saw displayed in the museum. The figures have such a poignant and palpable realism, you respond to them as tiny people, cruelly locked away in a cold, harsh, foreign place.


"African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection"

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300

Through May 8

Romuald Hazoumé, whose work is also on view at the Menil Collection, makes masks and installations out of found plastic gas canisters. He's from Benin, where the primary source of gasoline is the black market, and the gas is transported by young men on motorbikes. Driven by poverty, they strap themselves with gas containers that look like suicide bombers' vests -- and, in fact, the mortality rate is extreme. In his installation at the MFAH, Hazoumé has inserted a motorcycle into the wall; on top sits a mannequin draped with enormous gas cans. The sound of a spluttering motorcycle engine runs in and out of the gallery. Hazoumé's masks made from flattened gas containers and found objects, also on view, evoke a quiet pathos.

While politics absorbs Samba and Hazoumé, other African artists collected here have a more pop-cultural focus. Philip Kwame Apagya's family ran a photo studio in Ghana, and when cheap cameras and color film became widespread, business began to fall off. To lure in new clientele, Apagya commissioned a sign painter to create various backdrops, which are on display at the MFAH along with the photos of customers standing in front of them. One painting depicts the stairs to an airplane with an open door. Beside it is a photo of a Ghanaian woman standing in front of it, looking over her shoulder at the camera as if she were about to leave for some faraway place. Another backdrop shows a modern living room filled with consumer splendor: stereo, wide-screen TV, VCR and refrigerator. Beside it, there's the photo of a young boy pretending to sit on the sofa.

Then there are works by quirky, obsessive visionaries dedicated to creative problem solving. Bodys Isek Kingelez makes fantastic architectural models for spectacularly decorative and utopian cities. And Abu Bakarr Mansaray, from war-torn Sierra Leone, is like that guy in your high school class who was always designing some spaceship or super hotrod -- but a thousand times more creative. In works like Allien Resurrection (2003) and Nuclear Telephone Discovered in Hell (2003), Mansaray applies his self-directed studies in engineering and science to designing and depicting fanatically detailed futuristic machines.

It's an amazing show in many ways, but not everyone is thrilled by it. Otabenga Jones & Associates protested in front of the MFAH on the exhibition's opening night. Collective members Robert Pruitt and Jamal Cyrus held signs that said, "You cannot contain our blackness in your white box, give me concepts or give me death," and, pointedly to Dubya, et al., "Africa is not a country." They passed out a copy of a manifesto that thanked the MFAH for "celebrating a portion of the African Arts landscape" but pointed out that "this moment is an opportunity for museums to delve into African art without the hindrance of the western gaze, and to reveal the dynamic range of voices that emanate from the African continent. Exhibiting the Pigozzi collection on its own falls short of this mandate."

Speaking for the collective, Pruitt says they feel the exhibition "reinforces certain ideas about African art" because of Pigozzi's focus on "what we would call naive or folk art here." It is a focus that tries to avoid work by artists with academic art training -- and apparently women, with only two in the show. According to Pruitt, "I saw the show, and there was a lot of stuff I liked, but I have a problem with the MFA validating this work without adding any sort of difference." He continues, "For laymen who come in and are not aware of the political history, Africa is going to seem like one giant thing."

Pruitt makes an important point. Why is the museum allowing one Swiss guy's taste to become the definition of African art? Should this show be titled "African Art Now" or "A Random Assortment of 33 Artists from 15 Countries in a Very Large Misunderstood Continent"?


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