Authors of "Authenticity"

In "Kumasi de Ville," photographer Godfried Donkor looks at African and African-American life.
Courtesy of the artist

In 2005, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston organized "African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection." With work by 33 artists from 15 countries -- all part of one Swiss guy's collection -- the show purported to represent the state of contemporary art from Africa, a continent with 53 countries. The Pigozzi Collection was heavy on work from artists who were not formally educated in art and not part of the contemporary art scene. Much of it was fascinating, but in the end, the works represented a European vision of a continent where art is predominately brightly colored and naively made. A private collection is a private collection -- until it is put forth as a representation of the entire contemporary cultural production of a continent.

At the Blaffer Gallery, "A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad," organized by the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and co-curated by Shannon Fitzgerald and Tumelo Mosaka, takes a completely different tack. The exhibition does not set out to make a sweeping statement about contemporary African art; instead, it seeks to raise interesting questions about the West's expectations of "authenticity." It includes commissioned works from 11 artists, all born between 1956 and 1975, just before or during the post-colonial era in Africa, a time when nations began to redefine themselves on their own terms. Most attended art school, and all live abroad and are part of the international contemporary art scene.

The curatorial theme rests awkwardly on some of the works in the show, but one standout piece does seem to have been prompted by ideas of "authenticity." Zineb Sedira created a video installation in which she tries to get the true story of her parents' past. Sedira projects herself, silently listening, on one wall. On the opposite wall, two video projections, one of her father and one of her mother, play side by side, detailing what life was like for them in Algeria during the war for independence from France, and after they emigrated to France.


"A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad"

Blaffer Gallery, The Art Museum of the University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9521.

Through November 11.

The father tells his stories in rapid French, sitting at a kitchen table and recounting the good and bad, sometimes with pain, sometimes with humor, sometimes with nostalgia. He tells how he worked with bleeding hands to earn money to bring his wife from Algeria to France, how French soldiers wore butcher's aprons to keep the blood off their clothes as they beat and tortured Algerians. He laughs as he remembers being seasick on the boat to France and vomiting all over a French soldier. He recalls French people who helped him, a stranger who saved his life.

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The mother speaks only Arabic. She sounds much more wounded, her voice infused with pain, but maybe she is just being more honest with her daughter. She tells of French soldiers coming and raping the women in her father's house while her husband was in France. They would come during the day while the men were at work. They came at night, ordering the men out of the house and tying them up. The mother prayed she wouldn't get pregnant with a soldier's baby. When they came, she would smear ashes on her face to appear dirty and ugly and clutch her baby and pinch her to make her cry, hoping the soldiers would leave her alone. She tells of cruelty and racism after she came to France.

It's a powerful and intimate piece. Listening to the parents' stories, we know that there are probably details too awful to share with their child. We are struck by the shared and the separate pain of the parents, and we realize that the stories of each are authentic unto themselves.

Godfried Donkor tells the stories of other families. Donkor was born in Ghana, and his family moved to London when he was nine. He blends photos from his own family with images from a family from the Ville area of St. Louis, a historic black neighborhood. Scenes of birthday parties, church and school seem almost interchangeable, except for the occasional adult or child in traditional African dress, an image of a London cathedral or a group photo of a St. Louis high school basketball team. The photos are hung on the wall, and in front of them is an expanse of greener-than-green fake grass, a reference to that adage about the grass being greener. We have images of people who left Africa by choice and others of people whose ancestors left Africa by force. Whose story is more "authentic"? Where was the grass greener -- and less racist -- St. Louis or London?

Some other interesting work in the show comes from two South African artists who explore people's perceptions. Kendall Geers and K.O. Lab placed a neon sign on the roof of the Fine Arts building that houses the Blaffer Gallery. In glowing red letters, it reads "LAUGHTER" -- until the "S" flickers back on to make the word "SLAUGHTER." The flickering, seemingly broken letter changes the meaning dramatically. Geers is engaged in wordplay with ominous overtones, and when viewers discover that the artist is South African, a whole host of preconceptions come into play.

Siemon Allen explores how preconceptions are created. He took copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from April 2001 through July 2003 and sought out any mention of South Africa. He presents the pages in a massive grid, obscuring each page by overlaying it with a sheet of vellum. The vellum is cut away to reveal the text of each tiny mention of South Africa. As you walk down the wall you realize that, according to newspaper coverage, the entire country primarily consists of AIDS, Nelson Mandela and golfer Ernie Els.

Then there are Fatma Charfi's tiny little figures crafted from twisted tissue paper, in symbolic colors of black, white and red -- the red for Switzerland, where Charfi lives. Shown in large quantities, the figures could be effective, but Charfi attempts all sorts of conceptual gymnastics with them. They're shown on video, on banners of laminated Xeroxes, placed in Petri dishes and test tubes behind white curtains...The ideas are just too convoluted and visually disappointing to try to make sense of.

And after a while, the whole authenticity thing starts to become labored, like some artistic game of Where's Waldo? Odili Donald Odita has some really nice paintings; they're hard-edged and abstract, with angled bands of colors. The patterns have a vaguely African feel, but, according to the curators, the colors reflect Odita's experience growing up in the American suburbs.

The exhibition too often feels hobbled by the curators' desire to connect the art in the show to their curatorial premise. By commissioning work, the curators asked artists to address a theme, and in a way, this show is simply imposing another, albeit more sophisticated and PC, agenda upon the artists. While individual works succeed, the exhibition ultimately feels awkward.

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