One of the most important names in the Menil Collection's exhibition of contemporary African art is a French guy who's been dead for more than 200 years.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard was one of the first European artists to portray love not as an allegory or myth but, as curator Kristina Van Dyke tells us, "a contemporary phenomenon." His Progress of Love cycle of paintings is one such example, depicting a narrative of modern love for the time, from initial pursuit, including the exchange of love letters, to its fulfillment, all in that playful rococo style. Representations of love forever changed.
The Menil's show, which is a collaborative project between the museum, the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis that explores modern representations of love by mostly African artists, recognizes its debt to Fragonard by borrowing the title of his painting cycle. One of the very first works you see in show is also a not-so-subtle reference to what is Fragonard's most famous painting, The Swing.
In The Swing (after Fragonard), British artist Yinka Shonibare, who grew up in Lagos, creates a life-sized replica of Fragonard's flirty woman on the swing, foliage and all, with her slipper even playfully kicked off and suspended in the air. But instead of wearing mid-18th century French dress, she's sporting a dress made out of Dutch Wax-painted textile. And, even more noticeably, she's headless, as if allowing viewers to substitute anyone they want in that role.
From there, the ambitious show presents a number of different representations of love -- friendship, patriotism, narcissism, pornography, and more -- from more than 20 contemporary artists. The artists live all over the world, but mostly hail from Africa, a place that, unlike the West, has had little in the way of scholarly discussions on the vast concept of love.
There are all types of media on display, but the installations are really something. South African-born Kendell Geers' Arrested Development (Cardiac Arrest) consists of one item repeated 164 times -- glass casts of police batons -- which he's arranged into the shape of a giant glass heart. All at once, it brings to mind the dichotomy of love and hate, and asks what place love has in violence, and vice versa.
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Nadine Robinson's clever installation, Like Three, manages to be massive and miniscule all at once. A white board with a line across the middle is flanked by vintage speakers. The refrain of The Persuaders song, "It's a thin line between love and hate," is on repeat, like some earworm. That appears to be all there is to take in, until you get up close and realize that black line is actually handwriting, spelling out random words like "happy people," "shampoos," "perfume," and "strawberry ice cream." This literal thin line between love and hate has presumably listed the objects of the artist's affection/scorn.
Love takes the form of physical affection in the video installation Eaten by the Heart. Most notably, the Menil commissioned Nigerian-born filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa to make the piece, which attempts to answer the question, "How do Africans kiss?" It features 11 couples smooching for about 5 minutes each. A unique background color and soundtrack is used for each one (one couple kissed to crashing waves, while another a cheering sports crowds). It's a sweet concept, but I don't think most people can stand to watch an hour of other people making out. By the third couple, I had had enough.
There's much, much more, even, confusingly, works by artists with no ties to Africa, like the American, Cuban-born Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Still, it's a big show befitting the subject matter, and each work is more surprising, unique and unexpected than the next, which is no small feat.
"The Progress of Love" at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross Street, runs now through March 17. For more information, call 713-525-9400 or visit www.menil.org.