Modern African art may sound like an oxymoron to gallery patrons more familiar with traditional tribal work, but that should change with the new show at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery.
"Environment and Object: Recent African Art" features photography, sculpture, painting, video and installations by 16 contemporary African artists. Much of the art represents the reactions of African artists to the endless conflict between industrialization, and especially oil production, and the natural environment. Forced to deal with the destruction of their homeland, the people have had little choice but to adapt.
For many homegrown artists, that means using found objects, even waste materials, to represent the clash of the two opposing worlds. Ghana's El Anatsui, the most widely acclaimed contemporary African artist, referred to this practice as using "things the environment throws up."
These found materials bring history and context while taking on strong political and social stances to offer commentary about their world. The works in the show are overt in their message, rejecting romanticized notions of Africa and challenging the human and environmental toll of modern life. A handful of the artists in the exhibition focus solely on the tragic devastation of the Niger Delta, while others seek to create something abstract and modern using everyday objects.
Most of the work has a stronger affinity with contemporary art than traditional African art. "One thing very compelling about the show is that it's unprecedented for Richmond and will change how people think about African art," says Ashley Kistler, the Anderson's director.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, long known for its internationally renowned African art collection, will have a concurrent attraction, "Visions from the Congo: Ancestral Contact." The two-part lecture by the museum's curator of African art, Richard Woodard, will look at sculpture from pre-Colonial times to the present and serve as a counterpoint to the Anderson Gallery exhibit.
Several of the featured artists will visit the university as part of the three-month installation. Bright Ogochukwu Ewe from Nigeria and Viyé Diba from Dakar already have come to install work and participate in special programs intended to broaden the public's understanding of African art beyond the context of the exhibition.
El Anatsui, who's received international acclaim for his dazzling wall sculptures made from thousands of discarded liquor bottle tops — three of which are featured in "Environment and Object" — will be the featured attraction of "In Conversation: El Anatsui" with art history professor Babatunde Lawal at the Grace Street Theater on Sept. 19. At the same venue Oct. 19, the Anderson will present a lecture by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Mthethwa's large-scale color portraits, often portraying rural immigrants on the margins of South African cities, address present-day economic and political realities.
With so many artists represented, the Anderson Gallery show offers a broad sampling of the state of art in Africa today. "Some artists are well known and some are emerging talents," Kistler says. "The work in this show will surprise a lot of people in Richmond." S
"Environment and Object: Recent African Art" runs through Dec. 11 at VCU's Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St. For information on the exhibit and the artist lectures, go to arts.vcu.edu/andersongallery. "Visions from the Congo: Ancestral Contact," a lecture by Richard Woodard, will be held Nov. 8 at 11 a.m. and Nov. 10 at 6 p.m. at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard. For information, go to vmfa.state.va.us.