Two black women, friends or lovers. Dressed in white, they don’t smile, don’t look at us. Their delicate embrace is soothed, muscles relaxed, hands relaxed. Their eyes tell both a distance and a challenge. Painted on a white background by the Tanzanian Sungi Mlengeya, they seem to emerge from the immaculate canvas, aware of their beauty. It is no coincidence that this work opens the catalog of the exhibition “When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting” which is held at Zeitz Mocaa (Cape Town, South Africa), until 3 September 2023.
Representative of the work of Sungi Mlengeya, who offers portraits of black women on a perfectly white background, Constant IIIpainted in 2019, illuminates in its own way the project defended by the director of the museum, Cameroonian Koyo Kouohwho curated the exhibition, with the assistance of Tandazani Dhlakama.
Koyo Kouoh: “It’s not up to us to deconstruct Euro-American prejudices about Africa”
“With a focus on painting, and more specifically on works of art produced between 1920 and today, “When We See Us” celebrates the way in which African and diaspora artists have imagined, positioned, immortalized, affirmed the experiences of Africans and people of African descent, they write. The title of the exhibition comes from that of the miniseries When They See Us, directed in 2019 by Ava DuVernay. Which is inspired by the different forms of violence imposed on black bodies, which can still be seen everywhere today. Replacing “Them” (“They”) by “We” (“Us”) allows a dialectical shift that refocuses the discussion in a different perspective of self-writing, as theorized by Professor Achille Mbembe. »
200 works, 61 painters, 28 countries
A large-scale exhibition unfolding over a full floor of the Zeitz Mocaa, “When We See Us” brings together more than 200 figurative works by 61 painters, themselves from 28 countries – their dates of birth covering a vast period from year 1886 to year 1999! This is, without a doubt, a first. ” I don’t know if there were others before, confides Koyo Kouoh with a smile, but that probably means there were none! In any case, an exhibition of this importance which concentrates on black representation and on painting, retaining only the innocuous aspects of everyday joy, of celebration, of free time, of spirituality, I don’t know of any no other. »
The exhibition offers a journey almost devoid of violence and invites you to navigate in the sweetness of existence
Unlike many contemporary exhibitions, “When We See Us” actually offers a journey almost devoid of violence and invites you to navigate the sweetness of existence. The journey is divided into six open themes: everyday life, joy and festivities, rest, sensuality, spirituality, triumph, and emancipation. The terms chosen – “joy” rather than “happiness”, “sensuality” rather than “sexuality”, “spirituality” rather than “religion” – correspond to an approach claimed by the curators.
Avoid traumatic questions
“We have selected terms that are sufficiently open not to be enclosing,” explains Tandazani Dhlakama. We wanted them to allow us to tell a story showing the multiplicity of creations, the parallel aesthetics specific to the black condition. We wanted to avoid creating boxes or presenting stereotypes. We have specifically chosen works that resonate with the notion of joy, celebrating the black condition in a direct or more subtle way, regardless of the geographical origin or the time of their creation. We avoided traumatic issues to focus on different forms of emancipation. »
We are in a phase of reclaiming our imaginations, our stories, our ways of being!
Also, in the exhibition, there are hardly any direct allusions to the ills from which the continent has suffered and still sometimes suffers: slavery, colonialism, looting of mineral wealth, racism… “The six themes chosen guided the choice works, confirms Koyo Kouoh. I wanted to get out of the usual framework of suffering, of misery, to bring everyday life back into a critical space. The very fact of existing and living in Africa today presents challenges. We are in a phase of reclaiming our imaginations, our stories, our ways of being! The subtitle of the exhibition, “A century of black figuration in painting”, could suggest a chronological approach: this is not the case.
The themes borrow from all spaces, all periods. Thus, in the part devoted to daily life, it is possible to successively contemplate a portrait of a woman picking tobacco painted by the African-American Romare Bearden (1911-1988) around 1940, a fishing scene by the Tanzanian Edward Saidi Tingatinga (1932-1972) produced in 1970, a couple at the table by the Congolese Moké (1950-2001) dating from 1981 or even a vast triptych by the Batswana Meleko Mokgosi (born in 1981) dated 2014 and alternating over 8 meters long scenes of interior and street scene…
Sensuality and spirituality
Neither spatial boundary nor temporal boundary: “When We See Us” demonstrates if need be that figurative painting is not a recent trend in the practices of black artists. “It’s been four or five years that we see a return of figuration in the artistic ecosystem, comments Koyo Kouoh. This was very quickly taken up by the art market and this led to many imitations and copies. Yet there has been no attempt by the market or the institutions to bring the conversation back into a longer time frame. »
Hence the idea of painting the portrait of an extended family of black painters who feed, inspire, influence, dialogue with each other, throwing their joy of existence on the canvas. The exhibited works recompose an open genealogy of various schools, from Dakar (Senegal) to Kumasi (Ghana) via Nsukka (Nigeria), Makerere (Uganda), London (United Kingdom), Johannesburg (South Africa). The exhibition “sheds light on the diversity, creolization and syncretism of Africa and its diaspora”.
“When We See Us” also explores the practices and them religious issues specific to Africa and its diasporas
Above all, it offers the possibility for the curious visitor to indulge in a real sweetness of life – African, no doubt, but above all human. In the evening, Romare Bearden plays notes of jazz (jazz rhapsody1982), Moké takes us clubbing in Matonge (Kin Oye Where Corridor Madiokoko in Matonge1983), Chéri Samba goes live (Live in the basement of the Rex1982).
Later in the night, the bodies come closer and bare each other in the dance (Turbulent Youthby the British of Nigerian origin Tunji Adeniyi-Jones), kiss each other (Within Reach, by Brit Chris Offili), make love (Never change Lovers in the middle of the nightof the African-American Mickalene Thomas) before indulging in the tenderness of the aftermath with the Nigerian Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Re-branding my Love).
The politics though
The pleasures of the flesh in no way preventing spirituality, “When We See Us” also explores in images the religious practices and questions specific to Africa and its diasporas, between animism, Christianity, Islam, without giving an answer to the questions which, everywhere, go beyond the human. “It’s a joyful and sweet exhibition, comments Koyo Kouoh. We talk about everyday life, joy, pleasure… It’s still rare, the bias of pleasure, these days! »
Does this mean that this major exhibition would not be political at all? Far from there. The very fact of exhibiting only black artists is a significant choice. “Yes, we had to talk about black figuration, explains Koyo Kouoh. The dominant space does not need to name itself, to qualify. But in Africa and in the diasporas, we are still reclaiming our images and our lives. Representation is a crucial issue, both political and emotional. Everyone needs to see themselves, to recognize themselves, because we reproduce what we are exposed to. The example of the media is telling, the latter controlling who we see, how we see it and above all who we don’t see! »
Barack & Kehinde
In the middle of the exhibition, a long chronological frieze recalls the context surrounding most of the creations presented, allowing visitors to understand how, in a few hundred years, African artists have never stopped fighting and working for the reconquest of an image that Westerners had applied themselves to deconstruct according to their commercial aims.
That being said, without ever straying from their guideline giving pride of place to joy and leisure, the commissioners also had fun distilling subtle political allusions throughout the course. As we have seen, the women painted by Sungi Mlengeya extract themselves from the white of the canvas. The Brazilian painter No Martins offers for his part with Stratagema (2020) a scene that could seem absurd: a man playing chess against himself… with entirely white pieces!
When Kehinde Wiley incubates a young Senegalese visual artist
More directly political, the British Esiri Erheriene-Essi offers with The Birthday Party (2021) a surprising image of the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko (1946-1977), all smiles in front of a birthday cake. It is nevertheless in the last part of the exhibition (“Triumph and emancipation”) that the subject takes on a militant character, in particular with the vast canvas by the Congolese Chéri Chérin, Obama Revolution (2009), portraying the Kenyan-born president and his wife Michelle as a global victory against racism.
“Obama really crystallized a form of emancipation against racism, everyone recognized himself in it, whatever his assessment a posteriori, indicates Koyo Kouoh. I cried during this election. I said to myself: yes, it is possible! A little later, in 2018, the African-American Kehinde Wiley painted the portrait of the new American president. And today, it is the turn of the Ghanaian Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne to paint Obama and Wiley arm in arm (Barack&Kehinde2021), two black silhouettes wearing white shirts, at once recognizable.