Saturday, January 10, 2009

Freezing our toes

Okay. So it is Saturday now and António has been given the weekend off. He is free to wander Georgetown, Dupont Circle and get used to the neighborhood around his hotel.
We had set the day aside in case we needed more time to gather supplies for the artwork he will be creating specifically for the National Museum of African Art. As he wants to build both a sculpture in the round and a large wall-assemblage, we weren’t sure how long it would take to find enough abandoned doors, windows, street signs and other miscellaneous bits. Fortunately, it only took one day, and so now we all have the weekend to recuperate.

We set out first thing in the morning -- “we” meaning myself (curator Karen Milbourne), the artist, the exhibition designer Alan Knezevich, and the museum’s chief conservator Steve Mellor. Steve was to look out for insects and potential problems that could arise from bringing these materials into the museum; Alan could help António think through what was possible in terms of cutting, installing, and working with the materials; and I was really just along for the ride – to take pictures and talk about artistic process.

The first stop was a fabulous place in east DC called The Community Forklift. It’s a non-profit organization which salvages housing materials to help communities re-build and re-furbish their homes. The occasional artist also passes through scrounging for materials. We were helped by the friendly and informative Ruthie, who first showed us the free stuff and then helped us get a cart to load up our goods. The Community Forklift is a cavernous warehouse filled with old fireplace mantles, toilets, cupboards, screws, and pretty much everything but heat. Unfortunately for us, the high on Friday was 17 degrees. So I have to say I was wishing I’d put on some warmer gloves, though I was able to thaw out in the van after António had made his selection of doors, windows, shutters, and what appear to be three legs and the cross-support to an old wooden table.

Next, it was on to a roofing store (where we did not find corrugated tin roofing), and then two different Home Depots, the last one located in Hyattsville, MD. It was a lot of time in the car, but as I work in an underground office, I was pretty happy just to have a window through which I could look out. After setting aside a stash of corrugated metal and plastic, and a bunch of tools, we stopped for lunch. At this point we were all getting a little testy, so the warm sandwiches did us some good. We were all nervous about how bad the traffic would be on the beltway and the infamous 270 and debated whether to call it a day or plow on. Once we committed to continuing on to Monrovia (in rural Maryland north of DC) and started driving, then kept driving, and kept driving, the van grew pretty quiet as we wondered 1) if we were going to find the scrap yard and 2) if it would still be open when we did. António was perhaps less concerned, as by this time he had dozed off as his jetlag was catching up with him. When we did eventually reach Raymond R. Loun, Inc., we discovered that the proprietor was out. After a series of conversations with neighbors about whether or not we could go ahead and rummage about the heaps of junk in his yard (and after Steve had bought a stash of chocolate whoopie pies from one of the neighbors), we got the go ahead and António and I started prowling. We found some really interesting aluminum melted in random, organic shapes, bunches of old street signs, abandoned step ladders, and even a snow saucer like I used to sled in as a kid. António plans to use the saucer as a symbolic moon or sun in his installation. Just as we were finishing up, Mr. Loun arrived and was kind enough to let us pay him and load up our “junk.” He charged $2 per pound. A bargain.

Overall, it was a pretty interesting day. I have to say the most interesting part was watching António’s process of selection. There were a number of occasions during which Alan or I would find something we found really interesting and we would grab António, he would say “hmm” and move on. Sometimes his reasons were practical, like a material would be too hard to attach. But he just knew what he wanted to transform a blank white wall into grand commentary on the growth and modernization of Luanda… who knew abandoned plastic shutters could be so eloquent?

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About the Exhibition

Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane is the first in a series of exhibitions in which two artists have been invited to create new work in response to one another. Accompanying these site specific artworks are a selection of older and more recent pieces by António Ole of Angola and Aimé Mpane, an artist who divides his time between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Belgium. Even though their works appear together for the first time, Ole and Mpane share close ties to their homelands and a connection to the human and natural environments of their native countries.

Ole has been creating and exhibiting his artwork since he was a teenager, and this selection spans his impressive 40-year career. From the crisp pop art style of his youth to his subtle and evocative assemblages and installations, Ole's work prompts viewers to consider poverty, political hypocrisy, territorialism, violence and decay. At the same time, a deep appreciation for the beauty of cast-off objects and the aesthetics of poverty underlies his works, which are on view in the United States for the first time.

Mpane, a prolific artist who is versatile in painting, prints, sculpture, video and installation, achieved international recognition in 2006. He utilizes his commanding skill with human expressions and the figure to probe the history and present state of the DRC.

This selection of established and new works provides insight into the personal visions of Ole and Mpane and how they communicate with diverse audiences. Their subject matter, use of unlikely materials and ongoing commitment to Africa resonate with one another and encourage dialogue.

About the Curator.

My photo
"I was told to describe myself as a well-dressed hipster and I only wish this were true. Despite my lack of cool, I consider myself lucky to be the coordinating curator at the National Museum of African Art. My interests include both contemporary and classical African art - and to be frank, I disagree with the notion of a great separation between the two - and I have worked in both museums and universities. I've been called an idealist because I believe that through learning about other cultures, ideas, and visions, we learn tolerance for one another - regardless of class, religion, country and the other great divides. But I also just love looking at, learning about, and being with African art and African artists. I like art in general, but it is the diversity, complexity, and richness of the works connected to the African continent that captivate and motivate me. It's the only work I've ever done, and among other great rewards, it has allowed me to travel to and on a couple of occasions live in Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Angola and Senegal."