Wednesday, January 14, 2009

He made it!

I got to Dulles airport in Virginia yesterday afternoon just before Aimé’s flight was scheduled to arrive. Fortunately, I brought a book. By the time I figured out where to park, how to get into the airport, where he would be arriving, I feared that I would find him wandering around looking lost. Instead, I encountered a large monitor listing off where various passengers were in customs. His flight had landed but it took another 45 minutes before I caught sight of him. It was still fairly early so we decided to stop by the hotel to drop off his things before heading on to dinner. We bumped into António at the hotel and gave him a lift to the home of the museum’s Acting Director, as she was having a little soiree to introduce him to South African painter, Joni Brenner. Aimé and I continued on for sushi. I remembered that he loved sushi, but it wasn’t until we were seated that I realized I didn’t have a clue how to translate the menu. I couldn’t get any more technical than poisson (fish), but fortunately Aimé had brought his iPhone with him and was able to do a little instant on-line translation.

I met Aimé for the first time when I traveled to Brussels to see him and finalize the selection of artworks for the exhibition. I regret that I didn’t get to visit Kinshasa, the city of mirrors as anthropologist Filip de Boeck describes it, in which the legacy of colonization and the complexities of contemporary ethnic, gender, spatial and economic politics mingle with ideas of the “good life,” and reflect one another. Though I would have loved to see first hand this city that has shaped Mpane’s vision, I was able to eat some excellent Congolese food in the Matonge district of Brussels.

Visiting Aimé in Brussels was a blast, in part just because we had so much fun together. The first morning, we went to the home/gallery of Walter de Weerdt where a number of carved and painted squares Aimé was proposing to use for the work, “Ici on crève” (“here one dies, bursts, gives out”) were on view along with several other of his works and some photographs by Belgian artist Karel Fonteyne. We talked for hours, drank strong coffee, and ate Moroccan food in a theatre building. During my time in Brussels, I also visited Aimé’s studio, home, and perhaps the most fun – visited the museums. It was a delight to find that in the Musées Royeaux des Beaux Arts we both just wanted to take in the minutia of Bruegal, stare at David’s “Death of Marat,” and absorb the surface of “Scenes from the Life of the Virgin” by a Belgian “primitif.” On my last day, Aimé was kind enough to drive me out to the Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, where he had arranged for me to have a tour by the curator of history, Sabine Cornelis, who had generously taken the afternoon away from her kids to meet me. As she works primarily with photographs and paper documents, it really provided a new spin on the museum for me. After the tour, Aimé discussed how disconcerting the museum felt because of its colonial history. It did not stop us from appreciating the art, however, and we gave one another a hard time when I challenged him to select the one work of art he would choose should he have to be locked in a windowless, white room for the rest of his days. It was how a studio teacher of mine used to challenge the class to evaluate our art. The problem was, neither of us could choose just one object. He did share with me, however, that he loved Kongo minkisi because one can still see the process by which they were made and used. Action remains a part of their form.

Unlike with António, where I finalized the object list for this exhibition while I was with him, I did not make the final selection of Aimé’s pieces until my return. Fortunately, there was not quite as much of an ordeal getting them here as with António – just a few delays due to loan paperwork and the busy schedule of the Belgian crating. I say this calmly now, of course; at the time, NMAfA’s heroic registrars, Julie Haifley and Clarissa Fostel, and I were all a little stressy. But now, both artists and their artworks are here. So, all is good.

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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."