Thursday, January 8, 2009

Let the fun begin

Late this afternoon, António Ole will be arriving – we hope. The adventure of getting both this artist and his art to Washington DC is a subject to which I will probably return a few times.

For now, let’s begin with the art. When the two enormous crates containing 5 bodies of work by Ole came wheeling down the corridor that leads from the truck (un)loading dock and into the museum, folks from around the museum came out of their offices and began to applaud. We had accomplished the seemingly impossible.

When looking at the photo of the Smithsonian Institutes security dog sniffing the crates, the scene seems quite sweet but it also gives a little insight into the staggering amount of political, procedural, and practical obstacles that prevented the seamless delivery of these artworks. In order to bring them in the building, we had to make arrangements for a dog to come in after hours and sniff for contraband so that we would be in compliance with federal regulations. No box can enter the museum without first being checked. But, at least jumping through this hoop came with the added pleasure of Labrador kisses.

When I visited in António in Angola, it had seemed the most insurmountable feature of this exhibition would be finding available hotel space in Luanda, negotiating the infuriating complications of getting the plane ticket, and just surviving the 2-day series of flights. Once in Luanda, it was a full-on multi-sensory marathon of looking, smelling, listening and taking in an African city unlike any I had visited before. I could feel the pulsing energy of this metropolis of 4 million. Alongside crumbling walls, new structures were going up. People mingled with cars in the busy streets, and along the edges of the roads. Luanda seethes. Moving along its congested streets makes it easy to see how Luanda’s architecture, textures, history and frustrations have inspired António Ole. I was in the city to finalize the checklist for the Artists in Dialogue exhibition and see what I could of the contemporary art scene, and so each busy day was filled with visiting António’s studio, his apartment, museums, cultural centers, banks and the various offices which include Ole’s work in their collections. By the end of four days, António and I had both agreed that the museum would borrow the work which really marked the start of his career forty years ago – a vivid gouache on paper piece entitled, On Taking the Pill; an untitled series of six photographic portraits from his days working as a documentary film maker with Angolan national television; N/S, a series of seven delicate and subtle assemblages made of objects found largely on the beaches of Luanda’s cost; the triptych, Disintegrations, made from the torn pieces of a vinyl banner that once advertised the theater group that perform in the same building as António’s studio; and On the Margins of the Borderlands, the artist’s first large scale installation, and one that features a boat made of welded iron – not an easy thing to pack and ship across the ocean.

The first challenge in shipping the artwork actually proved to be even finding a shipping company. This was the first time the National Museum of African Art had tried to bring artwork from Angola and we had no contacts over there. So, we asked the Portuguese embassy, the American embassy, and even an oil cargo company in our efforts to find people who could build, pack, and travel crates that were big and strong enough. And let me pause right here to thank some folks from the US Embassy in Luanda who really made this all possible, Abby Dressel the Public Affairs Officer and her team, Coe Economou and Ana Paula Fereira. They also went to heroic lengths helping us find experts in Luanda who could identify the genus and species of two crows, a crab claw, and a fishbone incorporated into some of the artworks. But that is another story unto itself. For today let’s just say that we actually found two experts who could look at the desiccated spine of a fish, delicately pasted on handmade paper and framed in a wood box, and somehow identify in what kind of fish it had once swum. And, armed with that information we were able to fill out paper work to prove that we were not illegally transporting parts of endangered animals.

It took five months to find a shipping company, measure the artworks, build the crates, identify the animal elements of the artworks, fill the crates with the art and discarded cardboard boxes for protective filling, get approval from the powers that be at the Smithsonian to spend the exorbitant amount of money required to pay the crate-makers and shippers, and then put the crates on an airplane.

Here’s where the next glitch came in… The Angolan shipping company put the crates on a plane on New Years even, forwarded the flight information, and then went on vacation. The only problem was they sent the wrong flight information. This is a big deal in the art world because, typically, art cargo is accompanied by an art handler. This person ensures that the crates are kept in climate controlled environments so that rapid changes in temperature won’t hurt the art, that the crates are not banged against anything, and other precautionary measures. I may never know for sure what became of our crates, but based on the fact they arrived with splatters of salt water, and the pattern of the splatters, I would guess they were turned on end when a vehicle went by and doused them in salted slush. But for now, I am happy because we opened the crates and everything was fine. More than fine. Beautiful. Whatever else may be said, António Ole creates artwork that I just love to look at.

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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."