Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday, Monday...

It’s Monday and we hope to have the objects pretty much hung or in place today. We’ve been working on António’s “On the Margins of the Borderlands.” It’s amazing that he first exhibited this work – which includes a boat broken into two pieces and welded from iron, taxidermied (a.k.a. “stuffed”) crows, TV sets, bricks, bundled papers, and a fish net –in Luanda in 1996, I believe. Since then, it has traveled to the first South African Biennale in Johannesburg (where David Bowie wrote a review of it) and then on to Portugal, London, Jerusalem, and Rio de Janeiro… I am thrilled that we will be the first North American venue ever to exhibit the work, but it is a real challenge. First, we had to get it here and it is BIG, and heavy. I wrote in an earlier entry of the challenges regarding getting the pied crows through customs – we had to prove they were not endangered species – and building the enormous crate, but in addition to that we had to: 1) find the bricks. This required a series of digital images and emails back and forth between António and me as to just how many bricks he wanted, in what condition, color, and so on. Then, Doug Johnston -- whose job I don’t even know how to describe as it includes everything from overseeing construction contracts at the museum to helping me buy bricks -- found a place where we could by used bricks. Again, this was not as easy as it may seem. As a federal institution, we can not pay cash and we can only buy through licensed vendors. In the end, this gentleman Doug knew agreed to part with 200 bricks for the duration of the exhibition, free of charge. He only asked that we return the bricks to him if we do not still need them at the end of the exhibition. Acquiring the net and TVs took a little longer. António had only ever installed “On the Margins of the Borderlands” with matching, black, tube TVs. Finding 2 tube TVs in the age of flat screen is no mean feet, and Doug was not able to find two that matched. He came up with a few options, however. As for the net, António no longer had his original. He thinks a fisherman in need appropriated it. So, I then went on the hunt for fishnets and found they can be found in bright white, blue, green – an impressive range of colors – but all very new and distracting looking. There was also a question of gage. How big should the the string be? the holes? In the end, I was able to find an “authentic” (used) fish net from a decorative web site. António laughed when he saw it because it was so small (9 feet was the largest size they sold). Nevertheless, he said he could use it. António also decided that he wanted to include DC newspapers in the installation, to draw connections between the Angolan papers and the current venue, so I had been gathering up newspapers from various staff members for months. To meet safety codes, we had to fire proof all the papers.

So, we got all the miscellaneous bits in the gallery and started to position the work paying special attention to the location of electrical outlets in the floor, as we would need to plug in the TVs and the DVD players that would play António’s video of light reflecting on the surface of the ocean. Getting the boat out of the crate turned out to be more of a challenge than positioning it. We all agreed on a location fairly quickly. The equipment itself, however, was very challenging. Although we had, in the end, found TVs that António liked, they could not receive the signal from the DVD player – they were too old. And we only learned this after a day of trial and error – different monitors, different converters… the image would go to grey, or worse, skip and all one could see was a series of undulating lines. In the end, we had to go with computer monitors. They caught the warm, silvery quality of the liquid that António was after and played the DVD without any trouble. Since they were smaller than the TVs, however, the Installation guys had to build wood frames. Thanks to Doug for coming up with the creative solution and getting the timing of the two DVDs in sync. We also discovered that our 200 bricks were not enough, so António supplemented with some cinder-blocks concealed under the bricks and monitors. But, I have to say, I love seeing the boat look as though it is moving across the floor toward the new installation. António created “on the Margins of the Borderlands” at a time of real political and economic crisis in Angola. It speaks to memories and opportunities lost, and now it moves in a new direction – facing his latest work, a “fresco” which celebrates the hope he now feels in the Angola of today, a place where democracy and new structures age being built.

Aimé continues to work on painting his playing cards. And, he’s begun to position his installation piece, “Congo, Shadow of the Shadow.” This extraordinary piece consists of a life-size standing figure made of approximately 4, 652 matchsticks – there may be more now, as he has added some new ones to the feet. The figure stands over a grave marked “Congo… 1885” -- 1885 is the year Europe carved Africa into various colonies and Congo became the personal possession of Belgium’s King Leopold II. The grave is supposed to include two wooden legs that bridge between the feet of the figure, and the grave marker itself. Unfortunately, the legs were misplaced during the packing of a previous installation. After several days thinking they were lost for good, we learned today that the gallery has located the legs and will be fed-exing them to us. In the meanwhile, however, Aimé has decided that he wants to craft new legs – ones that are longer and he feels are better suited to the larger space we have provided for the work. So, he will add shellac and position these new legs later today. We’ve just finished positioning the flat silhouettes of a pregnant woman and child, which are also part of the installation.

Tomorrow, we want to have everything in place, as the artists will be going to University of Maryland first thing Wednesday morning to begin outreach activities with students. Thursday, they meet with students from Gallaudet, and Friday, Howard University. So, we can be working on lighting and cleaning the gallery while they are so occupied.

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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."