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African Art Now: Menil, CAM, and TSU

If group shows are only as strong as their curatorial concept, group shows of one person’s collection succeed or fail as expressions of that collector’s knowledge and taste.

Caixte Dakpogan... Perroquet (Parrot); 2000... Steele, plastic, vinyl, iron, and other found materials... 16 1/8 x 24 3/8 x 35 inches

The concentration of Swiss entrepreneur Jean Pigozzi’s holdings displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection may fail on the first count (especially when compared to more well-rounded, topical exhibitions like Okwui Enwezor’s 2001 survey The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994) but it is compelling on the second count. Pigozzi’s interest in African art came from seeing Magiciens de la terre, the celebrated 1989 Pompidou exhibition that startled with its fresh take on world art. Pigozzi was so impressed with the show’s African component that he stopped collecting western artists and hired André Magnin, curator of the African section, to serve as his personal curator and artistic director. Together they have amassed a collection of about 6,000 objects representing 93 artists from 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa under the rubric Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC).

The real strength of the Pigozzi/Magnin approach lies in their encompassing acquisition strategy. Divide 6,000 objects by 93 artists and you get an average of 64 works per artist. This is dedicated support, but it cuts both ways, since acquisition is ownership, and ownership is control. Concentrating too much of an artist’s work in one person’s hands can hurt as much as help an artist’s career, as Joseph Hirshhorn proved with Willem de Kooning. But the depth of the CAAC collection affords real compare-and-contrast virtues in the five supplemental one-person shows on view in five Houston-area museums.1.

One of the stars of Pigozzi’s collection is the Congolese painter Chéri Samba. Eight of his paintings are display at the MFAH. They are big, brassy, and worldly, showing Samba as an engaging philosophe who doubles as a talented painter. Like the paintings at the MFAH, the 29 paintings on display at Texas Southern University Museum as J’aime Chéri Samba are all owned by CAAC. They depict an artistic no less engaging than the heavy hitter on view at the MFAH, but more diverse and human in his accomplishment. Samba was trained as a commercial signpainter, and early paintings like Le peintre Chéri Samba in 1975 and The draughtsman Chéri Samba (1981) show him developing techniques as he formulates his storyteller’s identity. Freed from static advertising constraints while retaining the shape and image-text formulation of a salesman’s placard, his words are cast in the first person and ingenuously enlarge events in his own life into the stuff of legend. Samba’s early self-portraits are hardly the effortless, masterful visages conveyed in his later works, but their folksy mix of caricature and humor radiates enthusiasm.

Samba’s penchant for bright color and attention to detail, mixed with a strong graphic line, glitter, and the occasional found object, ensures that his image-text mélanges are always vivid and eye-catching. But if the image is the honey, the text is the meat, and it saves Samba from his greatest weakness: overstimulating pattern and decoration passages. His texts, which are almost entirely in French (TSU provides helpful translations on wall texts and handouts) dance around images, simultaneously functioning as title, caption, storyboard explication, or comic strip dialogue balloon as Samba addresses the viewer as wise mediator, disputatious orator, or world-weary analyst.

Chéri Samba... Le Sida Ne Sera Guerissable Que Dans 10 Du 20 Ans... Arylic and glitter on canvas... 51 5/8 x 76 3/4 inches

Samba is a restless and relentless central presence in most of his paintings, a charismatic with a shapeshifter’s personality. He uses paintings to insinuate himself with his contemporaries (Chéri Samba et Moke, 1984), settle scores and defend turf (Le copiste—the copycat, 1990), venture lofty philosophical or aesthetic assertions (Reflechir avant d’agir—Think before you act, 1990), and deliver political tirades (Les Tours de Babel dans le monde—Towers of Babel in the world, 1998). While less overtly political than his younger brother Cheik Ledy or his Congolese contemporary Moke (both are represented at the MFAH), Samba is the first visual artist I have seen provide something more than a postcard about 9/11. His Aprés le 11 SEP 2001 is a welcome antidote to the dreck now popping up like viral infections in New York galleries and museums, from Thomas Ruff’s digitized images of tower collapse at David Zwirner to the many examples in P. S. 1’s Greater New York survey.

The Contemporary Arts Museum also built a show featuring one artist’s work from the CAAC collection. Like Samba, Bodys Isek Kingelez is a Congolese who has his own international following. This self-taught artist is a recycler’s dream of a sculptor, a gifted fantabulist who creates what he calls “architectural modelism” from all manner of brightly colored paper and plastic. Perhaps because Kingelez’s work is discussed critically in terms of “civic values” Enwezor included it in Short Century, but for me this work is as politically incomprehensible as it is blatantly fun to look at. Consisting of one large cityscape and five smaller models, CAM’s installation is essentially a supplement to the MFAH’s smaller display of five works. In both settings Kingelez’s decorative approach is exhilaratingly inventive and oppressively compulsive. His larger cityscapes, which sprawl across large tabletop pedestals, are in particular fantasies of control, utopian cartoons for something that actually might be built if cartoonist Matt Groening (The Simpsons, Futurama) had been asked to realize Simon Rodia’s Watts Tower in terms of how Albert Speer might have renovated wedding-cake style bureaucratic buildings that are Stalin’s lasting contributions to the Moscow skyline.

Bodys Isek Kingelez... Papillon de Mer... 1990/1991... Paper, cardboard, and other found materials

Kingelez (57) and Samba (49) reflect Pigozzi/Magnin’s focus on established artists. At 43, Benin native Romuald Hazoumé exemplifies the younger artists Pigozzi supports. Like Kingelez, Hazoumé takes things from everyday life—primarily, plastic petrol containers—and cuts, folds, and adulterates them, reorienting the top of each jug so that the can’s opening suggests a mouth, the handle a nose, and the handle support folds cheeks and brows. This simple but powerful inventiveness gives Hazoumé’s wall sculptures the animistic qualities of ritual masks. He is described as “deeply influenced by voodoo,” but the masks he made in the 1990s are playful rather than sinister characters. Bearing personifying titles like Mon general and Miss Havana, they form the lighthearted core of his MFAH installation. Sequestered in a separate room, Benin Roulette (2003-2004) couples Hazoumé’s favorite found material with a motorcycle to far more disquieting, politicized ends, foreshadowing the theme of his Menil Collection installation. Alone among the venues collaborating on the Pigozzi collection presentation, the Menil Collection made the decision to work directly with the artist rather than present works owned by the CAAC. The result is a sculptural installation with video, La Bouche du Roi (The Mouth of the King) that is as much about the middle passage and American slavery as the petrol politics of Benin.

Hazoumé foregrounds an assembly of petrol cans, stacked neatly to form the rudimentary outline of a ship. At the prow reside the king and queen. Surrounded by symbolic or votive objects, they are also the only personifications in Hazoumé’s tableaux. Arranged check-by-jowl in the remainder of the “ship” is outlined by 300 petrol cans, relatively unchanged from their original shape except for the small amulets or votives Hazoumé has attached to them. This strong but static image, which explicitly suggests the cargo hold of a slave ship, is also fragrant with the smells of tobacco, cloves, and other spices arranged around the king and queen. Recorded voices recite slaves names in the tribal tongues of Yoruba, Mahi, and Wémé, while in a far corner of the darkened room a video loop straightforwardly documents the risky ubiquity of Benin’s petrol transport industry (petrol deliverers ride small motorcycles balanced precariously with a dozen or more 5-gallon plastic containers of petrol strapped to every available surface of the bike), a subject Hazoumé addressed only metaphorically in his MFAH installation. This conjunction of symbolism and documentary made for problematic art, and I ended up viewing the installation as two, complementary pieces. But because La bouche du Roi addressing economic issues unflinchingly, it succeeds by translating contemporary African issues into the context of an African-American past. For the most part Hazoumé’s assertiveness avoided the “cute” animism that was the main subject of his earlier work, speaking with a conciseness that even the ever-loquacious Samba could admire.

Romuald Hazomé ... La Bouche du Roi (detail)... 1999-2004... Sound and mixed media; 393 3/4 x 114 1/4 inches

African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Through May 8.

Perspectives 145: Bodys Isek Kingelez

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Through May 1.

J’aime Chéri Samba

University Museum, Texas Southern University, Houston. Through May 6.

Romuald Hazoumé: La Bouche du Roi

Menil Collection, Houston. Through May 8.

1. J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s typographical photographs of women’s hair styles in his native Nigeria were shown at the Blaffer Gallery, January 15-March 5. South African painter Esther Mahlangu’s sited mural at Project Rowhouses opened last weekend, as this article was going to press.

Christopher French is an artist and writer living in Houston.

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