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Art Notes: Before Closing for Renovation, Hood Museum Looks Anew at Africa

Thursday, February 18, 2016
In the exhibition “Inventory: New Works and Conversations Around African Art,” an exhilarating show of modern African work at the Hood Museum of Art, there’s a photograph by South African artist Nomusa Makhubu that stopped me in my tracks.

It’s titled T he Gaze , and in it Makhubu superimposes an image of herself over an old sepia photograph of unidentified women and children submitting uneasily and defiantly to the clinical eye of a European photographer.

Some of the women, who are clothed, look down, unwilling to be so pitilessly examined, while the children, who are nude, stare unsmilingly ahead. For her part, Makhubu disdains that original photographer’s voyeuristic perspective by turning away and showing her profile, refusing to be held hostage.

It’s part of a series of photographs that Makhubu, in her early 30s, has made since 2007 when she embarked on a project of self-portraiture. She delved into the voluminous record of late 19th- and early 20th-century images taken by white photographers of indigenous peoples in Africa, then reeling under brutal and arbitrary colonial rule by European powers that had carved up vast territories of the continent in a massive land grab.

By positioning herself against a blow-up of a photograph, and then photographing herself, Makhubu appears to both blend into and emerge from the sepia background, to be part of the picture but separate from it, at one with the original subjects but also a modern projection. She calls it “performative photography,” and it’s an act of moral reclamation.

Whether the images show women holding infants, workers lining up for jobs or lone women made to pose for the camera, Makhubu is releasing the subjects from their long, cold, photographic imprisonment, in a sense, by joining and empathizing with them, and inserting herself, a modern woman and artist, into an historical record that relied on phony science and half-baked theories to claim racial superiority.

But she doesn’t let the viewer off easily with a tidy resolution. While we’ve thrown off some of the attitudes of colonialism, we have been too quick to consign, even bury, the kinds of photographs that Makhubu subverts to a distant, distasteful “past,” rather than looking at how those images still linger and fester in the public imagination.

Makhubu is one of 15 artists from Africa, and the African diaspora, represented in the exhibition, which comprises 31 works. All the work in the show dates from the 1960s onward. The show runs through March 13 when the museum closes for two years for a $50 million renovation and expansion.

Ugochukwu Smooth Nzewi, who was named curator of African art at the Hood in 2013, has organized the exhibition around the themes of “Tradition and Modern/Modernist Traditions,” “Contemporary Visions of a Continent,” “Historical Returns” and “Diasporic Imagination.”

During the upheaval of the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s, as African countries declared independence from colonial rule, some of the artists in the show “found a way of reflecting a new era by going back to indigenous forms,” said Nzewi in an interview in the gallery.

Given the size of the continent, and the thousands of cultures and peoples that inhabit it, Nzewi said, his task in mounting the show was to strike a balance between finding works that speak to the museum’s primary goal of educating Dartmouth students, represent important currents in contemporary African art and also offer a geographical range.

The works on view originate in Benin, South Africa, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria and the U.S. There are some 2,000 objects in the museum’s African collection, Nzewi said, but of those less than one percent are contemporary.

Nzewi’s goal, he said, is to “deepen the collection of modern African art,” as well as to reflect the interests and expertise of the college’s faculty, who use the collection to talk to students about art anthropology, history and any number of subjects. He weighs the artist’s reputation but more importantly whether the work has integrity, he said.

The works on view attest to the vibrancy and range of modern African art. Look at the work of Sudanese painter and illustrator Ibrahim El-Salahi, who was given a major retrospective in 2013 at Tate Modern in London, and Yoruba woodcarver Lamidi Fakiye, of Nigeria, both of whom incorporate and play off traditional forms and themes, while also striking a blow for modernism.

But there’s also an artist like Chike Obeagu, who depicts Nigeria’s capital city Abuja, in his mixed-media 2015 collage Cityscape and City Dwellers II , as a kaleidoscope of color and movement. He pastes into the canvas such cut-out phrases from magazines and newspapers as “All You Need is Great Hair,” “Rock the Retro Look” and “Ebola battle over running mate.”

A car in the frame bears a license plate reading “Naija,” which Nzewi said was a “default word for Nigerian culture. It is part of the lexicon.”

There are stunning pen-and-ink pieces by Julien Sinzogan, a Yoruba who grew up in Benin, that address the devastation wrought by the Middle Passage, the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and Europe and the Americas that lasted from the 15th through the 19th centuries.

The extraordinarily detailed drawings, which combine both sepia and brilliantly-colored inks, re -imagine the fate of the millions of Africans who were sold into slavery and forced onto slave ships in West African ports — the points of no return — b efore they were transported across the Atlantic in the cruellest conditions.

When a Yoruba died within the culture, Nzewi said, she or he was sent to the world of the departed. But when they died in slavery in the Americas, unnoticed and unremembered, their bodies thrown into unmarked graves, their souls suffered a terrible, rootless existence.

For a culture that venerated its ancestors, Nzewi said, the idea that Yoruba people could be stripped not only of their humanity but also of their history, and their ancestry, was unthinkable, a sacrilege. “They became undead,” said Nzewi.

But Sinzogan, who has lived in Paris for a number of years, restores those Yoruba who were sold into slavery to African shores, and confers on them the boldly colored robes of the egungen , a term that refers to the return of the ancestors to their villages.

“It’s a cathartic response,” Nzewi said.

Like other pieces in the show, Sinzogan’s work speaks to dislocation and disorientation, both voluntary and involuntary. “Displacement reveals itself in different ways, as does trauma,” Nzewi said.

There is a show stopper here, and that is a sculpture, recently acquired by the Hood, which is the first thing you see when you enter the gallery, and the last thing you’ll probably look at before you exit. It’s called V12 Laraki , and is named for a sports car that was designed and built in Morocco, with the exception of its Mercedes-Benz engine.

Eric Van Hove, an artist who divides his time between Belgium and Morocco, decided to replicate the engine, using Moroccan craftsmen and materials.

It took nine months to faithfully recreate the engine by hand, but in this case the materials that Van Hove and a team of 55 Moroccan craftsmen used included cedar, walnut and ebony woods, mother-of-pearl, yellow and nickel-plated copper, forged iron, nickel silver, agate, bone, and enamel inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, according to Van Hove’s website. In all there are 465 component parts, including the superb wooden crate on which the engine sits, and which is used for transporting it.

It’s an ornate, intricate, lovingly made piece that echoes Nzewi’s observation that artists can create work that feels absolutely modern and avant-garde while calling on centuries-old traditions and skills that are as vital as ever.

“Inventory: New Works and Conversations around African Art” runs through March 13 at the Hood Museum of Art. Other shows at the Hood until it closes on March 13: “Ice Cuts” by Vermont artist Eric Aho; “Points of View,” a selection from the permanent collection; “The Concinnatus Portfolio,” an exhibition of etchings of mathematical expressions made into art, the result of a two-year collaboration between Parasol Press and Dartmouth mathematics professor Daniel Rockmore. Also on view: “Contemporary Abstraction,” a show of works from the museum’s permanent collection, including paintings by American and aboriginal Australian artists. And “The Art of Weapons,” a show of African weaponry and armor.

Openings and Receptions

If you doubt the relevance of teaching art in school — and why would you? — look no further than three shows in the area exhibiting the wealth of talent coming out of our local schools. It’s all part of “Youth Art Month,” which began in 1961 as a way to highlight the importance of art education nationally.

The “Best of the Upper Valley High School Exhibition” opens Friday at A VA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The show, which runs through March 11, c omprises work by 149 high school artists from 17 public, private and vocational schools in the Upper Valley.

Meanwhile the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon will exhibit artwork in a variety of media by Lebanon Middle School students in grades 5 through 8. The show runs through March 31.  

The Royalton Memorial Library in South Royalton shows the work of 36 young artists from the South Royalton Sc hool through April 2.

The Library Arts Center in Newport returns from its early winter hiatus with its annual exhibition of winners of the previous year’s juried regional exhibition. “Selections: Winners from the 2015 Juried Regional Exhibit” opens Friday with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The show runs through Apr il 15. Artists exhibited will include: Kait Armstrong, Linda Billingsley, Shari Boraz, Donna Cotanzaro, Debra Claffey, Karena Ness, Susan Parmenter and Yvonne Shukovsky.

O ngoing

Arabella ,Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

Big Town Gallery , Rochester , Vt . “Hot Houses-Warm Curves,” an exhibition of painting, drawing and photography by Rick Skogsberg, Peter Moriarty and Anda Dubinskis ends Saturday.

Chandler Gallery , Randolph. “Salvage,” an exhibition featuring 20 Vermont artists working with found material, runs through March 19.

Colby-Sawyer College , New London. “Unassigned,” an exhibition of contemporary art , continues through Tuesday in the Marion Graves Mugar Art Gallery.

Converse Free Library , Lyme. The paintings of Matthew Greenway are on view until March 31 .

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center , Lebanon. The photographs of Elliott Burg are on view, as well as works by the Cardigan Mountain Art Association, Greg Hubbard, Wayne King, Jean Gerber and Pamela Tarbell. The works on view can be seen through March.

H opkins Center , Dartmouth College. A Visiting Faculty exhibition continues in the Strauss Gallery while the Jaffe-Friede Ga llery exhibits the sculpture of current artist-in-residence Mia Westerlund Roosen. Both exhibitions continue through March 13.

Howe Library , Hanover. The 40th annual Elden Murray photo exhibition is currently on view in the Ledyard Gallery at the Howe Library in Hanover. The show runs through Wednesday.

Long River Galleries and Gifts , Lyme. The handmade jewelry of Lynn Adams, Sandy Bomhower and Mariah Whitcomb is on view through Feb. 29. Paintings by Mary Jane Morse, the Winter River series, are also on view.

Norwich Public Library . A traveling art show celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice ’s Adventures in Wonderland , “Wonderland Forever,” continues through Feb. 28.

OSHER@Dartmouth , Hanover. The street photographs of Jim Lustenader are on view through March. The office is open Monday through Thurs day, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

S cavenger Gallery , White River Junction. A show of drawings by Toby Bartles is on view.

Tunbridge Library . The paintings of Chelsea artist Dian Parker are up through March 6.

Vermont Law School , South Royalton. “An Organic Palette,” an exhibition of prints by Adam Blue, sponsored by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at VLS, is up through March 4.

White River Gallery , South Royalton. “Lynn Newcomb’s Etchings: The Power of Black Ink; Two Decades of Printmaking” is on view through April.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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