- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

The National Museum of African Art’s “Body of Evidence” is, at first glance, as puzzling as its title. Artists worldwide have long used human bodies to project emotion, but rarely has a body-centered show been so titled.

“Body as Communicator” might have been better. There’s no need here, however, to tackle mind-bending issues, for the art — all from the museum’s contemporary collection — speaks for itself aesthetically and intellectually.

Each work in the show is remarkable for its message and method. Three works, in particular, come to mind:

• Painter Kay Hassan’s wall-hugging, glued-and-stapled paper “First Time Voters.”

• Installation-artist Georgia Papageorge’s ocean-roaming “Africa Rifting: Lines of Fire, Namibia/Brazil.”

• And sculptor Jeremy Wafer’s traditional African body-texturing in the “African Forms I-VIII” ovoids.

Mr. Hassan’s 7-foot-long “First Time Voters” is riveting. A rendering of emancipation from apartheid — a system of racial discrimination against blacks in South Africa from 1948 to 1994 — this artwork’s color, size and collaged papers are part of its power, but the figures’ emotive posturing is even more so.

Somewhat like figures in a classical Greek frieze winding its way around a temple, two groups of people surround a boy sipping soda pop at center. They’re waiting in line for their first life-determining opportunity to vote.

To express these emotions, a figure in the left grouping pulls his arms behind his back while tilting his beak-shaped nose upward. Another in this group pulls his shirt downward, while still another raises an arm and hawklike nose in protest.

The more closely intertwined group at right, with two persons seated, appears to meditate.

Placed opposite the expressionist piece are Mr. Wafer’s eight textured, minimal ovoid black plaster forms that refer to traditional African pottery and scarification techniques.

Decorations are varied and subtle. The only white — the rest are black — ovoid shows tiny red droplets that mimic blood. Other ovoids are carved with tiny knives into decorative patterns in painted and waxed plaster instead of human flesh.

Another substitute for human flesh is the use of light and color in Miss Papageorge’s enormous installation “Africa Rifting,” videotaped on DVD. She uses the coastal landscapes of southern Africa and Brazil to explore the movement of peoples and ideas across the Atlantic. While human bodies are absent, quickly moving veils of color and light imply human presences.

Watching this takes patience but is well worth the effort.

These three artworks are part of the first rotation in a four-rotation, 40-object exhibit by 20 “African-connected” artists from eight countries.

“These ‘African-connected’ artists are not constrained by geography or race to the African continent,” says Christine Mullen Kreamer, museum curator. “Africa is also an idea and, thus, to some extent, a state of mind.”

For example, Sue Williamson was born in England and immigrated to South Africa with her family in 1948. After study at New York’s Art Students League and Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, she joined the anti-apartheid artists group in South Africa.

Outstanding in the show is her “Can’t Forget, Can’t Remember,” an interactive CD-ROM that captured powerful moments during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings when victims and oppressors confronted each other.

Contrasting with this minimal artistic approach is Berni Searle’s moving, dramatically lighted and colored, six-paneled “To Hold, in the Palm of the Hand,” a large-scale digital photographic installation.

The exhibit label tells us it is from her series “Discoloured,” in which the artist uses her body as a canvas to “manipulate her skin color to recall South Africa’s apartheid’s history of violence and prejudice.”

Often it’s easy to overlook the smaller works on paper in an exhibition, and so it is here. Godfried Donkor, who studied in Barcelona and London, presents two of the best: “From Slave to Champ I” and “Unbelievable” show American and European stereotyping of blacks as entertainers and boxing champions.

Nearby are New Yorker Ike Ude’s shimmering, reflective photographs spoofing the city’s fashion industry. He’s originally from Nigeria.

Although the word “African” doesn’t appear in the exhibit’s title, it’s interesting to consider what the terms “African” and “African-connected artists” mean. In thinking about this, one is reminded that Miss Kreamer says these artists are not “geographically bound” and that Africa exists as “a state of mind.”

So we have to decide for ourselves.

WHAT: “Body of Evidence”

WHERE: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through February 2008


PHONE: 202/633-4600

ONLINE: https://africa.si.edu

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