Focusing on the cultural and socio-economic dynamics of love in its myriad expressions, The Progress of Love – a three part exhibition held in Nigeria in Lagos and the US in St. Louis and Houston at the Menil – re-examines how love has evolved over time in Africa in the context of colonization, rapid globalization, and tremendous technological advancement.
The exhibition borrows its title from Fragonard’s piece “The Progress of Love: Love Letters” (1770-73) – an icon of love and affection in contemporary France created at the birth of European imperialism – to situate our present notions of love in this historical context. In the wake of the debates about the location of contemporary African art, The Progress of Love as a transcontinental exhibitionbridges the gap between the continent and the diaspora and opens a new chapter on the African subject.
The Menil Collection’s iteration of The Progress of Love showcases over twenty artists from Africa and in the diaspora working in painting, photography, sound, video and multimedia installation. It introduces the audience to a dynamic group of emerging artist such as Toyin Odutola, Joel Andrianomearisoa, Kelechi Amadi Obi, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Billie Zangewa and Zina Saro-Wiwa as well as established figures such as Kendell Geers, Zelethu Mthetwa, and Yinka Shonibare whose featured installation “The Swing (After Fragonard)”, a re-appropriation of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Progress of Love” , directly ties the theme of the show to its historical, cultural and socio-economic context of imperialism and colonization.
Hazoume’s installation, the first to welcome the visitor, is imposing in its physicality and stimulating in subject matter. It recreates the façade of the headquarters of The Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners, a non-governmental organization the artist founded with colleagues in Benin to reverse the trend whereby the citizens of “underdeveloped” countries could realize their potential to uplift themselves by helping others. Comprising a video that documents fundraising activities by the collective, and pamphlets articulating the organization’s mission, the installation promotes civic empowerment and also celebrates a universal love that transcends economic and geographical barriers. Constructed out of jerrycans the installation also highlights the intricate relationship between commerce and aid.
Sharing Hazoume’s multicultural perspective on love is Emeka Ogboh’s “A Lagos State of Mind”: It takes us on a journey into the hearts of lovers by the Lagosian commuter bus called “danfo” to reveal how our modern concept of love itself has travelled in time and space. The installation, comprised of “danfo” Volkswagen bus, recorded radio conversations and street sounds, is arresting and disarming. For a while, the ferocious “danfo” Volkswagen rests peacefully and lovable in the exhibition space. Paramount to the installation is the radio phone-in dialogue that one listens to on headphones installed on the seats of the bus in which young lovers describe their media-influenced date preferences (such as “She should be tall” or “He should be working”).
Extending on the theme of intimacy, Dineo Bopape’s triptych video installation “They Act as Lovers” celebrates a frenzied romance through a psychedelic bombardment of the minutiae of love. Bopape’s is an intense barrage of imagery and metaphor that alludes to love’s fleeting moments of passion and/or frustration, real and enacted. We also find ourselves deeply implicated as shameless voyeurs entangled in the intimate moments of others as we watch Zina Saro-Wiwa’s colorful video installation titled “Eaten by the Heart”, featuring different couples kissing passionately. At one level, Saro-Wiwa’s video comments on public display of affection, which is still considered taboo in most African societies. At another level, it celebrates an exhibitionism that asserts one’s identity at a time when sexuality is strictly policed and “deviants” are persecuted.
This double sense of vulnerability and pride is also captured in Zanele Muholi’s gelatin silver prints of lesbian couples in intimate embrace and also in one of Samuel Fosso’s untitled prints from the series “Memory of a Friend” in which the artist features himself lying nude on a bed in the manner of an odalisque. Under the gaze of the viewer the male sexual aggressor becomes a vulnerable object of desire.
Perhaps it is in Kendell Geers’ wall installation titled “Arrested Development (Cardiac Arrest)”, featuring glass batons that form a heart, where the delicate and also brutal aspect of love is captured most vividly. As a weapon of police brutality, the phallic-shaped glass baton that also resembles a dildo, symbolizes the brutality of sexual desire. On the other hand, in its totality the heart of glass batons refers to the fragility of love under adversity. A timely statement on love and hate as different regions of Africa grapple with homophobia and discrimination.
Indeed, our tools for expressing love have evolved but have we really made any progress in our feelings for our fellow beings? Does better communication mean more love for the other? The diverse artists assembled in the exhibition attempt to address these and many more questions by offering their own different perspectives according to their personal experiences. In its transcontinental approach and broad thematic scope, The Progress of Love therefore succeeds as a cosmopolitan show that dissects love to analyze its complex forms and offer a moment for reflection.
Massa Lemu is a Malawian writer and artist currently based in Houston, Texas.