The one Africa is as non-existent

When Northern Europeans engage with the South

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark is dedicating an exhibition to sub-Saharan Africa.

When Northern Europeans engage with the South

Africa – Architecture, culture and identity, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, photo by Ulrik Jantzen

By Clemens Bomsdorf

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark is dedicating an exhibition to sub-Saharan Africa – presenting an omnium gatherum with some highlights. Exhibitions solely devoted to one geographical region quickly raise suspicion of being stereotypical. As if the whole of America, Asia, or, as in this case, the whole of Africa actually could be one and as if there was anything such as the one art or architecture of the region.

In this respect you could hardly hope for a better beginning than in the exhibition “Africa – Architecture, Culture and Identity” at the Louisiana Museum, located north of Copenhagen. The first room of the exhibition is small and features an old white tiled stove on the left, the kind known from many of the better homes in Denmark and Sweden. With this, the exhibition on Africa starts with the cliché of Scandinavian cosiness. In order to emphasise that the one Africa is as non-existent as the one Europe, the walls next to and across from the stove display an array of infographics showing that Africa actually consists of a multitude of countries which in turn are quite diverse regarding the use of social media (yes, they exist there, too!) or exported goods. A map shows the continent divided into areas with and without Ebola, and, probably a surprise to some of the visitors, the greater part of Africa is free of this epidemic.

Africa Junctions, Oniru Estate, Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph by Lard Buurman, 2009/2013

Africa Junctions, Oniru Estate, Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph by Lard Buurman, 2009/2013

Independence Square, Accra, Ghana. Photograph by Alexia Webster, 2014

Independence Square, Accra, Ghana. Photograph by Alexia Webster, 2014

Louisiana is not the only major museum currently showing an exhibition focusing on Africa. The Museo delle Culture in Milan is showing “AFRICA – La terra degli spiriti”, and “Making Africa” is on show at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein – an exhibition which will be subsequently travelling to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

The current show at the Louisiana completes the architecture trilogy which previously presented Northern Europe (unfortunately in an almost propaganda-like manner) and the Arabian region. Here the curators are not trying to keep up with a big umbrella theme but ultimately only want to show what there is to discover in Africa.

Unfortunately the exhibition poster once again conforms to the classic cliché of Africa – showing the elaborately braided hairdo of an African woman, a portrait of the Nigerian photographer J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere. While it is definitely an interesting piece since it deals with Nigeria’s independence, the picture appears superficial on the poster – similar to the perpetual presentation of the little mermaid as a symbol for Denmark. In this context the fabric artwork “Ficksburg” by Billie Zangewa or a picture of the Ghanaian Independence Square in Accra would have been far more interesting. They are also part of the exhibition and just as “African”, but since they are not consistent with certain stereotypes they are not as quickly identified as such – and that, after all, is the point.

Louisiana Canopy by Kéré Architecture. Image courtesy of the architects

Louisiana Canopy by Kéré Architecture. Image courtesy of the architects

The first larger room of the show is somewhat of a disaster. Here the curators have – according to the exhibition concept – brought together everything which the African continent currently has to offer in art and architecture. However, their actual curatorial work is hardly visible, given that the totally overloaded hall resembles a depot.

In one corner the video documentation of Christoph Schliengensief’s opera village project can be viewed, provided that you happen to be standing in front of the screen at such an angle that the sound of the video is loud enough to be heard above the noise of other visitors and video installations. On one wall there is a display of portrait pictures of Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop, depicting the art scene in Africa, Europe and America, thereby demonstrating that there seem to be a lot of commonalities. His work is also being shown at the Vitra Museum. The fact that the texts accompanying the artworks are partly artists‘ statements and partly written by other authors is confusing. And with the plethora of exhibits, even the view from the high tower in the centre of the hall is hardly conducive to getting a better overview. Essentially, the only thing visitors can do is to select the few audible videos and to look at a choice of individual works, thereby gaining a rather random but also broad insight into the African scene.

Kéré Architecture (Burkina Faso): Gando Secondary School, 2013 Foto: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Kéré Architecture (Burkina Faso): Gando Secondary School, 2013 Foto: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Luckily there are more rooms to see. For instance the one showing various building projects on the continent. When looking at the buildings, some of which were designed by western and others by African architects, it soon becomes clear that irrespective of climatic, political and economic differences many of the issues that arise are quite similar: how can public spaces be designed in such a way that they really bring people together?; what does the ideal school look like?; and what constitutes a good indoor market? With their combination of design and function and probably low building costs, buildings such as the New Jerusalem Children’s Home in Johannesburg made of converted containers by South African 4D and A Architects or the Women’s Opportunity Centre in Kayonza, Ruanda by Sharon Davis Design in the US would benefit every European city. This is where the exhibition finally hits home because suddenly it’s really all about human needs which from a global perspective aren’t so different after all. The reason this is not consistently visible may possibly also be linked to the fact that the two curators of the Africa-exhibition, Mathias Ussing Seeberg and Kjeld Kjeldsen, both are Europeans.

The exhibition AFRICA – ARCHITECTURE, CULTURE AND IDENTITY is on view at Louisiana Museum Of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark until  25 October 2015. 

Clemens Bomsdorf is a journalist and lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. Over the years Bomsdorf contributed to German and international media as art, Baublatt, The Art Newspaper, Il Giornale dell’Arte, Financial Times Deutschland, Focus and Die Welt.

 

Explore

More Editorial


All content © 2022 Contemporary And. All Rights Reserved. Website by SHIFT