Living With Ghosts review – Africa’s revolutionaries come back from the dead

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The Guardian

Dineo Seshee Bopape has placed various forms of processed earth, each with a link to human culture, on low plinths made of mudbrick. There are subtle washes of coloured pigment, a dried circle of pale paste and dustings of gold leaf. Around them are dozens of clay cylinders, roughly shaped by the clenching fingers of a hand.

These clay lumps range from black to ashy grey to ochre, reflecting the fact that they have been excavated from many sites. Among them are plaques of wood carrying stories from a span of 500 years. In each, a community in a different part of Africa has fought back against Europeans who grabbed territory, suppressed culture and plundered resources. Bopape notes the number who fell during each uprising: the clay pieces become commemorative objects. Earth in its many forms here carries associations of contested mineral wealth, material for building houses and making art, land for growing crops and grazing livestock, but above all homeland: the soil beneath your feet.

The dead honoured in Bopape’s 2018 piece titled Lerole: Footnotes (The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting) are joined by a spectral multitude in Living With Ghosts, an exhibition of work by nine artists at the Pace gallery in London, honouring African histories forgotten, suppressed or erased. These are ghosts of the forgotten dead, whose spirits and deeds haunt Africa and its diaspora.

From Foreword to Guns for Banta (2011) by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc: set photographs of the shooting of the film Guns for Banta by Sarah Maldoror. Photograph: Suzanne Lipinska, courtesy Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc

In Bouchra Khalili’s 2015 film Foreign Office, two young people speaking French, Arabic and English use a map of Algiers and a stack of news photographs to tell the story of Algeria’s years as an international revolutionary hub. A photo from 1962 shows Nelson Mandela with members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FNL). Also in the photo is Amílcar Cabral, leader of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, who was shot in 1973 as he led Guinea-Bissau to independence. Or perhaps the figure in the photograph is Brazilian poet Mário de Andrade? Or Agostinho Neto, leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)? The image is fuzzy. The narrators are unsure.

As Cabral put it: “Christians go to the Vatican, Muslims go to Mecca, revolutionaries go to Algiers.” The narrators draw dots on a map showing the HQ of various political organisations: the FNL and MPLA, the ANC, the Black Panther party in exile. All that political fervour and radical thought once intersected in this city. On the gallery walls are photographs taken by Khalili at seven of those dots on the map. All are now “non sites” – empty stairwells, a playground, an unfashionable hotel, their revolutionary history apparently forgotten.

Like other works in this show, Foreign Office highlights the revolutionary role of women, notably Peninsular Moon and other female fighters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman. There was also a role for culture: in Algiers, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver promoted free jazz as the sound of revolutionary Africa, and used the new Portapak video camera to shoot propaganda films. In the present, the narrators tell us they share and circulate stories to help their generation fill gaps in their history.

Hotel El Safir, Ex-Aletti, Algiers City Center, Residence of the Black Panther Party delegation during the 1969 Pan-African Festival of Algiers, Fig. 1: Entrance of the former casino (2015), by Bouchra Khalili. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and mor charpentier

Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s Foreword to Guns for Banta, from 2011, explores Cabral’s push towards liberation in Guinea-Bissau through the experience of anticolonial film-maker Sarah Maldoror, who shot a feature about the country’s liberation struggles. Subsequently confiscated, all that remains of the film are production stills. Together, artist and film-maker strive to fill in the gaps and work out what was lost – in Maldoror’s missing film, and the larger story of Guinea-Bissau’s fight for independence.

Cameron Rowland’s later work, Mooring, is a more minimal offering: a certificate confirming the artist’s lease of a specific mooring on Liverpool’s Albert Dock, once the location of the Rathbone & Sons warehouse that supplied timber to slavers’ ships. Rowland has taken an indefinite lease and plans to leave the mooring perpetually unused: a commemorative emptying of space that makes an interesting conceptual companion to recent debate around public monuments.

Under other circumstances, a show full of wordy works – printed text, dense voiceovers, extended explicatory captions – might constitute a kind of curatorial failure, but here it feels essential. What is under examination are gaps in our general knowledge: how is one to make art in a territory for which most of us have no shared references?

This concise show makes an interesting counterpoint to In the Black Fantastic, now at the Hayward Gallery in London. Where that exhibition looks to the future, exploring the role of imagination as a source of hope and freedom, this identifies the stifling, disorienting impact of a lack of historical record. Here, the artist is positioned not as a catcher of dreams, but in a more sombre role: delving for memories.

July 14, 2022 at 03:41PM Hettie Judah

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