If things are meant to be used and thrown away, why do they keep coming back?
“Material Effects,” a two-gallery display of work by six African artists, peels back the layers of physical things around us — where they come from, what they mean and why our relationship to them is more slippery and mysterious than it seems.
Last week, Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama and a team of 40 assistants spent several days at MSU’s Broad Art Museum, sewing and installing “Post No Bill,” a 40-foot-high, 80-foot-wide curtain-like sculpture made of hundreds of jute (burlap) sacks.
The humble sacks are a staple of material exchange in Africa, widely used in the cocoa, coal, retail and other trades. Mahama barters for bags that are too frayed or stained to use, stockpiles them and builds what Broad Museum guest curator Yesomi Umolu calls “monumental sculptural interventions.”
It’s a strong intervention, especially in the ultra-sleek Broad Museum. The rough weave, dirty colors and saggy folds of Mahama’s itchy aurora of burlap seem to repudiate the pristine glass and steel behind it. The bags are displayed with all their holes and imperfections, sharpening the contrast.
The art of “Material Effects” works on several levels. You can simply take in all the textures and colors, pondering the origin and creation of each object. Or you can dig deeper, even into the realm of philosophy.
Otobong Nkanga, an artist based in Europe but still rooted in her native Nigeria, traces the history of the kola nut from its native origin in the African rain forest, through its use in soft drinks and other consumer products in the West. The mixed media work, “Contained Measures of a Kolanut,” includes photos, depicting everything from chemical diagrams to commercial uses, as well as actual kola nuts and kola nut extract to represent the nut in its various forms.
“Wherever you are in the globe, our primary relationship to things are as commodities,” Umolu said. “You have your clothing, your phone, and they’re all about expressing status and wealth through the things we accumulate.”
Could things be otherwise? Here the exhibit dives into deep waters. Umolu explained that the art on display is part of a “broader investigation” going on in the world of philosophy.
The field of philosophy known as “object oriented ontology” recognizes that non-living things have their own existence, apart from any use or meaning they may have to people.
Just because people are done hauling coal in those sacks doesn’t mean the sacks disappear. The jute has its own existence, apart from people. Now it’s art. In a year it may be in a landfill.
When Umolu visited Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria early this year, she found a rich and sophisticated art scene that draws upon this idea.
“I saw artists who were re-appropriating objects and thinking about the material world and its significance in contemporary life,” Umolu said. For “Material Effects,” she chose to work with six artists — one from Senegal, three from Ghana and two from Nigeria.
The godfather of “Material Effects” is Senegalese artist Issa Samb, who started a radical group of artists called Laboratoire Agit'Art in the 1960s. (Samb is seen in a video interview at the entrance to “Material Effects.”)
In the mid-20th century, when country after country was declaring independence from European powers, African artists were under pressure to reject all things Western and tap into an idealized pan-African culture. To Samb, there was no such thing.
“There’s no singular idea of what it means to be African, or even what it means to be in Senegal,” Umolu said. “In Senegal they have all these different tribes, different customs, different languages. Whether or not it was in our control, part of being African is having a hybridized origin.”
Hybridization, the mixing of materials, ethnicities and cultures, is another key pattern woven into “Material Effects.”
The message is clear in the sculpture and video work of German/Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku, a specialist in fashion design. Fabrics offer a vivid screen upon which Opoku projects her mixed African and European heritage.
“She is interested in how the clothes we wear say something about who we are as people,” Umolu said.
Samb also looked beyond Africa in the 1960s, drawing on surrealism, Dada and other European modernist movements. At his famous “courtyard” studio/colony in Dakar, he used found objects to create ever-changing installations and encouraged performances, discussions and happenings of all kinds.
Samb’s spirit influenced the younger artists of “Material Effects” by showing, in Umolu’s words, that “African art can be contemporary.”
“It can borrow from indigenous forms, but it can also be very new and very radical,” Umolu said.
There is a temptation to fall back on stereotypes when viewing “Material Effects,” just as Western observers of Africa have done for centuries. Looking at all those sagging, threadbare jute sacks, some viewers may see a veiled message of protest from an exhausted, exploited continent. But the artists represented in “Material Effects” are getting at something more universal. What does it do to your mind to see every thing in the world as a tool?
Umolu put the question this way: “Do we have a much more intrinsic and essentialized relationship with objects, beyond capital?”
The question is just as valid in Nigeria — where corruption is rampant and “it’s every man for himself,” in the words of “Material Effects” artist Jelili Atiku — as it is in Europe and America.
Let that percolate while you spin an old tune by hybrid Afro-Cuban/American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie: “Things Are Here.” Indeed they are.