Africa in the Picture XI

Though this art-focused series is largely celebratory, we highlight here works which illuminate some of the dark chapters in the continent’s story.  As the world shudders in horror over the Gulf Coast oil spill, we must also acknowledge the world capital of oil pollution, the Niger Delta, from whence 40% of US crude oil is imported and the division of wealth is staggeringly disproportionate.  Over a four-year period, photographer George Osodi documented life in the region in his series of digital photographs, Oil Rich Niger Delta.

Ogoni Boy, 2007 and Ogoni Oil Pollution, 2007.  George Osodi.

During a residency in Recife, Brazil, Beninese artist Meschac Gaba created a vast port city of international, iconic, architectural landmarks crafted entirely out of sugar as wry commentary on the significance of the slave trade (specifically the slave labor of cane workers on sugar-producing plantations) on the economic growth of Western nations.

Detail from Sweetness, 2006. Meschac Gaba.

In a wonderful a deux exhibition last fall at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, 1997 MacArthur Fellow, Kara Walker shared space with fellow “Genius Grant” recipient Mark Bradford (2009.)  Yes there were her  to-be-expected, arresting cut paper silhouettes but I was particularly struck by a large untitled mixed media canvas which had a small, yellowed newspaper clipping bearing the headline Rape Victim Stoned to Death in Somalia Was 13, U.N. Says. I was sickened and outraged by the cruel, tragic fate of young Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow and reminded of the power of art to not only celebrate culture but also to condemn atrocity.

Untitled. Kara Walker.

Henry Adebonojo, whose 2004 journey to Rwanda to shoot behind-the-scenes footage for the excellent Raoul Peck-directed HBO film Sometimes in April, led him to a chilling visit to a Nytarama church, an hour south of Kigali. It is alleged that approximately 5000 people seeking sanctuary lost their lives in the small chapel. Deeply moved by his encounter with the haunting vestiges of the 1994 genocide, Henry speaks of the “great sacrilege”of the commission of murder in a house of worship and of the complicity of some of the pastors.

It didn’t happen all at once of course.  People would go there for refuge and would never be seen again.  No way to pass word of the danger, no way to ward off the terror. The skulls are arranged against two walls as you enter the church.  One directly opposite and the wall to your right.  To your left is the length of the church and what remains of the pews, more like benches, are like stepping-stones over the detritus of clothing, shoes, collarbones and a host of other personal effects.

The mass of skulls all bear witness to the manner of death.  Machetes have their particular signature.  Bullet holes, though present were the exception.  There were makeshift “mallets” some made of hardened mud, some of wood encrusted with nails that delivered a pretty distinctive mark of its own.

There are grenade holes in the walls and the ceiling is riddled with bullets.  In one of the pictures you can see a skull outlined by a ray of sunlight coming through those same holes.  The ugliness and the beauty all at once.  It is as if the one skull it highlights is saying to us all – look at me, I know I am here with all of these people, but look at me, I am a person, an individual… Yes, the picture says, See Me!

If You Knew Me, 2004. Henry Adebonojo.

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One Response

  1. Hi Sharon, thank you for reminding us that in the middle of all the beauty sometimes pretty despicable things happen. It’s all too easy to forget. I got chills reading those words again.
    Keep up the exceptional work!

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