On December 5th, 2018, I had the honor of experiencing the Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design exhibit at The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin and was immediately thrown into a world of awe-inspiring creations. Showcasing the work of over-120 different artists, designers, musicians, videographers and architects, Making Africa, illustrates how design accompanies and fuels economic and political changes in the continent. However, the exhibit also makes a point to critique the oppression of black people and the white-washing of African history. While the Blanton Museum of Art features several permanent collections ranging from Ancient Greek to modern American, this temporary exhibit struck a cord with my African heritage and granted me aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment. Even though the entire exhibit was grandiose, there were several works that particularly stood out to me and caused me to walk away with a redefined sense of self. I found Anton Kannemeyer’s Super Rich Man, 2011, Kai Krause’s The True Size of Africa, 2010 and Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City, 2008-2010 to be extremely profound works that illicit emotional responses from their observers. Although this wasn’t the first time I attended an art museum, I would often catch myself acknowledging the basic elements of art while admiring each work. I believe that the lessons I gained from class lecture helped me fully appreciate the artistic values of the works and setting.
First, let’s unpack the setting in which the Making Africa exhibit takes place. From the moment I entered the building, I was blown away by the layout of the connecting rooms. They somehow managed to channel both modern and archaic styles of design that fit perfectly with the overall themes of the carefully curated exhibit. A majority of the painted and screen-printed works sit on eggshell-white walls that contrast greatly with the brightly colored and intricately designed two-dimensional, artistic images. Meanwhile, the sculptures and appropriately dressed mannequins sit on elevated platforms that touch on a variety of dark, neon and pastel colors. This was probably meant to represent the bright colors Africans tend to wear, while simultaneously acting as a commentary on the many different shades of life Africa is home to. Furthermore, there are large, printed quotes by famous black activists that are plastered about the rooms in prominent locations. Quotes such as “until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters,” by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, speak volumes and do a great job of adding to the overall theme and intentions of the exhibit.
The first works I noticed upon my entering of Making Africa just so happened to be the two that made a lasting impression on me. Anton Kannemeyer’s Super Rich Man, 2011 and Kai Krause’s The True Size of Africa, 2010 are two printed works that identify two forms of racism that are rarely talked about in the mainstream, however they are effectively presented here. Super Rich Man, 2011 is a brightly hued lithography print that mockingly portrays a wealthy European dressed in a Superman-esque garb, handing a pickaninny caricature a bag of money. This piece is a scathing indictment of the white savior complex that is so frequently presented in our entertainment and media. Kannemeyer demonstrates great use of color, lines, texture and symbolism with this clever work that acknowledges the inequality of the relationship between the African –who is clearly poor and downtrodden—and the European—who still holds his power and position even though he sacrificed a large sum of money. Although this piece works on several levels, it comes across as a much easier pill to swallow than Krause’s The True Size of Africa, 2010 which presents a more bizarre truth.
The True Size of Africa, 2010 is a digital print that super-imposes the outline of Africa as it is presented in textbooks, over the actual size of the continent to show the glaring differences. Apparently in 1500s, the actual size of Africa was miscalculated, but this inaccurate calculation was presented as truth for centuries. As a result, European countries were given larger sizes and more prominent positions on the globe, a side effect that was, at the time, happily accepted. With this work Krause has attempted to celebrate the true size of Africa, while also calling out European nations for continuing to spread false information about the size and importance of the continent.
Although Kannemeyer and Krause feature works that affected me on a sociological level, Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City, 2008-2010 was one of the most aesthetically pleasing collections I had seen in the entire exhibit. Ponte City, 2008-2010 is basically a large selection of photographs that works as an intimate and powerful portrait of Africa’s tallest apartment building. Over the course of two years, Subotzky and Waterhouse took photos of every window, apartment door and TV set in the building; then they pieced together several hundred pictures in three different lightboxes which make up the design of apartment building. The collection is divided into three separate works, Televisions, 2008-2010, Doors, 2008-2010 and Windows, 2008-2010, and works as a mesmerizing mosaic of hundreds of African lives. It was truly a surreal experience that was, not only effective, but also proved to be a rather inventive art piece and social statement.
The Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design exhibit at The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin was one of the most exquisite experiences I have had all year. It gives me pause that I have lived near Austin for several years and never got around to visiting all the exhibits the town has to offer until I had to write a paper for a class. However, I am fortunate to possess the knowledge that I have gained from taking this course. I have already recommended the exhibit to my friends and we plan on visiting it again in the upcoming weeks.
The exhibit will be leaving The Blanton Museum of Art on January 6, 2019. The entire museum exhibit is free if you go on Thursdays!