This exhibition began with a video of the show’s four artists-Kader Attia, Sammy Baloji, Michael MacGarry and Adolphus Opara-each speaking about their work. Though it may have been an unfortunate accident of exhibition design, the videotaped interviews functioned like a checkpoint at a border crossing. The artists had to identify themselves and flash credentials before we experienced their work. Perhaps the curators felt some context-or initiation-was necessary, as these artists hail from different corners of the African continent. Attia, born in France of Algerian descent, lives between Berlin and Algiers; Baloji is Congolese; MacGarry is a white South African; Opara is Nigerian. But their work, in each case keenly alive to questions of display, made the impulse to introduce them all the more absurd.
Opara’s portraits of Yoruba priests and priestesses are displayed as backlit transparencies, the lightbox glow and smooth surface a strange counterpoint to the otherwise grainy, washed-out photographs. The series is titled “Emissaries of an Iconic Religion” (2009), and the figures, at once inviting and forbidding as they clutch attributes of their respective Orisha deities, are presented with all the officialness of court paintings.
If Opara’s images are formal and earnest, MacGarry’s sculptures trade in dark humor. His Fetish VI (2010) is a wooden AK-47 impaled with iron nails like traditional Congolese Nkondi; in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie (2010), a taxidermy monkey perches on stiltlike crutches. The Ossuary (2009–10) is a vitrine of ivory objects, including a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, a knuckle ring, a hand grenade, a syringe and a pair of dice. MacGarry’s works are clever visual jokes, riffing on material and history—ivory carvings as the original bling—but he delivers us rather too swiftly to the punchline. In their slickness, these objects refuse further engagement. The mystery lies not in our visceral encounter but in the histories and traditions to which the objects refer.
Attia’s work requires considerably more of the viewer. His slide-show installation Open your Eyes (2010) occupied a small room with black walls, the entrance guarded by a sign warning visitors of potentially disturbing content. Two slide projectors throw a sequence of images and phrases on adjacent walls. First come stitched, patched, braced and bracketed pieces of African pottery and masks-their round surfaces calling to mind human skulls, their seams and cracks like sutured wounds and keloid scars. Accompanied by intervening slides with words like “translation,” “universalities” and “modern aesthetics,” these museological specimens eventually give way to slides of the deformed and bandaged faces of European World War I veterans, survivors of primitive plastic surgery. Attia finds visual echoes between these archives, as the wounded African artifacts and wounded European soldiers offer two views onto civilization.
Baloji’s “Mémoire” series (2006) makes literal the metaphor of excavation, so often applied to work dealing with memory. His subject is resource extraction, and the mining industry that has ravaged his country since the colonial era. He photographs the mines in their contemporary decayed state. The rusty skeletal machinery hulks between blank blue-gray sky and dry, dusty earth.
The mine has visitors. Upon his contemporary images, Baloji superimposes figures from the past. There are European colonial authorities gathered with Congolese officers; together they seem to be surveying the land. A lone Congolese man stares directly at the viewer like a sentinel; we must pass through him to approach the now. The intrusion of these archival ghosts dispenses with any assumption that the landscape is a natural state of affairs.
The processes of history function differently for each of these artists, yet the ease with which the past and present coexist is what unites them across a vast and variable terrain.
Photo: Sammy Baloji: Untitled 25, from the “Mémoire” series, 2006, digital photograph, 23½ by 53 inches; in “Contested Terrains” at Tate Modern.