A Baule mask from Ivory Coast/Guinea; African-inspired walnut stools by Charles and Ray Eames displayed with a set of wooden stools, ca. 1930s, from the Congo; a series of black and white Jacquard textiles that reproduce patterns of Kuba textiles, also from the Congo: these are the objects that constituted Vincent Vulsma’s exhibition at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. Walking a fine line, the emerging Dutch artist skirted some ethical conundrums close to home while tenaciously focusing on the broader institutional reception, display and cultural recycling by the West of sub-Saharan African esthetics and art objects.
Vulsma showed us only the reverse side of the mask, marked with the various stamps, stickers and registration numbers that record its journey out of West Africa, first to Germany (in 1933, no less), then to France, and ultimately to Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum. The African stools, placed alternately on top of and under the Eames stools, were borrowed from a museum in Belgium, whose King Leopold II exerted a notoriously cruel dominion over what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo. The patterns in the Jacquard weavings—which the artist had fabricated at the Textile Museum in Tilburg—are based on magnified details lifted from Walker Evans’s photographs of textiles in the 1935 exhibition “African Negro Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Vulsma’s exhibition called into play a wide range of issues that he deftly linked: colonialism, modernism, appropriation, reproduction, assemblage, display, ethnography and museology—not a novel string of associations, but the show stood out for its elegant concision.
To ground us in the now, Vulsma borrowed the show’s title, “A Sign of Autumn,” from political economist Giovanni Arrighi, who in turn took it from the historian Fernand Braudel. Arrighi latched on to Braudel’s poetic phrase to denote a condition in which leading world powers continue to reap the economic benefits of their privileged position in the wake of colonialism, capitalizing on the previous expansion of world trade even as their commanding role is ineluctably fading. Such is the current situation of the West. Still, given that Vulsma’s own nation has a colonialist history—indeed, many of Leopold II’s policies were adopted from Dutch practices in the East Indies—one wonders why the artist did not seek more immediate contextual evidence of European overreach.
In the Eames stools and the Jacquard pieces, Vulsma in a sense replicates the quoting, juxtaposing and framing devices that the progressive modernists employed, even as he calls their practices into question. The Jacquard textiles were the strongest pieces in the show, conveying a tremulous optical effect that evokes pixels, even as their coarse weave conveys rustic artisanry. Vulsma’s uncanny ability to hold together at a micro level so many divergent elements made the show’s sweeping scope a particularly compelling achievement.
Photo: View of Vincent Vulsma’s exhibition “A Sign of Autumn,” 2011; at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam.