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Review: Chazen exhibit of African Art more than the sum of its parts

Nana Yaw Oduro (Ghanaian, b. 1994), PHILIP, 2019, inkjet print, 19 5/8 x 29 1/2 in., Sara Guyer and Scott Straus Contemporary African Art Initiative made possible by the Straus Family Foundation, 2021.28.3

During the first week of classes for UW Students, the Chazen Museum of Art opened a new exhibit using pieces from its established collection. This exhibit, entitled “Insistent Presense,” collects contemporary African Art from the Chazen permanent collection that focuses on experience throughout the African Diaspora. While the exhibit itself has a focus on use of body by artists, with their three sections, The Body in Society, The Absent Body, and The Artist is Present, there are other invaluable messages within the pieces of artwork on display. 

Historical education through art is a large part of the exhibit even if it wasn’t explicitly mentioned. Two pieces, Throne of Languages by Gonçalo Mabunda and Petro Beads by Moataz Nasr, exemplify this. 

Throne of Languages is a striking piece of artwork, an ornate chair made of decommissioned weapons from the Mozambique Civil War. It stands as not only an artistic ode to African Culture, and the western culture was set to overcome them, but as a gateway to learning more information about the Civil War. 

Petro Beads is another piece that takes inspiration from times of political strife, and uses material that had different purposes during times of struggle. This culture is made of gas canisters, painted and arranged to look like prayer beads to show the effect of both oil and gas money and religion on the artist’s home country of Egypt. It pairs as a striking end to the exhibit, something that draws your eyes to the very end of the gallery. 

Like all of the pieces in this exhibit, these pieces benefit from the context of the gallery they’ve been placed in. Putting these pieces of art together in a space to represent contemporary African art gives view to the strife and beauty of the modern African Experience. 

The body being the focus of the exhibit parallels it in a way to the Chazen’s last special Exhibit, re:manicpation. That gallery included a breakdown of a sculpture from the Chazen’s permanent collection., Emancipation Group, which depicted a Black man supposedly being freed from the bondage of slavery. 

In this way one Black man’s body has been used by a white artist to represent the whole in a way that was thought to be positive, and in this new exhibition African Artists use the body to represent the struggle and continued oversimplification of the continent and its people. 

Mutual Identity 39 by Dawit Abebe is a mixed media project that depicts a charcoal drawn African American man in the center of the artwork with a large watch that’s hyper-realistic, almost as if it had been cut from a magazine.

Around the man on the ground various white world leaders like Queen Elizbeth II, taking a stroll, completely missing the large figure in the center. The body of one man represents the whole of an ignored perspective, an ignored corner of the world where modern African Life sits. 

Individually all the pieces in the exhibit are stunning, and seeing all of them is a must, but overall what they represent as a whole, placed together despite usually residing in different galleries, gives them new meaning and provides a full picture. The last three special exhibits at the Chazen have included some kind of retrospection of the museum itself, and this one like the others does so in a way that provides new perspective and meaning to art that has been hanging on the museum’s walls for years. 

“Insistent Presence” will remain on display through December 23.