African arts star at N’Namdi Center

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora get the spotlight at two small, but cool shows at Detroit’s N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art through Jan. 2.

“Simbi dzebasa” brings together three young artists and one national icon, all from Zimbabwe, while “Leonardo Benzant: The Cosmology of Resistance and Transformation” features the New York-based Caribbean-American artist’s offbeat take on African ritual sticks and totems.

For “Simbi dzebasa,” College for Creative Studies sculpture professor Chido Johnson curated four boundary-pushing artists from his African homeland, one of whom — Masimba Hwati — just wrapped up a five-week residency at Popps Packing, the Hamtramck arts laboratory.

“Zimbabwe, like Detroit,” Johnson says, “has gone through an economic collapse,” a crisis that’s led to the near-extinction of some traditional crafts that sculptor and weaver Tapfuma Gutsa hopes to revive through creative repurposing.

In the past, Gutsa — at almost 60, something of a national legend — has worked with buffalo horns. But his two pieces at N’Namdi involve the intricate basketweaving he studied in a remote rural village.

A short video as you walk into the gallery documents the construction of an elegant, woven room or pavilion that Johnson badly wanted to bring to Detroit. “But it was too big,” he says with a smile. “It was impossible.”

The other piece by Gutsa, whose work has shown at the Venice Biennale, is a surprisingly handsome woven sculpture called “Moon Series” that bears an uncanny resemblance to a torpedo — about as far from the medium’s traditional applications as you can get.

Exuding irony are Hwati’s nearby sculptures, particularly “Zhet.” Here the 33-year-old has mounted the odious symbol of colonial rule, a military officer’s boot, on wheels to create a sort of skateboard of oppression.

On the photographic side of things, Gareth Nyandoro — an artist who spent his childhood herding goats — strapped mining helmets with lights to a group of goats and then filmed them wandering around at night to create the oddly mesmerizing and beautiful video, “Child of the Goats.”

Beautiful as well, if rather more-in-your-face, are Nancy Mteki’s huge black-and-white self-portraits in various stages of undress in her kitchen — an example, Johnson says, “of a southern African woman using her body to challenge a male-dominated society.”

Less challenging than utterly beguiling are the dozen or so hanging sculptures by Leonardo Benzant in N’Namdi’s Rose Gallery. The artist often adapts traditional African forms, but has covered these totems or power staffs in giddy rainbows of tiny jeweled beads.

The visual effect, particularly as they’re all hanging in close proximity, is breathtaking.

‘Simbi dzebasa: Four Contemporary Artists from Zimbabwe’

‘Leonardo Benzant: The Cosmology of

Resistance and


Both through Jan. 2

N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 52 E. Forest, Detroit

Noon-6 p..m. Tuesday-Saturday

(313) 831-8700

Other art around town

Matthew Hanna’s “Catfish: Paintings on Paper” is up at the hard-to-find Alley Culture ( for directions) south of Detroit’s Woodbridge through Saturday. Feel like getting a start on your holiday shopping? The Detroit Artists Market (313-832-8540) already has its “Art for the Holidays” shop up and running through Dec. 27.