Cosmopolitan Africa on view in 'Beyond Borders' at UMMA
"Beyond Borders: Global Africa," up through Nov. 25, casts a spotlight on the unexpected cosmopolitanism of African art, sometimes thought -- falsely -- to have been provincial and isolated.
The show at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, two and a half years in the making, demonstrates the considerable influence the rest of the world had on African artists, as well as the impact the African diaspora had on art elsewhere.
Associate Curator of African Art Laura De Becker, who organized this handsome show drawn largely from private collections, wanted to remind visitors that Picasso and other Cubists weren't the only artists to pull on African precedents.
"I wanted to show that's only one moment in the long history of encounter, exchange and the passing back and forth of influences," De Becker said. "I wanted to show African artists drawing from European and American sources -- and vice-versa."
In this respect, "Beyond Borders" bears some resemblance to "Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present," the 2010 Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition that De Becker says was a big inspiration.
This cross-cultural hybridization is on full display with the magnificent portrait that greets the visitor on entering the exhibition, the 2014 "Jean-Baptiste Belley" by the Senegalese-born Omar Victor Diop.
The work is a play on Anne-Louis Girodet's 1797 portrait of Belley, who was sold into slavery as a small child, but ultimately rose to prominence in the French army and became a spokesman for people of color in the French Republic.
Dressed in full 18th-century military splendor, Diop has inserted his likeness for Belley.
"What Diop is trying to do is find dignified stories of migration," De Becker said, rather than the more-common tales of exploitation and suffering. "He wanted to show how important some of these people became in the countries they landed in."
In an ironic touch, Diop is resting one arm on a soccer ball atop a table -- a knowing reference to the role Africans play in professional European soccer, and the racist taunts that have become an unfortunate part of the game in recent years.
By contrast, Chéri Samba's "Hommage aux Anciens Créatures (A Tribute to Earlier Artists)" plays with both representation and cultural appropriation.
In the 1999 painting, the artist -- dapper in red blazer and dark glasses -- sits at a table, regarding a half-dozen historical sculptures by unknown artists, all of which originated in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Samba was born.
The artist found the small pieces in a Swiss museum, and was reportedly "astonished" to discover the collector in question had never visited Africa. With "Hommage," the artist confronts the reality that the best collections of historical African art are, alas, not in Africa, but Europe.
"That’s why I called the exhibition 'Beyond Borders,' De Becker said. "I wanted to use the show to talk about how borders, both geographic and conceptual, are crossed."
'Beyond Borders: Global Africa'
Through Nov. 25
University of Michigan Museum of Art
525 S. State, Ann Arbor
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun.