‘Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America’ is a moving, intriguing exhibition of wide-ranging art from sixteen contemporary artists, often with complex socio-political influences. The diversity of media and raw talent of several of the artists on display promised a successful, unconventional display, something achieved in part. Unfortunately, something is missing.
This issue could relate to the vague curatorial purpose of the exhibition, evident in its very name; Pangaea refers to an ancient supercontinent, which united most continents in one landmass, and began to separate around 200 million years ago. The word roughly translates to ‘all lands’: an alarmingly wide theme to cover. Latin American and African art is rapidly gaining wider recognition, with recent art fairs such as 1:54 setting precedent for further platforms in London, and it is refreshing to see such art on display in such a prominent gallery. However, Saatchi Gallery offers no explanation for the specific combination of Latin America and Africa, other than their roles as former ‘sister continents’, and the ‘parallels between their distinctly diverse cultures and creative practices’. This puts the exhibition at risk of ‘otherising’ its contributors; emphasis is placed upon continent-of-origin rather than preventing generalisation by selecting a narrower curatorial theme.
Despite this, many of the actual works on display counter generalisation. This is exemplified in Aboudia’s powerful canvases, carried out upon collages of newspaper clippings, including images of hair braiding techniques and African masks. This, juxtaposed with the violence of over-painted imagery of childlike figures brandishing guns, displaces simplistic understanding of culture by bringing to light the trauma of the political state of his native Republic of the Ivory Coast. The cacophony of vibrant colour, combined with an unsettling naivety of figuration, challenges Western expectations of primitivism, displaying instead politically charged imagery of the complexities of contemporary urban life.
This challenge to the viewer is also evident in the series of large-scale photographs by Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, entitled ‘Desmoiselles de Porto-Novo’. These works present semi-nude female models in a colonial mansion, addressing the viewer from behind wooden ceremonial masks. The series’ title suggests a play upon Picasso’s ‘Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, referencing the influence of African art and masks upon the development of cubism, yet with a melancholic realism which draws the viewer back to the social reality of life in Porto Novo, and the impact of colonisation.
Further highlights include work from Oscar Murillo, who draws on his experience of emigration from Colombia to London to create a chilling examination of class, cultural coding and migration of materials, and Rafael Gómezbarros’ simultaneously playful and macabre installation of oversized ants, referencing the plight of displaced immigrants. However, the exhibition’s overall effect is shaken by curious juxtaposition of such powerful and unconventional works with garish Pop Art inspired canvases and somewhat derivative abstraction. Having said this, any questionable curatorial choices are more than made up for by the quality of several of the artists on display.
Izzie Hewitt is a third year BA at the Courtauld.
Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America is at the Saatchi Gallery until the 2nd November 2014