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The African Art of Appearance

From January 25th until March 8th 2020 I organised a pop-up exhibition in an old warehouse in Amsterdam North, titled NOW LOOK HERE – The African Art of Appearance. The exhibition presented the work of eighteen African artists who use outward appearances to tell a deeply rooted story. They upend perceptions of Africa through the use of irony, beauty and style.

The exhibition was an outtake of the N’GOLÁ biennial on the African islands of São Tomé & Príncipe held in the summer of 2019, for which I was invited as curator. During my research, I was struck by the extent to which fashion, style and beauty can be manifestations of dignity, identity and self-realisation on the African continent. This paradox of apparent superficiality that actually functions as a serious counterforce, developed into an important theme for the exhibition. The end result in São Tomé & Príncipe emphasised this coherence. It provoked a dialogue between the artworks as much as between the artists —who were almost all present at the opening—that, I thought, merited continuation.

At first glance, the art works stand out for their attention to outward appearance: everything is colourful, radiant, smooth, and aesthetic. On closer inspection, the seductive surface proves to be a lure that draws you into a deeper story, in which perspectives are reversed: white becomes black, stigma becomes beauty, a skivvy turns out to be a high priestess, and apparent footnotes to history are revealed as prominent figures. The works address, directly or indirectly, the historical abuses and current troubles that dominate the media image of Africa. But the artists take charge of this image, and in doing so, set a completely different tone. What connected the photos, videos and performances in NOW LOOK HERE was a superior game of clichés and prejudices, in which humour, beauty and optimism challenge daily reality.

Arists: Tabi Bonney (Togo/VS), Blinky Bill (Kenya) Justin Dingwall (South Africa), Omar Victor Diop (Senegal), Sunny Dolat (Kenya), Samuel Fosso (Cameroon), Raquel van Haver (Colombia/The Netherlands), Bobbin Case & Jan Hoek (Uganda & the Netherlands), Lola Keyezua (Angola), Osborne Macharia (Kenya), Emo de Medeiros (Benin/France), Sethembile Msezane (South Africa), Yves Sambu & Sapeurs (Democratic Republic of Congo), Mary Sibande (South Africa), Bulewezwe Siwani (The Netherlands/SouthAfrica), Stephen Tayo (Nigeria) and Sarah Waiswa (Uganda).

Pictures by Thijs Wolzak, 2020.


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