Saturday, April 11, 2015

I'd Go All the Way to Hell to See a Yinka Shonibare

Where: African Art Museum

When: through August 2, 2015

The new show at African Art has literally taken over the entire museum.  It starts in the pavilion, continues on the first floor, proceeds down the stairwells and ends on the third floor.  In fact, it bursts through the museum walls on the third floor and actually ends in the International Gallery of the Ripley Center.

So what's all the fuss about?  What topic can command so much floor space?  What can take your mind off the Cosby exhibit on the 2nd floor?  It's "The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists," and by the time you've wandered through the many rooms and landings, you'll feel as if you've been on quite a journey.

When I saw the entry for this show on the Smithsonian website, my first thought was, "Contemporary African artists?  Does that mean Yinka Shonibare will have a piece?"  Imagine my delight to find that he is, in fact, one of the artists on display.  I've been waiting for weeks for the show to open, and I went rushing right over on opening day, eager to see another of his pieces.

The exhibit begins in the pavilion with an introduction to the show; there's a video and an invitation to record your own writings in the entryway.  The ball really gets rolling, however, on the 1st floor, with the "Heaven" section.  I have to say, there is some seriously weird stuff in this show.  I'd look at a piece and think, "What IS that?"  Then I'd turn to the title and find myself none the wiser.  Perhaps the most peculiar thing (and that's saying something) in this section is entitled "Frontier with Church" by Jane Alexander.  It's a large installation with numerous figures, many of whom reminded me strongly of the mouse-like characters of the Jews in Maus.  Bizarre.

There was also a piece composed of prayer rugs on the floor, each with a pair of glittery women's shoes standing on it.  Why?  What is this supposed to mean?  Is this a commentary on the place of women in Islam?  Or does it have something to do with fashion and the toll it takes on women's bodies?  Or what?

Moving on from heaven, we proceed to "Purgatory."  It begins on the first floor, flows down the stairwells and landings and ends on the third floor.  It's a bit tricky to navigate; I was distracted from the art by trying to make sure I'd seen everything.  My favorite piece was on one of the landings, "Refrigerium" by Dimitri Fogboboun.  It's a wooden confessional.  You can open up the doors to the right and left to see into the piece; on the left side, there are nails pointing up out of the places where you would put your knees and elbows in a real confessional.  They spell out Lord Have Mercy.  On the right side, there's a picture of Jesus with glowing eyes and a broom hanging up, which made me think of self-flagellation.   Perhaps the message is a bit heavy-handed, but I liked it all the same.

On the third floor, we reach "Hell."  On the first day I went, I was filled with anticipation.  I'd looked carefully through "Heaven" and "Purgatory" to find the Shonibare, but no luck.  I knew then I'd need to go to "Hell" to see his work, and I was willing to do it.  I was about to enter the first room, when the security guard stopped me and said, "Sorry ma'am, it's still closed."  Closed!?!  What?  I chatted with the guard for a few minutes, explaining that Shonibare is my favorite artist.  "This is the definition of hell for me," I said.  "Being so close to seeing a Yinka Shonibare, but not actually able to see it."  Dejected, I left the museum.  Two days later, however, I was back, and this time "Hell" was open for business.

I gathered from the wall notes that Hell is based on what you fear, and that makes sense.  When you're paralyzed by fear and doubt, that is a kind of hell.  You're not happy, as you would be in heaven and you're not on a journey to a better place, as purgatory represents.  You're stuck in a miserable situation, with no way out.  The rooms are dark, so it's sometimes a bit difficult to make out the works, but one thing is clear: more weirdness abounds.  Probably the oddest work was a big rubber thing - I can't really be more descriptive.  It's vaguely unsettling, but why, I don't know.

The Yinka Shonibare piece is entitled "How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Gentlemen)."  It's two of his signature headless mannequins, each pointing a revolver at the other.  The great thing about the placement of the piece is that I could get right up close to it.  The hands of the mannequins are easy to see, and they're so lifelike - you'd swear they were real people.  His work is powerful, and this one, that I'm interpreting as a statement on the politics of mutual destruction, makes you realize that hell is the waste of human energy on killing, instead of working together to solve problems.  The man is a genius, and this piece is a great example of that.

Verdict: This takes more than a lunch hour to fully explore, but is worth a look.  There's nothing straightforward in this show, but it is thought-provoking.

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