b. 1959, Zimbabwe
Beatrice and Virgil
Videos with sound
Beatrice Interrogating Desire (6 min. 6 sec.)
Collection of the artist © Berry Bickle, 2014
I had the chance to see a brand new exhibit at the National Museum of African Art and it was quite possibly my favorite exhibit since I've been with the Smithsonian Associates. The exhibit, titled The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists features forty artists from eighteen different countries working in almost every conceivable medium, is the coolest expression of any theme I have seen in many years. I’d recommend viewing the exhibit in the order Dante wrote The Divine Comedy; from Inferno (Hell) to Purgatorio (Purgatory) to Paradiso (Heaven). In the Ripley Center, right past the Smithsonian Associates offices is a long hallway and at the end on the left hand side is the best entrance to Hell. You will work your way to Purgatory and Heaven through a literal ascent through the National Museum of African Art. As you explore the exhibit ask yourself this question: why did the artist and curator associate that particular work with Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven?
b. 1972, Kenya
The Storm Has Finally Made It Out of Me Alhamdulillah
Collage on linoleum
193 x 295.5 x 10.2 cm (76 x 116 1/2 x 4 in.)
Collection of the artist, courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
“What do your fears look like? Are they located in the dark or in a blinding light? Do they feel hot or hopelessly cold? And what or who is it that scares you or deserves your condemnation? People and places fracturing and splitting apart? Forces of nature spun out of control? A senseless war in which men blow off one another’s heads? The artists in this section explore these questions and others, for hell can be found in a passion for land or religion if it leads to war; it can even be embodied by a beached whale. This is a hell in which we never see ourselves and others fully but always in bits and pieces. What would your hell look like?” The first thing you’ll notice in Hell, and the other levels too, is how well the surrounding environment compliments the works of art. Hell is surrounded by dark walls and is barely lit making the dark images stand out powerfully. However, within this darkness there are a few pure (or close to) white works that almost seem blinding given their surroundings. One work, a dome lit from the inside, adds a sense of fear and confusion based on the way the light projects onto the walls. Whereas Dante put some of his political enemies into the various circles of hell, one artist incorporated modern sinners, such as Hitler, into his work. I’d have to say In a Pure Land was my favorite piece in Hell. Try reading the entire written piece while watching the accompanying video and not getting spooked.
b. 1974, Ethiopia
The 99 Series
Each: 86.4 x 86.4 cm (34 x 34 in.)
Collection of the artist
“Purgatory, like a staircase, is the space one crosses on the way to somewhere else, for better or for worse. For some artists in The Divine Comedy exhibition, purgatory is connected to the condition of immigrants who may not yet feel at home in their new land. For others, purgatory can be a desert or river; a surface upon which we leave little imprint. It can also be found in the slow-motion moments before a tragedy occurs. Ideas of purgatory can speak to more personal conditions, such as wounds that heal but never quite go away, or to the choices humans make each day: will we let money enrich us or corrupt us? Purgatory is like the color red, the color of bloodshed in the giving and taking of life. It is a state of longing, a place in between.” I identified with the nature theme in Purgatory more than in the other levels. The solitary footprint in the desert gave me both a sense of loneliness and opportunity. I could see how one could look at each work here and see it either as pointing upwards (towards Heaven) or downwards (towards Hell). I love anytime a work can be interpreted differently by each individual.
b. 1966, South Africa
The Binding: To Sleep
Etching on Paper
Framed, each: 217.5 x 145.3 x 7.1 cm (85 5/8 x 57 1/4 x 2 3/4 in.)
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, purchased with funds provided by the Annie Laurie Aitken Endowment, 2011-6-5
“What does paradise mean to you? A perfect vacation location? A divine light? For artists on view in these two galleries, paradise—or heaven—can be the power of women standing up for themselves, the sacred ground upon which individuals and communities come together, the hope one feels moving to a new land, and thinking beyond race. Heaven is love, motherhood, and dance; it can also be found in a surreal depiction of the procession encountered by Dante and Matilda at the summit of Mount Purgatory as the journeyed to Paradise in Dante’s literary epic. Visions of paradise are complex, contradictory, and sometimes, quite beautiful.” Heaven, of course, is well lit with white walls serving as the backdrop. It’s peaceful, colorful, and you can feel a childlike enthusiasm emanating from it. The works that use nature to serve as a metaphor for heaven are absolutely majestic. You definitely need to sit and watch the six minute video projected onto the massive wall after making your long “ascent” from Hell. It depicts a desert during a sandstorm and is bright and soothing. Lastly, I want to talk about religion. While one might expect to be hit over the head constantly with religious themes throughout this exhibit that is just not the case. Silence was a powerful piece with many prayer rugs and on each a pair of women’s shoes. Frontier w/ Church might be the largest single work I’ve seen, rivaling some of the more obscure Hirshhorn pieces. Without giving too much away I’ll just say look for the anthropomorphized animals and enjoy. The last thing I saw in this exhibit were pictures of people coming from all different religions and backgrounds in the midst of celebration or prayer; a great way to end your journey from Hell.
If you ever had any interest in Dante or enjoy thematic exhibits you cannot miss this. I do not think I can stress enough how wonderful not only the individual works are but also the entire experience is. The exhibit is set to close on August 2nd so please see it while you can.