Pangaea: Merging Worlds at the Saatchi Gallery
The Saatchi Gallery's latest exposition Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America closed on November 2nd after receiving many visitors and much hype. It aimed to offer up highlights from far-flung places, and present us with the cream skimmed from regions long neglected by the European art world's gaze. Instead we were greeted by a rather mixed-bag of works, and an odd sensation of enforced Otherness.
The exhibition attempted to display the artworks within the bounds of a global contemporary art, but the act of boxing Latin America and Africa together had the opposite effect and largely exoticised the works.
This may have been avoided with the inclusion of some explanatory writing. Wall texts were most definitely needed, but following the usual Saatchi Gallery approach, basic biographic labels and title labels were made to suffice. A perusal of the catalogue was necessary to try to calm suspicions of flagrant exoticism, but this failed to make-up for the uncomfortable experience of the exhibition.
The catalogue's single written elucidation neglects to emphasize the significance of the ancient landmass 'Pangaea,' which was a vast 'supercontinent' that encompassed all of the Earth's current continents and not merely Latin America and Africa. Surely this should have been a crucial point for the exhibition, as it claims to frame the artworks within the broad terms of global contemporary art practice. It will be interesting to see whether these glaring oversights continue on in the next installment, Pangaea II next year (2 March - 6 September 2015).
Despite its curatorial problems Pangaea I offered a number of gems for our contemplation. Rafael Gómezbarros' resin, wood and rope ants (above, top) greeted visitors at the entrance, as if welcoming us into their nest. Christian Rosa's large canvas series of charcoal, oil, oil-stick and tape offered pleasing assemblages of rhythmic marks in ashen black and bold slicks of colour on blond ground.
Elsewhere, Antonio Malta Campos' immense abstract-figural canvases (left) hinted at a Baconesque violent obliteration of the sitter, yet his figures somehow maintained a serene presence as they calmly looked out of their frames. In the following room, Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou's Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series of photographs (above) provided a compelling comparison, with their individual identities hidden behind the cultural frame of a mask. These bare-breasted African beauties emerged and were at once subsumed into the shadows of the background in a study of light on skin and optical-perspectival regression. These Demoiselles of course call upon Picasso's own of Avignon (1907), yet here the exoticising act of masking their faces comes into question, illuminating implications for the figures' subjectivity, and issues surrounding the imposition of cultural identity.
Agbodjélou's Demoiselles, somewhat ironically, visualise the problem at the heart of Pangaea I. The bracketing together of artists from diverse non-European contexts may be intended to provide interesting comparisons and contrasts, but the lack of conscious discussion surrounding the comparisons frames the artists and their works within the exoticised terrain of the Other; they are masked, conflated and broadly over there.
Curiously, all of the artists chosen to be exhibited in Pangaea I are male. For an exhibition with the aim of surveying the 'New Art' of two continents, the selection presented a rather restrictive image of African and Latin American art practice.
Instead of a critically engaged survey of current African and Latin American work, the exhibition can be seen to aim for the Saatchi Gallery's usual function and ambition, to be the arbiters of contemporary art taste. We can only hope that the next installment of Pangaea in 2015 will be a more rounded presentation of the Latin American and African art worlds.