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The Armory Show in New York – An African Perspective

March 4, 2016

ArtsGroup Exhibition | by Harry Seymour


With characteristic aplomb, the Armory Show opened its doors to the public on Thursday March 3rd. The annual fair remains New York’s leading international art fair, which after two decades has more than cemented its place at the centre of the city’s art calendar.

Now in it’s 22nd year, for some time the fair has been widely considered the “New York cultural institution” emphatically described by Benjamin Genocchio, the fair’s newly appointed director. The Australian joined the Armory Show late last year after a successful two years as Editor in Chief at Artnet News and is clearly keen to make his mark in an increasingly crowded calendar of art fairs. Opening the fair on March 2nd, Genocchio was quick to hail its unique relationship with New York. Unlike increasing number of franchised fairs, the Armory is distinct because it is inseparable from its city of origin. To that end, the fair is also in particularly good company, coinciding with the highly anticipated opening of the Met Breuer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as The Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) Fair. The Armory Show 2016 more than plays its part, participating in what the new director called, the current “hype” of New York as a cultural and creative hub.

The Armory Show was once hailed as the fair that brought modern art to America. True to its adventurous roots, the fair’s last seven editions have worked to spotlight a different artistic region in its Armory Focus project. This year’s focus is African Perspectives: snapshot into artistic practices of Global Contemporaries. Curated by Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumb, African Perspectives “hopes to move beyond conventional ideas of Africa”. “There is no such thing as ‘African art’”, stress the curators. This “expectation” that art from Africa or by African artist should “reflect particular aesthetic or deal with specific ‘Africa’ topics” is exactly what this year’s focus is looking to break from. African Perspectives aims to embrace the diversity and nuances of backgrounds, contexts, disciplines and media of these artists, and to propose a new definition of what is too easily stereotyped as “African Art”. With a focus on emerging talents, in particular the generation of “Young Global Contemporaries”, this project offers a fresh new view of contemporary art from African viewpoints.

The Armory Show: Throwback by Cyrus Kabiru, 2015. Pigment Ink on HP Premium Satin Photographic paper. Image Courtesy: SMAC Gallery, South Africa.
Throwback by Cyrus Kabiru, 2015. Pigment Ink on HP Premium Satin Photographic paper. Image Courtesy: SMAC Gallery, South Africa.

African Perspectives also introduces a number of artists from different backgrounds, whose creations play on media and genres. Nairobi-born Cyrus Kabiru (SMAC Gallery, Cape Town) integrates performance and documentary photography to more traditional forms of craftsmanship: fine art, sculpture, fashion and design. By fusing genres, Kabiru aims to push existing boundaries between “professional” and “artisan” forms of art. His series C-Stunners, for instance, are sculptural assemblages made from urban debris and obsolete technology found in the streets of Nairobi. Newly produced for the Armory 2016, and part of the C-Stunners series are his eyewear works (think decorative and elaborate goggles), exhibited both in as standalone objects and as the subject of photographic self-portraits. Interested in reflecting his experience of living in urban centers on his artistic practices, this series discusses the role of buying and discarding commodities in the construction of identity. Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba (Echo Art New York) also plays with genres. By fusing her anthropological interest with aesthetical sensibilities informed by fashion, design and theater, she creates what she calls a ”visual imaginary”, where she examines the representation of African identity through the Western imagination.

The Armory Show: Drying Field, Kapwani Kiwanga, 2016. Painted wood, cotton string, sisal fiber, Approx. 250 x 180 cm. Image courtesy of Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin.
The Armory Show: Drying Field, Kapwani Kiwanga, 2016. Painted wood, cotton string, sisal fiber, Approx. 250 x 180 cm. Image courtesy of Galerie Tanja Wagner, Berlin.

Anthropology is at the core of Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga (Galerie Jérôme Poggi/Galerie Tanja Wagner), whose new series makes a debut at the Armory 2016. Turning raw material (sisal fiber and rope) into ornamental sculptural assemblages, her work addresses sisal as an industrial material, and its relation to history, economy, culture and politics. Fabrics and material are further explored in the work of Zimbabwean artist Dan Halter (Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town), whose work exhibited at the Armory is a series of sculptures and woven works made from plastic bags, also called “Immigrant bags”. With this series, which fuses his political concerns and his artistic practices, Halter examines the relation between national identity and human migration.

The Armory Show: Patterns of Migration, by Dan Halter, 2015. Mannequin legs, custom-made tartan fabric, found plastic-weave bags and Adidas ZX Flux Clot, 236 x 71 x 71 cm, Series of 5. Image courtesy of Dan Halter and WHATIFTHEWORLD
The Armory Show: Patterns of Migration, by Dan Halter, 2015. Mannequin legs, custom-made tartan fabric, found plastic-weave bags and Adidas ZX Flux Clot, 236 x 71 x 71 cm, Series of 5. Image courtesy of Dan Halter and WHATIFTHEWORLD

Currently living in South Africa after having studied art in Switzerland, Dan Halter addresses his own sense of dislocation and cultural heritage in his work. Cultural diversity is another focus of African Perspectives, which aims are to stress the international nature of contemporary artistic production coming from African viewpoints. Whether it is Namsa Leuba, coming from a Guinean-Swiss family and now based in Johannesburg, or French-Ivorian artist photographer Francois-Xavier Gbré, all artists presented in African Perspectives display how diverse and complex the narratives that connect Africa’s art scenes are, both on local and global scales. The separation between identity and geography is perhaps best exemplified by Nigerian-born and Brooklyn-based artist ruby onyinyechi amanze (Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle) though, whose lyrical drawings reflect his nomadic view of the world. The artist doesn’t believe geography plays a role in defining an individual: “I’m not interested in making art about where I’m from”, says the artist in an interview for Contemporary And (C&); an online platform for international art from African perspectives, founded by the curators of this year’s Armory Focus.

The Armory Show: The Gift, a room of no one's own , by Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, 2015. Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. Graphite, ink, photo transfers, fluorescent acrylic, colored pencils, 50 x 38 inches. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.
The Armory Show: The Gift, a room of no one’s own , by Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, 2015. Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. Graphite, ink, photo transfers, fluorescent acrylic, colored pencils, 50 x 38 inches. Image courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Welcoming galleries from Ethiopia, Ivory, Coast, Kenya and Nigeria, as well as France, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, through African Perspectives, this year Armory Show 2016 offers a unique opportunity to explore contemporary art from African viewpoints. Exhibiting thirteen solo presentations from emerging artists, as well as eight on-site projects, this year’s Armory Show is, in the words of MOMA Director Glenn Lowry, the “unique opportunity to get a snapshot of the breath of creative practices that make living worthwhile.” With African Perspective, this year’s Armory Show demonstrates the fair’s keeping ability to promote and support creative global networks, as well as to continue, after more than two decades, to surprise and delight with bringing fresh and innovative talents from across the world.

By Margaux Donnellier.

The Armory Show, 3-6 March, New York.