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Art review: 'Continental Rifts' at UCLA Fowler Museum

May 6, 2009 |  3:00 pm

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The UCLA Fowler Museum exhibition “Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works from Africa” is built on a solid foundation. Shows bounded by geography, as this one is by Africa, often founder on provincial viewpoints. The narrowness in the art is either a lack of exposure to broader cultural ideas by those working within the geographic region, or it reflects a dependence on stereotypes by those working outside it. Neither happens here.

For the Fowler show, guest curator Polly Nooter Roberts avoided the pitfall simply by framing it in cosmopolitan terms. These artists would seem to be at home just about anywhere.

New York artist Alfredo Jaar has worked extensively in Africa, especially Angola. Tangier-based Yto Barrada was born and raised in France. London-based Cláudia Cristóvão was born in Angola of Portuguese parents. Georgia Papageorge has always lived in South Africa, and Berni Searle, whose ancestry runs through Germany, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, also lives and works in Capetown, South Africa. Multicultural identity and nomadic experience are commonplace in contemporary life, and their fluidity unhinges settled assumptions about place and society.

All five artists work in film and video -- which I wish the show's title simply said, rather than using the highfalutin "time-based works." These mediums have become identified with contemporary African art, thanks to the international success of South African artist William Kentridge, whose work bridges drawing and animation. (A Kentridge retrospective is currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Unfortunately, his work is not in the Fowler show. Where “Continental Rifts” falters is in the selection of specific works, which are uniformly mediocre. A pedantic dullness permeates the exhibition. Seriousness seems to preclude anything but earnest sobriety, which is a shame.

Some of the multicultural and nomadic fluidity is felt in Searle's “Home and Away.” Projections on opposite walls show her on one side in close-up floating on her back in the sea between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, while long-distance shots of the sky and coastal seascape (what she might see while floating) are on the other. Undecipherable whispers punctuate the watery soundtrack, but nothing much happens. It feels like an unfinished sketch. Searle is adrift between Europe and Africa, but the video installation is likewise rudderless.

Searle “The Botanist,” Barrada's 22-minute documentary film using endangered floral species as a metaphor (and an example) of the disappearance of traditional Moroccan life, was shot as a tour of plants and flowers in Umberto Pasti's lush garden south of Tangier. The camera is mostly pointed toward the ground, so we see only flora and shuffling feet, as a subtitled soundtrack drones on. Through it all I kept thinking of Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman, whose riveting 2002 video documentary on British horticulturalist Veronica Read and her eccentric passion for the amaryllis engages similar themes of cultural displacement and loss. An hour with Read is an appetizer, but 10 minutes with Pasti is an eternity.

Nature occupies a discomfiting role in Papageorge's 15-minute video, “Africa Rifting: Lines of Fire, Namibia/Brazil.” Crimson banners flying in the wind and settling into the sand on the beaches of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia and Torres, Brazil, create dramatic footage. The banners represent an open wound or festering scar at one spot where the super-continent of Gondwana tore apart 135 million years ago, when Africa and South America broke into separate continents. Papageorge shows the flapping banners amid shots of church steeples, communications towers and a storm.

Yet pairing tectonic movements with social and cultural frictions is at the very least problematic, if not aggrandizing. Is a geological split really a dramatic wound? Or is it just an ordinary sign of Earth aging, here used to give nature an anthropomorphic mask? And why is Africa said to be cleaving, as the title claims, while South America apparently remains intact?

Cristóvão suspended five television monitors from the ceiling. They hang between a double-sided screen at the entry showing desert mirages and a rear screen that displays an abandoned house, 
its vacant rooms filling up with sand. On the monitors, people who were born in Africa but left as children describe their memories of the place, plus their projections of what it's like now.

A coda in a separate gallery contains two screens propped against opposite walls. A man who left at the age of 3 during a civil war recalls an undisclosed treasure his parents buried as they fled, and he's paired with vignettes that may or may not illustrate his reminiscence. Conventional expressions of generalized memory and desire, these two works flounder because nobody's story is particularly compelling or distinctive, while the installation's static composition is more dutiful than involving.

Jaar is easily the most well-known and established artist of the five, which only makes his “Muxima” that much more disappointing. Music drives the film (Jaar's first). It's a 10-part visual lament for Angola, battered repeatedly by colonial and commercial incursions, as well as by the long-term internal corruption and violence such incursions induce. Scored with different versions of "Muxima" (moo-she-MA), a traditional folk song, the visual imagery swamps rather than enhances the music, competing for attention. The surely unintended result is a bleak travelogue, a motion picture visualizing and simplifying travails.

“Continental Rifts” is also hampered by technical issues. To varying degrees, ambient light leaks into several of the six discrete rooms where individual works are projected. The problem is most intrusive in Papageorge's gallery, where the images are washed out, while Jaar's screen is split down the middle by angled light. An informative brochure also says the whispers punctuating Searle's two-channel video are the artist's voice conjugating the verbs love, fear and leave, but I couldn't make them out while listening to the piece.

--Christopher Knight

Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works from Africa, UCLA Fowler Museum, Westwood, (310) 206-0306; Wed.-Sun., noon-5; Thu., noon-8. Ends June 14. Free. www.fowler.ucla.edu

Photos: top, "Muxima," 2005 (still from digital film), Alfredo Jaar; bottom, "Home and Away," 2003 (two-channel video projection), Berni Searle. Credit: Fowler Museum

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