One of the special projects featured in the 2016 edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London was a group exhibition commissioned by Nando’s – an international restaurant chain famed for its Afro-Portuguese cuisine – in collaboration with Yellowwoods Art. Nando’s patronage of contemporary African art, through its close partnership with Cape Town based Yellowwoods Art, both enables the development of artists and the curation of Nando’s own art collection. Through Yellowwoods Art, Nando’s have amassed one of the biggest collections of contemporary Southern African art in the world with over 7,300 original works exhibited in their UK restaurants.
The four artists selected to participate in 1:54 echoed the ethos of the art fair, diversity. The artists – Lizette Chirrime, Regi Bardavid, Kagiso Patrick (Pat) Mautloa, and Maurice Mbikayi – showed diversity in geographical origin, concept, medium, and career development. Their exhibition was a mingling of collage (by Chirrime), abstract expressionism (Bardavid), an installation of found objects (Mautloa), and a photographic series of a Sapeur, who was adorned, most unusually, in scrap computer parts rather than luxurious fabrics (Mbikayi).
But hidden within this variety of mediums and seemingly disparate artistic theses lay shared philosophies on the creation of art as the product of a contemplative process and the capability of art as a transient force for healing. The artists disclosed these philosophies to Nadia Sesay in an interview on the opening day of 1:54.
“I worked in imagination,” Lizette Chirrime described of her process to create new artworks for the exhibit at 1:54. Known for incorporating a strong autobiographical presence in her work, it is Chirrime’s imagination which births a fluid narrative inspired from her upbringing on the Angoche Archipelago in Mozambique. In that subconscious space, at times, she even embodies a mermaid. When transferred to canvas these visions manifest as multi-media collages made of colorful beads, cut fabric and stitching that depict whimsy forms afloat in dream-like environments.
For Chirrime, stitching and assemblage are greater than simple mediums of art. She believes humankind has failed in its assignment to take care of Mother Earth – which the artist refers to as a “garden” – and that this failure has left mankind detached and broken. Stitching therefore is symbolic; it serves to reconnect humanity and heal mankind. She said, “It is up to us to re-plug and reconnect with ourselves in order to connect to all of us and clean up the garden. And to heal, that’s my thing. My idea of collaging different print fabrics from different cultures is about bringing things together – about reconnecting – stitching and healing the wounds and putting things together.”
Regi Bardavid’s abstract paintings echoed the ethereal quality of Chirrime’s collages and were likewise derived from an altered state of mind. Working with the subconscious and meditation, Bardavid reaches into a personal unconscious that is needed, she said, to tap into the collective one, culminating in “a very strange, energetic level”. Bardavid elaborated further: “I don’t draw or paint the visions from that meditation, I just play with paint and marks and allow the image to appear.” In that way her paintings are mysterious. Her blue abstract which hung in the 1:54 exhibit was devised initially to be a reflection of her childhood desert environment in Egypt. In other words, she anticipated a warm palette. But the blue appeared. The artist, unbothered by this result, compared her painting to a rush of water: “Water is truth – the shape of a tree and water coming through. So I thought ok, that’s good enough for me.”
Bardavid’s affinity with abstract expressionism developed during her studies at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, where she studied under lecturer and fellow abstractionist Bill Ainslie. Bardavid attended the Foundation under the apartheid regime, but, as she recalled, art was liberating. She reflected, “It was the only institution where everybody was welcome. For me it was a novelty. Everyone felt nurtured.” Pat Mautloa, also familiar with the Foundation, added: “The nice thing was that there were no rules – we defied all the rules of separation that were levied by government. The communality was more about people coming together to do what they enjoyed most and what comes naturally to them, which is art.”
There were no art shops open in Johannesburg during apartheid, so artists like Mautloa resorted to found objects to create art. This act was the base of his art practice: “I’ve always taken things, put them together, and come up with something,” he said. As such, Mautloa’s contribution to the exhibit at 1:54 was an installation of abstract faces made from discarded plastic jugs.
The stasis brought forth from the art-making process extends to Maurice Mbikayi’s Sapeur. Sapeurs are male members of a sartorial social movement from Congo. They use exaggerated style as a silent but animated platform to express political disdain. “I come from a country where people use disguised ways to talk about oppression, [particularly] in the term of the dictator Mobutu. But now people use fashion. It’s entertaining but has a diplomatic element,” said the Congolese artist who now resides in Cape Town.
The garments of Mbikayi’s Sapeur match up those of the dandies in Brazzaville – a tailored suit, bowler and cane – but the artist swaps fluorescent wool for discarded parts of a computer. Mbikayi often uses the jazzy technology suits in performance: as he moves the keys fall in an act of liberation from human dependency on technology. Considering Africa specifically, the symbolism of detachment from the technological – and quickly moving – mainstream; the continent shedding the obsolete technologies shipped as aid.
As with his fellow exhibitor Chirrime, Mbikayi makes peace with a flawed humanity in his art-making: “When I strip down the computer parts I tend to sympathize with people in mining work in Africa, mostly the children who have been used.”
The artists from the Nando’s collection exhibited in a context deliberately stylized with a focus on Africa. 1:54 was also the first time the artists exhibited within the same space. When asked about how their artworks engaged with one another in the space, each artist’s response referred to their intrinsic connections as Africans, and art being an extension of that natural connection. Bardavid remarked, “You can see the artwork is very much South African. We are the product of where we come from. That’s the stem – there is commonality in this diversity.” Added Mautloa, “I’d say inherently South African but also just ‘African’. In a sense any of these works can be shown in any favorable setting in Africa or in Europe it would have the African genome in it. To showcase in this unique space, where there is an intense African presence, is continental alliteration. This is Afrocentric and happy.”
Nadia Sesay is a writer and Editor of the newly-launched BLANC Modern Africa, a magazine on contemporary African art and culture. She holds an undergraduate degree in International Business from George Washington University in Washington, DC, and has studied Contemporary Art and Art Business with Sotheby’s Institute of Art. Nadia was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone.