First impressions are seldom as striking as this. Entering the exhibition space, it’s impossible not to be immediately drawn toward Red Day, an installation by Nigerian performance artist Jelili Atiku. A row of mannequins wrapped head to toe in crimson fabric seem to contemplate the wall before them, upon which is messily scrawled menacing and cryptic messages in red ink that, from a distance, make the wall seem steaked with blood. Paper haphazardly strewn about furthers the effect that we are approaching the scene of some prior violence. Actually, these are the remnants of the performance that launched Materiel Effects, an exhibition of contemporary art from West Africa. Hosted at East Lansing’s Broad Art Museum, it brings together a small but important group of socially conscious-artists whose work synthesizes traditional African attributes (including performance and costume) with the language of contemporary art.
These diverse, multimedia works are unified in their exploration of the historical and material value of objects in an increasingly digital world. One gallery features a massive installation, Post no Bill, by Ibrahim Mahama, for which the artist assembled massive patchwork curtains out of out of jute sacks, many still bearing the residue of their use. These quilt-like curtains cling to the gallery’s counterintuitively angled walls, fully exploiting the possibilities offered by the Broad’s contorted gallery spaces.
Post no Bill references the effort involved in transporting raw commodities like coal or cocoa, calling attention to the physical labor involved behind what, in one form or another, eventually become the products that line the shelves of megastores far elsewhere. This work derives from Mahama’s much larger installation at the 2015 Venice Biennale, for which the artist created a canyon out of jute sacks through which viewers could traverse.
Jelili Atiku’s Red Day exposes the human toll of several hundred years of military conflicts and genocides that occurred (and continue to occur) globally. It certainly works in the exhibition if we consider “material effects” to include more than simply commodities assigned a monetary value. Scattered around the feet of mannequins bound in red fabric are many sheets of red paper, each recounting the death-tolls of violent conflicts across the globe. Some, like the Second World War, are very familiar to us. Others are perhaps less so, such as the comparatively recent genocides that occurred in Burundi, which claimed the lives of a quarter-million people. Particularly with regard to the wars of colonization from the 17th-19th centuries, often motivated by access to commodities or natural resources, many of these sheets can be read almost as receipts detailing the human cost of goods acquired.
This installation began as a performance. Atiku and others wrapped themselves in the costumes now worn by the mannequins and, during a performance that was both choreographed and, at times, spontaneous, scrawled on the gallery walls words and phrases that described what war meant to them. In the Red is the “residue” from this performance.
Most of the works in the exhibit are not this heavy handed. Otobong Nkanga’s Contained Measures of a Kolanut, for example, is an engaging and informative display that traces the mythology, cultivation, history, and modern uses of the kola nut (it’s the very same, ubiquitous “cola” that flavors soft drinks). The artifacts in the display were originally meant to be set in motion by the artist herself, who engages with viewers in person during performances, even encouraging visitors to taste one while she discusses their history. In the artist’s absence, the display (consisting of many cards with infographics and some actual kola nuts) still remains interesting and informative.
The ideas this exhibition raises are interesting and important. Process and product seem increasingly separated from each other; these artists encourage us to think about where our commodities actually come from, and under what circumstances. When we consider the material effects that we purchase (particularly anything in the garment or chocolate industry, for example), how aware are we of the true cost in labor and in life involved in bringing these items so affordably to the shelf? Perhaps one good way to assign value to anything (whether material or otherwise) is to follow the advice of Thoreau, who wrote that “I count the cost of a thing in terms of how much of life I have to give [and perhaps we should add “take”] in order to obtain it.”
More information on Material Effects, which runs through April 8, can be found here: http://broadmuseum.msu.edu/exhibitions/material-effects