Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Tropics


The curators of The Tropics have made it incredibly hard to view this exhibition with an open mind. It's their labelling that presents the primary hurdle. The Tropics refers to a cartographical designation, but in the context of an exhibition geared to probe the mythical character attached to this hemisphere or climatic area of the world it is more like a euphemism for the Other.

Of course, the term also groups all the diverse nations and cultures that fall into this geographical area into a single category. Another problematic tag that the curators are advancing is the term "pre modern" to describe the material culture of supposed tribal societies in this geographically defined belt. This term defines these objects according to a Western master narrative of art that positions them as objects preceding modernity. Once again the term almost reads as a euphemism for "primitive".

Needless to say this grand exhibition, which includes almost 50 artworks, was not created in the southern hemisphere but by Alfons Hug, Peter Junge and Viola König, a team of Germans working at the Ethnological Museum at the Staatliche Museen za Berlin (Berlin's State Museum). The exhibition has already shown in Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Berlin and, after its South African leg, will move to Bangkok. Considering the breadth of work that the exhibition encompasses - it includes many highly-prized African heritage objects from Nigeria that have not been seen in this country - it should be an exciting prospect for locals. But, regrettably, the curatorial ethos driving the exhibition undermines the art collection. It is not just the labelling employed in this exhibition that is irksome; the premise doesn't sit too well either.

The curators have dubbed their objective as the "re-aesthetisation" of the tropics. In other words, their aim is to reconfigure how the tropics are perceived by unearthing the myths that have thus far defined it and then supplanting this vision with a new more authentic one. But as the majority of the works are derived from the tropics, one can't help feeling that the Germans are repackaging African art for Africans.

Considering that the myths or imagined character of the tropics is a Western construct - which the curators do concede - wouldn't they be better off embracing a more self-reflexive approach by meditating on the elements of Western culture that have given rise to the compulsion to imagine an exotic other? A look at how the myth of the tropics had an impact on the development of German Expressionism with groups such as Die Brücke would have been a suitable alternative. Instead, they try to achieve their aim by juxtaposing "pre modern" works with contemporary pieces.

It's as if the contemporary artworks are expected to challenge entrenched notions that the "pre modern" objects have traditionally elicited. At the same time the curators try to establish a sense of continuity between the old and the new by creating a thematic or visual link. Such as with Guy Tillim's study of the power struggles in the Congo and objects from Benin, Nigeria that denote power.

Humans' proclivity for power is a universal phenomenon and not specific to inhabitants of this geographic belt, so forging such connections between these objects feels slightly contrived if not tenuous, and obviously reinforces negative perceptions about the African continent. That Tillim is complicit in regurgitating the stereotype is also part of their curatorial approach, which seems propelled by a desire to show the manner in which inhabitants of the tropics have bought into European perceptions. While that is an issue worth probing, it divests the West of its responsibility.

As the curators astutely observe, preconceived notions about the tropics isn't just a dated phenomenon. Contemporary tourist promotions emphasise the exoticness of the tropics by parading images of sunny sultry idylls that appear untouched by progress. However, the curators suggest such imagery belies the poverty and poor living conditions that are integral to the personality of these tropical locations. In this way these tropical locales continued to be defined by extremes; absolute wealth and beauty and utter destitution. "Nowhere are humans closer to life, while at the same time nearer to death," posit the curators.

This is a gross oversimplification. Besides, societies that boast extreme wealth and abject poverty are not just confined to tropical locations. It's as if the countries that fall into this climatic zone continue to be defined by the same extremes that characterise their weather. Pallo Jordan, the Minister of Arts and Culture, was eager to rubber-stamp the exhibition on its opening night. But perhaps if Jordan had paid closer attention to the curators' motivations and literature he might not have been so keen to commend them for challenging a visual arts fraternity that has been "for far too long … pale and male".

Nevertheless, the exhibition is said to be the first step towards establishing the "Humboldt-Forum", which will see non-European artists being given an opportunity to engage with products of Western culture. But, of course, this dialogue will be on the Germans terms.

Perhaps it's best to disregard the rhetoric that has accompanied this exhibition and concentrate on how the artworks engage with the theme. Candida Höfer's Zoological Gardens series, for example, shows animals from the tropics on display in Europe. In one photograph, elephants are shown feeding in an enclosed, grey concrete structure. The image refers to this insatiable curiosity about foreign destinations but also suggests that, in attempting to transpose the curiosities of these places, they automatically divest them of their intrinsic wonder.

Mandy Lee Jandrell's Bridge of Time, Palace of the Lost City, Sun City, South Africa (2003), which shows a Japanese tourist posing for a photo at that faux African architectural wonder at the Palace of the Lost City at Sun City, best articulates the manner in which people of the tropics feed the myth that places on this side of the equator are exotic and mysterious locales. On one level there is something empowering about selling this ideal to Europeans but ultimately it is self-defeating.- published in The Sunday Independent, April 19, 2009

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