Africa Unwrapped

At MAC, "Snap Judgments" breaks from clichés

Kenyan James Muriuki sees Nairobi's growing fleet of neon jitneys as a symbol of the city's cultural modernity, and photographs the vehicles as they buzz through the city's busy streets at night. His blurry pictures of matatus, a Kiswahili term for the colorful minivans that dominate Nairobi traffic, brim over with energy while reflecting that the state-owned bus system cannot cope with Nairobi's growing transportation needs. Tricked out in bold paint jobs and boasting juiced-up speakers blaring the latest hip-hop and reggae tunes, matatushave become popular among young Nairobians who rely on them for their daily commutes.

Mohamed Camara's hilarious series Chambres Maliennes (Malian Bedrooms), taken when he was sixteen, earned him a solo exhibit at the Tate Modern a few years later. Camara reverses what Enwezor refers to as the "touristic gaze" by approaching European cultural rituals as an African tourist might. In Cactus de Nol 3: Au Secours Blachre, Tarzan S'est Pris dans Ses Lianes! (Help, Help, Mr. Blachre. Tarzan Got Caught in His Lianas!), a shirtless young African is trapped in a thicket of kitschy Christmas lights. In another scene, a black man wearing tights encounters snow for the first time in a frosty alpine setting. The youngest artist in this show, at 21 years of age, Camara, who has shown a knack for mining the boundaries between Africa and the West, is a budding star on the international art scene.

Lara Baladi also employs humor in Perfumes & Bazaar, a sensational wall-size photographic montage depicting what appears to be a Victorian garden overgrown with images from Egyptian pop culture and family snapshots. Madonnas, mermaids, animals, cherubs, gaudy furniture, and even her mother, who's draped in a glamorous getup made by the artist's grandmother in the Sixties, make an appearance in a vulgar orgy of excess that is by far among the most stunning and original works in the show.

Cindy and Nkuli, from Lolo Veleko's series 
Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder
Cindy and Nkuli, from Lolo Veleko's series Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

South African Tracey Rose combines photography, video, and performance to create scathing critiques of African stereotypes. Exploring issues of race, gender, identity, and sexuality, Rose's series Lucie's Fur juxtaposes the scientific origins of humanity with the biblical version. The title takes its name from Lucy, an ancient hominid discovered in Ethiopia in 1972 and christened as the first woman. In Rose's surrealistic tableaux, the archangel Gabriel is portrayed as a multicolor female. The Messiah appears as a black woman in leopard-print underwear, and Adam and Eve are "Adam and Yves," gay Zulu men. In The Prelude: The Garden Path, an overweight woman wearing pasties, red panties, and vinyl go-go boots rides through a gully on donkeyback. A turgid phallus crowns the enigmatic figure.

Okwui Enwezor deserves a tip of the chapeau for illuminating the dynamic works produced in Africa during the past ten years — and MAC likewise for staging this provocative show. A visit to "Snap Judgments" promises to change your image of Africa and its people in a way that cuts to the bone.

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