From “Magiciens de la Terre” to “Transvangarde”, breaking down art borders

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 Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, Rêve Brisé, 2017. Courtesy of October Gallery

Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, Rêve Brisé, 2017. Courtesy October Gallery

The exhibition “Transvangarde” at the October Gallery continues to break down art borders and while exploring the darker side of globalisation. 

In January, all eyes are turned to the future, filled with hope and dreams of projects yet to come. One of the keys to building the future is a good understanding of the present and the past. At the preview of the exhibition “Transvangarde” at the October Gallery, Chili Hawes one of the founders, delved into that past. The creation of the Gallery nearly 40 years prior, to explore “Transvangarde”: an amalgamation of “trans” for across and “avant-garde,” the frontiers of Art. The Gallery has brought to the heart of London stories told by visionary artists hailing from diverse cultures and countries across the globe.

Kenji Yoshida Inochi to Heiwa, Life and Peace, 2004.
Kenji Yoshida Inochi to Heiwa, Life and Peace, 2004. Photo Jonathan Greet, Courtesy of October Gallery

The 2018 edit of “Transvangarde” continues to build bridges between cultures. The diversity of the twenty or so artworks selected, elicit the Gallery’s commitment to a continuous dialogue, through time and space, between the cultures. It starts with one of El Anatsui’s majestic installation, a futuristic fabric whose metallic strands raise questions about global trade, consumerism and tell stories of transformation. Transformation is also at the heart of the Palestinian artist Leila Shawa’s practice. She turns instruments of war into beautiful artworks, a place where life and death are irrevocably cast together. Elsewhere, the dialogue of the culture continues with Gaze, the painting of the Chinese artist Tian Wei, a visual interpretation of his experience between the eastern and the western worlds and the work of Golnaz Fathi, who blends the traditional art of calligraphy with contemporary art.

This is an exhibition that is purposefully breaking down borders, and showcasing an open world, one that engages in a positive and creative dialogue. It echoes the concept of “Mondialite”, theorized by the French author and thinker Edouard Glissant in 2002. He explained it as a model of positive globalisation that enhances the diversity of the world and simultaneously preserves the unique characteristics of the local cultures. It is a theme dear to the celebrated Art curator, and current artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery, Hans Ulrich Obrist.

The dialogue of the culture has brought greater exposure and appreciation for African Art and holds a promise of sustained growth in the future. This trend, as Ms. Hawes pointed, goes back to the groundbreaking 1989 exhibition “Les Magiciens de la Terre” curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, assisted among others by Andre Magnin (who will become a worldwide expert of African Art.) The Parisian exhibition burst the eurocentric Art bubble with half of its selection originating from other parts of the world. The curator challenged the shared norms and standards of those days and put non-western art on the same equal footing as European Art, with each piece displayed and rigorously labeled with the name of the artist. It was a first; as non-European art used to be simply attributed to an ethnic group with no real effort put into identifying the artist. Although the exhibition was widely criticised in those days, it marked a pivotal moment in contemporary art. It helped form new attitudes towards African Art and create new initiatives such as “Art without borders” led by Jean-Hubert Martin and “Transvangarde.”.

This positive outlook on globalization, no matter how heartwarming, would be a restrictive narrative if the exhibition stopped there. Instead, “Transvangarde” 2018 is also an uncompromising exploration of uncomfortable truths. The work of the artists from Africa and its Diaspora is a painful reminder that the encounter of the cultures on the continent had an inherent element of subjugation, displacement and loss of identity. That is beautifully encapsulated in the Mangbetu series of the emerging artist Eddy Kawuanga Ilunga. He depicts the sorrow of the Mangbetu Tribe, whose customs and traditions are slowly disappearing. Meanwhile, Alexis Peskine uses nails for his sculptural portraits as a metaphor for transcending pain – a common thread that runs through the diverse stories of black communities.

The heart of the exhibition lies in these beautiful renditions of tantalizing subjects and its ability to explore simultaneously two themes at odds with each other: the positive aspect of globalization that has brought about a rewarding and enriching dialogue of the nations and its darker side: the cultural homogenization. The former brings on our shores, human stories we would have been otherwise oblivious to, undeniably at times, at a terrible human cost. A bright future, rest in our ability to engage in the “transvangarde” dialogue, to change and evolve without losing ourselves.

Transvangarde” continues at the October Gallery until March 3rd.

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