The Disunited States of Africa

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Nú Barreto, Africa-renversante, renversee at Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris
Nú Barreto “Africa: Renversante, renversée,” Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris.

Nú Barreto’s gripping show “Africa: Renversante, renversée” confronts the Pan-African dream with the unpalatable reality of a fragmented continent.

Amidst the big headlines and hashtags of #Africaisthefuture, #Africanow, Nú Barreto’s first solo show at Galerie Nathalie Obadia is a hard-hitting exhibition, that snatches away rose-tinted glasses and demands that we look at the harsh reality of the disunited states of African affairs.

The show opens dramatically and …… underneath your feet. Nú Barreto transformed the gallery’s doormat into an interactive artwork in the shape of an imaginary Pan-Africa flag modeled on that of the United States of America. It is impossible to set foot in the gallery without wiping your feet on the flag. Paill-Africa-sson (2018) sets the tone for the metaphorical language the artist used throughout the show. It also reflects in a nutshell, what the Africa continent was and to a certain extent remains in some areas: a territory dominated by whoever has the bigger boots on the ground.

The Berlin conference of 1884/1885 sealed the partition of the African continent along artificial borders defined by roads and rivers strategically travelled by explorers such as David Livingstone and Morton Stanley. Ever since the de-colonisation and the wave of independence in the sixties, charismatic political leaders, the likes of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Thomas Sankara of Burkina-Faso, have spoken of their dreams of erasing these borders and unifying the continent. The dream, the artist remarked, is a “noble ideal” and has cost political leaders and anonymous activists alike, their lives.

In this new body of work, Nú Barreto wrestles with that old dream of unity and compares it to the reality of a continent still plagued by wars and violence. The artist created his first African flag in 2009. He seized upon the American flag as a recognisable, “widespread and powerful” symbol, and transformed it with “the most popular colors of the African flags” to articulate his views of the situation on the continent.

The 13 red and white stripes in the American flag became yellow and red. The blue square turned green, and the carefully aligned 50 white stars of the “stars and stripes” became 53 black stars dispersed all over the flag. Barreto remarked that back then, “the continent comprised 53 countries” against the 54 it has now, as South Sudan gained independence in 2011. It demonstrates, he continued, that “there is no union.”

The artwork, “Disunited States of Africa” was shown at the third World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 2010 before being shown at the New York edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair last year. For his first solo show at the gallery, Barreto expanded on the theme of The Disunited States of Africa, culling from a series of woes that sustain division and cripple the continent. The show encompasses nine large-scale artworks and installations, eight of which speak of a specific hurdle in the road to creating a unified continent.

The work titled “Bailleurs Pro-Fonds” grapples with the debilitating effect of debt and suggests, with a title full of sexual innuendo, a deceitful relationship between the continent and its creditors.

Traditionally, African artisans have carved and shaped bones to turn them into Jewellery and artifacts. With the aptly titled “Ossements,” the artist turned himself into a contemporary craftsman adorning Africa with its inglorious family jewels: a multitude of dry bones attached to the Pan-African flag. They form a macabre sight that exudes a dry flesh whiff, a visual and olfactory reminder of the human cost of the conflicts.

Yako, Nú Barreto, 2018
Yako, Nú Barreto, 2018

If the Pan-African dream has survived the exploitative boots on the ground, the crippling financial woes, and wars, it is now in its most critical condition in Yako, the centerpiece work. The flag is slowly disintegrating, bursting at its seams with each stripe now falling away. The flag, just like the Pan-African dream is riddled with bullets that have also ripped through the surrounding walls. It conveys a sense of an impending end and brings to mind the popular expression “the writing is on the wall.” One might be tempted to add. “Rest In Peace Pan-African Dream.”

Interestingly, the questions raised by Barreto’s work, the burden of the debt, the displacement of people, the use of Africa as a dumping ground, go beyond the rhetorical questions asked of African people about the management of their internal affairs.

La Source, Nú Barreto, 2018
La Source, Nú Barreto, 2018

Going beyond political considerations, Barreto said that he used “La Source” to depict Africa first and foremost as “the cradle of humanity.” As the continent at the confluence of international interest and intervention, it has been a place where “everyone – regardless of colors” and creed – has done their fair share of “misdeeds.” So the artist’s overarching question is “would you treat your cradle this way?” Would you turn it into a territory to wage proxy wars? Would you wipe your feet there?

These dreadful questions remain unanswered, hanging in the air like the 54 stars in his installation “Deracinée;” And, you wonder, now what? Where do we go from here?

As an unrepentant optimist, putting on my patched up rose tinted glass, I derived another meaning from “La Source.” In this work, Africa, the land of devastation has been turned into a nurturing land, where several dozen of books have emerged. The books cover a wide range of subjects and have been written by thinkers, poets, philosophers, hailing from Africa and its diaspora. It includes Senegalese Anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop’s (at the time) revolutionary work on the African origins of the human race. The books reference colonisation (Aime Cesaire) and fallen heroes such as Patrice Lumumba and Steve Biko. Alain Mabanckou’s “Le sanglot de l’homme noir” in which he vehemently rejects a shared black identity rooted only in “tears and resentment” is also pinned to the Pan-African flag.

Together these books reflect the diversity of thoughts, opinions, and identities of a complex continent of 1.2 billion people, where unity, as it is sometimes envisioned, not only has never existed but seems near enough impossible.

Conversely, the series of books is also a testament to the intellectual power and muscle that the continent can muster. So it is possible that the urgency is to let go of old dreams and harness our imagination to reformulate new ones. I see these books, as akin to modern talismans, our dream catchers if you will, aimed at willing us pass our bloody past and encouraging us to dream a new, better and different future; A future that is protective of the cradle of humanity and more promising for the generations to come.

Africa: Renversante, renversée” is at Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris, 3 rue du Cloître Saint-Merri until Dec 29th.
Interview conducted in French.

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