An exhibition’s focus on extraction landscapes in African exposes the globalization myth that we all live in the same place, in the same way.
Two stories below ground, an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art looks deeply (literally) at issues of landscape in Africa. With approaches ranging from land art to film to textiles, the artists in Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa are tackling intensely local topics, like mining and deforestation, that have profound but often invisible global significance.
Soon after you enter the exhibition, you come upon a small photograph: A proliferation of shacks and utility towers edging into a body of water implies a dense and invisible human population, gathered to work and live in a landscape whose features are utterly transformed.
The photograph, shot by Jide Alakija, frames earth as the material of cities, while questioning what a depiction of a landscape can really say about a particular place. Titled Bombay, it was actually taken in Lagos, Nigeria. Globalization is inexorably altering the ways in which we inhabit the earth, and Alakija and other artists worldwide are conducting fascinating critiques of this developing paradigm.
The geographic boundaries of Earth Matters are a large and diverse continent, and the artists approach their work through all sorts of media and with widely divergent intentions and sensibilities. Given this scope, you could question whether it makes sense to impose a common identity on work from and about places as different from each other as South Africa, Ghana, and Egypt. A glance at the 40-plus artist biographies reveals origins that are scattered across a continent, and current locations even farther dispersed. The exhibition’s focus could easily have been narrowed to a specific region or country in Africa. To paraphrase curator Karen E. Milbourne’s introduction to the exhibit’s blog, a view through the lens of Africa can expand our understanding of human relationships with the landscape at a time when small actions in one continent can have untold effects on another.
Some of the relationships explored in Earth Matters are of an intimate physical scale, referencing earth as pigment or substance. At the other end of the spectrum are works that address relationships in which humans see the earth primarily as a resource to be exploited for financial gain. This is particularly relevant as much of the African continent is a source not only of gold and diamonds, but of lesser-known minerals that buttress our increasingly electronic lifestyles. Several of the works in the exhibit tackle the fraught topic of mining, including a film titled Mine, by the South African artist William Kentridge. Through his highly politicized trademark charcoal animations, Mine graphically depicts the transformation of the earth through human labor into currency and gold: Darkly scribbled men descend into the earth, dig, load, and haul. The film cuts to a large white man, gloating over piles of money…a meandering ticker tape symbolizing its further transformation into an abstracted commodity to be traded on the market. In a scenario that has played out for centuries, the fruits of resource extraction are funneled to the hands of a concentrated few, providing only the most modest living for the inhabitants of the land.
Mining has many forms. The Burkina Faso native Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo’s photograph from his series The Hell of Copper shows a computer dumping ground on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, that stretches for miles. We see a young man at work, burning the plastic coating from a pile of wires in order to harvest the copper within. Ouedraogo’s work had consequences. In an interview in the Guardian, the artist talked about how this series helped to bring to light the realities of what happens when the vast quantities of electronic waste from the United States and other wealthy nations get “recycled,” often by children living in places where there are few other ways of making a living. Much of the copper being mined for electronics today comes from Zambia and South Africa. Indeed, in this mineral’s round-the-world journey, the myriad tendrils of globalization are inextricably entwined.
Other pieces dwell on more biologically based methods of harvesting the landscape’s bounty. In the Enid Haupt Memorial Garden, one of three outdoor pieces commissioned for the show points up the ironies of persistent shortcomings in the global food supply network in spite of increasingly advanced agricultural technologies. This work of land art is composed of a rectangle of ground stripped of sod and emblazoned with the word HUNGER, composed with raw soil and edible rice seeds. The Egyptian artist, Ghada Amer, planted the crop in April while Washington’s ornamental cherry trees were in full bloom. The harvest should be ready in the late fall, at which time it will be replanted with kale. Amer’s work often combines garden and text, and this piece, with its use of successional cropping, is a sophisticated example of combining the temporal qualities of landscape and the conceptual mission of much contemporary art.
Africa is not all famine and environmental destruction, and this exhibit is about much more than these well-publicized aspects of Africa. Part of what Earth Matters tries to communicate are deep attachments to the land itself, communicated through media including body art and sculptural works. Very few works in the show portray landscapes in a traditional Western fashion, as a prospect or a view. A notable exception is a 1944 painting by Jacob Hendrik Pierneef of the iconic Table Mountain in South Africa—chillingly described in the wall plaque as depicting a pristine land waiting to be taken. In contrast, the Beninian artist Tchif’s painting appears as a mysterious map, a nonobjective composition. Its lines, colors, and symbols effectively tell of a place more nuanced than a mere geographical location, a reminder that landscape can be seen and depicted in myriad ways other than perspective, plan, and section.
Earth Matters emphasizes the multiple scales at which our interactions with the earth carry reverberations, particularly when wealth and resources are distributed so unequally. One of the fundamental myths of globalization is that we all, in a sense, live everywhere now. We don’t. The effects of climate change and global consumerism are becoming increasingly apparent, and those of us connected to the digital world have access to more information than we can possibly take in. Yet somehow, perhaps because of the sheer overwhelming volume, there is much about the global economic world that we really never see. For those who shape the landscape both locally and from afar, Earth Matters makes our interconnectedness a little more real, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of seeing landscape in more nuanced, deeper ways that are particular to a place.
Earth Matters will be on view until January 5, 2014, at the Smithsonian Institute Museum of African Art.
Zoé Edgecomb is a designer with OCULUS and writes, builds and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.