In ‘Defying the Narrative,’ artists reject homogenization of African art

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Serge Attukwei Clottey/Ever Gold [Projects]/Courtesy

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Type “African art” into Google Images and you’ll find a pretty homogeneous group of artworks — paintings of lanky, dancing figures, giraffes and elephants, and jug-carrying women, all rendered in warm tones of orange, yellow and red. Indeed, many Americans associate such images with art from the continent as a whole. Most would likely be hard-pressed to describe anything different if asked about African art.

In its most recent exhibition, Ever Gold [Projects] aims to complicate the broad generalizations that Americans so often project onto African art. “Defying the Narrative: Contemporary Art from West and Southern Africa,” which opened this past Saturday, showcases the widely varied works of 14 artists hailing from a range of African countries. Shown in the Minnesota Street Project warehouse of San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, the exhibition offers an illuminating taste of the creative prowess of some of the most prominent up-and-coming and established western and southern African artists.

From the get-go, the show asserts itself as an accessible experience. As with most of its shows, the Minnesota Street Project does not charge an admission fee upon entrance, a regrettably rare gallery policy. While the hoity-toity, champagne-sipping crowd one might expect at the opening of an art gallery did make an appearance at the show, so did a lesser-seen art-viewing demographic — trendy teens and adults clad in bright, home-decorated get-ups. The exhibition space felt more open and inviting to a broad range of guests than museums often do.

A 6-foot-tall rubber woman — Nicola Roos’ “La Chingada (The Bitch)” — greets visitors as they enter the warehouse atrium. Clad in an elaborate, billowy, ruffle-lined dress, the woman stands tall and proud. A white lace handkerchief hangs from her hand, its delicateness startling in comparison to the bluntness of the rubber. In spite of the crudeness of her primary chosen material, Roos manages to render “La Chingada” remarkably lifelike and fluid.

Within the galleries, one cannot find the name or the artist corresponding to each piece written on the wall next to it. Instead, printed guides give the cursory overview information for pieces displayed. As such, the exhibit presents barriers to categorizations of the works. Even the provided supplementary paper lists little more than artist, name, materials and dimensions. Lacking easily accessible systems of grouping, viewers are encouraged to consider the art with minimal outside judgement or generalization.

With the majority of the exhibition’s artworks being highly abstract, this setup makes viewing some of the pieces feel uncomfortably unfamiliar. There’s no clear explanation for one to turn to when the viewer feels confusion or uncertainty about the purpose or meaning of a piece. This discomfort is, however, part of the experience of “Defying the Narrative,” which wants us to know that we can’t define African art in simplistic terms because, well, Africa is a continent with 1.2 billion people and an area of 11.7 million square miles. No matter how much we may want to sort African art into small, digestible chunks, “Defying the Narrative” does not grant us permission to do so.

It is also within this unfamiliarity that one may appreciate the pure beauty of the pieces presented. Serge Attukwei Clottey’s brilliant mustard-toned wall hangings prompted their fair share of ogling by virtue of sheer aesthetic appeal. “Tracing to Settle,” one of four of such artworks on display, is arresting in the elegance of its form when viewed from afar. Yet close up, one may note the ungraceful tools of its construction: uneven squares of plastic held together by wire stitches. Complete appreciation of “Tracing to Settle” thus requires consideration both from far away and up close.

It seems an apt reflection of how Ever Gold implores us in “Defying the Narrative” to, well, defy the narrative — to reflect upon African art as not only art from Africa and the specific countries within the continent, but also with respect to its place within the greater scheme of art as a whole, regardless of geographic origin.

“Defying the Narrative: Contemporary Art from West and Southern Africa” will run through Oct. 27 at 1275 Minnesota St. in San Francisco.

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Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].