[First published in 2014] At first impression, the idea of Pangaea seems to make sense. “Latin American” and African contemporary artists together, inhabiting the same mega-continent, as it was 270 million years ago. In the present, the exhibition features artists from both places. showing what they have to say about their home countries, but more than that, they would share something as “cultural neighbors”, despite oceanic differences. This summarizes the idea of the Charles Saatchi’s curatorship, but a lot of more is left unsaid.
First of all, far from breakthrough starts, there are very well known names here. The new Saatchi names are, assumedly, “globalizable”ones. This is the case of Oscar Murillo (2013’s London top hit), as well artists Rafael Gómezbarros and Ibrahim Mahama. Powerful works are on display, as for example, the naked black ladies using African masks, a joy by Leonce Raphael Agdodjélou. It’s an interesting challenge, for this post-everything era, to tackle Picasso, the father figure of the uncontested Western modernity. Aboudia is also another nice surprise. The 31 years old, Ivorian artist delivers a colour extravaganza graffiti, which reminds a wartime street art bringing guns, people, and handwritten text altogether. He is a sort of Basquiat before commodification and Andy Warhol.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the environment is more something of pacific. Malta Campos is a welcoming artist from São Paulo, Brazil, bringing an unexpected softness and abstraction, a good response to those still laying on tropicalist ideas. The same effect in Rio’s Christian Rosa, who brings post-Kandinsky, minimalist composures, with a taste of melancholy and experimentation. The work of Colombian Fredy Lazate, a ball made with bricks and concrete, perfectly rhymes with 2014, the year of the World Cup, but it goes beyond, Latin America art is really this mix of tenderness and brutality. The selection could not be more appropriate.
But wait a minute, how could one connect both ties? Africa and Latin America in Saatchi’s imagination are more connected and collaborative than the artists’ universes really are. The idea of Latin America, the term that the french invented, to be later colonized by the “North” Americans, remains in Saatchi a truth that should continue no matter contradictory and unfair to countries from Mexico to Uruguay it is.
In both sides, there is a lot of urbanity, religiosity and social criticism in the air, something historical and new, but this is not only about those continents — When Ibrahim Mahama decorates the huge walls of the beautiful Saatchi mansion house with sacks of cocoa beans, he is saying everything about post-colonialism and the position of art about it. A reality owned by Africa, Latin America, but also by North and Central Americas, Europe, and so on. Each of these worlds carry a different aesthetic component, which is crushed to death in this Pangea reunification. For instance, the religiosity shown in Mário Macilau’s work may be African in background, but diverges from 1960’s work of Pierre Verger and the Brazil’s Afro-culture portrayed by Bahia artists. Things change for the better.
This critique does not mean that differences cannot be put together though. This sealing & healing process could be done in a less pretentious way, less by establishment dialogues, and more as the narrative of connection, rather than a fake allegory of merging. That should display a continuation of what the artists are doing at their geographical, emotional, artistic spaces. It’s indeed impressive how the “messy looking” works brought by Peruvian Jose Carlos Martinat and Colombian Oscar Murillo are somehow cousins, although the artists, in fact, may be experimenting very distant physical realities; Or how Dillon Marsh and David Koloane talk distinctly about the past, while both lived in a territory nowadays called South Africa.
Therefore, if Pangaea, the mega-continent, no longer exists, except in the fantasy of certain people, these artists are deservedly being sheltered under the same roof. However, what really makes a continent here is the list of high prices, even if those are conveyors of beautiful narratives. Africa and Latin America, South and Central America, if you like, share a similar historical background, but this exhibition is not really relating to this. Pangaea is otherwise a perfect demonstration of how, regardless of peripheries, globalized art chooses new names to emerge into the so-called global stage of art. Coincidentally, these artists herein seen may share a latent and unique truth, but that is not accessible for a curatorship aimed at itself.
Pangaea: New Art from Africa in Latin America is open at the Saatchi Gallery — Duke of York HQ, King’s Rd, SW 4SQ until August 31st. 2014