When 2ManySiblings‘s Papa Petit opened his computer to an email from Efe Igor, doctoral student in history at Yale University, asking him to share work at Yale’s week-long 2016 Africa Salon, he thought it was a hoax. Coming over to his computer to look at the message, his sister — the other sibling of the 2Many Siblings brand — agreed. This was probably something fishy that they shouldn’t pay attention to.
But then there was a second email. And a third.
Igor struck a mix of persistent and enthusiastic that endeared her to them even over the internet. She shared their affinity for social media and digital networks, and could talk about their photography in a way that excited the duo, a brother-sister pair of artists from Kenya. So they wrote back, sending images.
Igor was ecstatic. She invited them to appear at Yale for an exhibition she was curating, and they agreed.
A little unorthodox? Maybe. But that kinetic, digitally driven, and millennial sense of connection is the driving force behind mo(ve)ments: African Digital Subjectivities, on view for a short time at the Yale School of Art, 36 Edgewood Ave., until Thursday morning. Curated by Igor, the exhibition is intended to foreground “digital encounters with African art and transnational aesthetics of cool.”
“It’s a passion project,” Igor said at a reception Tuesday, the second-floor gallery space buzzing with visitors as she spoke. “I’ve been really interested in having contemporary artists in the mainstream without it being trendy. Last year with Ifeanyi [Awachie]‘s Africa Salon, I wanted to know: How can we do this in other ways? I had been looking at these artists online and thinking about an aesthetic and how to make it cohesive — thinking about storytelling, essentially, and how images convey a sense of intimacy and excitement.”
“I was interested in thinking about modern surfaces like the screen and the ways that people in the diaspora, including myself, access this kind of art,” she added. “With the lack of physical infrastructure on the continent, you don’t have very many points of access, but the internet becomes this way because the mobile industry is so big. Thinking about intimacy and moments, how images travel through space in the digital.”
For visitors to the exhibition, as much as for Africa Salon organizer Awachie and Igor, who studies uranium mining in apartheid Namibia and runs the blog Conversation X, the exhibition is doing that and more. At a moment when academic art history is slowly and grudgingly starting to acknowledge public history, digital humanities, and new technologies, African artists are widely left out of the conversation, or brought in an icky or tokenizing way. Igor didn’t want any of that, she said at the reception. And by looking long and hard at works from around the continent, curating carefully over a year, she was able to sidestep it entirely.
The result is aesthetically titillating and explosive at once, pushing the boundaries of new or nontraditional art while exposing how many of its practitioners are — gasp! — nonwestern and nonwhite. The exhibition revels in works that show that Africa isn’t a concept or pet project, and some art historians, gallery elite, academics and university presidents should perhaps stop approaching it as one. Instead, it’s a young and very vibrant continent, chock-full of talent that’s exploding across the interwebs in real and digital time. Showcasing this especially are the photographs contributed by 2ManySiblings, which marry Kenyan couture — mostly the siblings’ own, but also that of their followers — with decorative patterns, stunning light projections, and long, vibrating shots of evening skies, orbiting stars, and Nairobi at night. A video projection by South African artist Kent Andreasen asks about the penetration of mobile technology into rural South Africa by showing it in real time.
Not that all of it is easy to stomach, or stops at aesthetic gratification. A video triptych, displayed across three PC monitors, by Namibian artist Nicola Brandt demands that viewers reconcile the new, old and the barren of Namibia’s landscape, a German narrator heightening the sense that Sudwestafrika — and the transgressions of the Germans who christened it as such — cannot be forgotten.
Meanwhile, photographs by the surprisingly young David Uzochukwu convey a world-weariness and acute maturity that stop viewers in their tracks. It’s not just that the artist, who presents a series of self-portraits in which he is covered in tar, is navigating Austrian and Nigerian identities. Or that he has the aesthetic sensibilities of both a seasoned photographer and a wise older soul. It’s that he’s 17 and already seems to know how hard the world is going to make it as he tries to navigate what it means to be African in Europe, and in the world.
The artists, it seems, feel that too. Many made the trip to speak about their work at the reception, and stay through the week’s Africa Salon programming around Yale’s campus and downtown New Haven. Dancing with attendees and his sister Velma, Petit smiled as the night wound down, delighting in the work around him.
“This is like the best thing ever,” he said. “You can’t even put money on it. It’s just a good feeling to be in the presence of such amazing artists. It keeps us going, to challenge ourselves to be better and better.”
mo(ve)ments: African Digital Subjectivities features artists Many Siblings (Kenya), Kent Andreasen (South Africa), Nicola Brandt (Namibia), Helen Harris (Namibia), David Uzochukwu (Austria/Nigeria), and William Ukoh (Nigeria) and is on view on the second-floor exhibition space at Yale’s School of Art, 36 Edgewood Ave, through the morning of March 31. To find out more about Yale’s Africa Salon, which is free and open to the public, visit its website.