An exhibition that looked at forms of healing through the eyes of contemporary artists from Africa and the Diaspora, from Ethiopian wisdom or tebab, to the Vodou religion of Benin and the Sangoma of South Africa, from ritual to death; it uncovers the connections between healing and art in all its spiritual, societal and political dimensions.
On the ground floor ‘Bleeding Men’ a video by Ethiopian/Swedish artist Loulou Cherinet which was shot in Alexandria. It shows a group of six men, dressed in white, cutting themselves and bleeding to death, getting up and starting the whole cycle again. The piece evokes associations of death and rebirth as well as notions of individuality and community; an individual’s sole vision or ‘madness’ is sanctified or ritualised by the inclusion of others.
Downstairs, San Pedro VI – ‘The Hope I hope’, a video by South African artist, Tracey Rose shows the character San Pedro who has made appearances in Rose’s previous work. In trademark fishnet tights, tiara and pink skin, she makes allusions to St. Peter, ‘ideals’ of beauty and masquerade. San Pedro is seen playing the Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, against the backdrop of the wall dividing Israel and Palestine – the ‘apartheid wall’. This wall can be seen to present a form of political hygiene; a symbolic barrier to chaos, to the pollution of one side by another. The link is underlined by San Pedro’s urination against the wall, which as the artist points out is not so far from ‘You’re a nation’.
On the ceilings of the staircases, photographs by Zwelethu Mthethwa of healers and their paraphernalia show the Sangoma of South Africa in the urban surroundings of Durban and Johannesburg. These healers have moved from the rural areas to take prime space in the city centre, the political shift has been followed by/shift from the periphery to the centre and from being merely customers to being the producers or traders.
On the first floor, paintings by Cyprien Tokoudagba, such as the rainbow-snake, Dan Aido-huedo, representing human life and prosperity, are symbolic of the Vodou religion of Benin. Around two-thirds of its 6 million inhabitants practice the faith, which is an official religion along with Christianity and Islam. Vodou translates from the Fon language of Benin as ‘spirit’ or ‘god’. It lays emphasis on the maintenance of harmony with the spirit world. The Vodou system of holistic medicine is founded on a solid knowledge of herbs and on the idea of establishing and maintaining equilibrium between human vital energy, family/community obligations and the spiritual world.
On the second floor, Ethiopian artist-healer Gera, has renewed the talismanic art, which is medicinal as well as aesthetic, in contemporary form. The mysteries of the talismans form part of the Ethiopian wisdom or tebab, aspects of which derive from the same sources as alchemy and the Kabbala. The talismans have a mirrorlike functioning; in which clerics like Gera ask patients to describe their illnesses and include these in colours and forms in the talismans. On seeing their likeness in form, the depicted demons are said to flee from the body of the patient. This device can be traced back to Solomon who allegedly controlled spirits by showing them portraits of them that he had drawn.
On the third floor is Tracey Rose’s video ‘Waiting for God’ is shot on the Mount of Olives, a place sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The character climbs up the hill and sits, waiting, between the domes of a Christian church and a Mosque, at one point taking on the form of the third pillar or dome. This meditative piece, with references ranging from Beckett to Sunra, is particularly poignant when the sound of the prayers of the Mosque is succeeded by the chimes of the church, though it is the ending that throws light on the process.
On the final floor, the wallhanging by Abdoulaye Konate is inspired by a form of women’s weaving in Mali. It deals with the issues of HIV/Aids and shows a figure from the back leaving the scene. At the bottom of the hanging sits a chest – a memory box reminiscent of ancestral boxes, historically made use of in many parts of Africa. These days, memory boxes are created by parents who are HIV-positive as a legacy; a means of passing down history to those they leave behind.
• Loulou Cherinet worked at the Goteborg Konstmuseum in Sweden, before dedicating herself to painting for two years in Indonesia. In 1996, she enrolled at the University School of Fine Arts and Design in Addis Abeba and returned to Sweden to study at the art academy. She works primarily with the video medium and has taken part in exhibitions internationally, including the Sydney Biennale and the Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako.
• Gera found himself drawn towards traditional medicine during his studies and began work as a healer with plants, prayers and talismen. He developed a pictoral language to explain the secrets of the talisman and thus began his artistic practise. His paintings are colourful geometric compositions that combine symbols and signs. His work has been shown amongst other places at the Biennale in Lyon, the Museum for African Art in New York and the Musee National des Art d’Afrique et d’Oceanie in Paris.
• Abdoulaye Konate studied painting at the Institut National des Arts in Bamako and completed his education at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havanna, Cuba. He worked as a graphic designer at the Musee National in Bamako and in 1998 he was appointed Director of the Palais de la Culture. He was also Director of the ‘Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine’ in Bamako. He has received several awards and his works are to be found in many private and public collections. In 2002, he received the Chevalier d’Ordre National du Mali and Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France.
• Zwelethu Mthethwa’s work is largely concerned with people in South Africa who immigrated into urban centres in the 1980s. For this exhibition he has photographed traditional healers with the tools of their trade in urban settings. He has had numerous international exhibitions and will be shown at the Venice Biennale later this year.
• Tracey Rose completed her studies in fine art at Wiwatersrand, Johannesburg in 1996. In much of her work, she investigates questions of gender and colour, often through the visual motifs of her own body. She has presented performances at the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, the 49th Biennale in Venice.
• Cyprien Tokoudagba received his first commission for the restoration of a Vodoun Temple. After his inclusion in the Paris exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, he began to paint on canvas. His work, in which the Voudun universe plays a large part, connects the African Diaspora with the history of a part of the continent.
• Nana Oforiatta Ayim writes and curates on contemporary African art. After completing her MA in African art and anthropology, she worked for the magazine, Revue Noire in Paris and for The Statesman in Accra and for organisations, such as the British Museum and the Liverpool Biennale. In the exhibitions she curates and her writing, she explores a non-Western approach to art. She currently holds an AHRB award for research into drum languages in Ghana and is working on projects of contemporary African culture with the Royal Festival Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum.