Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2018
Senses of Time: Video- and Film-Based Works of Africa
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 20, 2015–January 2, 2017; Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, September 10–December 18, 2016; National Museum of African Art, May 18, 2016–January 21, 2018
Installation view, Senses of Time: Video- and Film-Based Works of Africa, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC, May 18, 2016–January 21, 2018 (photograph provided by LACMA)

The exhibition Senses of Time: Video- and Film-Based Works of Africa focused on temporality shaped through the body. The exhibition was co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, DC, under the curation of Karen E. Milborne, Mary Nooter Roberts, and Allen F. Roberts. The genesis and development of the show began as a colloquium on time, which took place at the Sterling and Francine Clarke Art Institute at Williams College. The NMAfA display of Senses of Time occupied the Sylvia H. Williams Gallery and the Special Exhibition Gallery. The show juxtaposed six artists—Sammy Baloji, Theo Eshetu, Moataz Nasr, Berni Searle, Yinka Shonibare MBE, and Sue Williamson—and seven time-based artworks. Viewers were invited to grapple with the human condition in the historical contexts of the colonial and postcolonial moment as time encounters a globalizing world. Time, space, and embodiment were overarching themes; yet embodiment in relation to space, colonial histories, trauma, memory through generational engagement, and virtual realities emerged as further ideas.

Senses of Time reflected time and duration, whether biological, geographical, or bodily. Theo Eshetu’s and Berni Searle’s were located in the main gallery space. Eshetu’s Brave New World (1999) was situated in the far-left corner and adjacent to Searle’s three-channel installation, About to Forget (2005). Viewers came face-to-face with the mechanisms of temporal overlap in Brave New World. The wall installation houses a prismatic and spherical mirror space. Color, pattern, and shape create a kaleidoscope of images. At times you could make out figures and landscapes as the series of images moved through a constellation of optical illusion. The changes in perspective and the kaleidoscope framing evoked an evolutionary imagination of nation and human. The audio was a site-specific score by Arvo Pärt in which high-tech instruments produced soundscapes of rituals that were trance-like and mesmerizing. Searle’s About to Forget occupied most of the far wall as you walked into one of the two entrances to the space. Each of the work’s channels shows a recurring action of water being poured onto silhouettes of groupings of Searle’s family members cut out of red crepe paper; as the water pours, the paper dissolves into a pink wash of watercolor. This recursive looping between the three channels signals memory and the ephemera as a negotiation between erasure and transformation. The second work by Searle, A Matter of Time (2003), is a single-channel video projection that makes use of durational embodiment. This work was located in the hallway that leads to the main gallery space, which symbolically represents the slippage of fixed time. Searle negotiates the slippages of time by attempting to walk forward on a transparent surface that is covered in olive oil. This set of metaphors is meant to denote how identity can be ambiguous and mutable. The time stamp on the camera moves forward as Searle walks forward, only to slide backwards. The viewer encounters the work from below the transparent surface Searle walks across. This allows the viewer to experience each foot print and subsequent slippage backwards, as if being walked across oneself.

Embodiment and durational time is also reflected in Moataz Nasr’s and Sammy Baloji’s time-based works. Nasr’s The Water (2002) responds to the conditions of Egyptians under the government of Hosni Mubarak and its influence on the activism of the Arab Spring. In order to gather footage for this work, Nasr spent six months filming Egyptian reflections in puddles as strangers walked past. The work moves through a series of ambiguous silhouettes in murky puddles until the likeness of a man, or a woman, or child, becomes framed, only to be disrupted by a shoe walking through the pool of water. The Water negotiates real time at the intersection of political time where people’s lives are shaped and made tenuous in the political, social, and cultural upheaval of historical and contemporary time and space. Baloji’s Mémoire (Memory) (2006), a single-channel video projection, makes way for political and durational time in the postcolonial nation-state through a poetic set of movements set against the backdrop of the once prosperous copper mines in the Kanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the video, renowned dancer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula executes a series of movements. He holds an empty picture frame in his right hand while his body is bordered by one of the large copper barrels used in coal mining. Baloji’s use of embodiment through Linyekula’s movement and the historical landscape of a deindustrialized wasteland come to the fore. Making explicit the link between the colonial past and postcolonial exploitations that haunt contemporary landscapes, Mémoire invites its viewer to meditate on the consequences of redevelopment.

If redevelopment is central in Baloji’s work and the negotiation of political time through embodiment in Nasr, Yinka Shonibare and Sue Williamson further negotiate the body through the impact of colonial histories onto contemporary times. Shonibare’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) (2004), draws on Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera of the same name about the eighteenth-century Swedish king Gustav III, who was assassinated while the country was at war. In Shonibare’s rendition, the king is played by a woman. Wax-printed fabric, produced in the Netherlands and England with colors and patterns reminiscent of African textiles, plays a central role; all the guests are dressed in costumes of this material.  Using the opera as an allegory, Shonibare meditates on the Iraqi war and Western rituals of tradition that are cloaked in notions of modernity. The audio begins with the sound of a heartbeat followed by ball music. The king being shot at the ball, and then reviving, symbolizes the time and history circling and overlapping onto itself. Sue Williamson presented an intergenerational six-channel video installation, entitled There’s Something I Must Tell You (2013). Portraits are placed alongside interviews with six women and their granddaughters. These women were involved in the resistance movement and talk about hope and aspirations with their granddaughters who were born into postapartheid South Africa.

Time is a culturally specific phenomenon: military time against nautical time; reproductive time to denote heterosexual biology; and the movement of geographical mass as geological time. Most present in the work of Senses of Time, was the disregard for overdetermined temporality and ahistorical time that undergirds Western articulations of other worldly spaces. This is often reflected in the assumptive treatment of African spatiality as traditional—where time stands still—and oppositional to the march of modernity. Time-based media both offers up a critical lens to disrupt such assumption, and a space to grapple with modes of production that gesture to the unfixed nature of time. The works in Senses of Time spanning production from 2003 to 2013 deploy various materials that explode the dialectics of the traditional, the modern, and the contemporary. Baloji’s work, for example, through the performative choreography of Linyekula against the deindustrialized aftermath of the copper mines, denotes an almost futuristic pitch; the copper mines both signal the loss of place, the out of place, and the outer-worldly space of industry and its aftermath. What has been used to denote the Afro-futuristic in African American vernaculars is realized on its own terms through the relational politics of modernity itself in the African context. Senses of Time unsettles the assumption of fixed time.

Senses of Time: Video- and Film-Based Work of Africa provided an eye-opening look at the impact time has on contemporary African artists and their articulation of temporality. Time-based media, a term coined by art conservationists, must reflect the impact it has on the production and construction of these works rather than simply serving as a signifier for embodiment over time. Slowing down, layering, repeating, mirroring, and refracting are just some of the technologies of time the artists in Senses of Time employ to evoke ideas of nostalgia, mourning, deindustrialization, recursive time, transience, catharsis, and pomp. The exhibition’s openness to a history of new-media strategies that included video, digital arts, and performance presented new perspectives on the negotiation of time. Ultimately, Senses of Time disrupted the linear convention of time and reflected the elasticity of the medium and of African art.

Sarah Stefana Smith
Postdoctoral Diversity Fellow, College of Arts and Sciences, American University