Arts + Culture

Inside The Armory Show’s Game-Changing African Focus

The Armory Show’s African Focus section is the way of the future.

Yvette Mutumba and Julia Grosse, the curators behind the Armory Show's African Perspectives Focus. (Photo: Ginny Suss)
African artists were the heart of New York’s premier art event last week. The Focus section of the 2016 Armory Show, African Perspectives, brought the continent and the diaspora to the center stage of Pier 94. Its curators, Contemporary And co-founders Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, were also the only women to curate an Armory Focus in the section’s seven-year history.

“To be in a space where we’re finally at the epicenter of the conversation, and not in the fringes or in the nooks and the crannies, is really great,” Shariffa Ali, a Kenyan-Ethiopian theater-maker in New York City, tells Okayafrica. “I love being able to walk into a space and see work by my peers and African contemporaries from my left, on my right, in front of me, behind me,” she says. “To be fully immersed is truly an amazing experience.”

Okayafrica went inside the Armory Show’s African Focus last Sunday. Below, we ask several participating artists and gallerists to talk about one body of their work at the show.


Nengi Omuku at the Omenka Gallery booth of the Armory Focus. (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Nengi Omuku


Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Omenka Gallery (Lagos)

On ‘Boys Follow Me’:

“I was thinking of how women are sometimes seen as objects by men. This is based on part of my experience in Nigeria. They think that it’s important for you to have a good bum and also a good weave, especially as a black woman. So if you don’t have a weave, it’s a bit like ‘what are you doing?’ So that’s what inspired the piece. I combined a bum and a weave together. There are no other body parts. It’s called ‘Boys Follow Me.’”

Nengi Omuku, Boys Follow Me, 2016. Omenka Gallery.

Namsa Leuba at the Art Twenty One booth of the Armory Focus. (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Namsa Leuba


Switzerland and Guinée

Art Twenty One (Lagos)

On ‘Zulu Kids’:

“For the last few years I’ve been working on African identity through the western eyes. I like to work with clothes we use for ceremonies and different artifacts from African cosmogony. I do an intervention on the clothes as well as the people. Most of the time I do all the props and the accessories. And I show another perception, another look.

For the Zulu Kids series I was inspired by statuettes. In my country, in Guinea, we use statuettes like tools for returning ceremonies. So I deconstructed the body to decontextualize Zulu sacred tools to put them in another context. For that series I received some violent reaction in my country because they perceived that like a sacrilege. In South Africa the statuettes and masks aren’t from the same culture. So it was really welcomed in South Africa. In Guinée it wasn’t welcomed because it’s a tool we use for rituals, so it’s kind of sacred.”

Namsa Leuba, Zulu Kids, 2014. Courtesy of Art Twenty One.

Emanuel Tegene at the Addis Fine Art booth of the Armory Focus. (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Emanuel Tegene


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Addis Fine Art (Addis Ababa)

On ‘Black Passport’ (As told by Addis Fine Art co-founder, Rakeb Sile):

“He uses strong symbolism to talk about some of the things that he has experienced. A lot of these paintings are rooted in his own personal experiences. Black Passport is about his experience traveling as a person with an African passport. He’s talking about things like racism, denoted by the banana. And also using the razor as a metaphor for hypocrisy in the system. So you see the little passport photo. Most of his paintings are really about his own personal experiences.”

Emanuel Tegene, Black Passport, 2015 (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Ayana V Jackson at the Gallery MOMO booth at the Armory Show. (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Ayana V Jackson


Originally New Jersey / Currently Johannesburg, Paris & New York

Gallery MOMO (Johannesburg / Cape Town)

On ‘To Kill or Allow to Live’:

“I work a lot with the history of photography and the relationship between the medium and political landscapes. Most of my work has to do with how photography is implicated in the construction of racial stereotypes. So these works are more about inserting characters that I think are forgotten in history.

This one here is called To Kill or Allow to Live. It’s taken from an article called Necropolitics by Cameroonian theorist Achille Mbembe, who is based in Johannesburg, South Africa at Wits University. In this article he talks about how one of the things that makes a state sovereign is its ability to decide who lives and who’s allowed to die. I was making it in response to some news that had come out last year around the Black Lives Matter movement. And just thinking about the idea that essentially we’re finding ourselves dodging the bullet of justice, so as opposed to justice working in our favor, it actually is what’s harming us… So this is our historical relationship that we have with the state as black bodies, that go back to politics that were happening especially during the Reconstruction era, which a lot of this clothing is taken from that time.”

Ayana V Jackson, To Kill or Allow to Live, 2016. Courtesy of Gallery MOMO.

Mariane Ibrahim and ruby onyinyechi amanze's '10 Litres of Air [The Divers II]' at the Armory Focus (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Mariane Ibrahim


Born in New Caledonia / Grew up in Somalia / Raised in France / Currently in Seattle, USA

Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Seattle)

On ruby onyinyechi amanze’s ‘10 Litres of Air [The Divers II]’, 2016:

“The artists that I work with are artists who are of course of my personal, subjective aesthetic. And artists that are working in Africa, from Africa, as much as photography. So these are the two focuses of the gallery.

The gallery in the past two years has been expanding and developing in attracting voices from other continents–from South America, from the Middle East, from Asia. And I think it’s very important for me to fuse all of these artists in the context of international artists and contemporary artists. And of course people associate me with African art, because I am African and I’m also fighting to reduce the under-representation of artists from Africa. And I’d really really really like to make sure the attention is shared and equal among the different artists.

10 Litres of Air [The Divers II] actually translates very much to Ruby’s practice dealing with themes very dear to her, [such as] displacement. Her way of occupying different spaces, of having lived in different places. This work has a lot of depth and multi-dimensional aspects… It’s related to all this conversation that we have on your background, and who you are, and what kind of an artist you define yourself as. And so the astronaut, and all this kind of levitation that you can see, to me represents the artist on expansion who wants to discover new territories, and fabricating all of these new territories in her drawings. She is willing to get out of her comfort zone and to focus on all the unexplored territory, rather than, ‘oh you’re the artist from this place,’ or ‘you’re an artist from Brooklyn,’ or ‘you’re an artist from Nigeria.’

She also portrays herself in most of the drawings. You can see her with the leopard for example. She’s always present. But this is her alter ego. I find her work extremely light and delicate. I really really connect to her work in its most personal way. We always have to justify where we’re from, when in fact it’s one of the toughest questions. I find myself pretty global.”

ruby onyinyechi amanze, 10 Litres of Air [The Divers II]. Courtesy of the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Francisco Vidal at the Tiwani Contemporary booth at the Armory Focus. (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Francisco Vidal


Luanda, Angola

Tiwani Contemporary (London)

On ‘Name Dropping for the African Industrial Revolution’:

“I like to do portraits of people and flowers... This series is called Name Dropping for the African Industrial Revolution. It’s a series of drawings [I started] two years or so ago when I was teaching in Luanda. I started to do them because I didn’t have documents for class, like magazines, wood and stuff. The library was really poor. So to program class, I thought ‘well maybe I could do these portraits of other painters from the city [Luanda]’. And that would be interesting for the students to see and relate the faces with the name of the painters and the artists who are in the city. And then I did some painters, and then I started to do architects, musicians, poets, filmmakers. And then after a while I started to do people that were not from Luanda, Angola. People that I found it would be interesting to know their work. Most of them are other artists. But then I started making politicians that were important in the independence movement of the 60s and the 50s and the 70s.

The last drawing I did was 596. I wish to get into one-thousand soon. It’s an ongoing project.”

Francisco Vidal, detail from Name Dropping for the African Industrial Revolution, at the Tiwani Contemporary booth. (Photo: Ginny Suss)
Francisco Vidal, Name Dropping for the African Industrial Revolution, at the Tiwani Contemporary booth. (Photo: Ginny Suss)

Ibrahim El-Salahi, In The Present II, 1994. Courtesy of Vigo Gallery.
Ibrahim El-Salahi

Modernist painter


Vigo Gallery (London)

On why he considers his black and white works to be his most important (Quote provided by Vigo Gallery from a February 2016 interview conducted by Reya El-Salahi for SUITED):

“I think it is something to do with a study of the color black in itself. This came out after I had been in jail for a number of months in Sudan. I concentrated on a study of

black as a color in itself. It took me seventeen years, from the late 70s up to the mid 90s. I concentrated only on black and not on any of the range of the rainbow, any at all. I realized it was a color itself. And it has the potential to represent other colors as well, within it.

Apart from the fact that I felt very much at ease, creating a picture of black and white. And the black of course has the opposite, which is the white. And the in-between, the hybrid which is produced, is the link of the black and the white, to create a grey tone. So the grey tone, which is a baby, is a link of the white with the black. So it is such a long time. I find that I did a large number of works in black and white which have been quite significant to me, at least.”

Words and interviews by Alyssa Klein

Photos by Ginny Suss

**Correction–March 12, 2016: An earlier version of this article stated Gallery MOMO was part of the Armory Focus.

Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

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100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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