Contemporary African art exhibit at the BMA looks at race, privilege and protest

Contemporary African art exhibit at the BMA looks at race, privilege and protest
Robin Rhode's "Pan's Opticon Studies, No. 2," 2009, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Robin Rhode/BMA)

An intimate, politically charged exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art addresses issues of race, privilege and protest from a perspective that has much to reveal about a distant world and our own.

The prints, drawings and photographs here are by contemporary African-born (or –based) artists, the first such exhibit assembled from the BMA's collection.


With the help of Kevin Tervala, a former curatorial fellow at the museum, BMA associate curator for African arts Shannen Hill selected more than two dozen pieces that provide a multiracial sampling of living artists. The overall shade of the exhibited works is gray. But, as Hill puts it in an introductory note posted on one of the gallery walls, the politics behind the art is "utterly unambiguous."

Fragments from "All Facts Have Been Changed to Protect the Ignorant" (2000-2001) by Senam Okudzeto, who was born in Chicago and spent her childhood in Ghana, depicts silhouette-like figures who appear to be in free-fall or barely holding onto tethers. Some of these forms are starkly outlined against grid-filled globe shapes.

Hill equates the pieces to pages torn from a slave ship's ledger, reflecting the transportation of human cargo, the legacy of displacement, uncertainty, fear.

Intricate etchings from 2003-2004 by Julie Mehretu, part of her "Landscape Allegories" series, refer to the migrations that have long been such a complicated fate for so many people on both sides of the Atlantic. The Ethiopian-born Mehretu produces in these subtly powerful works a sense of lives being swept along or swept up by uncontrollable forces.

Allegory is also at work in "Industry & Idleness," a series of engravings from the mid-1980s by South African William Kentridge, his twist on the 1747 series of that name by William Hogarth.

Both follow the lives of two men and impart lessons about hard work and idleness. But Kentridge's version holds a mirror to apartheid, sharply delineating advantages of money and class open to whites. He gives us a deceitful world where the cards are cruelly stacked against the "other."

From Robin Rhode, a South African of mixed race living in Germany comes an arresting group of photogravure pieces from his 2009 series "Pan's Opticon Studies." The stark images of a black man, back to the camera, facing a wall with calipers attached to his eyes, raise unnerving specters — experiments once used to measure racial characteristics and the prison model called a Panopticon, designed to maximize observation of prisoners.

People who are barely seen, if at all, are the subject of Diane Victor's smoke drawings — a technique involving a candle held beneath paper. Two portraits from the South African artist's "Frailty and Failing" series are included in the exhibit. Each blurred face suggests a person on the margins of society.

"The frailty is in the method [of producing smoke drawings] and in the portraits of people who are frail," Hill says. "It's also about our own social failing. These are the people that we don't see or care about."

Created in the mid-1970s when the artist lived in Germany, Gavin Jantjes' "A South African Colouring Book," a series of prints with mixed media, boldly confronts apartheid. Each of the two pieces in the exhibit includes a color bar referring to racial classifications in South Africa at the time.

"Colour This Labour Dirt Cheap" depicts a woman cleaning a toilet she can never use (a "whites only" sign is in the background). In "The True Colours of the State," Jantjes incorporates a photo of policemen beating protesters. Such images do not seem so long ago or so far away.

Attached to each print is a small paper containing typed statements of then-Prime Minister B.J. Vorster, clinging to his alternate reality that all is thoroughly peaceful in South Africa — a place where, he proclaims, blacks will never be given political rights.

If you go


"Shifting Views: People & Politics in Contemporary African Art" runs through June 18 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700, or go to