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Artistic Dialogue Doesn't Mince Words on Africa

The concept of art as a political or social mediator is nothing new. Art often has something important to say, so a curator at the National Museum of African Art wondered what it would look like if art were created as a back-and-forth conversation.

The answer is two vibrant, life-size pieces by two African artists that address political, economic and environmental erosion, as well as rejuvenation, explained Karen Milbourne, curator of “Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane.” It is the first in a series of exhibitions in which two artists create a new work for the National Museum of African Art in response to each other.

This time around the dialogue takes place between Ole, a self-taught artist from Angola with a 40-year career, and Mpane, who splits his time between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Belgium. Both artists created works reflective of their countries’ changing social and political landscapes, unearthing the good and bad along the way.

In “Allegory of Construction I,” Ole uses discarded scraps to link Angola’s musseques, or shantytowns, with Washington, D.C., junkyards. “He went through Washington, D.C.’s trash and collected abandoned windows, doors and shutters, but he paired them with newfound icons such as shovels and trees and maps,” which he found on a street in Angola, Milbourne said.

But Ole is not trying to trash his homeland — quite the opposite. “The idea here is not of a territory that is in collapse but a territory that’s in growth,” the curator explained. “It’s amazing to visit Luanda. The city, it seethes.… The congestion, the activity, the buzz of people really then is reflected in this, and he emphasized over and over again his newfound optimism.”

Ole portrays the tumult with street signs whose arrows point every which way and the prosperity with clean, bright colors. In this way, the Angolan artist captures the strangely beautiful dichotomy of his hometown of Luanda, where the people who live in musseques liven up their homes with discarded décor. “Allegory of Construction II” is a cluster of “totems” made of this colorful wooden debris “that honor the creative, constructive and aesthetic power residing within rejected things that litter and redefine our landscapes,” according to label text.

Mpane, who met Ole last August in Portugal before coming to D.C., responds to Ole with “Rail, Massina 3,” named after the street in Kinshasa that inspired his work. It consists of three storefronts, each flanked by flags to emphasize territorialism. The blue storefront, “Ets Dialogues,” is paired with the Congolese flag; the red-and-yellow “Shop Toyokana Communication” with the flag of Angola; and the greenish “Baka Kimia” with the U.S. flag.

Each storefront depicts various stages of economic and territorial unrest. For instance, Congo’s “Ets Dialogues” has no door or window. “There’s no way to get in or out of this territory,” Milbourne noted. “And [painted on the wall] there is already an overturned table that is broken,” evocative of an inability to bring more to the table.

Conversely, the shop Mpane relates to Angola has a window and a door, both of which open out to Ole’s piece. “The open wall alludes to the emptiness found in these stores, the hope that comes from dialogue and an abstract sense of territorialism in which each door is the threshold to a new land,” according to text.

Finally, Mpane depicts America’s economic turmoil by hanging the U.S. flag upside down and chipping away at a still-upright table despite the ominous skull on its surface.

Likewise, Ole doesn’t mince words with his direct pieces. “As the show evolved, [Ole] wanted to extend the dialogue to the public,” Milbourne said. So he created an interactive display that defaced 500 playing cards with white paint to imply that now is not the time for games. Instead, visitors write their fears on a card, place it in one of the Congolese money-exchange boxes he altered, then remove someone else’s card and write that fear on a nearby chalkboard.

“In order to engage people with a dialogue about their fears, he’s asked them to write them on the board so that we can confront them,” Milbourne said.

In addition to the dialogue pieces, the exhibition provides context to each artist’s personal background by displaying their better-known pieces. For instance, Ole’s “On the Margins of the Borderlands,” a halved boat that pays homage to Angola’s war-ravaged ’90s, has been shown worldwide and is now in North America for the first time.

Mpane’s visceral “Congo, Shadow of the Shadow” memorializes the country’s colonial legacy with a form made from 4,652 matchsticks who stands over a grave with the date 1885, when Congo became the personal property of Belgium’s King Leopold II. Nearby are the bodies of a pregnant woman and a child.

Milbourne said she chose Mpane and Ole for “what I saw as shared affinities between their work.”

“The idea behind the series is to bring artists from Africa who, despite their talents, perhaps have not had the same exposure to American audiences, and to have them create works in response to one another,” she said. “The idea really was to capitalize on the notion of communication.”

“Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane” runs through Aug. 2 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave., SW. For more information, please call (202) 633-4600 or visit http://africa.si.edu.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014