Around 200 million years ago, a supercontinent called Pangaea – containing what we now know as the earth’s seven continents – broke apart in a seismic split due to fissures in the planet’s tectonic plates. It was a historical event perhaps only comparable to the era’s Permian mass extinction, which wiped out an estimated 96% of species. But Charles Saatchi, never one to lack ambition, has chosen that very word as the title for his group show of 16 contemporary artists, who hail from two of those previously conjoined continents, Africa and Latin America.
In the words of the Argentinian curator of the show, Gabriela Salgado, the works and continents were “brought together by the utopian notion of a unified Pangaea”. But the problem with discourse like this is that it’s a bit utopian, a bit anachronistic and a bit outdated. These artists may come from two distinct regions – Africa and Latin America – but, within these geographical landmasses alone there is enormous variation in style, influences, history: in everything. Unsurprisingly, the most engaging and stimulating works in this group show are the ones that remain authentic and original: both in visual appearance and concept.
In that sense, Rafael Gómezbarros and his Casa Tomada (2013) is the star of the show. Using casts made from two human skulls, Gómezbarros has brought 440 fibreglass ants, each 90cm long, to the Saatchi gallery. They swarm along the walls in winding trails, they hang from doorways, and they convey the plight of migrant workers in Latin America: how the world looks on at them like vermin. Just as Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds representing the people of China took from Mao Zedong’s dictum “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, Gómezbarros takes from Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s reflection, “unless a country buries its dead, they will always be remembered as ghosts in the attic.” The effect is exciting, dynamic and relevant.
Young Ivory Coast artist Aboudia’s Le Couloir de la Mort (2011) brilliantly channels the turmoil of civil war, and the violence filled life in an electoral city. Meanwhile, his Daloa 29 (2011), with its sinister skulls and haunting, gun-wielding figures is disarmed by a childlike style that is reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Ibrahim Mahama’s Untitled (2013) is a wall-hanging of jute sacks imported by the Ghana Cocoa Board all roughly stitched together. They provide another stark Arte Povera reminder of how damaging world trade can be. But Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s ‘Untitled (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series)’ (2012) takes a far more direct approach, disparagingly referencing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Nude figures wearing tribal masks are blown up in large C-prints meet the Western gaze eye-to-eye. Less successful is Mário Macilau’s work, and despite being printed on cotton rag paper, her rather stilted documentary photography lacks power. It is a similar case for Dillon Marsh’s bizarre constructions in the Kalahari desert. Though Fredy Alzate’s Lugares en Fuga (2012) is like the worst of the YBAs, with his attempt to portray uncontainable urban development being nothing but a concrete ball.
Pangaea certainly does provide a heterogenous selection, and not only because of how many artists are on show. But it could have gone much further. Between Africa and Latin America, there were 75 countries to choose from, and yet a lot of the art exhibited is indebted to the Western tradition, and some of it is unnecessarily from artists that are already internationally renowned. Pangaea was broken 200 million years ago, so we don’t have to pretend it’s a whole world after all.
Words/Photo: Peter Yeung © Artlyst 2014
Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America, Saatchi Gallery, until 31 August 2014.