Charles Saatchi—the loved and loathed art collector who was an early patron of such Young British Artists as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin—is looking a little further afield in the latest exhibition to grace his London gallery. Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America takes its title from the mammoth ancient landmass that formed approximately 300 million years ago and broke apart 100 million years later. Today, with a major survey that will remain on display until August 31, the Saatchi Gallery reunites Africa and South America off the King’s Road in Chelsea, a kind of supercontinent of contemporary art.
Pangaea brings together the work of sixteen artists, ranging from internationally renowned to up-and-comers, from Africa and Latin America. The artworks by all involved attest to the diversity and creative energy of the formerly conjoined continents.
Nowhere is the energy more apparent than in the first gallery space. There should perhaps be a warning by the door—if you’re squeamish, take a deep breath—because upon entry, you find yourself suddenly surrounded by giant creepy crawlies. Rafael Gómezbarros’s Casa Tomada (2013) takes over the entirety of an otherwise empty room: 440 fiberglass ants adorn four white walls, each nearly a yard long, with six tantalizingly ticklish legs. These faceless and thankfully fangless insects might at first give the comic impression of scuttling in search of food. In fact, according to Gómezbarros, the ants address the plight of the millions of displaced persons across the world seeking asylum as a result of armed conflict.
This happens again and again in Pangaea: the seemingly playful signifies something else unequivocally serious and real. In the second gallery space—warning, don’t look up, the ants traverse the threshold—are seven acrylic and mixed media canvases by the young artist Aboudia. At first glance, all you see is noise; the works are covered with graffiti-like markings and splashed with vibrant color. Figures emerge from the chaos with child-like faces sporting big grins. Look harder, and beyond the big grins see the big teeth: the children are dressed in military uniforms and carry bright white guns. Aboudia’s canvases allude to child soldiers in the torn political state of his home in the Republic of the Ivory Coast. These scrawled kids toting sinister weapons evoke the violence in the aftermath of the 2011 elections in the former capital city of Abidjan.
José Lerma is another artist whose work seems at first like child’s play. Vast canvases are covered with layers of ball-pen doodles—reminiscent of absent-minded scrawlings in a notebook—and cartoon-style drawings that make little sense amidst the chaos. Like Aboudia’s works, the effect is noise: as the exhibition catalogue puts it, the canvases are “struggling for air to breathe.” Lerma’s subject matter emerges when he returns with paint and other household products—in the gallery, one work rests on a keyboard, another is propped up by a synthesizer and speakers, and another is veiled with a pink military parachute—and transforms the works into monumental portraits and effigies. As he references both popular culture and powerful historical figures—King Charles II of England’s silhouette emerges from baby pink nylon—Lerma’s art suggests an approach to the eternal themes of love, power, and war that knows no temporal bounds.
Pangea is all about the cultural and social facets of particular peoples and places. In Benin-based photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s C-prints, Desmoiselles de Porto Novo (2012), female models pose topless in traditional African dress in the artist’s grand colonial home. The women look out at the viewer from behind their wooden ceremonial masks—the subject matter confirms the title’s nod to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—with coarsely painted features and blank stares. Agbodjélou’s house, complete with antique furnishings and imposing décor, is one of the many mansions built in Porto Novo at the end of the 19th century by Africans returning from South America after the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In this historically loaded setting, Agbodjélou reclaims control for the colonized ‘other’ in the form of a masked female gaze.
Mário Macilau’s documentary photographs of daily life in his native Maputo, Mozambique toss race aside and engage fiercely with it at the same time. His social snapshots reveal the unhappy repercussions of tyranny and poverty in a picturesque Africa. Peace (The Zionist series) (2010) is a prime example of the way in which he both documents reality and constructs a narrative: a close-up of an African girl hidden beneath a white shawl and coated with white powder is, all at once, beautiful, enchanting, brutal, and overwhelming. The dazzling white makes the black around the girl’s eyes startlingly bold, the bruised color of her skin and lips a rich mystery. All of Macilau’s photographs on display at Saatchi are printed on cotton rag paper. Despite the brightly lit gallery space, they remain natural and raw.
Oscar Murillo’s mixed media works also look a little tattered and torn, and no wonder. Like two of his pieces laid out like carpets, all of his works begin life on the studio floor. Materials and mediums are interchangeable—a metaphor, we learn, for mixing and breaking hierarchies of race, class, and more. The canvas of Dark Americano (2012) is covered with both oil paint and dirt. Murillo was born in Colombia and emigrated to London as a child, where he adopted a foreign language and cultural customs. In an act of resilience and an effort to strengthen his western identity, he uses the written language and food stuffs that are unquestionably, as the title suggests, American. Cappuccino anyone?
Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America is on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London from April 2 until August 31, 2014.