Thursday, 14 June 2012

Manchester Faces Forward

Manchester has traded goods, most importantly cloth, with Africa for at least the last two hundred years. The Whitworth Gallery’s new exhibition entitled ‘We Face Forward’ asks its visitors, what place do these kind of traditions have in modern society? Comprising of 32 artists from 9 African countries, this show includes a selection of both new commissions and existing West African art that is being shown for the first time in the UK, as well as many pieces from the Whitworth’s own collection. ‘We Face Forward’ is running throughout the summer and is part of a city-wide celebration of Manchester’s relationship with West Africa, with events and exhibitions taking place at various venues. What many of the pieces on show consider is, are textile-based African artworks indicative of continuing sustainability, or a dying practise?
Meschac Gaba’s flag has become the emblem for ‘We Face Forward,’ as it has been created by blending together the flags of each West African nation with the flag of the UK, symbolising harmony and an ever-growing friendship between our communities.
The curators for this exhibition say the idea for ‘We Face Forward’ grew from some of the existing textile collections already residing at the Whitworth. A selection of these are on show as part of the exhibition, including examples of wax prints, tie-dye, batik and adire, showing not only African artistic practises but the adoption of such techniques in our own culture. Garments such as Chief robes, warrior tunics and dance skirts demonstrate the colourful and rich heritage that Africa has shared with us, and show that textiles are used here as an expressive medium, and not just as an ethnographic curiosity.
Despite the friendly bond between Manchester and West Africa, artists such as Armadou Sanogo and Romuald Hazoume have chosen to explore problems of white supremacy and slavery in their work. Sanogo’s piece entitled ‘Disabled Gaze’ seems to be perhaps indicative of an ignorance in the West regarding African cultures, and the artist has chosen to leave his works frameless as a way of diverging from Western traditions of framing. Hazoume’s work combines satire with seriousness in his exploration of human labour. In his videos, photographs, and installation of a street seller’s cart piled high with discarded items such as sunglasses and mobile phones, he hopes to demonstrate the waste caused by consumerist trades, and the continuing danger faced by African traders as they struggle to get by.
Nii Obodai’s stunning black and white photographs are indicative of the artist’s personal search for what he feels the future holds for him. He asks the viewers to consider their own future, and how much we really assert our independence...should we question the identity which we have let society construct? A lot of the work on show for this exhibition questions cultural conventions and how our views and practises can be corrupted by power. Obodai’s photographs explore a West African identity, and demonstrate the difficulty in understanding a culture which is so distant from our own. He believes the beauty of one’s surroundings can often bring people back from crisis or despair, and remains hopeful for a future of freedom and equality, which is symbolised by the light shining through his photographs.
A lot of the pieces on show here indicate a hope that our cross-cultural bond with West Africa is growing ever stronger. Francois-Xavier Gbre’s photographs of derelict buildings in the midst of crumbling down represent a moment of great change, metaphorically representing the relationship between the UK and West African Nations. Attempting to bridge the gap between dreams of equality and reality, Marthine Tayou’s new work for this exhibition ‘The World Falls Apart’ creates almost a forest of towering wooden poles, emblazoned with a mixture of trade goods and sacred objects, perhaps in the hope of making Western Souvenirs and African items indistinguishable. Amidst the poles of wood, Tayou has hung sculptures, or ‘diamonds,’ made from cotton and metal, and these spill out into the park outside the gallery.
This cultural celebration of Manchester’s contextual ties with West Africa not only brings to light problematic issues of the past, such as the slave trade and Africa’s struggling economy, but creates a colourful collaboration of varying work, which shows the sheer wealth of talent and imagination in West Africa, in both traditional and contemporary mediums. ‘We Face Forward’ encourages a new appreciation of the West African culture, with humbling photographs and stunning textile creations, making viewers support the growing friendship between Britain and West Africa, and hope for a less consumerist future.
By Liz Buckley

Images: Meschac Gaba, Ensemble, 2012 - and Barthélémy Toguo, Jugement Dernier I, Courtesy the artist, Whitworth Gallery and Gallerie Lelong

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