Africa: Best in Show?

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I’m not giving out the prizes here, but now having seen most of the official pavilions at the Biennale — and yes, I’ve been here for five days and yes, it takes that long and longer to do justice to this thing — the pan-African group show at the Arsenale is not to be missed. It represents Africans — defined to include Arab North Africa — and also members of what Rob Storr calls the African diaspora — those living on other continents, including the U.S. There’s even a decent Basquiat.

The show comes from a single collection belonging to Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman, and I’m in no position to say whether it’s comprehensive with respect to African art, but I can tell you this much. It makes you want to see more.

If you get around the art circuit some of the names are already familiar, though the familiar ones are represented by good work. Yinka Shonibare, the London-based artist born to Nigerian parents, has two headless mannequins dressed in high boots and batik long coats in duelling postures and pointing antique pistols at each other’s missing heads. (Hogarth would have loved it. Goya, too.) Ghada Amer, from Egypt, has two partly woven canvases, including one, called Not About Orange, in which green and purple thread is woven into a canvas painted with a bright orange, yellow and pink field, a good metaphor for whatever might be overlooked.

Also recommended? Two tough paintings of black balls – no jokes – with heavily worked surfaces by Miguel Barcelo, who lives in Spain. Two harrowing portraits of a male head by Mario Benjamin from Haiti. Post Pop F*ck 21, by the South African artist Kendell Geers, a hard-edge black and white wall painting that turns a well known obscenity into a Rococo (and unreadable) graphic. A sound-art piece by a Moroccan artist, Mounir Fatmi, called Save Manhattan, from 2006/2007, that consists of dozens of small stereo speakers — and two “tower” speakers — resting on the floor and playing a rumble of New York street traffic noises, which, given the title, feels both ominous and elegiac.

Incredibly, there’s even a good Warhol from the 1970s, when he wasn’t much good anymore. Warhol? African? Okay, it’s a portrait of Muhammad Ali. I’m guessing it belongs to Dokolo, the Congolese collector, and he wanted it in. But it’s different enough from the general run of Warhol’s celebrity portraits of the 70s and 80s to be worth including. Ali is sitting with his head pointed down, as though exhausted by his own fame. (And remember that in the 1970s Ali was in many estimations the most famous man in the world.) For once, Warhol’s late style brings something to the picture other than slack jawed and cynical celebrity worship, something closer to a man-to-man understanding of how tiring renown can be. And so much the better that it’s rendered in Warhol’s celebrity-silkscreen technique, which operates here as a commentary on its own failure to fully grasp sometimes what it presumed to show us.

It proves again that Warhol’s genius in the 60s, and there’s no other word for it, could have gone places in later decades that he just didn’t bother to take it.