This week, the chrous of frenzied art world posturing known as The Armory Show attracts hundreds of artists, galleries, and collectors from all over the world, like sharks swooping in on the smell of fresh blood. Teetering on the westernmost edge of Manhattan, hundreds of booths and thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and experiences fill up the massive warehouse space of Piers 92 and 94. Within the cacophonous labyrinth of art objects vying for human attention, however, there are enough genuinely interesting artifacts to justify a visit, particularly within The Armory Show’s Focus: African Perspectives - Spotlighting Artistic Practices of Global Contemporaries.
This focus takes form as a ring of galleries on the border of the two piers, and features work ranging from plastic bag tapestries and line drawings that evoke Picasso, to men and women infected with circuit boards and Afrofuturist masks reclaimed from garbage. These challenging artworks season our American mixing-pot with the genuine stories of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Sudan, and Angola. They elicit empathy, make familiar the unknown, yet remain refreshingly unpretentious. These are artists with real problems, and the way they deal with them is through creativity and art. Even outside the dedicated African focus area, African artworks stand out from the rest, such as Mary Sibande’s surreal, sculptural photographs and Wim Botha’s busts sculpted from lacerated books.
Here are eight of the most alluring, challenging, fascinating, and straight up good African artists you’ve got to check out at The 2016 Armory Show.
Known as an advocate of Afrofuturism, Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru offers stunning photography of himself in a series of improvised masks made from garbage and spare metal, which he calls "C-Stunners" (the C is for Cyrus). Part performance, part fashion, part fine art, the photo series is called Nija Ya Maisha, which is Swahili for “Ways of Life.” His booth was handing out balloons that read “Your Mom,” but Armory Show officials made them stop.
Look for Cyrus Kabiru at the Smac Gallery booth in Pier 94.
Working with local fashion designers of her home base in Lagos, Nigeria, Swiss-Guinean artist Namsa Leuba presents photography electrified with vivid colors and eye-catching outfits in her new series NGL, debuting at The Armory Show. Composed with auteur level attention to detail, she explores the symbolism and rituals of her cultural heritage, both European and African. The result is a fusion of styles and ideas that would look at home on a net artist’s Tumblr, infused with a panache that is clearly African.
Look for Namsa Leuba at the Echo Art Gallery booth in Pier 94.
One of many Zimbabwean immigrants living in South Africa, Dan Halter’s work at The Armory Show is centered around the concept of migration. With tapestries and a massive sculpture stitched together from large plastic bags used to carry valuables across the Zimbabwe-South Africa border, Halter makes a statement about nature of migration. A massive map of the world is revealed to be an infographic—countries whose populations are on the move are cut from weathered plastic bags, while their destinations are shiny and new. An assemblage of Guy Fawkes masks crafted in the styles of different African tribes parodies both trendiness of cultural artifacts in the markets of Cape Town and the empty promises of the Occupy movement, whose most recognizable symbol has been reduced to simple product and profit.
Halter has exhibited work all over the world, including at the South African National Gallery and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and has completed residencies in Zurich, Rio de Janeiro, Scotland, and Turin. Find his work at The Armory Show in the What If The World Gallery booth in Pier 94.
Cape Town-based sculptor Wim Botha’s selection of battered, shredded, and otherwise unconventional busts is the hidden gem amongst the hundreds of Armory Show booths, tucked behind a wall near an emergency exit. The award-winning artist was invited to the 2013 Venice Biennale, and has also shown work in Austria, Paris, and London. One bust called Untitled (Witness 38) is made from carved encyclopedias, while its neighbor, A Thousand Things Part 206, is a frightening sight composed of charred fire-resistant pine. While one gallerist assured me these busts were satirical of classical busts, institutional ideas about materials, and the aging institution of encyclopedias, I couldn’t help but sense an imprint of rage, disgust, or dissatisfaction on the works—but maybe that’s just extended exposure to The Armory Show talking.
Find Wim Botha’s work at the Stevenson Gallery booth in Pier 94.
Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga
The continuing effects of cultural and economic imperialism drive paintings by 24-year-old Congolese artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga presents at The Armory Show, entitled Mangbetu. His characters’ black skin is coated with circuit boards, while they are wrapped in vivid clothes printed with traditional Mangbetu patterns. The Mangbetu are a tribe of warrior extraction in Ilunga’s home country, The Democratic Republic of Congo, whose culture is threatened by the momentum of modernization in Africa. With his art collective M’Pongo, Ilunga seeks to offer creative alternatives to Western-style growth in his home.
Find Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s work at the October Gallery booth in Pier 94.
Mary Sibande blends photography, performance, and sculpture in her stunning works depicting the emotional trauma of life in a South Africa still reeling from the effects of apartheid. She dresses in vibrant costumes, often accompanied by colorful sculptures, in the photographs on display at The Armory Show. After the photo is taken, she replaces her own form with an identical resin cast, breathing new life into the scene as sculpture.
See Mary Sibande’s work at the Gallery Momo booth in Pier 94.
Fresh off his selection to participate in last year’s Venice Biennale, the Lisbon-born and Columbia-educated artist Francisco Vidal was an art teacher in Angola when he began making artwork from scratch—right down to the very paper he paints or draws on. His work at The Armory Show includes colorful wall-sized abstracts and dozens of black-and-white drawings of his friends, other artists, and inspirations, ranging from Questlove, to Bruce Lee, and even Mr. T. He began making paper because the Angolese school he was teaching in didn’t have the supplies necessary for his class.
Today, he continues to make his own paper, even bringing the portable paper presses he uses to his booth at The Armory Show. “It’s like the first layer of ink,” he tells The Creators Project. “It evokes industry and manufacturing. It’s more human, not having to buy stuff.”
Find Francisco Vidal’s work at the Tiwani Contemporary booth in Pier 94.
At 85 years of age, Sudanese Muslim artist Ibrahim El-Salahi’s work bears marks of his decades-long struggle to make honest art. El-Salahi is a founding member of the Khartoum School, former Undersecretary in Sudan’s Ministry of Culture and Information, and a former political prisoner in his home nation. His work has been compared to Picasso and Miró, infusing elements of calligraphy, native Sudanese design, and Islamic imagery into many of his artworks. His resume is long, impressive, and at times heartbreaking.
At The Armory Show, he exhibits the third artwork in a series he’s been working on since 1965 called Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams, the first of which hangs next to Picasso’s Three Dancers (1925) in the Tate Modern. “It recalls all the stories and fables he was read as a child,” Vigo Gallery director Toby Clarke explains to The Creators Project. “He likes to live with his paintings because he doesn’t understand them until looking at them later on.”
See Ibrahim El-Salahi’s work, including Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams III, at the Vigo Gallery booth in Pier 94.
Learn more about the Armory Show on the official website.