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April 2001

Country Mile

An exhibition that goes the distance in documenting 50 years of strife in Africa

Munich’s newly renovated Museum Villa Stuck currently plays host to an absorbing exhibition entitled “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994.” Conceived and organized by the eminent Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, the Artistic Director of next year’s documenta XI in Kassel, the show focuses on Africa’s “short century,” the 50 odd years from the beginning of liberation from the colonial yoke to South Africa’s first free election in 1994. The exhibition does not merely document this tumultuous historical period, but rather highlights the art that has arisen from it, with exhibits ranging from photography to video, painting to sculpture, short films to installations.

Most African countries — many of whose borders were arbitrarily determined by the colonial powers of Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany at the Berlin Conference in 1884 — fought long battles against their colonizers, meeting with vehement resistance, which cost the lives of thousands. One documentary film shows the bloody war in Kenya between the British and members of the Mau Mau movement, which includes scenes of dead bodies being inspected and prisoners being taken. Another shows French president Charles de Gaulle triumphantly parading through the streets of Algiers, who, only a few years later, was to relinquish power to the Algerians. A third — this time as part of a work of art by South African Kay Hassan — recounts the events leading up to the massacre of hundreds of schoolchildren in Soweto in 1976, when they protested against the introduction of Afrikaans as the new teaching medium.

Upon entering the exhibition the visitor encounters the abstract work of Ernest Mancoba, oil paintings recalling of early 20th-century trends in Europe. Opposite, the large black-and-white photographic portraits from the 1940s and 1950s by the Malian Seydou Keïta reveal his countrymen and women with a new sense of self-confidence before the camera. Beyond that, are two large oil paintings by the Senegalese painter Iba Ndiaye, executed in 1970. Here, a number of sheep are seen standing next to others that have been slaughtered, blood pervading the scene, the paint applied in thick, bold strokes.

The exhibition extends over several floors, the work becoming increasingly political as one ascends to the upper levels. Displayed here among further photographs and videos are books, posters and records from the colonial era. One such poster offers help and contact addresses to those looking for missing persons at the height of the struggle against Apartheid.

On the top floor Jane Alexander’s life-size sculpture The Butcher Boys dominates the room. Created in the mid-1980s, this piece, comprising three “men” sitting on a bench, their heads being a cross between a ram and a pig, elicits absolute horror in the viewer. One can imagine that a statement about brutal law enforcers is intended, yet the relaxed, almost lackadaisical postures of the three figures conflicts with this interpretation entirely. In an enclosed space nearby the short film Ubu Tells the Truth by William Kentridge, consisting of charcoal drawings blended with documentary material, presents the multiple methods of eliminating dissidents, be it by pushing them out of high windows, hanging them in cells or sending them letter-bombs.

The antithesis of these bolder pieces hangs in the basement of the museum where the photographs of Zwelethu Mthethwa and David Goldblatt should not be overlooked. Mthethwa spent months photographing shack dwellers in their houses outside Cape Town, against the background of their new possessions. This vision contrasts with the stock voyeuristic images of dispossessed people that one is accustomed to seeing, giving them back their dignity amidst the squalor of their living conditions. David Goldblatt spent years recording the architecture of his country — churches, shacks, demolished stores. His large-format images offer a discerning picture of the absurdity of the Apartheid landscape.

It is a pity that this exhibition has been confined to this cramped venue. Though one of the most hand-some museums in Munich — a tour of the old Franz von Stuck chambers is a must — the tight exhibition space has meant that a great number of pieces do not get the attention they deserve. This will no doubt be remedied at the next venues, in Berlin, Chicago and New York. The extensive catalogue, magnificently illustrated and with essays by leading African authors and academics, goes a long way in offering an in-depth picture of the works shown and the issues they address. It is a must for those who wish to understand the complexity of the art that has emerged from this turbulent period in the continent’s history and some of the conflicts that still rage there today.

“The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994,” Museum Villa Stuck, February 15 to April 22. More information is available at

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