Chazen Museum of Art presenting recently acquired contemporary African art

The Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison will unveil more than 40 recent additions to its permanent holdings in “Insistent Presence: Contemporary African Art from the Chazen Collection,” on view September 5 through December 23, 2023. The works produced between 2011 and 2022 offer depictions of past and present life in Africa and invite visitors to reflect on their lives, relationships and the 21st-century world. 

The exhibition features 24 artists that span the continent, from Tunisia and Egypt to Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania are also among the countries represented in the exhibition. 

The works came to the Chazen as part of the Contemporary African Art Initiative, a five-year project that built upon several contemporary African artworks the Chazen collected in the late 1990s. Many of the recent acquisitions were made possible by a generous gift from the Straus Family Foundation. 

“The Chazen Museum of Art is committed to presenting global perspectives. The Contemporary African Art Initiative has been transformative for the Museum, bringing more diversity to the largely Eurocentric collection,” Amy Gilman, the Chazen’s director, said. “We are grateful for the generous contributions from the Straus Family Foundation that help the Chazen present stories that encompass African culture and enhance relationships with artists and organizations in Africa. The project also bolsters UW-Madison’s academic exchange with the continent.” 

About the Exhibition

Both the exhibition and accompanying publication are organized into three sections.

The “Body in Society” section focuses on how people interact with one another and the world around them. The works explore a range of themes including individual and collective identity, politics and religious and social ideologies. Leilah Babirye (b. 1985, Uganda) places homosexuality at the intersection of precolonial, colonial and postcolonial power structures with “Namuleme from the Kuchu Mbogo (Buffalo) Clan” (2022). The ceramic bust emphasizes the need for belonging for queer people and addresses life in a place where anti-homosexuality laws that date to 1950 remain valid today. 

The “Artist is Present” section features creators who use their bodies in performance, sculpture, photography, painting and animation to communicate personal and cultural histories. Mary Sibande (b. 1982, South Africa) used a mold of her own body to cast “Sower in the Field” (2015), a life-size bronze inspired by the experiences Black people faced during Apartheid.

With restricted access to education and limited job opportunities, women of that era pursued domestic work. The seeds sown in this work offer a symbolic nod to the future. The sculpture’s title alludes to a biblical parable in which a farmer scatters seed on both fertile ground and in areas where the seed will not yield a crop or will be eaten by birds. As the farmer in the story controls the seed’s destiny, Sibande’s bronze represents one’s power to determine their future. 

Artists featured in “The Absent Body” theme use inanimate objects to represent the human figure.

Barthélémy Toguo (b. 1967, Cameroon) explores the African migrant and refugee crisis in “Exodus” (2019). A vintage Raleigh Sprite 27 bike serves as the focal point of the work. A wooden cart attached to the bike is loaded with goods wrapped in wax-print fabrics that are popular in West and Central Africa. The title references the Bible’s book of Exodus in which the Israelites are delivered from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. 

Gonçalo Mabunda (b. 1975, Mozambique) presents a daunting throne with protruding bullets in “The Throne of Languages” (2019). Deactivated and spent warheads, AK-47 magazines and other materials comprise the work and serve as a reminder of the weapons used during Mozambique’s pursuit of liberation and the civil war that followed. Three years after that civil war ended, the Christian Council of Mozambique invited Mabunda and nine other artists to repurpose weapons and other materials. 

“‘Insistent Presence’ offers a digest of African culture that invites viewers to experience life over many decades across the vast continent,” Margaret Nagawa, the exhibition’s guest curator, said. “Each work in the exhibition provides a lens through which the viewer can gain insight into the social, political and religious context in the region. As the artists use the human figure to chronicle decolonization, restitution and other eras of African history, visitors will consider the role of the body in colonialism, humanism and modernity.” 

Nagawa is a Ugandan artist and curator with expertise in African art and the relationships between visual, literary and performance art. She is pursuing doctoral studies in art history at Emory University and holds a master’s degree in curating from Goldsmiths, University of London and a bachelor’s degree from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where she studied painting and sculpture. She taught classes and curated several exhibitions at the Makerere University Art Gallery and lead several collaborative artist initiatives in Uganda. 

Nagawa found inspiration for the exhibition title in Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu’s book “Contemporary African Art Since 1980.” The renowned African scholars assert that artists persistently depict the human figure when expressing Africa’s humanism and modernity. The artists in “Insistent Presence” use their practice to reclaim the body as an expression of political views, aesthetic experimentation and everyday disappointments and triumphs. 

“Insistent Presence: Contemporary African Art from the Chazen Collection” is organized by the Chazen Museum of Art and will include a catalog that addresses the works’ relationship to the Chazen’s collecting strategy, details each section of the exhibition, features reproductions of the works on view and more.

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1 Comment
  • Kirstin Pires
    August 28, 2023

    This exhibition is so good, and the artists are delightful. I’m biased, but it’s really worth seeing.