Living With Ghosts review – African revolutionaries come back from the dead | Art

Dineo Seshee Bopape placed various forms of transformed earth, each with a connection to human culture, on low mudbrick plinths. There are subtle washes of colored pigments, a dried circle of pale paste and dustings of gold leaf. Around them are dozens of cylinders of clay, roughly shaped by the clenched fingers of one hand.

These lumps of clay range from black to ash gray to ochre, reflecting the fact that they have been quarried from many sites. Among them are wooden plaques bearing stories spanning 500 years. In each, a community from a different part of Africa fought back against the Europeans who grabbed the territory, suppressed the culture and plundered the resources. Bopape notes the number of fallen during each uprising: the clay pieces become commemorative objects. Land in its many forms here carries associations of contested mineral wealth, materials to build houses and make art, land to grow crops and graze livestock, but above all the homeland: the soil beneath your feet.

The dead honored in Bopape’s 2018 piece Lerole: Footnotes (The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting) are joined by a spectral multitude in Living With Ghosts, an exhibition of works by nine artists at Pace Gallery in London, honoring the forgotten, suppressed or erased African stories. They are the ghosts of the forgotten dead, whose spirits and deeds haunt Africa and its diaspora.

From Foreword to Guns for Banta (2011) by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc: shooting photographs of the film Guns for Banta by Sarah Maldoror. Photography: Suzanne Lipinska, courtesy Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc

In Bouchra Khalili’s 2015 film Foreign Office, two young people speaking French, Arabic and English use a map of Algiers and a stack of news photographs to tell the story of Algeria’s years as an international revolutionary center . A photo from 1962 shows Nelson Mandela with members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FNL). Also pictured is Amílcar Cabral, leader of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, who was shot dead in 1973 while leading Guinea-Bissau to independence. Or maybe the character in the photo is the Brazilian poet Mário de Andrade? Or Agostinho Neto, leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)? The image is blurred. The narrators are undecided.

As Cabral said: “Christians go to the Vatican, Muslims go to Mecca, revolutionaries go to Algiers”. The narrators draw dots on a map showing the headquarters of various political formations: the FNL and the MPLA, the ANC, the Black Panther party in exile. All of this political fervor and radical thinking once crossed paths in this city. On the gallery walls are photographs taken by Khalili at seven of these points on the map. All are now ‘non-sites’ – empty stairwells, a playground, an old-fashioned hotel, their revolutionary history seemingly forgotten.

Like other works in this exhibition, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlights the revolutionary role of women, including Peninsular Moon and other female fighters from the Popular Liberation Front of Oman. There was also a role for culture: in Algiers, Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver promoted free jazz as the sound of revolutionary Africa and used the new Portapak video camera to shoot propaganda films. In the present, the storytellers tell us that they share and circulate stories to help their generation fill in the gaps in their history.

Hôtel El Safir, Ex-Aletti, Downtown Algiers, Residence of the Black Panther Party delegation during the Pan-African Festival of Algiers 1969, Fig.  1: Entrance to the old casino (2015), by Bouchra Khalili.
Hôtel El Safir, Ex-Aletti, Downtown Algiers, Residence of the Black Panther Party delegation during the Pan-African Festival of Algiers 1969, Fig. 1: Entrance to the old casino (2015), by Bouchra Khalili. Photography: Courtesy of the artist and mor charpentier

Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s preface to 2011’s Guns for Banta explores Cabral’s push for liberation in Guinea-Bissau through the experience of anti-colonial filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who made a feature film about the liberation struggles of the country. Confiscated later, all that remains of the film are production stills. Together, the artist and the filmmaker strive to fill in the gaps and determine what has been lost – in Maldoror’s missing film and in the larger story of Guinea-Bissau’s struggle for independence.

Cameron Rowland’s later work, Mooring, is a more minimal offering: a certificate confirming the artist’s lease of a specific mooring at Liverpool’s Albert Dock, once the location of the Rathbone & Sons warehouse which supplied timber to slave ships. Rowland has taken an indefinite lease and plans to leave the mooring perpetually unused: a memorial void of space that makes an interesting conceptual companion to the recent debate around public monuments.

In other circumstances, an exhibition full of wordy works – printed text, dense voice-overs, extensive explanatory captions – might amount to a sort of curatorial failure, but here it feels essential. What is examined are gaps in our general knowledge: how to make art in a territory for which most of us have no common references?

This concise exhibition, which was curated by Kojo Abudu, makes an interesting counterpoint to In the Black Fantastic, now at London’s Hayward Gallery. Where this exhibition looks to the future, exploring the role of the imagination as a source of hope and freedom, it identifies the suffocating and disorienting impact of a lack of historical records. Here, the artist positions himself not as a dream catcher, but in a darker role: that of digging into memories.

Thelma J. Longworth