Art: Present Tense

Sue Williamson, Better Lives I via the Newark Museum

Last weekend, I went to see Present Tense at the Newark Museum, a permanent collection of contemporary African art at one of my favorite museums. The Newark Museum a local gem that is well-known for it’s African art collection. This exhibit in particular is an excellent representation of their collection in its diversity — the artists range from a variety of cultures and countries and work in various mediums, from painting to video, found objects to photography.

My favorite piece was Lalla Essaydi‘s Harem #1, which is a tryptic in which the central figure, a woman lying on a couch, blends seamlessly into the patterned background behind her.  The Moroccan-born, New York-based artist’s work stands out in terms of content and stunning visuals. It’s a great look at women in Islamic culture, agency, and empowerment.

Sue Williamson’s Better Lives I series, in which South African migrants and refugees speak about their lives, was equally stunning. It pulls from the tradition of African portraiture as those who were interviewed by Williamson sit in front of the camera as if sitting for a portrait. Instead, they’re actually being filmed listening to their own stories and you can see their slight nervous tics and nodding heads as they listen quietly. (Some of the videos are available here.)

I was really excited to see some works by Olu Amoda, a Nigerian artist who I gave a presentation on in college. He uses found materials to create intricate, rusty, gorgeous sculptures. Some of the works included in Present Tense, such as National Theater, mimic popular women’s hairstyles in found objects like conduit pipe and discarded nails.

“Fantasy coffin” from Ghana

There’s also a current exhibit, Expanding African Art, on through May 2013. It pulls from the museum’s large collection of contemporary African art that isn’t typically on view, including this “fantasy coffin” from Ghana in the shape of a Nokia cell phone. The exhibit is just a taste of what’s to come, as the museum continues to expand it’s galleries for African art. (According to the website, they expect the new galleries to be finished in 2015.)

The African collection at the Newark Museum is inspiring. The breadth and diversity of African art is truly acknowledged and put into context, without gimmicks. The art itself it unique, touching on various social issues, such as colonialism, African identity, feminism, and poverty. I’m really looking forward to seeing the collection expand — it’s going to be a great resource and experience for anyone who visits.


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