Illuminating the African archive
Since their inception museums have functioned as sites of discovery; offering windows into the past and far-flung cultures and destinations. In the present-day this has been their undoing; particularly for institutions in western centres, which are haunted by their collection policies of the past and the narratives woven around them. How do these institutions justify retaining their historical collections and what stories can they tell about these objects now without exposing the inherent bias (and flaws) of these institutions and perhaps the society they serve? This month the British Museum is hoping to navigate this tricky path with a massive exhibition we will be observing closely that is dubbed South Africa: Art of a Nation.
In his exhibition Occupy Marcus Neustetter deals with museology politics in relation to African artefacts and art in a novel and characteristically abstract and playful manner. Drawing from experiences at the Smithsonian National Museum of African art in Washington and the Egyptian museum in Cairo, his voyage of discovery is not centred on the objects or the collections per se but the unseen qualities surrounding them. His approach is literal and is depicted in a videowork titled Space Journey II, which shows him probing a dark interior with a large neon light. He is physically plunging himself into the archive - typically our engagement is theoretical and the archive space, being the store-room is never seen. Naturally, all he is able to bring to light (literally) are shadows.
These dark silhouettes become the basis for his art in this exhibition operating as metaphors for all this unseen baggage tied to these objects. They loom as the ghosts of the past that can only come into view from a position of enlightenment or is it darkness? The interplay of light and dark runs throughout and is best given expression through a stunning series of monochromatic ink paintings that play with this juxtaposition visually and ideologically. Dubbed Shadowscape this series is displayed in the oval room in the first floor of the Circa gallery along with an installation titled Exploration, which demonstrates the process of ‘discovery’ that Neustetter undertakes. African artefacts are placed in front of floodlights, generating shadows on a screen behind them.
The result is morphing abstract forms articulating the shifting politics - the rereadings, misreadings of the objects. Neustetter could have left it here, and in the past, when he was more concerned with enacting ideas or performances with light, he would have. Instead he has produced the most extraordinary hauntingly beautiful paintings that map these shifting shadows, transforming them into landscapes. These artwork are like maps, charting and inviting viewers into these unseen worlds of discovery that lie beyond objects. Due to the monochromatic palette and the organic, spindly like quality of the forms this other world is a swampy dark place - like a forest in a Tim Burton movie. As such these landscapes are unreal, poetic and allow us to tread dangerous territory without any risk. In other words they invite curiosity and discovery, the qualities that drive Neustetter’s art but also our connection to it. An extraordinary show that should not be missed. - first published in The Times