Six Critically Acclaimed African Artists Explore the Dimensions and Complexities of Time

Much more abstract than seconds, minutes and hours, time in the hands of artists becomes even more perplexing

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) (video still), 2004 (Yinka Shonibare MBE and James Cohan Gallery, New York)
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There’s something peculiar about how we experience time. We feel it move faster as we age, slow when we’re bored and stand still when we’re shocked. And for centuries scientists, philosophers and writers have mused about its existence and its meaning in our lives.

In his theory of relativity Albert Einstein postulated that time could be warped and that clocks actually slow as they move closer to a massive body. Aristotle, in Book IV of Physics argues “Time, then, also is both made continuous by the 'now' and divided at it.” In her memoir, M Train, Patti Smith comments “Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory.” 

At its simplest, time is a system of measurement by which we organize our lives. Yet, nothing about how we experience time is actually straightforward, and it’s much more abstract than the confines of seconds, minutes and hours.

A new video and film-based exhibition at the National Museum of African Art challenges the standard notions and limitations of how we experience time through the multimedia works of six internationally acclaimed African artists.

In “Senses of Time: Video and Film-Based Works of Africa,” an exhibition co-organized with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the artists, Sammy Baloji, Theo Eshetu, Moataz Nasr, Berni Searle, Yinka Shonibare MBE and Sue Williamson, reconsider the concept of time, how it relates to the body and its place in global considerations of Africa.

“Time is as central as color and line and form. And we need to think about what they means in relationship to the African continent,” says curator Karen Milbourne.  I think this becomes particularly poignant because Africa for too long has not been seen as coeval with the rest of the world.”

The works in the exhibition fall under the category of time-based media, a term developed by art conservators to describe works of art that require technology and that include duration as a dimension, rather than traditional measures of dimension such as height or width. 

Milbourne stresses that time-based media is not a new art form on the African continent noting that one of the works in the exhibition dates to 1999. This exhibition not only challenges common perceptions of the concept of time, but it also confronts notions of what is possible in the realm of African art. 

“This is a dynamic art form that is being driven by some of the most talented artists of this continent and beyond,” she says. “Through this medium we have the opportunity to rethink how we tell the stories of Africa, how we tell the stories of art and how we experience them.”

South African artist Berni Searle, who has two pieces in the exhibition, supports the sentiment of destabilizing the assumptions of the possibilities of African art. In her piece, A Matter of Time, a looping video captures Searle’s own feet gingerly walking across a surface slick with olive oil until finally they slip backwards, before beginning the process all over again. The video is a commentary on time and identity with the olive oil representing her “olive” complexion.

“The importance of an exhibition like this is that it starts to demystify some of the kind of generalized conceptions of what Africa is and the kind of work that is produced by African artists. If you weren’t aware of the politics, these works could be from anywhere,” says Searle.

Yinka Shonibare MBE employs his signature technique of dressing mannequins in western fashion styles made from Dutch wax cloth (which is typically considered African) in his video Un Ballo in Maschera. 

Inspired by the opera of the same name, the high definition digital video follows the narrative of a ball in which all of the characters are dancing in sync in their Dutch wax cloth gowns. The king at the ball is shot dead but stands again to repeat the dance at the ball as a nod to the cyclical nature of history. The dancing at the ball juxtaposed against the bright “African” cloth serves as a reminder that all cultures exhibit traditions. 

While most of the works in the gallery are flat projections, Eshetu's Brave New World requires viewer participation. Upon first glance the viewer sees images flash on a screen within the borders of a hung frame, but to experience the full effect of the piece, the viewer must approach the frame and peer into what is actually an angled box of mirrors that reflect the images from a television set and the viewer’s own likeness throughout the box in a kaleidoscope effect. Images of the Twin Towers, advertisements and baseball games repeat and layer on one another. The viewer’s personal reflection is caught in the ever-changing images emanating from the television set.

“The works of art in this exhibition show how time becomes a force to be reckoned with in discussions of coevalness, politics, faith, family, race—some of the most loaded issues in our day. And it can be done in exquisitely gorgeous ways,” Milbourne says.

Senses of Time: Video and Film-Based Works of Africa is on view at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., through March 26, 2017.

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