Artists in Dialogue II, the second in a series held at the National Museum of African Art that pairs two artists from distinct parts of the world and asks them to create works in conversation with one another, features South African artist Sandile Zulu and Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira.
Meeting for the first time over a year ago, Zulu and Oliveira, who work with fire and wood, respectively— two elements that would seem dangerous when used in tandem— quickly found common ground. “The commonality that we seemed to share in terms of our creative imagining is our fascination with the body, biology, science,” Oliveira said, themes that are reflected in their works. They kept in touch via email, Skype and with exhibit curator, Karen Milbourne. “Their works are a call and response,” she said.
Sandile Zulu, “working with universal themes in a vocabulary of minimalism,” created works, including: Large Colon (y) Brownprint—a histopathological case (2010), Old bones, Old genes—a population groups case (2010) and Spinal Diagnosis—a regenerate case no. 1 (2010) that reflect an interconnectedness between the human body and society. In his piece Spinal Diagnosis—a regenerate case no. 2 (2010), Zulu experimented with Oliveira’s material, flexible plywood, to draw parallels between the two. “Because the spine is the backbone of an individual, this symbolic association is that if an individual has got a healthy backbone, he is stable or she is stable,” Zulu said. “By extension, the society is stable.”
Zulu, who came of age in the 1990s, chose fire, a seemingly untameable, uncontrollable element, intentionally. “The use of fire was important to me because of the political situation in South Africa then,” he said, referring to the inequalities that existed for decades under apartheid. Coming to terms with being one of the few black art students during that tumultuous time was a process. “I had to look for visual language about my own understanding of philosophy of art and practice,” he said. “The actual act of burning was a revolutionary suggestion to me.” Zulu now incorporates the other three elements— water, air and earth— in his artwork as well. His use of fire allows him to “work with a destructive force in a creative fashion to allow for healing.”
Henrique Oliveira started out as a painter 14 years ago and began making installations in 2003. His painting Untitled (2005) symbolizes the vocabulary he brought into the dialogue. His newer works, including the painting Blue Abyss (2010) and his two installations, which protrude from the gallery’s walls, continue the conversation. Oliveira layered weathered strips of wood (tapumes) to create Bololô (2011) and Xilonoma Chamusquius (2010), on which he also experimented with Zulu’s medium of fire. Oliveira likens his technique of layering to “a DJ that samples sounds and combines them into another element.”
Oliveira initially used plywood found on the street and in dumpsters because it was “iconic of poverty,” as experienced in his native Brazil. The use of wood in his art references the situations of those existing on the periphery of cities like Sao Paulo, who make their homes wherever they can— favelas and shantytowns— and with whatever material they can find. In Oliveira’s hands, the wood, initially rigid and unyielding, is bent and shaped into something new, “like a Frankenstein,” he said. “I take the discarded pieces and remake it.”
Neither Zulu nor Oliveira care to assign specific meanings to their works. “I’m not going to dictate the meaning on a one to one level of each piece,” said Zulu. Instead, they invite viewers to make their own connections. “Being open to many ways of understanding, that makes it interesting,” said Oliveira.
“What we see or do not see as African or Brazilian isn’t the point,” said Milbourne. Perhaps engaging in what the museum director, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, calls, “multi-logues, lots of us talking to each other,” is.
The African Art Museum invites viewers to join in the conversation via twitter, by uploading questions to the artists on YouTube, using their first mobile exhibit app (in both English and Portuguese) or by joining them in person at “Africa Underground,” an after hours event at the museum this Friday night.