“We Face Forward is an exhibition of contemporary art from West Africa, shown across three venues: Manchester Art Gallery, Whitworth Art Gallery and the Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall. It features painting, photography, textiles, sculpture, video and sound work from 32 artists from 9 countries in West Africa. Recent art, much of which has never been shown in the UK before, is shown alongside new commissions made especially for Manchester.
The idea for this exhibition grew from the many West African textiles in Manchester galleries; evidence of the historic links between West Africa and Manchester from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the hosting of the Pan-African Congress in 1945. These links are also reflected today in the many people of West African descent who are Mancunians.
In 1960, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah said “We face neither East nor West: we face forward” stating his resistance to Cold War super powers. The exhibition takes its direction from Nkrumah’s statement of independence and celebrates the dynamism and creativity of West African artists today. We Face Forward also highlights the pressing global concerns present in the work of these artists: matters of economic and cultural exchange, environment and sustainability and the place of tradition in contemporary culture. The emblem of the exhibition is a new artwork designed by Meschac Gaba. His flag, which flies at each venue, is entitled Ensemble and combines all the West African nations with the Union Jack in a gesture of solidarity and friendship.
At Manchester Art Gallery you can see large scale works which explore ideas of trade and cultural exchange and issues of migration and freedom of movement. Barthélémy Toguo’s enormous new commission Redemption, El Anatsui’s dazzling multi coloured textile sculpture and Nnenna Okore’s vast wall sculpture When the Heavens Meet dominate the main gallery. Another room is devoted to environmental issues explored from different angles with film, photography and painting. There are also works scattered throughout the historic building. Look out for Aboubakar Fofana’s new commission Obsession suspended from the atrium ceiling, Romuald Hazoumè’s masks, Emeka Ogboh’s soundwork outside the front door and Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Poupées Pascale (Pascale’s Dolls) which infect the historic galleries like a ‘colonial perfume’.
Works shown at the Whitworth include a major new commission by Pascale Marthine Tayou, entitled The World Falls Apart, an interior forest populated by masks and sculptures, that spills out into the neighbouring park. Romuald Hazoumè’s films and sculpture highlight the local impact of consumerism and globalisation, and Amadou Sanogo’s paintings are inspired by the international news. In contrast, the contemplative black and white photography of Nii Obodai is a personal journey of rediscovery of his home country of Ghana, and Bartélémy Toguo’s watercolour expresses intimate human experiences. Georges Adéagbo traces cultural and historical resonances across continents, while Victoria Udondian weaves textiles combining materials sourced in Manchester and Nigeria. Lucy Azubuike’s collages and François-Xavier Gbré’s photographs document the creative forces of change.
The Whitworth also hosts an outpost of the Raw Materials Company, a centre for art, knowledge and society in Dakar, Senegal. A talk, screening or other event takes place in this space every Saturday afternoon.
At the Gallery of Costume, photographs by Malick Sidibé, Abderramane Sakaly, Soungalo Malé and Hamidou Maiga are being shown alongside contemporary fashion pieces designed by British-Nigerian designer Duro Olowu. All four photographers’ works show how Mali re-envisioned the idea of the studio portrait in the second half of the twentieth century, giving a West African twist to the art form. Olowu has achieved great recognition in the world of fashion, winning New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards in 2005. He references his African heritage in vibrant, bold, graphic prints, exotic colours and patchwork techniques.”
2 June – 16 September 2012.
Photo: Nnenna Okore, When the Heavens Meet, 2011. Photo Jonathan Greet, courtesy October Gallery, London