On ViewYancey Richardson Gallery
March 6 – April 10, 2021
Hidden in a riot of pattern, color, and spatial uncertainty, David Alekhuogie’s inaugural exhibition at Yancey Richardson is a biting treatise on the prescribed views of African art in the Western mind and the power of photography to influence an entire generation’s cultural ideas. Naïveté brings together a strong new body of work inspired by a 2019 visit to Nigeria and a deep dive into the conversation between African art and American modernism. Comprised of 11 new photographs, collages, and fabric sculptures, the exhibition hinges on the artist’s reconstructions and presentation of historical images made new. Paired with a selection from his 2018 project “To Live and Die in LA,” which was included in MoMA’s Companion Pieces: New Photography 2020, these sophisticated selections chart a rapidly expanding conceptual trajectory for the California-based artist.
By far the most striking and critically significant images in the exhibition are those from Alekhuogie’s series “A Reprise.” Using the Walker Evans catalogue Perfect Documents as a catalyst, the artist reframes and reexamines the early 20th-century photographer’s role in transitioning African artifacts into African art. Tasked by MoMA with documenting the 1935 exhibition African Negro Art, Evans’s photographs relied on modernist austerity to cast anthropological plunder in the context of the museum’s curatorial ideals. The images traveled where the objects could not, and subsequently entered the popular subconscious as a touchstone for how African art should look when displayed. This divorcing of traditional objects from their surroundings, their active roles in society, and ultimately their very meaning has been a detrimental but common practice for decades. Alekhuogie’s repurposing of Evans’s images serves as a reminder that context matters more now than ever before.
Many of the works appear graphic, almost digitally manipulated at first. It’s easy to want to chalk this up to Photoshop, but Alekhuogie works in-camera (whether on 4 by 5 film or medium format digital) to create these compositions, with an exacting process and conceptual foresight. In pieces like WE 410/2 “A Reprise” (2020), a page from the Evans catalogue is obscured by Alekhuogie’s sculptural reconstruction and vivid African wax print cloth samples. The artist’s constructed objects rely on cut-outs of the original photographs affixed to approximations of the original forms in a cardboard-model-meets-Cubist-composition sensibility. Layering photographs of these sculptures on optically confusing backgrounds of African textiles and black-and-white texts creates a visual disparity that befuddles a cursory reading. The viewer wants to know what the objects are, what the text says, and to make sense of the visual space. But this desire for clarification is stymied by the artist’s intentional obfuscation and his knack for intriguing arrangements. As Alekhuogie creates new renditions of the masks and figures that populate Perfect Documents, he physically works through surrogate structures in an effort to more aptly understand the source material. By viewing the resulting images, we too can start to come to terms.
By pairing photography with a vested interest in sculptural elements and visual ambiguity, Alekhuogie draws ties to other artists working in a similar mode. The New York artist B. Wurtz’s project “Photo/Object” (started 1987) creates a similar conversation about visual and conceptual perception, while Stephanie Syjuco’s “Cargo Cults” (2016) plays with the history of ethnographic portraiture and patterned fabric in an optically complex manner. The use of textiles is also notable throughout the exhibition as Alekhuogie explores the rich history of wax print fabric and its ability to tell stories and conjure ideas much like a photograph. Pieces like Seamstress (2021) and post colonial bush breakfast “no wahala” (2021) pair both patterning and photography to create a visual dialogue. These multi-frame works elicit some comparison to the oeuvre of Todd Gray, especially in the use of vernacular photography combined with immaculate presentation. Their existence alongside the images in “A Reprise” furthers Alekhuogie’s investigation by reinforcing the sculptural aspects depicted in the series while also linking the historical subjects to contemporary life.
By reworking Evans’s images and reintroducing color and patterns from the African continent, Alekhuogie asks for a reexamination of African history in America. We are too used to powerful objects sitting in a white cube or existing as floating talismans in a monochrome space. Evans’s documentation is beautiful in its own right, but the catalogue was created at a time when a single image could more easily come to stand for the object itself. With the proliferation of photographs and depictions on the internet, we often take for granted the power such a solitary representation could hold. Generations of people interested in African art were shown the same picture without much room for interpretation. Though Evans helped push the artifact into the art world, he still operated through a Western gaze that did not truly understand nor make an effort to explore the context. Alekhuogie and the pieces in Naïveté problematize this fact and ask us to start reexamining where our history comes from and how much of our present knowledge relies on the shortcomings of the past.