Africa in Black and White: Gallery Run, Sept. 2012

Christoph Schönbäck uses oil from oil spills in Nigeria to paint his work | Photo: MOYA

The downstairs area at Galerie Benedict, a space devoted to diaspora art | Photo: Galerie Benedict

The popularity of the annual Afrika Tage (Africa Days) each August on the Donauinsel, demonstrates if anything a rising interest in African culture in Vienna. Like most major European cities, Vienna has its collections of historical native African art, but interest in the contemporary is a growing trend.

Christoph Schönbäck uses oil from oil spills in Nigeria to paint his work | Photo: MOYA

MOYA: Nigeria in Öl

Entering Christoph Schönbäck’s exhibition Nigeria in Öl at the Museum of Young Art (MOYA), a table near the entrance – hung with Amnesty International banners and piled with brochures – immediately announces the art’s political purpose of “raising awareness” of recent oil spills in Nigeria. The exhibition – a product of Schönbäck’s diploma project – is a trenchant re-visioning of the term “oil painting” into a cultural-political byword.

Every piece is painted using crude oil and often bitumen from the polluted Niger Delta region, sometimes alongside traditional paints and acrylics. The oil is a materially natural chiaroscuro that elegantly evokes the dichotomies of its subjects: white European/American oil companies and black Nigerians, greed and the white of the missing apology and compensation. In all of Schönbäck’s paintings, great strokes of black swell out of the white and tan negative spaces of the canvas.

But the oil is more than descriptive: It is the incarnation on the canvas of a polluted world. A tanker is painted with what it spills, a river with what pollutes it, a bird with what kills it, militants with what they fight against. In Fischer, perhaps the most striking, a fisherman holds up his hands, eyes closed, oil dripping through his fingers.

In the smaller room beyond, paintings by other artists – many Nigerian, some European – hang on the walls. Afrodite cleverly recasts Botticelli’s well-known The Birth of Venus as a cheeky criticism of the Shell Oil Corporation. The central figure is an African woman, standing on a literal Shell logo that floats on an oil-covered lake. Though the success of Shell as a corporation is borne on a sea of oil spills and accidents, their image is never tarnished: The media, represented by a woman with a camera on the right, ignores the obvious catastrophe, focusing only on Venus’ innocent smiling face.

Schönbäck intends to involve more artists in the project, and to continue showing in Vienna.

Until 23 Aug.
MOYA – Museum of Young Art
Palais Schönborn
1., Renngasse 4
Tue.-Sun., 10:00-19:00, Thu., 10:00-21:00


Galerie Benedict: Kunst aus Ostafrika

When the doors of Galerie Benedict opened six months ago, Nigerian art collector Benedict Onyemenam intended to remedy a lack of “discourse on contemporary African life” in Vienna, while shunting the usual associations with “primitive art”, fetishism, and retrogression, as well as with “black”. “What we call African,” he says, “is black, white, Arab, and several spaces in between, and the art should reflect that.” With the official launch approaching on 1 October, the purpose of the gallery has already changed and grown. Ultimately, he saw no reason to exclude artists from Latin America and Asia. The gallery now simply represents “diaspora art”.

Galerie Benedict

The downstairs area at Galerie Benedict, a space devoted to diaspora art | Photo: Galerie Benedict

The current exhibition, Kunst aus Ostafrika, focuses solely on East African art.

Stone sculptures are prominent in the exhibition, including a large collection of Zimbabwean sculptures, accompanied by the whimsical grouping of Tanzanian “Tinga Tinga” art – borderline kitsch, with its savannahs, villages, and colourfully patterned animals.

John Savala, one of the artists, paints images of Kenyan villages, in which flat figures with enormous feet are turned away from the viewer toward an unsourced glow, “striding forward” into a “bright future”. The found object collage Welcome is one such work, and a centrepiece of the exhibition, incorporating the dried rushes of a hut roof, a jute bag cloak, and the colourful fabric of traditional garb.

By contrast, the work of Marcus Goldson – another featured artist, ethnically Jewish and Kenyan by birth – ranges widely, from a simple savannah landscape to pointed critiques of politics and economy. The confrontational Wall Street is a transplantation of Wall Street’s bull to the African plains and a mockery of the U.S. banking system’s incompetence. The bull’s rear, swarmed by flies, fills the canvas – a confused animal with no clue where it’s going.

A downstairs level is cluttered with artwork from the previous exhibition. MarieB’s classically balanced sculpture Tango occupies a central place: A man and a woman, heads like elongated half-moons, tilted back almost to a kiss, seem lost in each other’s bodies.

Galerie Benedict
1., Sonnenfelsgasse 13/1
Mon.-Thu., 11:00-19:00, Sat., 11:00-15:00

See website about Grand Opening event on 2 Oct.

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