Hell, Purgatory and Heaven at the Museum of African Art

“The Divine Comedy,” the National Museum of African Art’s current exhibition, on view through Nov. 1, toys with the gravity of religious symbolism and points an ambiguous, often irreverent eye toward the grandeur of shared mythologies. It is also a sincere and moving exploration of the notions of faith, belief and tradition, which gracefully entwines many conventionally rigid boundaries of religion. Further, it deals with troubling histories of colonialism in Africa and the assertion of Christianity and Western ideals over native spiritual systems.

However, to put it more plainly, it is also one of the most beautiful, visionary and elegantly composed shows in the city this summer.

Curated by the internationally acclaimed writer and art critic Simon Njami, “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists,” reveals the ongoing relevance of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic as part of a shared, globalized intellectual heritage. This dramatic multimedia exhibition includes original commissions and renowned works of art by roughly 40 contemporary artists from 19 African nations and the diaspora. An ambitiously expansive show that runs in pieces throughout three full floors, it is also the first exhibition to take advantage of the museum’s pavilion and stairwells, taking over the space like vines spread across a brick wall.

Celebrated artists like Kader Attia, Wangechi Mutu and Yinka Shonibare explore the themes of paradise, purgatory and hell with video, photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, fiber arts and mixed-media installation. In so doing, they probe diverse issues of politics, heritage, history, identity, faith and the continued power of art to express the unspoken and intangible of this life and beyond.

Hell is in the basement. With a dark and cavernous open floor plan, the gallery is transformed into a harmonious chaos of navigable space, a cacophony of sounds and eerie spectacles where artworks and installations literally fall on top of one another. (This author chose to start at the bottom, preferring, if you will, the ascent to heaven to the descent into the netherworld.)

One of the most troubling if beautiful pieces in the gallery is a heavy boat made of burnt poplar by Jems Robert Koko Bi, “Convoi royal (Royal Convoy),” which is filled to the brim with roughly carved wooden heads. Reminiscent in spirit of paintings by American artist Kerry James Marshall, this is an incredibly redolent confrontation with the strange, spectral atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent loss of identity among countless native African cultures.

In a similar vein, it is impossible to ignore “Tyaphaka” by Nicholas Hlobo, a lumpy, python carcass-like sculpture made from rubber inner tubing and ribbon that sprawls across the gallery floor. It feels almost nauseating, like a sack of bodies devoured by a monster, or the snake leaving Eden and taking with it in its belly the now tainted souls of man.

At the entrance (or in my case, the exit) sits a monumental sculpture by Wim Botha, “Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön).” Blurring the lines of historical connection, this sculpture is a take on the Greek Hellenistic masterwork “Laocoön and His Sons,” as if it were set on fire to reveal that beneath the white polished marble of the original sculpture lies a framework of brittle, jagged and black coal. It is the veritable fruit of the underworld, the destructive but necessary commodity of industrial progress that is excavated under oppressive labor conditions and transformed to smoke in order to fuel our economic consumption.

Purgatory lines the stairwells and the pavilion, and here there is no work more transfixing than “The 99 Series” by Aida Muluneh. A series of manipulated photographs of a woman covered in chalky white paint and wrapped in striped cloth, the duplicity and fractured spirit of the individual is starkly and breathtakingly rendered, as the disorientation of space, dimension and human anatomy speaks for a sort of judgment and inquisition, either by one’s self or a higher power.
Walking into the galleries of Heaven is bewitching, for this is a paradise represented not in the image of angelic Hollywood depictions or in the Vatican gift shop, but as a sort of pagan, polytheistic cabinet of curiosities, where all are welcome — but not as it could ever be imagined.

The toxic, ethereal beach scenes of Youssef Nabil have a violently saturated exuberance. The photographs show a man wrapped in cloth by the ocean with the sun setting radiantly on the horizon, portraying an almost overwrought notion of heaven’s divine beauty as something that we can’t really see, perceive or understand through our earthly lenses.

Of course, the relentless, bizarre, Hieronymus Bosch-like sculptural installation by Jane Alexander is totally unignorable. Like a fairytale nightmare, a bizarre, incomprehensible drama unfolds on a field of granular red clay, with figures of mice on men’s bodies leading a cart being dragged by bird-headed slaves. The cart is wrapped in freight packaging, and on the top sits a leather chest with an inlaid postcard of the Madonna and Child, upon which a lamb presides over the entire scene. There are more birdmen guarding and directing traffic up a rickety wooden ladder that leads through forced perspective up into the presumed heavens. There is also a sort of voodoo colonialist ghost with scythes and machetes on his belt, black feathers for a head and giant foam hands the likes of which you typically only see at a Green Bay Packer’s game.

There is almost nothing more I can say — or, rather, I don’t want to infect the curiosity by trying to connect it to literary or literal metaphors — but this exists and it has to be seen. I have never in my life experienced a piece of work provoke so much discussion among museum attendants.

Every one of us has a unique understanding of life, love, death and the beyond. Whether or not we believe in heaven and hell, our moral compasses are invariably catalyzed by that eternal logic of good versus evil, decency versus vulgarity. Through “The Divine Comedy,” the Museum of African Art helps reveal that one person’s vision of heaven, purgatory or hell might not match another’s, yet we are all driven by our conflicts and trials with humanity.


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