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In Houston, a Bounty of African Art

Sunday, April 24, 2005

N eed a culture break in Houston? For the next few weeks, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum are showcasing a brilliant panorama of paintings, sculptures and other pieces by many of Africa's rising stars.

"African Art Now," an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, is refreshingly contemporary. In one corner are photos by Ghana's Philip Kwame Apagya -- images of airports, televisions and other aspects of modern technology that are, in the artist's view, an obsession for many of his countrymen. Another work, "Tribute to Biko" by Willie Bester of South Africa, is a collage depicting the violence that engulfed South Africa in the 1990s. The painting "Non Comprendre," by Cheik Ledy of the Congo, shows a couple of Africans confused by contemporary European artworks on the walls of a museum.

These and other pieces give viewers a rare, close-up look at what the African counterparts to America's Gen-X and baby boom artists are producing. In all, the show includes several dozen paintings, sculptures, photographs and installation pieces by 33 artists from 16 sub-Saharan African countries. The works were taken from the private collection of Swiss entrepreneur and photographer Jean Pigozzi, who owns one of the world's most comprehensive assemblies of modern African art. (If you can't make it to Houston, part of the show is scheduled to open in November at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.)

"My goal is to show how good and vibrant and original contemporary African art is in the twenty first century," Pigozzi says in an interview in the "African Art Now" catalogue. "African art is on the same level as Western art. Often it is even more vibrant and interesting."

After an hour at the show, you can see what he means. Lively and colorful, the exhibition includes none of the wood carvings, head dresses or other traditional images that are often the mainstay of African art shows. There are several masks, but they are wonderfully original. The most striking ones, by Benin's Calixte Dakpogan, are made of discarded vinyl records, spark plugs and other objects the artist collected from the street.

This show exudes the energy of modern Africa. "Long Live Utx Africa," an oil painting by well-known artist Moke of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one work that stands out. It depicts a street party scene -- couples reveling the night away in the Congelese capital of Kinshasa.

But no single piece captures the emotional spirit better than "Clubs of Bamako," an installation by several artists featuring life-size statues of young Malian couples dancing. The work, based on brilliant photographs by Malian photographer Malick Sidibe (some of which are also shown in the exhibit), evokes the enthusiasm that immersed Mali when it was liberated from French colonial rule in 1960.

For a more detailed look at a single artist, hop over to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston across the street for a display of works by Bodys Isek Kingelez of the Congo. One of Africa's best-known young installation artists, Kingelez also has a couple of pieces in the Museum of Fine Arts show.

The exhibition, "Perspectives 145," consists of six three-dimensional models of dwellings and neighborhoods in Kinshasa, where Kingelez lives and works. The colorful models -- made of paper, cardboard, plastic and other recycled materials -- have a kind of zaniness to them at first. But on closer inspection, the models are carefully designed living complexes in which all the essentials of modern living -- high-rise apartment buildings, sports centers and stores -- fit compactly together.

Like many of Africa's young artists, Kingelez has a political message. The models are his vision of how a New Age city could look. "When Africa's political climate cools down," the artist says in a statement distributed at the exhibition, "I'll present my concept of modernity to African people."

-- Gary Lee

"African Art Now" closes June 5. Admission to the Museum of Fi ne Arts, Houston (1001 Bissonnet St.) is $7 Friday through Wednesday, free Thursday. Info: 713-639-7300,http://www.mfah.org/main.asp?target=home."Perspectives 145" closes May 1. Admission to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (5216 Montrose Blvd.) is free. Info: 713-284-8250,http://www.camh.org.

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