You may feel, at times, as if you’ve been handed a map, and then told that the map may or may not be accurate, may or may not relate to anything in the real world, may or may not be entirely a fiction, or a random design concocted by some clever trickster to mislead you. That is how the title of a new show at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art — “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” — relates to the work on view, by more than 40 artists from 18 African countries.
The exhibition is shoehorned into spaces not quite big enough for anything to breathe comfortably, filling temporary galleries, stairwells and passage spaces on four floors of the mostly subterranean museum. The current exhibition, curated by Simon Njami, is slightly smaller than the original Dante exhibition he presented in Frankfurt last spring, but it still sprawls, both in its physical layout (the route through its various rooms requires careful navigation) and intellectually.
Consider one of the best works in the show, a large-scale drawing by Julie Mehretu, in which a finely etched suggestion of architectural facades is overlaid with a storm of delicate lines, smudges and erasures. In the catalogue, published in conjunction with the Frankfurt display, her work is listed as belonging to the “Purgatory” part of the presentation; in Washington, it is in the “Inferno” room. It isn’t the only work to migrate from one celestial realm to another, and those migrations suggest that the basic template borrowed from Dante is not to be taken too seriously.
Connections between Dante and the works in the exhibition, only some of which were commissioned specifically for the exhibition, are often tenuous or nonexistent. Text panels keep visitors focused on banalities: “What does paradise mean to you? A perfect vacation location? A divine light?” And videos accessible on small screens throughout the exhibition feature the artists speaking in often personal or biographical terms about their work. The catalogue is a far more trenchant document, with discussions of Dante and Derrida, an analysis of art, capitalism, utopia and the end of the Cold War, immigration and purgatory, South Africa and apartheid. Some are written in the now rather old-fashioned obscurantist style of academia a quarter century ago; others are incisive, helpful and illuminating.
Yet even the most diligent attempts to create connections between the art and Dante’s poem end up in triviality: Some artists see purgatory as a general metaphor for transformation, growth or travel; hell can be an internal torment of the mind, or the living results of mankind’s most bestial tendencies; paradise is difficult to achieve, or entirely elusive, though the impulse to create or define it is constructive.
At this point one may feel that there’s a slightly infernal tripartite architecture to the exhibition that mirrors Dante’s three-part architecture of the afterlife. There is a rather silly exhibition designed for the casual visitor, who will find virtually nothing on the walls to guide his understanding of the art or the exhibition; there are the videos, which in many ways undermine the concept, with many of the artists freely admitting or expressing minimal engagement with Dante and his poem, except in general, metaphorical terms; and then there is the catalogue, where the disconnect between the art and the concept is essentially repurposed as a virtue, a game steeped in postcolonial resistance.
In several of the essays, ideas about translation and interpretation are invoked to suggest that it would be vulgar to worry too much about Dante at all. Texts are subject to “permutation or substitution,” so don’t expect Dante to function as a reference point, which would be delimiting. The poem is open-ended, and as a foundational document of Western civilization — which has visited criminal depredations on Africa for centuries — it not only allows for, but demands emendation by artists who come from outside that tradition.
Only in the catalogue do you get a sense of Dante as the most subversive of poets, arrogating to himself the power of judgment, scandalously playing God not only with his friends and foes, but the most famous and influential figures throughout history. The very notion of heaven and hell is itself a scandal, a brutal metaphorical carrot and stick designed to terrify humanity into religious obedience. Many of the works on display seem not so much inspired as revolted by the religious superstructure in which Dante operated, and by extension, contemporary manifestations of religious certainty.
And only in the catalogue — and occasionally in the videos — will it become apparent how deeply contrary to traditional monotheism much of this art is. “I don’t know if I should be in heaven,” says Ghada Amer, an Egyptian artist who contributed a stainless sculpture in a vaguely egg-shaped form to the show. “Well, I hope not. I don’t want to be in heaven, actually, because it’s full of terrorists, I think, who want to go to heaven. I don’t want to be with them. It’s full of righteous people that would be sent to heaven. I don’t want to be with them. It’s full of good people, or people that think they’re good. I don’t want to be with them. It looks boring, seems boring, heaven.”
Yinka Shonibare’s 2006 “How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Gentlemen)” is among the most simpleminded in the exhibition, but also one of the most effective. Using mannequins immaculately dressed in early 19th-century attire, he depicts two men dueling, pointing guns directly at their missing heads. One might offer a possible interpretation: We are inclined to ornament and articulate our most destructive tendencies into elaborate forms of irrational behavior. This would be, for some, a perfect definition of religion.
Not all of the artists are so critical, and many are so elliptical in what they say, and so hermetic in the work they contribute, that it’s difficult to know whether they even have a view on Dante, “The Divine Comedy” and the tradition it represents and defines.
This murkiness of purpose and meaning throws one back on the art itself, which is generally inspiring. To the extent that the works engage with the exhibition’s title, they tend to reduce the basic themes to psychological equivalents: We make our own hells;, hell is other people; transformation is about erasure and forgetting, or gestation and withdrawal; there is no perfect pleasure or happiness; all of life is infected with suffering; and suffering offers avenues to transcendence. There is a magnificent and unsettling video by Myriam Mihindou, in which a woman fiddling with her stockings suggests an act of self-flaying, and an imposing and strangely horrifying statue by Wim Botha in which the drama of a famous sculptural group, the Laocoon, has been reproduced in seemingly brittle shards of bronze. Guy Tillim has contributed powerful photographs of natural landscapes, and Zineb Sedira a mesmerizing video of sand blowing on a road in the desert.
There are at least two types of confusion that art produces: Disorientation, which is a good thing, unsettling our certainties and prodding us in uncomfortable new directions; and befuddlement, which is confusion without purpose. After two visits to the exhibition, several days spent with the catalogue, and a thorough perusal of the video transcripts, I admit to about equal parts both. I sense in this exhibition an oversubtle interpretive agenda mixed with a fashionable willingness to forego any real organization, when necessary or pleasurable. There’s also, some possible dissonance between the first iteration of the exhibition in Frankfurt, and its recasting for the more conventional and nervous Smithsonian. But it is full of good art and often entertaining. It would be a courtesy to visitors not to invite them to think about Dante if that’s not honestly the intention of the show, but most people will give up on Dante almost immediately upon entering the exhibition.
The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists On view through Aug. 2 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Call 202-633-4600 or visit africa.si.edu.