From the moment the West began colonizing Africa and Oceania in the early 15th century, a steady stream of fantastic weavings, masks, sculptures, textiles, and ritual objects poured into its newly established museums, galleries, and international expositions. Artists took note. Throughout the 20th century, they were making work deeply influenced by the forms and patterns of African and Oceanic objects. And as the Merton D. Simpson Gallery’s recent exhibition “Iconomania” revealed, this influence lives on well into the 21st century.
The exhibition featured the work of six New York-based contemporary artists, hailing from diverse backgrounds and ranging from emerging to established, in dialogue with an assortment of the gallery’s own collection of African tribal and Oceanic sculptures, including a stunning array of masks and headpieces. Set next to these older pieces, the works of Francis Acea, Liliya Lifanova, Noel Leon, Tyrone Mitchell, Aaron Philip, and Jill Nathanson resonated with similarities both conceptual and formal, overt and subtle.
Using a mix of materials, like wood salvaged from African sculptures and Chinese temples, as well as the detritus of consumer culture, Tyrone Mitchell assembles whimsical, additive forms, in homage to such famous figures as John Coltrane and Walt Whitman and the tradition of black art in America. Like the African sculptures whose massing forms and angular contours they echo, his works conjure powerful predecessors. Iconic figures of an entirely different kind are the subject of Noel Leon’s large-scale paintings of cartoon power couple Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Contextualized by the ancestral traditions of Africa and Oceania, these famous mice represent the dubious ancestral legacy of American mass media.
Both Liliya Lifanova and Jill Nathanson make abstract compositions whose patterning and everyday materials recall various African textiles and art practices. Composed of small rolls of paper or linen arranged into geometrical patterns, Lifanova’s pieces resemble Congolese Kuba textiles. Nathanson utilizes sheets of colored plastic, torn and layered into richly hued fields. Her use of such humble materials, and the tones and textures in her work, link her approach to West African artistic practice—yet another tie illustrating the bind between these and so many other contemporary artists and the arts of Africa and Oceania.