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On The Progress of Love at The Menil Collection

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The Progress of Love recently at the Menil Collection, Houston, was a very important exhibition, and this is not simply because of the fact that it brought together many impressive works by established and new artists working in Africa, Europe and the United States. A collaborative project between The Menil Collection, Houston; The Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St. Louis, The Progress of Love showed the possibilities of meaningful and productive exchange between major art museums in Europe and America, especially in a global art world still marked by asymmetries of cultural and economic power between the global North and South. But it also reveals an underlying problem or reality working against any fantasies one might have about the mobility of contemporary art across borders.

Organized by Kristina Van Dyke (Director of The Pulitzer Foundation) and Bisi Silva (Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos), The Progress of Love -- its title taken from "the four ages of love," the series of paintings Louis XV's mistress Comtesse du Barry commissioned in late 18th century from the Rococo exponent Jean-Honoré Fragonard -- examines aspects of love that might be universal, in this age of rampant political, economic and cultural globalization. Going by the response of the artists, the answer might be: little if any.

Some of the works in the show address the meanings of love, as when Zoulikha Bouabdellah creates 300 sheets of white paper each bearing in red paint a different word for "Love" in Arabic language and script (Chéri, 2007). If there are these many words for love in one language, she seems to suggest, any inquiry into the universality of love, must confront the multiplicity of perspectives on the concept, idea and practice of love among individuals, cultures, and its articulations in different languages, knowledge systems and philosophies. Kendell Geers's Ritual Slips (2010) -- multiple beaded aprons he made in collaboration with Ndebele women artists -- shows the absurdity of translating ideas of love across language and culture.

Yinka Shonibare's sculptural installation, The Swing (After Fragonard), 2001, reimagines the woman on the swing in Fragonard's painting, The Swing, 1767 -- but without the cast of characters: her peeping tom-lover, or her aging, lovesick husband. In the show, Shonibare's gorgeous piece stands in for the ultimate manifestation of decadent love, if there is such a thing. Pretty much everything else in the show go beyond the idea of love; or they ask: Love, what's that again?

The works in The Progress of Love, in other words, may be about love, but they are also about all the range of emotions or inter-personal states of mind of which love, in its various guises, is a part. The work of Romuald Hazoumé, ONG SBOP (2011) the most complex installation in the exhibition, for instance, is about love as political practice. Or rather love, for him, is simply a Trojan horse for biting commentary on French neo-colonialism and the postcolonial condition. The installation is a part of the faux-NGO (Organisation non gouvernementale, Solidarité béninoise pour occidentaux in péri) he set up, along with a few celebrity artists such as the Grammy Award winning musician Angelique Kidjo, to solicit funds from Beninois citizens for indigent, endangered Westerners. Along with the office building and décor constructed with his signature 50-liter plastic petrol containers, the heart of this installation is a partially hidden closet the walls of which are papered with news clips about corruption and bribery among the French government officials. Cynical love, perhaps.

Also Kendell Geers's Arrested Development (Cardiac Arrest) VI, 2011, an impressive, sparkling wall piece consisting of glass police batons arranged to form a giant heart shape, makes one think of all the acts of brutality, and murderous programs planned and executed the world over, by oppressive regimes in the name of love for the nation, from Apartheid South Africa, to Nazi Germany, and, the police/security states of today.

Simply put, The Progress of Love at the Menil was one captivating, refreshing show, with works by Emeka Ogboh, Nadine Robinson, Billie Zangewa, Senam Okudzeto, David Goldblatt, Joël Andrianomearisoa, Dineo Bopape, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mary Ellen Carroll, Ricardo Rangel, Lyle Ashton Harris, Zanele Muholi, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Toyin Odutola, and Zwelethu Mthethwa.

The fact that The Progress of Love enabled a kind of much-needed collaborative work between a major American museum and a small Nigeria-based art center is an important achievement. But the project also reveals how difficult it still is for contemporary art to circulate across certain old boundaries. I am sure it is not for lack of interest on the part of the curators, that none of the marquee names we saw in the Houston show -- Shonibare, Geers, Gonzalez-Torres, Goldblatt, Harris, and Fosso, or Sophie Calle at the Pulitzer Foundation -- showed up at the CCA, Lagos. I wager that in this particular instance it was not that the Euro-America-based artists are averse to showing outside of their Western comfort zones. Rather, it might be simply because there is not a single decent space in the Nigerian hyper-metropolis with the facilities and infrastructure to securely exhibit important contemporary art.

Yep, with all the petro-billions in Lagos and Nigeria it is a shame that no one in the governmental or private sectors there has been able to establish a space that could inspire enough confidence of even Nigeria's own art megastars, whose works flow into and out of major museums, galleries and collections elsewhere, to show in Lagos. The Progress of Love left no one in doubt about possibilities of North-South institutional exchanges, but it confirmed my longstanding impatience with Nigeria's inability and/lack of will to play in the big league of contemporary art. And since Nigeria loves soccer, this analogy: we have stadia that hosted the (junior) world cup -- which is a very big deal -- but where is that one art gallery or museum that could host The Progress of Love I saw at the Menil?

The Progress of Love at The Menil Collection, Houston
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* All images courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photos by Paul Hester.