Much has been made of the need to decolonise art, but what it entails is broad and elusive. It can mean the repatriation of artworks looted or stolen from African societies. Or it can refer to a more cerebral approach: how contemporary art from Africa addresses colonialism’s continued oppression and subjugation still shapes the ways artists see and experience the supposedly post-colonial world. Here, contemporary African art — particularly in the politically charged Black Lives Matter environment — plays an important role in visualising black experience and culture in ways not beholden to white or Western modes of knowledge and power.
And if you need an exhibition that demonstrates — in breathtaking beauty — how art performs this decolonising process and exists in its own right as an aesthetically important and compelling narrative, then a viewing of Nandipha Mntambo’s Agoodjie at Everard Read Johannesburg is compulsory.
The artist has consistently dealt with themes of metamorphosis, life and death in her work, and has frequently alluded to classical Western culture and art history to subvert its visual tropes. She has taken the role of Ophelia, of the Minotaur, of the bullfighter; supplanting these key figures in Western art and myth with her own black, female body acting as a radical visual gesture to displace and disturb the power structures and histories these classical narratives build on.
In Agoodjie Mntambo takes a different approach; her subtle and deeply considered revision of history takes the form of an elegant celebration of the Agoodjie warriors of Dahomey. Throughout much of the 19th century Dahomey, now Benin, was one of the richest and most powerful kingdoms in Africa. Its army at the time was estimated to number 12,000 troops and, uniquely, included an elite, highly trained corps of four thousand female warriors — the personal protectors of the kingdom’s rulers. The origins of the Agoodjie warriors dates to the 18th century, instituted by the Queen Hangbe, whose unstable position as ruler of a patrilineal society led to her training an elite female bodyguard. The warriors last fought in the final colonial conflict against the French in 1894.
Mntambo links the largely neglected history of this remarkable women’s army to a spiritual principle in Dahomey society. The acceptance of the female soldiers by their male counterparts comes to represent the reconciliation of opposites in the pre-colonial belief system of the kingdom, known as Vodun, a progenitor of Voodoo in other parts of the world. Male and female sun- and moon-driven energies were central to this belief system.
Through a remarkable series of performative photographs, a film, maquette sculptures and — the centrepiece of the exhibition — two imposing sculpted bronzes almost 3 metres high, Mntambo takes on the dress and character of the Agoodjie soldiers, bringing them thrillingly to life. Alongside the warrior incarnations, one room of the gallery is filled with evocative and sensual suspended zebra hides, recalling the artist’s earlier work with cowhide as a sculptural medium.
As she puts it: “Through the act of recreating the attire worn by the Agoodjie, engaging with modern day historians and custodians of this history, my intention was to excavate a portion of the past. By occupying their spaces and embodying these women, I created a fiction based on a complex history. Like the zebra that has its own distinct patterning but can merge and camouflage into the rest of the herd ... I transform and reincarnate — becoming a symbol of living many lives.”
The Agoodjie were visually referenced in Marvel’s Black Panther blockbuster, but Mntambo’s incisive and visually stunning exhibition goes much further, uncovering and restoring an important insight into a proud and decolonised African history.
Everard Read Johannesburg until November 6