In an unprecedented collaboration, arts institutions in three cities and on two continents will join together to explore the changing modes and meanings of love in today’s global society, as seen by more than two dozen contemporary artists from Africa and a select few of their counterparts from Europe and America.
From October 2012 through April 2013, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos in Nigeria, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Menil Collection in Houston will each offer distinct but related presentations of The Progress of Love, with a comprehensive schedule of related events and a major publication documenting the exhibition as a whole.
The three concurrent presentations that make up The Progress of Love constitute a narrative arc, embracing love as an ideal, love as a lived experience, and love as something lost.
The Progress of Love at the Menil Collection (December 2, 2012 to March 17, 2013) reveals how artists in Africa today are questioning, reflecting, and challenging received images and norms of love, sexual, familial, friendly, communal, as derived both from traditional culture and Western influences. The way these aspirations and expectations about love play out in the real world, between and among partners, friends, and families, is the theme of The Progress of Love at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, which will present a series of performative exhibitions, performances, and film screenings runs from October 13, 2012 to January 27, 2013.
The End of Love is the theme of The Progress of Love at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, November 16, 2012 to April 20, 2013.
According to Kristina Van Dyke, former curator for collections and research at the Menil Collection and now the director of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, one of the points of origin of the three-part exhibition, and the inspiration for its title, is a body of sculptural installations by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare based on paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
In these works, the artist dressed headless mannequins in “African” garb in place of Fragonard’s courtly 18th-century European figures to suggest the ways in which Africa was implicitly present in a burgeoning leisure class’s concepts of love.
“This exhibition is very much inspired by Shonibare’s exploration of how historical and contemporary forces affect people’s concept of love,” Van Dyke states. “It is particularly concerned with the question of how technological ‘progress’ is reshaping our understanding of love, in Africa as well as in Europe and America.”
The Progress of Love is co-organized by Kristina Van Dyke and Bisi Silva. The Pulitzer presentation of the exhibition was assisted by Francesca Herndon-Consagra, Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin.
Central to The Progress of Love is the recognition that this most natural and universal of emotions has actually evolved over the centuries, finding different expressions, meanings, and norms in different circumstances. In the case of romantic love, the ideal of a lifelong bond between individuals who choose one another, subsuming sexual desire in an emotional compact, it is even possible to speak of love’s having been invented, popularized, and exported.
Scholars trace the literary beginnings of the romantic ideal to the 12th century and the courtly poets in the circle of Marie of France, Countess of Champagne. The visual representation of romantic love among recognizably modern people (as distinguished from historic, literary, or allegorical figures) began in the 18th century, finding one of its first expressions in the cycle of paintings that gives this transatlantic exhibition its title: The Progress of Love (1771-72) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (The Frick Collection, New York).
The Progress of Love at the Menil presents works by more than 20 artists from Africa, Europe, and America and examines the ways in which language, mass media, cultural traditions, and socioeconomic forces foster images and expectations about love. The exhibition pays particular attention to the effects of the digital era, asking whether our ideas about love are now coming into closer alignment across the Atlantic.
“With our partner institutions we are presenting an unprecedented gathering of works that prompt us to think more clearly and seriously about the meaning of love, in all its expressions and manifestations,” said Menil Director Josef Helfenstein. “The fact that the impetus for this rethinking comes primarily from artists in today’s Africa and its Diaspora broadens the understanding that our emotional lives have a history, just as our public affairs do – with similarities, differences, and cross-currents. I believe that the The Progress of Love will open eyes and hearts and minds.”
Among the 56 works presented at the Houston museum are three commissioned pieces. ONG SBOP by Romuald Hazoumé documents a new project in which the artist established a non-governmental organization in Benin and invited his fellow Beninois to express love for self and others by making contributions to help people in the West lead better lives.
This is Lagos II by Emeka Ogboh is a sound installation that brings public and private conversations in Lagos to Houston, and in particular to its Nigerian expatriate community. They Love Each Other More Than We Do by Zina Saro-Wiwa is a web project and video installation showing vignettes of a common activity—kissing—that is frequently represented to the Western public but is seldom shown when the lovers are African.
“The works in this exhibition offer a broad range of images and narratives of love that we have inherited over time and across cultures,” said Kristina Van Dyke. “The Progress of Love offers viewers the opportunity to consider how they gauge their own experiences of love through its historical and contemporary conventions and expressions and to compare their experiences to those in Africa today.”
The Progress of Love at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos from October 13, 2012through to January 27, 2013, explores contemporary expressions of love with an emphasis on the performative, highlighting the growing interest in live art in Nigeria. The presentation also opens up the possibility for dialogue and interaction that may challenge audiences to rethink prejudices, expand possibilities, and engage with and in all the ways love can affect lives. The presentation will begin with a performative solo exhibition by Valerie Oka on the theme of romantic love, October 13November 10, 2012.
The presentation will continue with performances by Wura-Natasha Ogunji reflecting on the history of the love between her mother and her father (whom she never met), by Jelili Atiku presenting a new autobiographical work, and with film screenings by Zanele Muholi, Andrew Esiebo, and Adaora Nwandu, November 12 -25, 2012.
The presentation will conclude with an interactive exhibition by Temitayo Ogunbiyi, based on the popular Nigerian phenomenon of sending pre-formatted love notes by text message, December 3, 2012 – January 27, 2013.
Inspired by personal experiences, tradition, technology, and literature, artists represented in this presentation within The Progress of Love express loss, absence, pain, and difference, and in so doing invoke memory, challenge prejudice, and articulate togetherness in very personal ways.
According to Bisi Silva, “The Progress of Love marks an important curatorial and thematic shift in the presentation of contemporary art from across Africa by highlighting the complexity with which a universal emotion is expressed as well as revealing how societal changes affect the way we engage with love today.”
The Progress of Love at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, is presented within the contemplative architectural spaces designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, and explores the end of love’s spectrum under the theme of Love as Mourning.
This section of the exhibition, on view November 16, 2012 – April 20, 2013, will feature works by the Nigerian artists Zina Saro-Wiwa and Yinka Shonibare (both also included in the Menil presentation) and by the French artist Sophie Calle.
Two parts of Yinka Shonibare’s Addio del Passato (2012) will be shown: a photograph based on Henry Wallis’s painting The Death of Chatterton (1856, The Tate Collection, London), and a film scored with an aria from Verdi’s La Traviata. Shonibare substitutes images of Lord Horatio Nelson and his betrayed wife Frances for the doomed young poet and heartbroken courtesan in the original works, turning these romantic tragedies into eulogies for the death of the imperial West. Mourning Class (2010-11) by Zina Saro-Wiwa is a multi-screen video presentation of a lamentation ritual devised by the artist, in memory of her brother and her renowned activist father, Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Finally, the exhibition will present Take Care of Yourself (2007) by Sophie Calle, a multimedia installation first shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale, documenting the responses of 107 women to a break-”up letter the artist had received from her lover, via e-mail. This will be the first presentation of Take Care of Yourself in a U.S. art institution.
According to Francesca Herndon-Consagra, “These works, and the architecture in which they are shown at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, were created within the last ten years as a way to help people feel and think about their own conditions and struggles regarding loss during a time of catastrophe – financial, political, and environmental – partially caused by Western modes of consumption and greed.
“Tadao Ando, Yinka Shonibare, Zina Saro-Wiwa, and Sophie Calle all seem to ask, ‘What really enriches an individual’s life in an age such as ours?’ It is important to discover what is essential to human life as a way to constitute a challenge to contemporary civilization.”
The Progress of Love will be documented by a fully illustrated catalogue, including essays by Van Dyke, Silva, and Herndon-Consagra. Other contributors include Elias Bongmba, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University; and Banning Eyre, Senior Editor at AfroPop.org.
A series of related events including films, lectures, panel discussions, and gallery talks with curators and artists will be presented in conjunction with the exhibitions; details will be announced closer to the time of the opening.
In addition, a series of web-format exchanges will strengthen the connection between the three presentations.
The Progress of Love is being underwritten at CCA, Lagos by The Menil Collection and The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.