Fred Wilson Afro Kismet

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Pace in London and NY (from July 2018) present Fred Wilson: Afro Kismet, an exhibition featuring the artist’s most recent body of work originally produced for the 15th Istanbul Biennial in the autumn of 2017.

The genesis of the exhibition stretches back to 1992 when Wilson presented Re:Claiming Egypt, at the 4th International Cairo Biennale and to 2003 when Wilson represented the United States at the 50th Venice Biennale with Speak of Me as I Am. Wilson’s interest in Istanbul had been piqued for a long time; he conceived of the city as the third leg in a historically and culturally connected eastern Mediterranean triangle which also included Cairo and Venice. Through his research, Wilson developed a conceptual basis for the Istanbul project in which he contextualized pieces from the city’s Pera Museum’s Orientalist collection with new and existing works of his own. “My work is about an issue which is both personal and universal. […] A new meaning emerges from the coming together of art and history […] bring[ing] a fresh perspective to things we are used to seeing in museums. You can say that I tell a history which is not adequately discussed…” Fred Wilson, 2017.

For Pace, Wilson will reconfigure Afro Kismet which includes two chandeliers, two monumental Iznik tile walls, four black glass drip works, and a globe sculpture, as well as installations and vitrine pieces that gather cowrie shells, engravings, photographs, a Yoruba mask, and furniture, among other objects that the artist discovered in his frequent trips to Istanbul throughout 2016 and 2017. Since Venice Biennale in 2003, Wilson’s Murano glass chandeliers, with their shifts in scale, color, and complexity, have become vehicles for the artist’s meditations on blackness, death, and beauty. New chandeliers, included in the exhibition, combine black Murano glass with traditional metal and glass elements of Ottoman chandeliers, thus fusing two histories of craftsmanship and symbolizing the complex relationship between the Venetian and Ottoman Empires.

Throughout the exhibition, Wilson utilizes alluring materials—from richly colored tiles walls to luminescent glass—to represent and investigate the long-ignored presence of communities of African descent in Turkey. In the two Iznik tile walls, the Arabic calligraphy translates in one case to “Mother Africa” and in the other “Black is Beautiful”. The new globe sculpture titled “Trade Winds” refers not to its original meaning, related to weather patterns, but to the complex and tragic global trade in human beings. The juxtaposition of recent works by Wilson with works from the 19th century – including Orientalist paintings with African subject matter by Alfred De Dreux and William James Müller – not only questions notions of universal knowledge and truth, but also sheds light on a history not thoroughly examined. By combining contemporary objects and museum-quality artefacts, Wilson challenges the assumptions of exhibition methodology and art historical scholarship.

“We were drawn to Wilson’s practice in the context of the Istanbul Biennial also because it speaks to the feeling of belonging, or not belonging, of people and aspects of history that have been ignored, disrespected, or made invisible. And he is not satisfied with just pointing out the outrageous discrepancies within society and historical narration. With subtle means, he turns the presumed reality on its head and shows us the hidden, oppressive layers behind the polished facades of the well-meaning but sometimes ignorant institutional pillars of our societies.

We first experienced Wilson’s work “live” in 2003, when he represented the United States at the 50th Venice Biennale with his groundbreaking exhibition Speak of Me As I Am—a title taken from a line from Shakespeare’s Othello. Outside the US Pavilion in the heart of the Giardini area, a man of African origin was sitting on the ground, offering counterfeit versions of expensive Prada bags. The scene was (and, sadly, still is) a familiar one on the central tourist streets of Venice and many other Mediterranean cities, where migrants lacking residential rights and proper work permits are forced to seek more or less illegal ways to earn a living. Entering the pavilion, one passed between two large blackamoor figures seemingly holding up the portico above the neoclassical entrance. Such exoticized representations can be found in abundance at hotels, palazzos, and museums all over Venice. Wilson just recontextualized what was already to be seen everywhere. He made the invisible visible and made connections between a colonial past and its implications for contemporary life.

We did not tell Wilson the following anecdote, which stems from a dinner party in Venice in one of those palazzos that is still decorated with the same style of blackamoor figurines. One of the guests, a white British colleague of ours, told us that as kids she and her siblings used to be naked and painted black and made to stand and hold silver trays of delicacies as guests arrived at their parents’ home for parties. This must have been in the 1970s. We all gagged in disbelief as she told us this. But Wilson has shown us that it might be necessary for such stories to come to the surface. We cannot hide from the past and pretend that everything is now good. Had it not been for artists and thinkers like him, many might still not have been able to see the outlandishness of our friend’s childhood memory.” Emlgreen & Dragset wrote in the catalogue essay.

The exhibition in London, at Pace, 6 Burlington Gardens is running until 27th April. 

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Image: © Fred Wilson Courtesy Pace Gallery