Currently on view at Pace Gallery’s New York location, artist Fred Wilson has mounted his powerful exhibition Afro Kismet, reprising a work from the Istanbul Biennial that sought shared cultural threads and a refreshed cultural understanding of shared relationships between Africa and the Middle East. Continuing Wilson’s nuanced dialogues with both historical and cultural framing in conjunction with a studied view of both modern and deep history, the show’s trip to New York offers a second chance for viewers to see a challenging and important piece of work by the artist.
The genesis of the exhibition hearkens back to Wilson’s 1992 exhibition Re:Claiming Egypt, at the Cairo Biennial. Dwelling on the idea of cultural interplay and the shared aesthetic bonds between African and Middle Eastern heritages, the artist’s work drew on shared materials and stylistic elements, ultimately arriving at a space that constantly foregrounded moments of this same interplay. For Afro-Kismet, Wilson’s work takes a similar approach towards Istanbul. Wilson conceives the city as the third leg in a historically and culturally connected eastern Mediterranean triangle which also included Cairo and Venice. The result is a show that contextualized pieces from the city’s Pera Museum’s Orientalist collection with new and existing works of his own, creating sites where the artist’s own hand fills in the gaps in a narrative that stretches across continents and historical periods.
The version of the work at Pace Gallery includes two chandeliers, 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. This combination of artifacts and homemade objects result in a space where cultural assumptions are both created and reframed, the artist’s own sense of authorship stepping in to push and change the viewer’s undergirding assumptions of how a show is mounted. By combining contemporary objects and museum-quality pieces, Wilson’s challenge to the assumptions of exhibition methodology and art historical scholarship is equally one of rhetorical self-assuredness. Scholarship here is mounted as much as an act of individual agency and effort as it is an impenetrable archive, and Wilson’s pieces, in all of their alluring constructs and striking visual awe (his Iznik tile walls for instance, are powerful in both their arabic messages, in one case to “Mother Africa” and in the other “Black is Beautiful” and their sheer visual spectacle), are equally devices for a broader understanding of how history is framed.
It’s a worthy note, particularly considering the recent show of Damien Hirst’s work during last year’s Venice Biennale. Much as Hirst’s pieces dove into the construction of alternative histories and the idea of the artist’s ability alter and change the threads of time, Wilson pulls at a slightly different thread, examining how a stronger, richer view of history as it stands can be understood through abstraction. Rather than creating treasures anew, Wilson’s show tweaks and twists the environments and understandings in which they are perceived, arriving at a view of the world that is as broad as it is fascinatingly nuanced.
The show is on view through August 17th.
— D. Creahan
Fred Wilson: Afro Kismet [Pace Gallery]