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Black President: The Art & Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti

Rise and Fall of a Global Icon

The latest exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is a methodical multimedia retrospective that probes the legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the controversial Nigerian Afrobeat musician and activist who died of AIDS-related complications in 1997 at the age of 58. Conceived by Brooklyn-based curator Trevor Schoonmaker, the exhibit showcases the work of 30 contemporary artists who distill Fela's enigmatic persona and revolutionary proclivities. The risk of such a large-scale exhibition centered around a single person is the gratuitous mythologizing of a man, who despite his anti-establishment sentiments, often acted in self-destructive and oppressive ways. However, Black President is in no way a simple deification of Fela; in fact, the featured artists' responses to Fela's luminary status touch upon moral ambiguity and cultural discord. The result is a show that culls the most inventive works of the past generation and deftly investigates Fela's political aspirations as well as his cathartic undoing.

Fela's iconic status stemmed from the usual bedlam of an eventful life: political audaciousness, sexual notoriety, and personal tragedy. After defying his middle class family's wish for him to study in London and become a doctor, Fela's life was radically changed by a trip to the United States in the 1960s. The influence of the Black Panther movement, in addition to the subculture's free and easy attitude toward sex and drugs, inspired him to initiate a bold creative assault on the corrupt Nigerian government and upon neo-colonial forces abroad. Fela's music, an East-West genre dubbed 'Afrobeat', is an idiosyncratic and vivacious fusion of Coltrane-like jazz, James Brown funk, and both Caribbean and Yoruba-influenced percussive beats. Building hypnotic grooves of polyrhythmic beats, blasting horns, and steady pulsing guitars as a springboard for incendiary free-styled improvisation, Fela's jam band blueprint left an indelible mark on world pop. His lyrics were brisk, guttural execrations of government exploitation that envisaged an Africa in which all citizens would mobilize against corruption.

Fela's political battles were paved by a tempestuous private life. Fela married 28 women (most of whom were performers in his group), forged a performance space called the Afrika Shrine, created a commune for his followers (which he called the Kalakuta Republic and declared a separatist state independent of Nigerian rule), and was perpetually threatened with exile from his homeland. His defiance and showmanship augured catastrophe: the Nigerian regime responded to Fela's trenchant, voluble opposition by burning down his commune, raping his wives, and gravely wounding his mother.

In the wake of the government's brutality and injunctions, Fela's work assumed the proportions of a Sisyphean task and his life hurtled rapidly towards destruction. By the late 80s, Fela's already incongruous social thinking was blatantly decadent, misogynistic, and cynical. His polygamous lifestyle and his drug use became extreme. When he contracted AIDS in 1987, he refused to acknowledge his disease and remained impassive and cloistered until his dying day.

The artists contributing to the exhibit span continents and come from countries as diverse as Cameroon, Chile, England, Germany, Ghana, South Africa, and the United States. This comprehensive festoon of artists (many of whom are presenting work in a U.S. museum for the first time) including painters, sculptors, photographers, and sound and video artists, adeptly renders a host of works that reveal both ambivalence and veneration.

Sanford Biggers' "The Afronomical Ways" presents a revised zodiac system that doubles as an afro-tantric sexual guide, shedding light on Fela's bemused ideology of spiritualism combined with sex. Fela's wives are also represented in various works. Satch Hoyt invites viewers into his sound installation "The Shrine (The 27 Brides of the Black President)," which is meant to evoke Fela's Lagos nightclub. The exterior is swathed in a sensual red fabric reminiscent of Fela's opulent garb, while inside the capsule Fela's music throbs to the accompaniment of ambient sound and women's voices. This intriguing babble is tantamount to the complexity and indeterminacy of the women's roles. The sensuously murmuring women are signifiers of Fela's larger-than-life persona and overall mystique.

Fela's persistent chauvinism is, for the most part, treated with humor and prudence. Wangechi Mutu offers a feminist critique of Fela's problematic dealings with women while displaying respect for his political life. Mutu's collage, "Yo' mama," oscillates between the censorious and the comical, and portrays a woman (ostensibly, Fela's feminist mother) impaling a serpent (a time-old symbol of male virility) on her stiletto heels. Sokari Douglas Camp's mechanical sculpture, "Open & Close, Chop & Quench," takes its title from two of Fela's most celebrated songs and features a naked woman whose legs recurrently open and close, the word "AIDS" splattered in red across her forehead. It's a stark work of social realism that assails Fela's sexual dissoluteness and his attitudes toward women with mordant intelligence.

In a collaborative work entitled "Gold-digger," Klaus Bürgel turns drawings by Kara Walker of slavery motifs into three-dimensional jewel-encrusted objects. The result is a piece of work that strikes a delicate balance between the tradition of West African lost wax casting and the bling bling posturing of urban excess. Marcia Kure's "History of Africa by Fela" shows fifty-nine panels, one for each year of the musican's life, painted with the pigment of the kola nut, a friendship offering in Africa. Kure's distorted, abstract human/animal diagrams mark Fela's history as a convergence of the mythic and the real.

According to Schoonmaker, there is no thematic strategy to the placement of the works. Arrangements are not chronological but rather, bear relevance to each other aesthetically and conceptually. Rather than providing a tour through Fela's turbulent history, the exhibit seeks to be an experience in sight and sound. In fact, the center of the exhibit is a music room with several listening stations for Afrobeat-inspired songs. In many ways, the music room is the symbolic heart of the show, from which new art projects mushroom out. Songs like "Mask to Face," a poignant paean by Christophe Nanga-Oly, glean Fela's preoccupation with colonialism, patriarchy, family, and performance, while questioning his own commitment, as an African artist himself, to a post-Fela world.

It has been said that the congregated pieces of Black President unearth the West's provincialism. Indeed, the array of work attests to a latent wish for African unity, an ideology that spans regions and generations. The cathartic unraveling of Fela's life, as evinced in the art, pointedly addresses the tension between his personal dissolution and ongoing struggles to quash government exploitation. Fela's rapid demise is all too easily endowed with myth and mistruth, imperiling a legacy of work and influence that far outweigh his reputation.

Black President runs April 17 - June 4.
at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission St @ 3rd
San Francisco, CA 94103-3138
415.978.ARTS (2787)

Image: Wangechi Mutu, Yo'mama, 2002-03, Drawing, From Black President: The Art & Legacy of Fela Anilulaop-Kuti.