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New York Times

December 3rd, 2008
A Multicultural Swirl of Africa, the Americas and Even Outer Space

By HOLLAND COTTER

It is said that multiculturalism won the 2008 presidential election. So why does contemporary art in New York feel so unicultural these days? A decade ago exhibitions linking Africa and the Americas were not uncommon. They are now, though, which may be one reason that “S&M: Shrines and Masquerades in Cosmopolitan Times” at the 80 Washington Square East Galleries looks so fresh.

Technically it’s an adjunct to two shows of African textiles, one at the Grey Art Gallery a few doors away on the New York University campus at Washington Square, the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But one glance is enough to establish that “S&M” is not just part of a larger picture. It occupies a planet all its own.

You know you’ve landed when you see “The Mothership Tranceformer,” a rainbow-hued patchwork tent by Xenobia Bailey. Part shrine, part home, part workshop, with a sewing machine outside its door, it is a component of a project called “Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk” that Ms. Bailey has been working on for years. An Afro-futuristic vision, it owes as much to Sun Ra as to the quilters of the American South and tribal crafts.

But even before reaching Ms. Bailey’s house of many colors, you encounter other hybrid things. An abstract sculpture by Senga Nengudi made of pantyhose and wire looks like a many-breasted goddess sprouting from a wall. A rangy assemblage by Thomas McDonell and Richie Gergel, two young New York artists who worked together in Ghana, suggests an African power figure with a video screen for a face.

In drawings by Robert Pruitt, life-size figures wear what looks like homemade space gear. And in photographic self-portraits from the 1970s, the Cameroonian artist Samuel Fosso offers a personal version of internationalist couture that verges on intergalactic.

In this show to pose is to perform, and performance is a ritual. The Senegalese artist Soly Cisse has the glowering glamour of a hip-hop deity in Kehinde Wiley’s painting of him. Joni Mitchell, or rather her doleful face as seen on the cover of her “Blue” album, weeps big blown-glass tears in an altarlike sculpture by Chris Bogia.

The South African photographer and queer activist Zanele Muholi updates the classic ethnological tableau of an exotic, all but nude “native maiden” by having a model of ambiguous sex play the part, while a portrait painting by a popular artist from Ghana, Kwame Akoto, who goes by the professional name of Almighty God, declares through an inscription that cross-dressing is an unholy act.

Clothes take on personalities of their own in the sculptures of Nancy Barton and Onyedika Chuke, and performance turns surreal in a confessional text piece by Leyden Ynobe Lewis, with its tone of rapture and psychological possession, and in a video by Tracey Rose that has the artist manically racing through a sendup of some anthropological vision of Africa as the original Eden, the font of primitive human life.

Ms. Rose has a way of going for laughs that are never really laughs. But the show’s most disquieting piece is another video, Lyle Ashton Harris’s “Performing MJ,” taped in a Yale classroom. Wearing diapers, pumps and whiteface, Mr. Ashton Harris alternates between infantile helplessness and explosions of rage, finally flailing his way out of the room like a trapped animal.

The video is named for Michael Jackson, whose face appears, painted on Ghanaian funerary cloth, in a piece titled “White Ebony” elsewhere in the gallery. Mr. Ashton Harris’s take on his subject is as oblique as it is intense: you end up feeling as baffled and quietly freaked-out as some of the viewers at this performance probably did. No American artist in the past two decades has more insistently yanked at the tensions that hold ideas of blackness and whiteness in place.

Mr. Ashton Harris is the subject of a traveling retrospective, which goes to New Orleans next spring. Why it hasn’t come to New York, his home city, is anybody’s guess. At least we’re getting something of him here, not just in the video but also in the exhibition as a whole, which he organized with Ms. Barton and Mr. Bogia. The result, bearing all the marks of his tuned-in, far-out sensibility, is one of the best group shows of the season so far.

“S&M: Shrines and Masquerades in Cosmopolitan Times” is at the 80 Washington Square East Galleries, New York University, through Saturday; (212) 998-5747.