These days, the David of African sculpture sits impassively in North York. Meanwhile, in downtown Toronto, contemporary artists are making mischief with knitted vegetables and beaded masks. The holiday season is always a convenient time to catch up with museum shows and there’s a rich array on offer in the city this December.
Probably the most important art objects to visit Toronto in 2019 are Nigerian sculptures on display at the Aga Khan Museum in the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments of Time. It’s a show devoted to trade across the Sahara during the Middle Ages and includes the 13th- to 14th-century figure found at Tada in northern Nigeria in the 20th century. The Tada man, a seated figure in a loincloth probably representing a king, is rendered with remarkable naturalism from his generous belly to his broad features. He is Nigeria’s equivalent of Michelangelo’s David, a figure so immediately lifelike he seems to exist outside of time or place. Scholars conclude the sculpture was cast 200 kilometres south of Tada in Ife, the medieval kingdom renowned for its naturalistic bronze and terracotta heads. Testing revealed that the cooper from which the figure was cast came from France, a testament to the great range of medieval trade routes.
The point of Caravans of Gold, which was organized by the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Illinois, is to shift Eurocentric impressions of medieval culture. Explaining how trade was driven by the demand for gold and salt – the latter once so valuable it traded at par with the former – the show follows coins, texts, dishes, beads and art across the desert. Prized indigo colours the pages of the so-called Blue Qur’an made in Tunisia or Iraq in the ninth to 10th century. West African gold provides the manuscript’s lettering, just as it also decorates a 15th-century Italian wooden panel depicting the Coronation of the Virgin while elephants’ tusks are fashioned into Gothic ivories from France. And the wealth moved south, producing objects such as the mysterious terracotta figures of humans and horses found in grave sites in Mali – as well as the remarkable Nigerian cast metal sculptures. Along with the Tada figure, these include a bronze baby elephant and an archer in quilted armour made of copper, all on loan from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
Tragically, it was not just metal or salt that moved along these trade routes: enslaved people did, too, centuries before the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century. The archaeology provides little evidence, but 12th- to 14th-century texts record the movement of enslaved peoples within West Africa and to Morocco and the Middle East. Here, the only physical testament to that dark history is a manuscript featuring a 16th-century legal opinion on slavery from Timbuktu in Mali.
Downtown at the Gardiner Museum, Savour: Food Culture in the Age of Enlightenment is a totally different kind of exhibition, whimsical where Caravans of Gold is serious, and yet it too must acknowledge slavery. As coffee and chocolate became increasingly popular drinks in the 18th century, Europe’s demand for sugar fuelled the Atlantic slave trade. It is a testament to curator Meredith Chilton’s multipronged approach that an exhibition mainly devoted to 18th-century tableware can address that issue. As part of the discussion, Savour includes a large painting of cheery aristocrats enjoying dessert, waited on by a black boy in a silver collar. His parents may well have been labouring on the plantations where the sugar for the delicious syllabub was cultivated.
The show also addresses the disparities in class that food inevitably reflects; it discusses differences in diets and mealtimes, and displays a large set of Meissen figures inspired by prints of the Cries of London. The mid 18th-century German figurines were intended as pretty novelties but this show asks us to probe a bit deeper. Some peddlers, some mere beggars, can any of these delicate vendors have made enough to sustain themselves as they hawked fish, sealing wax and even their own bodies on the streets?
Otherwise, Savour takes trompe l’oeil as its theme. Gerard Gauci, set designer for Opera Atelier, provides a suitably theatrical backdrop of painted scenery depicting the vegetable garden, the kitchen and the dining room. Meanwhile, to solve the problem of how to display some food on all these plates, the Gardiner has called on contemporary artists to fashion vegetables, meat and even oysters from materials as varied as wool and plastic resin. Of these, the most abundant and fanciful are the knitted foods, from nubby drumsticks to socklike carrots, created by the Swiss artist Dominique Kaehler Schweizer, who calls herself Madame Tricot. Hers is a kitschy sensibility that fits perfectly with the 18th-century’s best ceramic tableware, those delightful soup tureens shaped like cabbages, artichokes or a boar’s head that are the highlights of this show.
That same spirit of playfulness is put to darker purposes in Wild, a show curated by Farah Yusuf for the Textile Museum of Canada. It features five emerging artists who create unusual three-dimensional work by reviving traditional crafts, from beading and crocheting to taxidermy.
The show begins with Emily Jan’s weird collection of Apologues, animal-plant hybrids that she has fashioned from faux fur and fake flowers and mounted as though they were curiosities in a Victorian parlour. So a big white anteater finds his tail dissolving into a bouquet of long-stemmed flowers while an anaconda gets twisted up in a house plant.
The creatures evoke a seamless natural world held captive by human culture, and the environmental implications are made more explicit by the juxtaposition with Catherine Blackburn’s Trapline. That unsentimental reflection on the artist’s indigenous identity features a series of rabbit pelts caught in metal traps and bleeding strings of red beads.
Omar Badrin is also an artist concerned with identity: A Malaysian adoptee in a white Newfoundland community, he adapts traditional crotchet techniques to gleefully expose his status as an outsider. Using thick cords in neon colours and whites that glow in black light, he poses a striped bodysuit on a chair as though the figure’s throat had been slit and creates rough woven hoods that both hide and reveal.
Humboldt Magnussen also makes a show of hiding, playing in a rather similar way with refuting invisibility. In photographs, the queer artist poses with some of the work that is on display here: elaborately beaded masks without holes that confront the viewer with a richly decorated surface where a face would be expected. Humboldt is also the figure in Wild’s arresting promotional photo: it shows a man’s naked torso topped by a helmet fashioned from a big log stuffed with pearls. Whimsy, mystery and even threat hover intriguingly.
Caravans of Gold continues at the Aga Khan Museum to Feb. 23; Savour at the Gardiner Museum to Jan. 19 and Wild at The Textile Museum of Canada to March 15.
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