Exhibit of the week: The Progress of Love

“The Progress of Love” is a remarkably ambitious show mounted in museums at three locations simultaneously—Houston, St. Louis, and Lagos, Nigeria.

The Menil Collection, Houston

Through March 17

Nowadays, too many artists seem “far too cool and ironic or otherwise engaged to wear their hearts on their sleeves,” said Barbara Pollack in ArtNews.com. But not all of them. “The Progress of Love,” a remarkably ambitious show mounted in three locations simultaneously—Houston’s Menil, St. Louis’s Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, and a contemporary art museum in Lagos, Nigeria—features love viewed predominately through African eyes. At the Menil, the largest of the three exhibits, 27 artists from Africa share space with a handful of Western counterparts. Moving well beyond Hallmark-style expressions of affection, “all offer sophisticated approaches to what is undeniably a complex and rich subject.”

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Among the 56 photographs, videos, sculptures, paintings, and installations, there’s a plethora of compelling work, said John Pluecker in Artforum. Many pieces, including a “particularly powerful” video installation by Romuald Hazoumè of Benin, mix in sly political commentary: Ong Sbop documents Hazoumè’s pleas to the people of his country to love their fellow man by donating to poor Westerners. Kendell Geers’s Arrested Development (Cardiac Arrest) turns a symbol of brute force into one of compassion, arranging 164 glass casts of police batons into a giant glass heart. Fellow South African Zanele Muholi’s 2007 photo series features lesbian and transgender people in both intimate and public spaces, giving an often marginalized form of love newfound power. Passion, these pieces collectively proclaim, takes many forms.

One work got a little too mushy for my taste, said Meredith Deliso in the Houston Press. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s Eaten by the Heart (2012) purports to answer the question, “How do Africans kiss?” by featuring videos of 11 couples necking. “It’s a sweet concept, but I don’t think most people can stand to watch an hour of other people making out”—even when the backdrop keeps changing. More subtle is The Swing (After Fragonard) (2001), by Anglo-Nigerian sculptor Yinka Shonibare. Based on an eponymous 1767 painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Shonibare’s installation shows the same female figure gaily kicking up her skirt on a garden swing. Her dress, however, is not Fragonard’s glossy silk but African-style painted textiles. More strikingly, she is headless. While this could be interpreted as a straightforward omen of the French Revolution, it also makes the figure more of a blank slate, “as if allowing viewers to substitute anyone they want in that role.” It’s but one intriguing statement in a show where “each work is more surprising, unique, and unexpected than the next.”

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