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Review: Kapwani Kiwanga, ‘Maji Maji’; Oscar Munoz, ‘Protographies’, Jeu de Paume, Paris

Above: Oscar Munoz, 'Photographies'.
Above: Oscar Munoz, ‘Photographies’.

The Jeu de Paume gallery, situated at the entrance to the Jardins des Tuileries in one of the prettiest locations in Paris, describes itself as “exhibiting and promoting all forms of 20th and 21st-century art (photography, cinema, video, installation, web art, etc)”. There are three exhibitions on at the moment, and between them they cover most of those areas and a bit more (bathroom fittings).

In the basement, Kapwani Kiwanga’s Maji Maji is an installation based on accounts of the Maji Maji War, the largest uprising on the African continent in the early 20th century. The subject takes in colonialism – a revolt against German rule in Tanzania – and magic – the leader of the insurgents distributed sacred water, maji, to the rebels, which was supposed to turn the Germans’ bullets to water – and sounds a rich theme for any artist.

Unfortunately, despite Kiwanga’s breadth of learning, and despite the potential of the subject, it just doesn’t come off here. The central structure is a set of high shelves with disparate objects placed on it – a castor oil plant (“said to be one of the ingredients in the magical water”), a portrait of Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania (“a reminder of his speech… in which he emphasised the Maji Maji War’s importance…”). Three slideshows are of objects excavated from Tanzania and housed in various ethnological collections, plus Kiwanga’s hands “manipulating the void instead of the objects”. The installation doesn’t have any impact (its just a set of shelves, come on!) and the presentation of ideas is too flimsy. Sad, but, #artfail.

Above: Oscar Munoz, 'Photographies'.
Above: Oscar Munoz, ‘Photographies’.

Up to the top floor, and Oscar Munoz’s Protographies.

Munoz was born in Colombia in 1951. This exhibition is a retrospective of 40 years of making art which “moves freely between photography, printmaking, drawing, installation, video and sculpture” (and shower curtains.) The punning title of the exhibition refers to “that proto-moment when the image is finally about to become photography” and the overriding motif of Munoz’s later work is portraits of people half-seen, dissolving into and out of existence.

Using photographic images and a range of (odd) creative techniques, Munoz’s obsession is the transience of life, the fugitive nature of human existence, and – obliquely – the nightmare of los desaparecidos. In Colombia since the 1960s perhaps 250,000 people are estimated to have disappeared. This fact haunts the margins of Munoz’s work. He started his career in the 1970s making large-scale, hyper-realistic drawings of the tenement buildings of Cali, Colombia, and the chiaroscuro style, as well as the socially-conscious themes, of his youth still inform Munoz’s work.

In one set of works Munoz creates artworks on water, by using charcoal dust to create an image, filtered through a silkscreen, which then floats precariously and temporarily on the surface. In his Narcisosseries, the water eventually evaporates and the sediment settles to form a new, slightly distorted image. InBiografias, the portraits – taken from anonymous obituaries – are filmed disintegrating as the water is drained out via a plughole. The technique is very Heath-Robinson, but fascinating, and the results are resonant.

Above: Oscar Munoz, 'Photographies'.
Above: Oscar Munoz, ‘Photographies’.

The Shower Curtains, made in the mid 1980s, are printed with shadowy images of people, both spooky (echoes of Psycho) and witty. His Pixeles portraits are made with sugar cubes tinted with coffee. Sometimes – like the Sedimentaciones series, where a set of portraits are projected onto a table top with a hand reaching in and out to move and remove them – one can’t help but think this is not so much art as clever ideas for decorating hotel lobbies. The series of portraits made with cigarette burns is also neat, and one is torn between enjoying Munoz’s exuberance and unending creativity, and a disapproving feeling that art is not meant to be so much fun. Unless, of course, you remember that cigarette burns are a form of torture, and we’re back to los desaparecidos again…

*until September 21st 2014

www.jeudepaume.org

© Fiona Hayes 2014