A couple of weeks ago, the eminent journal Science announced the confirmation of the earliest known human footprints heretofore discovered. Preserved between layers of volcanic ash, the 1.5-million-year-old tracks were shown by laser-scanning analysis to have been made by truly upright citizens (not like those knuckle-dragging Australopitheci).

It should come as no surprise that the footprints were found in East Africa, in the country now known as Kenya; the same neck of the woods where Mitochondrial Eve — the original common female ancestor of every human alive today — is thought to have trod some 150,000 years back.

And it was just a little farther down the coast, in Blombos Cave on the Southern Cape coast of South Africa, that archaeologists in the early 1990s discovered two ochre engraved plaques that had been inscribed with abstract geometric designs approximately 75,000 years ago — predating the cave paintings at Lascaux by a healthy 60 millennia: arguably our species’ oldest objets d’art.

Now let’s look at the headlines … hmmm … “Kenyan Police Accused of Widespread Killings” … “15,000 Flee Southern Darfur” … “President of Guinea-Bissau Assassinated” … “Zimbabwe Cholera Epidemic Worsening. … ”

Seeded with land mines, depleted of natural resources, riddled with plague, political corruption, poverty and starvation; her social structures pulverized to a jittery, explosive subatomic mush, awash in imported toxic waste, homogenized global urban culture and IMF debt, Africa is as much our future as it is our past.

The curators at the Fowler Museum know this — at least it seems so, going by their track record, with shows like 2003’s “A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal,” which traced the proliferation and mutation of a single image of Sufi saint Amadou Bamba across almost every surface of Dakar, and last year’s “Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art” — far and away the most compelling recent L.A. exhibit on the relationship between language and art. Both epitomize the Fowler’s ongoing commitment to representing the artistic practices of the non-Anglo world, Africa in particular, in all their complex vitality: balanced between ancient local traditions, contemporary international Art World strategies, and coping mechanisms for the coming apocalypse.

Of course, in the short term, it is the middle ground that is of greatest interest to the artists, curators and other players engaged in the effort to shift some capital away from Damien Hirst, Richard Prince and (South African–born) Marlene Dumas and into the grass-roots art economies of Dakar, Johannesburg and Lagos — or at least generate some art stars to compete on Charles Saatchi’s playing field. Fans of this strategy will appreciate the two new shows put together by longtime Fowler chief curator Polly Roberts (now professor of Culture and Performance in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and subcontracting her curatorial services) for quite different reasons. “Transformations: Recent Contemporary African Acquisitions” leans toward the art-star model, with two of the enormous — and enormously popular — “tapestries” by El Anatsui, painstakingly assembled from discarded metal liquor-bottle seals into shimmering postcolonial chain-mail dragon skins.

The Ghanaian artist was a breakout star at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and has become a test case and standard-bearer for the infiltration/assimilation model for integrating contemporary African art into (whatever’s left of) the global blue-chip market. The show includes seven other artists, including some seminal works from the amazing “Saint in the City” show — curated by Roberts and her husband, Allen. Though paying tribute to the Church of Art, these works are deeply rooted in aesthetic and spiritual traditions that predate — and had a profound formative influence on — European Modernism.

The Fowler’s other new exhibit — “Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Works of Africa” — has a more complex relationship with the museum. I have to admit I had no clue what to expect from a survey of African video art. Although I’ve encountered the animations of William Kentridge and a handful of other time-based African artists — and a smattering of the continent’s rich postcolonial cinematic tradition — I couldn’t quite fathom the place where Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture intersects with, say, the ancient and intricate semiotics of Ghanaian kente cloth. Is there continuity between the traditional communal storytelling, ritual and musical time-based media of African cultures and the implicitly observational single-author medium of video? Has the ever-cheaper technology trickled down far enough to enable the same kind of outburst of hybrid creativity triggered by the electric guitar in the 1960s? Do they have public-access TV there?

These kinds of speculative preconceptions are swept to the side once one enters “Continental Rifts” and realizes that it is predominantly an exhibit representing the contemporary diaspora of African intellectuals and the sense of cultural dislocation this engenders. Cláudia Cristóvão — born in Angola but currently living and working in the U.K. — tackles these themes head-on in her multichannel Fata Morgana (2005-2006), which merges the fragmentary memories of people who left Africa in their childhood, with interior shots of an abandoned building overtaken by sand dunes. In The Botanist (2007), Paris-born Yto Barrada explores the ambiguities of a sun-dappled, cultivated pastoralism in her adopted Moroccan homeland. Berni Searle’s hypnotic Home and Away installation (2003) shows the South African artist floating aimlessly between the coasts of Spain and Morroco. Georgia Papageorge transposes the nostalgia into geological time with her gorgeous Africa Rifting: Lines of Fire: Namibia/Brazil (2001), which uses an enormous Christo-esque length of red cloth to dress the wound where Africa and South America tore apart 135 million years ago.

Ironically, the most politically and aesthetically engaging video is made by a South American artist — also the most famous. Alfredo Jaar is a Chilean-born New York artist who has been producing globally inflected political art since the early ’80s, including the extensive multimedia Rwanda Project (1994-2000). Muxima (2005) uses multiple versions of a traditional popular song from Angola with beautiful visual sequences of empty architectural spaces, an AIDS hospice, children playing, and — most disturbingly — the methodical location and detonation of ubiquitous land mines.

Jaar’s work epitomizes the socially conscious and technologically sophisticated art-world lingua franca supported by progressive institutions throughout the industrialized world. “Continental Rifts” is an indication of that network’s willingness to create a place that will accommodate the emergence of a slate of African (or Africa-adjacent) artists willing to explore the video medium within the easily parse-able poetics of this tradition. Which is fine. I can’t shake the suspicion that there may be something a little more radical brewing in the hands of less Westernized practitioners — something akin to El Anatsui’s reimagined metallic kente cloth, or Thomas Mapfumo’s reinvention of traditional Zimbabwean thumb-piano music for the electric guitar.

And given the state of the world, I’m not sure the great Western intellectual juggernaut is in any position to be suggesting modes of expression to cultures that date back to the dawn of human consciousness. Especially when they’re already so proficient at turning the industrial world’s trash into exquisite and profoundly meaningful artifacts. Give it a century — we’ll see whose paradigm survives for how and why our species makes art.


At the Fowler on Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m., exhibition curator Polly Roberts joins with video artist Doug Aitken and LA>www.fowler.ucla.edu.

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