As we near the holiday season, I find myself once again whirring to keep up with all the demands and details of opening an exhibition. Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira “goes live” on February 2, 2011 and a lot needs to happen between now and then: artworks and supplies have to be shipped in from 2 continents while trying to accommodate the challenges of holiday closures and unseasonable weather; travel arrangements and accommodations must be made for artists coming from Africa and South America to create new works of art that will need to meet government safety codes and be finished on time; and, as the curator, I am trying to write labels, brochures and an exhibition catalogue and attend to other details for works that haven’t yet been finished – and in one case, even begun.
Artists in Dialogue is a unique series of exhibitions in which the distinctive styles and techniques of two artists are united in a visual call and response. In this second installation (for more on the first, Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane, visit the museum’s website: http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/dialogue09/intro.html#edu), the National Museum of African Art invited two artists, Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira, each of whom works with unconventional materials that imaginatively extend notions of the canvas and painting. The conversation into which these two artists have entered is not determined by geography or nationality but by the creativity with which each employs his distinctive materials – fire in the case of Zulu and weathered strips of wood for Oliveira – and their overlapping interest in the contours and mysteries of the human body.
I first encountered the work of Sandile Zulu in the exhibition, Liberated Voices in New York in 2000. At that time, I was mesmerized by the manner in which he created compositions to hang on the wall of oh-so-carefully charred newspapers or rhythmically arranged tufts of burnt grasses. For years I have waited for the right project with which to work with him. When I saw Henrique Oliveira’s extraordinary installations of weathered wood, I knew I had found the right project.
Work on this exhibition began almost as soon as the first Artists in Dialogue closed. At that time, I contacted both Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira to ask if they would be interested in creating new work in response to one another. Fortunately, they both agreed.
In the 18 months that have followed, the artists have both come to Washington DC to see the museum and gallery space, and to meet one another. In addition, I have traveled to South Africa where I met with Sandile, visiting his studio and looking at works of art by him in various collections in Johannesburg.
I also went to Rio de Janeiro to see a solo exhibition by Henrique Oliveira at Galerie Silvia Cintra + Box4 before continuing on to São Paulo, where the artist is based.
In the ensuing months, the artists identified a shared interest in breaking with mainstream treatments of painting, extending wall-based artwork into three-dimensions, creating installations and exploring a mutual fascination with the workings and malfunctions of the human body. Although the initial plan had been to include a combination of new and older works of art in the exhibition, in the end all but one painting was created expressly for this exhibition. At one point, the artists even discussed creating a work together.
Pulling off an exhibition of new and primarily site-specific works of art poses a number of challenges. Right now, the museum’s registrars are tackling the difficulties of shipping two paintings, three massive components that will come together to form the new Xilonoma Chamusquius, and roughly 500 lbs. of weathered, pealing driftwood. Our editor is making sure my words are perfect while our designer has just finished a funky new invite and press preview card. We are still working on getting enough images for the press – which is challenging when the works aren’t yet finished and the artists aren’t local – and making sure we have the rights to use what photographs do exist. The guys in the shop are ordering supplies to make sure we have enough screws, flexi-plywood and unprocessed wood for Henrique to create a new installation. In short, the tasks are diverse and many. Stayed tuned for updates.