Roots Rockers

Three takes on African and American culture show the payoff from artistic risk-taking

The Community Folk Art Center’s current show, Give & Take: The Currency of Culture, centers on relationships between African-Americans and Africans, with the discussion emanating from three artists’ works. Each of the trio works in different media and brings her own perspective to this nontraditional exhibition, which mixes yarn paintings, digital images and installations adapted specifically to the gallery space.

Njuzi De Magalhaes, for example, reflects on the transition from her homeland of Angola, where she lived until 1993, to life in the United States. Her series of postcard-size paintings, which combine yarn, beads, sand and glitter, depict a range of subjects: insects, animals, hillsides, drums, women in African dress. Some of the images are deliberately superficial, and some reference the many atrocities committed during Angola’s civil war.

The paintings, small and full of green, red and orange, convey bits of memory, pieces of the artist’s experience. She’s considering not only her own passage into a different society but also other people’s journeys. Beyond that, her “Souvenirs” series demonstrates a different approach to storytelling.

A second artist, Nontsikeleo Mutiti, grew up in Zimbabwe and migrated to the United States, where she works as an artist, graphic designer and professor at SUNY Purchase. When she arrived in this country, she met people who were surprised to learn that she was from Africa and didn’t know how to braid hair. That ultimately led to her thinking about how braiding hair connects people who come from different cultures but share African roots.

In the Give & Take show, she delves into the topic from several angles. First, Mutiti displays a collection of business cards, each of which promotes an African hair salon in New York City or Detroit. Second, she’s created screenprints on linoleum tiles that display braiding patterns on the floor. In “Rapunzel,” the pattern sweeps up a wall, recalling Rapunzel, the heroine of a folk tale. In addition, three mannequins have been set up so that visitors to the gallery can practice braiding hair.

Aisha Cousins, meanwhile, was born in the United States and lives in Brooklyn. She and Shan Peters created “But is Your Fabric Really Africa,” clothing decorated with images of President Barack Obama. Cousins designed an installation remembering contacts between Fela Kuti, a prominent African musician, and Sandra Smith, an activist in the Black Panther Party, during the 1960s. There are photos of Smith, covers for several of Kuti’s albums and lyrics from a few of his songs, and bookshelves containing works such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The installation concludes that Smith strongly influenced Kuti’s music and politics.

Finally, the exhibit has several vehicles for visitors’ participation. They include braiding, writing out Kuti’s lyrics on pieces of paper and an invitation to join De Magalhaes in recalling an important personal experience. Several visitors to the gallery have written about their own lives on postcards; those cards are on display.

In one sense, Give & Take is certainly a different kind of exhibit. It relies on diverse media and on exploration of a topic about which many people know very little. Yet risk-taking has its advantages, and the exhibition showcases work by artists who have a distinct visual idiom. In particular, De Magalhaes’ “Souvenirs” offers yet another take on the immigrant experience.

Give & Take: The Currency of Culture continues through Aug. 24 at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 442-2230.

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