The art critic, Okwui Enwezor, editor of NKA: A Journal of Contemporary AfricanArt, interprets the essence of the emerging genius of Helen Ramsaran, an African American sculptor whose successful wedding of African motifs created in classical outlines, is beginning to make a break-through. Her recent exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem was a celebration of sorts.
African Profiles International
By Okwui Enwezor
Pragmatic critiques and judgments of contemporary art currently exist, it seems, under an impasse. Part of the reason lies in their obdurate adherence to a kind of western formalist cocoon.
Of all such artists, the work of Mel Edwards clearly resonates the loudest. To look at his work is to map a whole range of associative readings in relation to the immensity of African sculptural traditions. (In this instance, Igbo-Ukwu ironwork and Benin bronze casting might be a good pace to start). But Edwards is hardly unique in this sense. Less known, but equally articulate in the spatial language which inhabit African sculptural idioms are the wispy, taut, skeletal and poetic works of Helen Evans Ramsaran, recently exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem from July 17 through October 2, 1994.
The work presented in this exhibition, which originated from The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, comes from Ramsaran’s scrupulous distillation of her experiences while living and traveling through Africa (Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Egypt) in the early eighties. In her sculptures spindly, attenuated forms, the body’s essence fills the exhibition space with an explosive, troubling aura. Connections to the body’s temporal habitat have been substituted with its flight from the cage. Ramsaran is an exquisite essayist of dreams, a poet of allegory and imagery quivering just on this side of the real. The images are real alright, but in their hybrid other worldliness, poised between the mineral and vegetal, they appear unconnected to any one realm of reality. Their presence lacks the kind of punch that necessitates silence in the viewer.
It is through this form of visual speech in three dimensions that African sculptural influences most resolutely make their entrance. For in African sculpture, the power of the work is not at all invested in the object, but rather in its aura: in its affinity within other spatial and associative meanings extraneous to the sculpture’s objecthood. Though Ramsaran’s sculptures harbor a certain pragmatism, in the sense that there is nothing novel about them, they still embody some of her empiricist doubts; one located in prehistory.
While present feminist deconstructivist strategies work towards disrupting the male centered gaze might not be a concern these sculptures wish to communicate, they nonetheless are not oblivious to them. Installations such as The shrine of the Arrowhead Women, A Woman’s Shrine, The dance of the Arrowhead Women and Initiation of the Arrowhead Women partially repudiate the apoliticality of the art objects.
Take for instance a title like A Woman’s Shrine which clearly evokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (one of the canonically inscribed platforms for feminist political agency) and we can see how large her work’s awareness are in terms of contemporary female subjectivity. Grouped on an altar-like platform strewn with crushed white gravel, the smallish sculptures are awash with a sense of ceremony.