The Contemporary Art Modern Project is pleased to present Animals in African Folklore, an exhibition a select few of Alice Zilbeberg's works from her Meditations series. This show focuses on the portrayed who originate from Africa coupled by folkloric stories in which the animal is a main character.
One of the foundational elements of humanity is its curiosity about the world around it and its need to assign logic to natural phenomenon. The logic a society ascribes to the things it witnesses can take many different shapes; in some cases, we call it “science”, in others “religion” and in others we call it “folklore”. But how different are any of these phenomena really? If a group of people accepts any given analysis as fact, and finds proof to justify such analysis in the real world, can any of us really say with complete certainty that such an analysis is incorrect? Within the context of the multitude of cultures that span Africa, the second largest continent in the world, there exists a motif of a strong oral history and a highly developed folkloric culture accompanying it. These folklores, normally, not only demonstrate what are important values amongst those who communicate these stories, but also that which can be considered quotidian, commonplace, and easily recognizable amongst its listeners.
So powerful were many of these stories, that they have withstood the attacks of time passed, cultural paternalism from European colonizers, and even the ravages of transatlantic slavery in the Americas. Folklore not only imparts wisdom and informs on values, it also communicates identity. At their most serious, these stories can be foreboding and tragic; at their most whimsical, full of jest and character.
Alice Zilberberg’s Meditations series focuses on the animal as an integral member in the natural world. Through her practice, she creates portraits that alienate each animal from their natural habitat by removing them from their environmental context and dropping them in a new topography of Zilberberg's own invention. However, what is not lost to the viewer is the human context that is built around these animals, insomuch that these animals are not only players in the immensely complex and intricate natural world, but they are also oftentimes are the heroes of their native cultures’ storytelling. The animal itself can never be fully removed from its home, because its very existence is a product of such origins and their legacy of human interaction grounds them in their respective cultures. From such a concept, so many other complex modern day polemics rise to the surface: the repatriation of cultural artifacts, looted and archived in European museums, the dichotomous nature of conservational institutions, who maintain a species alive while also removing them from their biological homes, the list goes on.
Five of Zilberberg’s subjects in the Meditations series are native to Africa: the rhinoceros, the ostrich, the zebra, the lemur, and the giraffe. Each apports with it a wealth of cultural intimacy coming from the different cultures who have lived with them for hundreds of years. In South Africa, the Zulu and Xhosa tell a story of a forgetful and clumsy rhino, who thinks he must fling his dung in order to find the porcupine's quill, which he accidentally swallowed after promising to return it. The Bantu-speaking ethnic groups that live along the Zambezi say that the ostrich’s long neck comes from his need to supervise his flirtatious wife. The Khoisan of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia tells a cautionary tale against boastfulness via the giraffe, who bullies a tortoise for being so small (for those wondering, the giraffe tries to eat the tortoise and chokes to death).
Beyond being a reminder of these animals’ alienation from their natural habitat, Meditations can also be understood as a reminder that they are also being taken from their cultural habitat, from a culture and a people who used these animals to make sense of their lives and their progeny. While the modern world may push onto us the belief that the natural world and human society are separate entities, they are in fact intrinsically related to one another. These didactic tales with the following animals remind us of this universal truth.