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Posted at 9:06 AM ET, 02/ 9/2011

Wood meets fire at African Art Museum

By Jessica Righthand

Inspired by Sandile Zulu's use of fire, Henrique Oliveira burned parts of his wood installation, Xilonoma Chamusquius, 2010. (Courtesy of Henrique Oliveira)

In 2009, the National Museum of African Art debuted "Artists in Dialogue," an exhibit that paired Congolese artist Aime Mpane with Angolan artist Antonio Ole to exchange materials, share techniques and, ultimately, fill a gallery with site-specific works. The museum has now opened a second incarnation, aptly titled "Artists in Dialogue II," which features seven works by artist Sandile Zulu from South Africa and Henrique Oliveira from Brazil. The exhibit will be on view through Dec. 4.

The gallery is clearly divided between the two artists, with Zulu's minimalist, muted color patterns toward the entrance of the gallery and Oliveira's bursts of color and dynamic forms emerging from the back. Zulu burns designs into his white canvases using fire, water, air and earth, a technique that has become his trademark since graduating from art school in the early 90s.

In contrast, Oliveira's paintings are busy with abstract shapes, popping with bright pinks and pastel greens. Then there are the elephants in the room -- his two giant, bulbous wood installations that bulge out from the wall like snarled tree roots.

The "dialogue" between the artists began a year ago, when they met at the museum in Washington to survey the gallery space. Each man then went back to his country to start planning his work. They kept up e-mail communication throughout the year.

"His vision is to create with imagination, rather than trying to stick to mainstream rhetoric or popular demands," said Zulu of Oliveira at the opening reception. "There is an affinity with my own position."

As in the previous "Artists in Dialogue," the artists exchanged elements of their work; Oliveira experimented with using fire for the first time in his Xilonoma Chamusquius (above), and Zulu used Oliveira's found plywood for Spinal Diagnosis--a regenerate case no.2, the sculpture in the middle of the gallery. But the artists also found shared inspiration in biological imagery and associations. One of Zulu's works is meant to mimic the zigzag of a DNA strand. Spinal Diagnosis--a regenerate case no.2 features individual blocks stacked up as vertebra in a spinal column. Oliveira's Xilonoma Chamusquius is meant to evoke a tumor.

"This exhibition illustrates that we can each have a unique vision and that vision can still be in communication with that of another," says curator Karen Milbourne.

According to the museum's director, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, "Artists in Dialogue II" is part of an increased effort within the past year to make the African diaspora a more integral part of the museum. "Africa Underground," the museum's new after hours series kicking off on Feb. 18, focuses on a different country of the diaspora each night, starting with Oliveira's country, Brazil.

"For me," says Cole, "what has happened with Sandile and Henrique is a beautiful metaphor for what we all need to do: Listen to each other, learn from each other, respect each other's differences and celebrate our commonalities."

By Jessica Righthand  | February 9, 2011; 9:06 AM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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