June 03, 2016

"Dada Afrika"

Wilkommen in Zurich the commemorations of the Dada Centennial continue.  One of the more esoteric exhibitions is "Dada Afrika" at the Museum Rietberg, located in the beautiful Rieterpark.  Featuring an outstanding collection of works from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas, the Rietberg Museum is the only museum for non-European culture in Switzerland and therefore the perfect host for this exhibition!

The Dadaists were contrarians by nature and their artistic rebellion against traditionalism in general and World War I in particular made the exoticism of "primitive" art even more enticing.  Their quest to develop a new visual language led them to embrace the cultures and artifacts of non-Western civilizations and rework them into Dada performances, literature and the fine and applied arts.  It was revolutionary in its time and fueled the public perception of Dadaism as a subversive art movement.

The exhibition is divided into four parts beginning with Dada Performance, the original manifestation of the movement that remained an integral element.  Dada performances were unlike anything ever before seen on a stage.  Wild, unscripted and often unintelligible, artists in special costumes experimented with sound and dance in an effort to become one with the cosmos and ultimately shock the audience.  Their "Soirées nègres" fit perfectly with this program as African drumming and mask dances evoked alien worlds and provided a new vocabulary for expression.

Hopi Indian Kachina dolls provided inspiration
for this costume designed by Sophie Taeuber-Arp

The Dadaists introduced African and Oceanic art to Europeans and before long it became highly collectable.  Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the movement, built an enormous collection, as did Han Coray, the Swiss art dealer and educational reformer who gave the Dada artists their first exhibition in Zurich in 1917.  The section Dada Gallery looks at how African and Oceanic art influenced Dada artists like Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Man Ray.
The third section of the exhibition focuses on Berlin in the 1920s, especially the collages and assemblages made by Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann.  Dada Magic looks at how artist combined the familiar with the exotic to create a completely new aesthetic.  Political and socially critical, these works mix cut up newspapers and fashion magazines with non-European imagery to force questions of femininity, nationalism, colonialism and power.

Collage by Hannah Höch done in 1924
featuring a picture of a Baule mask with
a picture of a man with an icy smile

The final gallery explores Dada Controversy both during the Dada period (1916-1924) and today.  The Dadaists were the first to consider African sculpture and masks as "art", an idea that was both revolutionary and self-serving.  Contemporary African artists are expressing themselves in this post-colonial era as both akin to the Dadaists but different from how Westerners have traditionally perceived them.  It will be interesting to see how their efforts to be recognized as together but separate will be remembered.

The Rietberg Museum houses one of the great collections of African and Oceanic works, many of which come from Han Coray and his circle, and this marvelous exhibition that juxtaposes Dada and Africa is a perfect vehicle to display their treasures.  Dada is Dead.  Long Live Dada!!!

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