Bright Lights Film Journal

Senses of Times and Times of Death: Contemporary African Video Works at the National Museum of African Art

Screenshot from Theo Eshetu's Brave New World I

We might presume the temporal slips at stake in an African video exhibit are squarely political or anticolonial, but the videos’ slow, reverse, and repeated motions also link politico-economic disorder to ambiguous dreams of transcendence.

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Presenting cinematic shorts from Egypt, South Africa, and Congo, the exhibition “Senses of Time: Video and Film-Based Works of Africa,” recently installed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, invites viewers to see a continent still in turmoil. In a 2015 edition of the journal African Arts, an article offering a preview of the traveling exhibit emphasized how these videos undermine “Western” and colonialist constructions of time, while also rendering time not as a mathematical “byproduct” of the filmic medium but as a “central strategy in the production and content of a work.”1 The temporalities proposed in these videos assume many forms, but whether human or global, natural or metaphysical, micro- or macroscopic, these works try to invert, pervert, and self-consciously twist time from generic frameworks. I don’t use the word “generic” indiscriminately. As our overstressed senses of “Western” time contract into economies of seconds, minutes, and lunch-hours, we experience the world as units of labor, anxiety, or escape. Our overriding anxiety becomes a cramped style of experience (we behave differently on lunch breaks or when we enjoy spare time) that blinds us to the paths along which history could otherwise digress. The more we artificially subdivide time into working calendars, payment schedules, classroom periods, hourlong TV shows, and salaried weekdays, the more time becomes an enemy to keep at bay. Our natural timekeepers, the pulse and the heartbeat, mean little to us unless we are at the point of death. For the modern worker, the most important time-counter is the week, a pained economic contrivance without a basis in cosmic orbits, planetary axes, or lunar phases.

We might presume the temporal slips at stake in an African video exhibit are squarely political or anticolonial, but the videos’ slow, reverse, and repeated motions also link politico-economic disorder to ambiguous dreams of transcendence. Many works mark junctures between human time and geopolitical time with images of water, which is often rendered as morbid or contaminated rather than enlivening. Obviously, not all of Africa’s geopolitical problems can be reduced to problems of drought, but one cannot underestimate the economic stagnation and political violence wrought by thirst and a dearth of arable land. Huge chunks of Sub-Saharan Africa never knew a Fertile Crescent or the technologies and trading economies that sprang from it. It is certainly a sign of arrogance and crudity that cultures accidentally benefitting from a surplus of water use a vocabulary that connects wealth to irrigation. So many “monetary” words derive from watery metaphors: currency, solvency, liquidity, cash flow, and so on. The alleged “merit” of the self-made capitalist is immediately exposed when one realizes it is predicated not merely on accidents of birth but accidents of nourishing waterfall. The attempt to linguistically link water and wealth is obviously an ideological ploy meant to equate a beneficent nature with commerce (among biologically fluid metaphors for commerce, blood is more apt). Indeed, in the video works presented here, unmonied waters signify not flourishing wealth but merely tentative births (the amniotic womb) or likely deaths (contamination, disease, or drowning).

At the exhibit’s entrance stood A Matter of Time (2003/16mm and DV), a three-minute video installation created by Berni Searle (b. 1964), a fine arts professor at the University of Cape Town. Water, the work’s primary motif, appears and reappears not as a life-giving force but as a kind of liquid hourglass that ticks away moments of dread and awe. In the first of two sequential video loops, a woman, seen perilously from below, walks barefoot through a low tide of crystalline water across a transparent floor. We look upwards, and her weathered soles seem to stamp across our vision. But her tread is never dominant; on the contrary, her feet, calloused maps of nomadic suffering, are engraved with the hardships that the stereotypical Western viewer would perceive as “African.” Soon, some unseen force overtakes her: she unwillingly slips backward, fighting a seemingly malevolent undertow. Perhaps drowned, she slips from the frame, leaving behind only water droplets that cascade vertically and then, through a distortion of perspective, recede into the ether. Now trickling against an ebony background, the droplets twinkle like heartless stars, uncaring or unaware of the deathly waters below. In a second sequence, the overhead feet return but never touch the transparent floor – the woman is suspended, as if from some invisible gallows. The glass floor again floods, but now the woman’s soles touch down safely: either resurrected or refusing death, she walks again, as watery stars shimmer against a nebulous firmament.

The theme of tentative rebirth that concludes A Matter of Time develops into a familial allegory in Searle’s three-channel video projection About to Forget (2005, 35mm transferred to flashcards). However, in this landscape of animated silhouettes – visually somewhere between Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) and Jean-François Laguionie’s Gwen, or the Book of Sand (1985) – images of drought replace those of drowning, and time is not compressed but distended geologically, with drifting moments signifying centuries. In the first section of a tryptic that fades from one narrative panel to the next, three groups of nomadic, sandman figures – families perhaps – traverse three ziggurat-like hills baked blood-red in the sun. Nature’s cruelty quickly intervenes. Harsh gales erode both the sand-family and the earthen landscape into to a common denominator of gritty, granular monads. Agitated by winds, the once-human sands swirl and gust across the three panels, which are overlayered with so much additional sand and smoke that one cannot tell which sands emanate from one panel and which are imposed from another. As if turned liquid, the sands suddenly accrue aqueous whooshes and murmurs from a discontinuous soundtrack, and as if enlivened by these watery sounds, the human figures partly reconstitute, becoming puppet-like, two-dimensional bodies. Then the background optimistically brightens. White light replaces the blood-red hills, beams through the figures and, for a split-second, floods the museum space, not only whiting-out the video’s frame but blinding viewers and erasing their “superior” perspectives.

Speaking to “generational time,” as the exhibit’s liner notes claim, Searle’s triptych enfolds its two-dimensional families within the capricious nexus of politics and nature that produces the nomadic subject. However, the bland, museum-friendly descriptor “generational time” seems an evasive understatement. The small figures’ metamorphoses across time-addled geographies are disorienting and terrific, and it seems a bloody miracle that desert nomads can recrudesce into new bodies, even two-dimensional ones. In their slim, passive two-dimensions, the figures nevertheless embody a transcendent, elemental beauty: as they are atomically reconstituted through sand, mountains, and water, they escape the realm of political time and find refuge within a dream of natural time.

Shifting elemental fortunes return in The Water (2002), a five-minute, single-channel video installation by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr (b. 1961), whose work, according to his biography, “surpasses idiosyncrasies and geographical limits and voices the worries and torments of the African continent.”2 A portraiture of those who suffered silently under the fist of multibillionaire thief Hosni Mubarak, The Water, like Searle’s A Matter of Time, begins with a pool, yet here the aqueous imagery reeks of filth and mundanity, yielding no cosmic backdrop. The film is a black-and-white collage of (mostly) children’s faces reflected in a sad puddle, its ripples rendered in slow motion so extreme that deep shadows appear within the watery crevasses. In the puddle appear youthful faces, unjustly wrinkled by the ripples. We ascertain two youthful twins only from silhouettes of their innocently curled hair. Inexpressively, they stare up at viewers, accusing them of presumed callousness, apathy, or politico-economic complicity. Imagery of downtrodden children distorted by filthy, brackish water may seem (at best) sententious, but Nasr redeems his work with a chillingly sardonic effect: each time a new amniotic face surfaces, we hear a decidedly unpoetic sloshing of water on the soundtrack, as if Mubarak’s bucket-dragging charwoman were mopping away inconvenient traces of humanity. Washing away the evidence of Mubarak’s oppression is futile, however, for each time the invisible charwoman plunges her mop into the splattering bucket, new faces wavily emerge, much like the undying subalterns of Serle’s works.


Most visually striking was British-born artist Theo Eshetu’s (b. 1958) Brave New World I, a literally kaleidoscopic multimedia installation embedded in a side wall. The work centers a cubic TV set inside a geometrically designed hive of mirrors, which itself is set within a golden frame. The hive’s reflected images multiply exponentially and outward, forming a videographic “honeycomb” that eructs an overload of cacophonous juxtapositions. Office buildings, Tibetan dances, and ghostly images of the World Trade Center rebound against one another. Looking down into the recessed wall that contains the exhibit, the viewer sees one’s own head in certain angled squares of mirror, and one’s torso in other squares – the viewer’s body, in effect, is split apart and colonized by the video’s mass-media “hive mind.” Thusly framed by the exhibit, the viewer is swallowed up in headache-inducing, over-mediated globalism, much as oppressed subjects in neighboring exhibits are engulfed by sickly waters and political winds. An accompanying soundtrack of Arvo Pärt, however, is a miscalculation: the composer’s non-confrontational, monotonous minimalism winds up rationalizing rather than accentuating the work’s polyvocal chaos.

The dystopic nausea of Brave New World I becomes localized to the African continent in Memory (2006), a single-channel video by Congolese artist Sammy Baloji (b. 1978). A downbeat, self-consciously arty commentary on the less-than-miraculous economy of the DR Congo’s so-called “Copperbelt,” Memory places a snaky, bare-chested dancer (Faustin Layukula) within a wasteland of rusted pipes and industrial detritus. Like Nasr’s The Water, this deliberately schematic film offers a lament for nameless African peoples trampled by corruption, especially as Congolese dictators became as perfidious as Anglo-Belgian colonialism was exploitative. Here, the populace is symbolized by dancer Layukula, whose agile contortions are more an evasive defense mechanism than an aesthetic strategy. According to the hazy curatorial jargon of the exhibit catalog, his “body inserts itself into the rewriting of history and the reimagining of time” – that is, he bends himself before a great decaying metal pipe in an abandoned copper mine, while speeches of political leaders echo on the soundtrack. As a 1960 speech by the great Lumumba links a “divine struggle for peace … and social justice” to mining new economies, we see tubes and tunnels used for irrigation. We then hear a recording of Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the Republic’s first president, speak over literally dehumanized images of labor: disembodied hammers strike and turbine strum seemingly of their own volition, as if in some 1920s constructivist propaganda.

The film cuts back to the dancer, who rigidly holds across his head and upper torso a picture frame, unsubtly signifying his status as (post)colonial “object.” Standing in the now-abandoned mine, a symbol of economic failure and systemic corruption, he slithers his too-lithe body into almost revolutionary shapes, as if he were a python learning guerilla maneuvers. Finally, he succeeds to wiggle from the picture frame. Now a free agent rather than a colonized object, he looks smilingly into the camera, and raises his palm as the soundtrack explodes with gunfire and insurrectionary chanting. But all is not well. On the soundtrack, the anti-communist autocrat Mobuto now warns of the ideological colonialism of China and the economic colonialism of the West. The dancer, wiggling (or wriggling) somewhat more mechanically, is framed by the giant copper tubes, a prisoner of industries that the kleptocratic Mobuto had corrupted. In the next sequence, he sashays out of the tubes, plants one foot in the ground, and rotates the rest of his body around it. With his leg acting as an axis and the rest of his body twirling in an earthbound orbit, he himself becomes like an autonomous, organic planet, transcending the nation-state and negating the cacophonous, self-reflecting pseudo-planet envisioned in Eshetu’s neighboring Brave New World 1.

As a museum piece, Memory – like all the works in “Senses of Time” – is subject to the inexorable logic of video exhibitions’ temporal loops. At the end of its fifteen minutes, the work rebegins, signifying – whether purposefully or not – not a spiraling eternal return but a rather non-Nietzschean, ritualistic litany. The catch-all title Memory – as bad a title as one could imagine, albeit suitable for museum purposes – only adds to the video’s academicism. Another dance-themed work, British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s (b. 1962) Un Ballo in Maschera (2004), incorporates looped experience into its very content. In this brilliantly colored, thirty-two-minute exercise in postcolonial irony, synchronized dancers traipse silently – save for their absurdly shuffling feet – as they move from room to room in a defunct colonial villa. Palimpsestic commentary is embroidered into the dancers’ dress, which subtly weaves what appears to be the Chanel No. 5 logo (a symbol of French colonialism) under motley African patterns. When the dancers finish their elegant clomping at the film’s midpoint, the entire action is run in reverse, at the same tempo, looping us back the beginning. I wasn’t really sure what this cyclicality was meant to prove, though it’s certainly in keeping with humdrum, hyper-postmodernist tail-chasing, in which every gesture is its own undoing, every critique its own subversion, and so on. But even before the midpoint, when the film reveals itself as an extravagantly costumed ritual – when Un Ballo in Maschera becomes work, not pleasure – my mind began to engage emotions the artist didn’t intend.

If we’re terribly concerned about (technologized) Western culture colonizing the ways in which we traipse (or sleepwalk) through our lives, we should remember that museums, too, have anthropocentric logics of time and space, above and beyond opening and closing times (which are only economic considerations). As they direct our movements from roped queues to metal detectors, from exhibit entrances to exits, museums insist we experience time and space in a linear fashion, or at least according to a singular, prearranged order. With their auras of borrowed sanctity, museums, like libraries, also shame us into protracted, studious stillness. At the same, museum architects and furnishers ensure we don’t dawdle, speeding our visits by manufacturing physical discomfort through insufficient and uncomfortable seating.3 Faced with hard, backless benches that merely transfer physical stress from the feet to the buttocks, we must weigh visual pleasure against the strain of our wearying bodies. Ocular time thus becomes the slave of plantar time and gluteal time. The body of the dancer Layukula may be constrained, oppressed, suppressed, and so on, but his lithesome, attractive form at least can wriggle free from imposed frames. Let us be less glib: having a beautiful young dancer represent the masses is a choice as unimaginative as it is artistically useful. Could the people have been differently represented by a crippled miner, his legs lost long ago in the shafts, who does not lithely slither but struggles in agony?

If time is the exhibit’s ostensible theme, museum tourism remakes spatiotemporal experience in its own manner, through the aegis of its architecture. With their uncanny juxtapositions, the chambers of a museum shrink down millennia of history into a brief afternoon and a voyage of 40,000 kilometers (the circumference of the Earth) into a moderately aching jaunt. In thirty or so minutes, wandering from one room to the next, one can pass from stuffed Australopithecines fighting for survival, to cracked Sumerian cuneiforms, to embroidered gaming tables of Louis XIV, to Benjamin Franklin’s impractical glass harmonica (right). In a rather blatant way, the museum’s architectural time travel is far more jarring and irrational than any temporally jumbled video loop. Within this house of irrationality, however, we can stumble onto telling ironies.

In an adjacent room of the museum were a miscellany of other African works, including Samuel Nartey’s extraordinary “Nokia Cell Phone Coffin” (2007). The title is neither sophomoric nor metaphoric: it is indeed a giant casket in the shape of a somewhat cartoonish cellphone, replete with giant numbered buttons and a screen display that reads (disconcertingly) “Hello.” One recalls the moment in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain in which a deceased matron, with the assistance of animatronics, gropes her own embalmed bosom and “puts on a live show” for assembled mourners. Such is the pornographic commodification of the death business. With remarkable naivete – for the coffin isn’t meant ironically – Nartey’s totem, gloriously stripped of taboo, goes several steps further, lodging the deceased within meretricious signs of his own consumerism.4 According to the exhibit notes, Nartey follows the Ghanaian artist Kane Kwei (1922-1992), who had popularized “fantasy coffins rang[ing] in shape and design from elephants to cell phones … Each imaginative form illustrates an important aspect of the deceased’s life or the desires of international buyers.” Said buyers, according to the notes, have requested entombments in the form of big spring onions, various root vegetables, and even a carton of Marlboro cigarettes (a bit on the nose). Onions and taro are perhaps logical for agrarian cultures, and they occur naturally, without automatic tendencies toward ownership or commodification. But Nokia phones and Marlboros are another matter. Unlike, say, a picture-holding locket or even a favorite hat, the cellphone coffin doesn’t objectify personhood or represent anything immanently or humanely individual. One could only wonder how an African video artist might ironize a consumer’s usurious entombment within artificial, extrinsic desires derived from Western commercial goods. If Baloji’s Memory is a tendentious essay in postcolonial economics, the Nokia coffin is a grand postcolonial travesty: even (or especially) in death, the subject absorbs the dominant culture, never subverting it and only widening its grasp. Creating a sort of absurdist thanato-capitalism, the customized coffin engulfs and hermetically seals the “voluntary” organism, who sponges up received cultures in a bid for conspicuously consumed prestige. Were we to depict this thanato-capitalism in a time-shifting video installation, we should opt for coldly objective scenes of accelerated motion, as in Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts. Then, as we bear witness to every stage of human decay, fast motion could hasten the human lifecycle through its ambling seventy or eighty years and into an eternity enclosed in a cherished product – say, a huge spent shotgun shell, an oversize espresso machine, a jumbo tub of Reduced Fat Miracle Whip, or a graven image of Mountain Dew. Perhaps fittingly, the product-casket even fails at meretricious commercialism, for it advertises only briefly, during the funeral or wake, before descending into a safe, subterranean nihility. It is a decadent gesture itself resistant to decay.


Certainly, the African cell-coffin’s unskeptical materialism squares with the animistic belief that the deceased should carry into the afterlife treasured and prestigious possessions. Rudiments of colonialist theory might nevertheless assume the cellphone-coffin is symptomatic of the naïve ways in which a local culture attempts to interpret the imposed techno-capitalism of the West. Only a culture untainted by postmodern ennui could so enthusiastically – and indeed, fatalistically – embrace such a banal sign of late capitalism. Yet, in its artful artlessness, the coffin is bereft of Western hypocrisy. Strangely, the members of “advanced,” Western capitalist societies, who profess to their own totemisms and idolatries, do not bury themselves with even a few symbolic possessions, even as they congratulate themselves on their deeds of conspicuous consumption. It’s not simply that we’d prefer to pass along material wealth to heirs; we actually consider burying ourselves with our possessions an unspeakable, primitive taboo, an affront to the façade of humility professed by Abrahamic religion.

Westerners allow themselves an oddly circumscribed set of death luxuries: expensive wooden caskets that resist the elements (because we must not decompose into nature); fine satin pillows (because death is merely sleep); and a burial suit-and-tie (because the business of death requires a business suit). With our spartan, uncustomized graves, we renounce our materialism and the working calendars though which we purchased our possessions. Suddenly, our anxious, laborious, appetitive time expands into eternities and dissipates into immateriality. If so many of the videos in “Senses of Time” exploit film technology and technique to question and undermine linearly Western conceptions of temporality, the Nokia coffin subversively appropriates a towering totem of the West – the omnipotent, crippling cellphone – and makes the end of biological time into the beginning of a materialistic time. As the coffin out-capitalizes capitalism and out-Wests the West, coffin-framed flesh reincarnates as commerce. Ignoring the caprices of nature, the Western capitalist assumes he is self-made but, in a fit of bad faith, denies his materialism at the point of death. The wise soul who commissioned his Nokia coffin might have drowned in naivete, but he also overflowed with good faith: celebrating his fulsome, terrible materialism, he knew that none of us are self-made.

  1. Karen E. Milbourne, Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, “Senses of Time: Video and Film-Based Arts of Africa.” African Arts, Volume 48, Issue 4, 2015, pp .72-84, (Feb. 18, 2018). []
  2. From the artist’s biography at, Feb. 9, 2018. []
  3. Admittedly, the stiffened seating is perhaps meant to repel vagrants and loiterers. []
  4. For those who believe cell phones are already nails in our collective coffins, Nartey’s object is simultaneously ironic and redundant. []