Andrew Gilbert: Shaka Zulu - The Musical - directed by and starring Andrew
Shaka Zulu, carrots, selfie-sticks, Napoleon, plastic bags, Nina Simone, massage oil, African masks, Emil Nolde and a saxophone are only a few of the components in Andrew Gilbert’s first solo exhibition at Sperling. Shaka Zulu – The Musical presents new drawings, an installation and, for the first time, a diorama.
Rooted in British military and colonial history, Gilbert critically deals with the British Empire’s self-image, the excess of colonialism and the absurdity of war and violence, in general. The work is set in the colonies of Great Britain and predominantly in Africa. The artist purposefully interprets historical occurrences and people from a clouded European, cliché-filled, prejudice-laden perspective and its romantic ideas of the exotic. He mixes facts with fictive characters and disturbing violent fantasies. The merge makes sense in context, in regard to history usually being written from the perspective of the victorious, thus subjective or motivated, respectively. In addition, history in Africa was exclusively communicated via word of mouth and therefore only a European version of occurrences exists. Gilbert fictionalizes these, whereas the violence in his work is clearly not far from reality, merely the constellation of facts and figures are fictitious and aimed at casting a new light on known history and holding up a mirror to the viewer’s own prejudices. Gilbert reduces the distance to history to an absolute minimum by also becoming part of his drawings, usually as the character of Andrew, Emperor of Africa.
Following a drawing series of fictive films, books and plays, Andrew Gilbert now dedicates a whole exhibition to such a surreal vision. The main protagonist of Shaka Zulu – The Musical is the iconic king Shaka, who expanded the Zulu tribe through innovative conduct of war and a newly structured military, coining his nickname as The Black Napoleon. Following the death of his mother, he supposedly lost his mind and subsequently led the tribe as a brutal dictator, before being murdered by his half-brother in 1828. Shaka Zulu slips into different roles in the exhibition, as does Andrew Gilbert – both could be dictator, martyr or messiahs. Gilbert’s world is not a black and white one, not one where it is easy to decipher good from evil. Shaka Zulu was never physically present during battles with Great Britain, but it was his military strategy that led to the historic victory over England in 1879. In the same year, however, the Britons managed to nearly wipe out the Zulu tribe entirely in the battle by Ulundi. Andrew Gilbert visited both sceneries of battle during a longer stay in South Africa in 2014.
For this exhibition, Gilbert has built a stage into the gallery space, where the musical is “performed” by a group of life-size sculptures. The juxtaposition of regimental dress, marching music, feathered cabaret dancers and African culture is an obvious one to the artist. At the beginning of the 20th-century, dancing Africans were exhibited in cages as part of colonial exhibitions throughout England. The installation is reminiscent of such questionable depictions of the exotic – a human zoo, where the differentiation between viewer and the viewed remains unclear.
Africans still dance for tourists dressed up in costumes and the romantic cliché of Africa and the Zulu tribe continues to be used in advertising and film. Andrew Gilbert develops a personal symbolism of anti-culture from these objects, by creating primitive fetish objects from mass products. These contemporary elements are in stark contrast to the elements from Africa, which consist of mass products produced solely for tourists. The expansion of the “European Culture of Trash” to Africa fulfills the expectations of European tourists wanting to buy African kitsch.
The contemporary relevance of Gilbert’s work is its historical background, as well as the viewer’s questioning of his or her own prejudices in respect to definitions of “civilized” and “primitive”. And wasn’t it just recently that the German press was very close to stigmatizing refugees as sexually-driven savages?
Andrew Gilbert, born 1980 in Edinburgh, lives and works in Berlin. His work has been included in numerous solo and group shows, most recently in an all-encompassing solo show at the Overbeck Gesellschaft in Lübeck and last year at Tate Britain. In addition, the Bavarian Army Museum (Ingolstadt), the me collectors room (Berlin), blank projects (Cape Town) the Marta Herford (Herford) and the Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin) have shown works of Andrew Gilbert. Upcoming exhibitions include shows at the National Gallery in Singapore and the Incline Gallery in San Francisco.