EAST LANSING, Mich. — The conceptual foundation for Material Effects, and the first thing you encounter upon entering the first-floor gallery of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, is a documentary film by Antje Majewski about influential Senegalese artist Issa Samb. La Coquille: Conversation entre Issa Samb et Antje Majewski captures the artist in his courtyard studio, a space filled with a dynamic treasure trove of objects (or a hoard, depending on how you view such things), which not only form the material basis for his sculptures and performances, but, in the view of the artist, speak directly to him.
“The object in and of itself possesses a force, a life, that signifies, and does so independently of our volition, of our needs, of our wishes and our aesthetic concerns,” Samb says in the video. The inherent power and history of objects as identity markers is certainly a useful framework for this show, which features the work of six artists from West Africa. The daunting task of somehow finding six particular artists to represent Africa fell to Yesomi Umolu, and the show is a sign-off on her work as guest curator for the MSU Broad, before taking up a new position as exhibitions director for the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Using her native Nigeria as a kind of base of operations, Umolu embarked on a far-reaching survey of West African artists, making between 30 and 40 studio visits and participating in innumerable conversations before settling on the artists featured at the Broad. Samb is the lone Senegalese artist, joined by two from Nigeria — performance artist Jelili Atiku and research-based installation artist Otobong Nkanga — as well as three contributors from Ghana. Bernard Akoi-Jackson staged an opening night performance in the installation he created; in the small, tapering gallery behind that, German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku has an arresting display of mixed-media sculptures and video; and in the main gallery, an entire two-story wall of the Broad is dominated by “Post No Bill” (2015), a multimedia installation by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama.