Contested Terrains: Michael MacGarry

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Michael MacGarry

The Ossuary 2009–10

Michael MacGarry is interested in the mechanisms of control that inform the transfer of ideas, values and products from the so-called ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’, investigating the ongoing ramifications of imperialism in Africa. The Ossuary consists of sculpted ivory objects that he identifies with the values and preoccupations of contemporary society, including coercion (knuckleduster), luxury goods (Mercedes Benz hood ornament), health (hypodermic needle) and education (glasses). As the title suggests, these objects are carefully arranged like skeletal remains, an archaeology of the future. MacGarry has argued that while most modern goods are widely accessible in Africa, at a price, much of what is consumed by the elite is imported, draining local economies and failing to stimulate production on the continent.

One Man Struggles, While Another Relaxes 2003

This seemingly ornamental work resembles a modern day container ship, the means by which Africa has been exporting raw materials at low prices and importing manufactured goods at high prices since the mid-twentieth century. However, it is also reminiscent of the slave ships that transported millions of Africans to the Americas between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. At the same time it conjures up images of the migrants who risk their lives travelling in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats in search of better opportunities today.

Fortune & Condition 2011

Intricately constructed from ivory, this sculpture is a miniature model of an oil derrick. In an uncertain market oil companies are increasingly focusing on West Africa. Journalists writing about oil prospecting have revived the term ‘Scramble for Africa’, originally applied to European colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century. Made from a material that connotes death, this delicate work stands as a caution against the greed and corruption which has resulted in an environmental and humanitarian crisis in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

These works were originally sculpted from elephant ivory. They have been remade from warthog ivory or cast in polyurethane for this exhibition. The elephant ivory trade played a major and often brutal role in the colonisation of Africa. Today international trade in elephant ivory is banned and the movement of old ivory heavily controlled.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 2010

In South Africa vervet monkeys have adapted to inhabit urban spaces and until recently were classified as vermin. The hybrid creature that MacGarry has created appears to have evolved to survive in any environment. Its limbs are strapped to crutches that protect it from the ground below, but also impair movement, and its face has been replaced with a sharp quartz crystal, giving it a threatening appearance. The work borrows its title from Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film in which the characters remain oblivious to the bizarre sequence of events unfolding around them. MacGarry’s equally surreal creation similarly reflects on a bourgeois culture of entitlement and the pitfalls of relentless consumption.

Fetish VI 2008

The AK-47 is the most popular and widely used assault rifle in the world. MacGarry argues that it is in Africa that ‘it has had its most insidious and destructive presence’. In many African countries owning one is commonplace and such a gun can be purchased for less than $10 or traded for a chicken or sack of grain. By hammering in nails and cleats, MacGarry simultaneously decommissions the weapon and endows it with a different kind of power. Nkondi sculptures, wooden figurines traditionally used in the Democratic Republic of Congo to ward off evil spirits and cure illnesses, are activated when nails are hammered into them. By combining the destructive impact of the AK-47 and the spiritual role of the Nkondi, MacGarry has created an object that comments on the degree to which violence has impacted on the social, political and economic fabric of the continent.