Picture Choice: Judith Nesbitt, a curator of the Tate, Liverpool, on Trigo Piula's Ta Tele

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The Independent Culture
IT'S HARD to fix on one image from a show which looks at African art over a century, but one painting (detail above) by Trigo Piula, a Congolese artist, is particularly memorable. Its title, Ta Tele, can be interpreted in two ways: either Father Tele or Tele Has Said. It's a representation of a power-figure, a fetish with a piece of mirror-glass attached to it, and it says a lot about the way contemporary African artists can respond to their history and tradition, which for some might be more of a burden than an inspiration.

The mirror on the fetish is held up to a large crowd of people. We see in their heads little schematic drawings of consumer objects. But the mirror, instead of reflecting the people, reflects what they see: the fetish and, behind it, a bank of TV screens which broadcast images of the things they desire - football, cars and films.

The artist is using a traditional vocabulary to talk about the mixed desires and changing aspirations of the people of his country. It's a dream of the global culture of consumerism connected to ancient ritual. The visual confrontation is a direct piece of social satire.

There's an ambiguity too, as to whether the power-figure is imposing these images on to people's minds, or whether they're looking to him to deliver. He is shown as malevolent: the feathers signify that his power derives from the air in the same way that TV images are beamed down from the sky.

This painting sums up the common thread running through the exhibition: an exploration of how African artists have responded to socio-economic changes and how those enormous changes are reflected in their culture. These artists are aware that they're working in a fast-changing society and this picture confronts that vital conjunction of the traditional and the contemporary.

'Africa Explores' is at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool to 14 August

(Photograph omitted)

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