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Review: Malcolm Mobutu Smith at iMOCA

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5 stars

Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA).

From the beginning of Malcolm Mobutu Smith’s career as a ceramicist, graffiti has influenced his work. This exhibit does a spectacular job making such influences explicit by incorporating a large-scale graffiti wall and a smaller “collaborative wall” that you can tag.

Smith's clearly fond of graffiti lettering. The abstract forms that are cut into the body of his “Totem Jar,” from 1993, are certainly inspired by graffiti art. At the same time, this work is also evocative, in a general sense, of the role of ceramics in ritual tradition. There is a blend of ancient and contemporary in Smith’s work.

While his recent computer-generated “Doppods” leads you to the event horizon of ceramic art, “We Did it” brings you smack into the age of Obama with a work questioning the state of American race relations.

You see a very contemporary, fluid sensibility in the shape of the front of this sculpture that evokes African pottery-making traditions. But its backside looks like it was sliced open with a machete. On this slice, as it were, you see a painted “jigaboo” African villager caricature. It's evocative of derogatory 1940s comic images—his hair’s tied up in a bone as he reaches for a crown. You might wonder if this is the mental image that certain politicians carry with them when they fulminate about the president’s Kenyan ancestry.

Through May 14

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