Performance review: Afrocentric, National Gallery of Victoria

Nightly performances that celebrate the African diaspora in Australia.
Afrocentric. Image is black dancer, dressed in white performing in gallery space at front of the NGV, beside a large black sculpture of a young black woman. There is audience seated around the space.

In a striking display of silent protest, the entrance foyer at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne is transformed into a powerful space of black joy. The display invites both regular and unexpected gallery-goers to immerse themselves in a nuanced moment of resistance on an otherwise ordinary evening.

As a part of the NGV Triennial Extra, performer Candy Bowers has curated an original program of nightly performances titled Afrocentric, in response to the body of work featured in NGV Triennial, Reaching Out, 2020 and All In, 2021 by British artist Thomas J Price. The artist’s collection, which he intriguingly refers to as ‘sculptors of statues’ rather than ‘statues of sculptures’, portrays ordinary individuals, including two towering 3.6-metre bronze figures: a female holding a mobile phone and a male with his hands in his pockets.

Price’s composition showcases his artistic process as an observer of faces and examiner of bodies in public spaces, particularly focusing on black African bodies. It sheds light on how individuals position themselves in public places, offering a poignant narrative about the experiences of black bodies in these arenas.

Afrocentric launches from the perspective of black bodies in spaces. The opening night of the nightly line-up delved into the intersections and parallels between culture, place, identity, excellence and power, ultimately culminating in a celebration of black joy. More than just pleasure, this black joy concept is about deliberate choice. It is important to acknowledge that resistance through pleasure can be challenging because it demands that one does so without succumbing to the toxic positivity of ignoring the harsh realities of one’s environment.

As community organiser and activist Miracle Jones aptly stated in her Legal Defence Fund article, black joy is an ‘indescribable joy that comes from being able to live and thrive despite all of the obstacles and barriers that come with living in anti-Blackness’.

Afrocentric presents an unapologetic celebration of black excellence within the vibrant city of Melbourne. It serves as a powerful reminder to the everyday gallery-goer that we co-exist in a society often skewed in its storytelling.

The three-hour spectacle features a collaborative presentation encompassing a house band, spoken word poetry, live music and dance.

Notably, Afrocentric marks a significant milestone as it is the first live performance curated by a black woman in the Gallery foyer, a ground-breaking achievement for both Bowers and the NGV. The space was not originally designed for live music and lacks a raised stage to elevate the band. However, the curatorial acumen succeeds by introducing the circular layout for presentation. This draws the audience in, creating an intimate atmosphere reflective of many Indigenous cultures, particularly African storytelling.

The program commences with a compelling showcase of the voices of African diaspora individuals living in Australia. It skilfully weaves a respectful fusion that invites their ancestral lineage to walk alongside them while honouring the Indigenous peoples of Australia and their land. 

To whet the audience’s appetite, Olugbade Okunade, a seasoned trumpeter, skilfully belts out impassioned waves of sounds that set the tone for the captivating journey ahead. 

The impressive line-up for the performance includes a diverse array of talented artists, each adding their unique flair to the evening. They are as follows:

  • House band, The Experience: led by Zii, who composes a suite of wordless instrumentals that encapsulate the ineffable spirit of a world grappling with the challenges posed by the pandemic and the ongoing awakening to racial issues.
  • The powerful sounds of the Halo Vocal Ensemble choir directed by Liona Tatafu, contribute to an awe-inspiring musical experience.
  • The performance also features an enthralling display of dance, adding yet another layer of artistry to the already diverse and engaging line-up. 
  • In addition, guest artists bring their unique contributions to the performance, enriching the evening with their talents.
  • The line-up also includes spoken word poets each delivering powerful and thought-provoking performances that add depth and meaning to the overall experience.

Afrocentric transcends the boundaries of a typical curated live performance; it offers the audience an immersive glimpse into the realm of black excellence within our society, unfolding in real time. Moreover, it provides a platform for black creatives to authentically express the full spectrum of their experiences, encompassing pain, love, trauma and, ultimately, greatness.

Read: Exhibition review: NGV Triennial 2023

Having witnessed Afrocentric, it’s undeniable just how much sheer excellence each participant brings to the table. 

Curator: Candy Bowers 
House Band: The Experience 
Guest Artists: Jace XL, Amadou Suso, Nhatty Man, OKENYO, Samuel Gaskin and Ajak Kwai 
Spoken Word Poets: Flora Chol, Bilalli, N’fa F-Jones, Ebony Hickey, One Sixth, Cheech, Tariro Mavondo, and Rufaro Zimbudzi

DJ/Composer: Christian Biko 
Halo Vocal Ensemble: Liona Tatafu, Marq, Ceeko, Rufaro Zimbudzi, Jaydean Miranda, Sasha Hennequin, Rara Zulu, Belle Bangard, Tiana Khasi, Milo Hartill and Brotha Asanti
Dancers: Appiah Anna, Xavier Gibson, Adam Hedo, Lerato Masiyane, Monique Nightingale, Raissa Ousseni Mari, Valeria Cuenu, Gracieuse Amah, Aiesha Baiden, Alani Baiden, Chantal Bala and Lucas Faundez

Afrocentric is performed at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 19-28 January as part of the NGV Triennial Extra 2024. 

Free entry

Dorcas Maphakela is a multidisciplinary creative combining writing, visual arts and holistic well-being advocacy in her practice. She is a South African-born Mopedi woman who relocated to Australia by choice in 2007 and became a citizen in 2012. She studied Fine Arts at the University of Johannesburg and holds a Master of Arts in Writing from Swinburne University of Technology. Dorcas is also a TV presenter, public speaker and founder and producer of the Antenna Award-winning OZ AFRICAN TV (OATV). She is the co-founder of Yo CiTY, a platform that champions the culturally diverse experience through Art & music. Her work was acknowledged with a Media Award from the Victorian Multicultural Commission for “outstanding reporting on issues of importance to diverse communities and reporting which contributes to Victoria’s cross-cultural understanding” (VMC).