On a recent Sunday afternoon, a girl no older than 8 stood inside a gallery at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and watched Nathalie Djurberg's claymation short, I Wasn't Made to Play the Son. The video features three characters made of artist putty: a busty, naked woman lying on the ground, and two men in bird masks with crude scissors who gradually snip off some of the woman's toes, both her legs, a nipple, a breast, a hand, and many teeth. I Wasn't Made to Play the Son is a kind of fairy tale snuff film, with clay body parts and colorful clay ooze splattered every which way. After a minute of watching the video with a man who was presumably her dad, the girl retreated — speechless — to see the rest of Djurberg's YBCA exhibit: four other claymation videos and 80 bird sculptures. That old, familiar animation style had turned her on.
Claymation films like the Wallace & Gromit series, Nicholas Park's hilarious send-up of an older man and his dog, are entirely kid-friendly, but many of Djurberg's videos are for audiences who can parse out the symbolism from the physical agonies on display. Djurberg's identification with her films' victims and perpetrators runs deep, since she's shaping their bodies and their movements, frame by frame, with her hands.
Djurberg's characters do occasionally get along, as in Open Window, about a bird who helps a naked boy cope with his room's strange window, illustrating the artist's ability to create figures depraved or altruistic. In the strangely funny Bad Eggs, a trio of fat, witchy women capture a bird and pluck it alive. Two of the women remove their clothing during the bloodletting (nudity is a Djurberg motif), revealing fleshy bodies that bounce around like helium balloons.
The Swedish-born Djurberg, whose films feature minimalist soundtracks orchestrated by her musical partner, Hans Berg, garnered international attention at the 2009 Venice Biennale, where she won the Silver Lion for most promising young artist. Her Venice work showcased a sculptured forest of giant plants in wild states of growth and decay, along with a retinue of striking videos, including one where two Christian friars suckle gallons of milk from the breasts of a voluptuously naked woman they've dug up from the ground.
What makes her YBCA work even more thought-provoking is that Djurberg is a female director who chooses to expose female characters to horrible misogyny and abuse. The women abuse, too, as in Bad Eggs. Though I Wasn't Made to Play the Son should probably have the museum equivalent of an R-rating, its animation is thoroughly enjoyable.
Djurberg uses a medium generally reserved for kids' entertainment to tell stories that — as loathsome as they might be for some viewers — are enthralling parables for an era when audiences are numb to stories of sex and violence.
This mixing of influences is apparent a few steps away from YBCA, at the Museum of the African Diaspora. In North Africa, the influence of Europe, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa are everywhere, mixing into the language, the food, the architecture, and the arts. The MOAD's new exhibit, "Desert Jewels: North African Jewelry and Photography from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermès Collection," is a stunning window into the North Africa of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then a crossroads of history and culture.
The 28 photos from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco — taken by visiting photographers from Mediterranean countries — show how Jews and black Africans were thoroughly integrated into the region. The 94 pieces of jewelry tell a similar story of cultural melding. While North African Jews wore hamsas (five-fingered pendants) with Hebrew inscriptions, those of Muslims displayed Quranic entreaties. The old silver hamsas under glass at MOAD are a visual treasure, as is the woman's "face veil" made of amber, silk, and scores of coins.
The exhibit's entire collection is owned by Guerrand-Hermès, director and vice chairman of Hermès of Paris, who wants people to see for themselves that commonalities once drove people together in North Africa, a region more familiar today for its enmity and bloodshed.