Nov 30, 2007

Eifel Tower at Night

Eifel Tower at night, from a picture taken during my visit to Paris in October.

Moving On...

Paris Charles de Gaul airport, 9.25pm, on Air France en route Lagos to attend the Lagos International Film Festival. Airports can be homogenous and bland in the same mind-numbing way especially if your transit time is very long. Luckily, this one is about two hours which is quite fine. No problems here with my transit but the inbound aircraft from Berlin Tegel airport has the weirdest seating configuration. An Airbus A320, it has two classes of seating, one the sort of regular seating arrangement you get on a standard A320 occupying rows 1-17, the other a more cramped version of the same seats from row 18 to the tail. Within this division, those in the forward row (which I learned represented a higher class of seating) got food and Champagne. Those in the rear rows got water, soda, and what else I don’t know. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Air France doesn’t just do what the low cost carriers do and offer standard seats with reasonable rates on its routes and no chow, which is why those flights are cheap (I believe Southwest Airlines in the USA pioneered this strategy which is no widely copied). As it stands, airline seat and ticket pricing has to be the most esoteric protocol that exits on this planet. I have seen seats sold on flights for $200 and similar routes costing more than $2000 on another airline.

So then, Charles de Gaul airport for the transit to another Air France flight. The layout of CDG beggars belief. The aircraft disgorges you into the baggage claim area without any display monitors directing travelers to their gates. This was the first airport I got to that I couldn’t find the way easily through though once you figure it out, it is quite simple. The departure lounge is stacked on top of the arrival lounge but if you are not observant, the directions provided deposit you outside the terminal altogether (this is Terminal 2F by the way). I got directions and made it to my gate where several Nigerians were already clustered waiting to board the flight to Lagos. They all looked uniformly weary (being late in the night might have something to do with why everyone was tired. This was an overnight flight so plenty of opportunity for sleep). Snatches of the distinctive dialects of various ethnic groups: the sing-song inflection of Hausa speakers, and the heavy accent of Yoruba speakers and the forceful diction of the Igbo speakers. One can usually tell within reasonable limits where a Nigerian comes from by the sound of their dialect.

I searched for an electrical outlet to plug in my computer bin the departure lounge but didn’t find one easily. This is a new development I am noticing in many airports, strange behavior for an era of ubiquitous computing. Finally found a cluster of sockets at a fixed location serving the entire lounge. The Los Angeles International Airport departure terminals have very little plug in electrical outlets. American Airlines’ brand spanking new barn of a departure lounge at John F. Kennedy in New York (built at a cost of over one billion dollars I heard) requires you to pass through security before you can even find a place to sit down much less plug in your computer (few sockets here also). Chicago’s O’Hare is very friendly in this regard with many sockets in most of the domestic terminals I used when I lived in the city. I don’t remember now whether Muritala Mohammed International airport in Lagos has fixed its broken electrical units but will check up on that as I pass through. The best airport I’ve been through in this regard is London Heathrow, which has excellent connectivity in all its transit lounges. I wish customer service personnel at its information desks were as friendly.

Flight boards in a few minutes. It is good to be going back to Eko. Something about being home agrees with the soul. The last time I passed through CDG was in June 1997 on the day the Nigerian dictator sanni Abacha died. I was waiting in the transit lounge for the flight to Chicago. A man came up to me and asked if I was a Nigerian. I said yes and he said "your dictator is dead". He had a big smile on his face and I couldn't figure out why to this day. I however thought that perhaps he did business in Nigeria and might in that case appreciate the change in the national mood that accompanied the passing of Abacha's atrocious regime, and the very curious death soon afterwards of his principal antagonist M.K.O Abiola in his prison cell where he was incarcerated for trying to claim the mantle of presidential leadership procured by winning the June 10, 1993 elections. A lot of history there but best saved for a later narrative. Below, Christmas decoration at Charles De Gaul Airport.

4th Dubai International Film Festival

The 4th International Dubai Film Festival is scheduled from December 9-16, 2007 in Dubai, U.A.E. The fast-growing event's motto Bridging Cultures Meeting Minds is envisaged as a platform for transcultural global engagements in the sphere of film, with a focus on films from the Middle Eastern and Asian worlds. The 2007 schedule includes among its nine programs the Cinema of Africa program that presents the little seen, but extremely rich, diverse and challenging films from the African continent, south of the Sahara. It is expected that Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, will be represented at this event. The remarkable economic, social and political transformation of the U.A.E. forms the backdrop to this cultural extravaganza and its progress bears watching.

Nov 29, 2007

AFRIKAMERA Launch Program

AFRIKAMERA, a new Berlin-based African film festival, had a successful launch of its program platform yesterday evening with a premier of acclaimed director Newton Aduaka's award-winning film--EZRA. The movie tells the story of a child-soldier's harrowing experiences in the Sierra Leone civil war and his struggle for rehabilitation in the post-war era. It won best picture prize at the 2007 African Film Festival (FESPACO) and was premiered in Berlin as part of Afrikamera's collaboration with Fespaco to bring African films to a wider German audience. Afrikamera views itself as a new platform for current African cinema and is devoted to reversing the invisibility of African cinema in Berlin whose paucity of focus on African film is notable given the famous Berlin Film Festival. The initiative is the brainchild of festival director Alex Sawadogo and Ignace Koffi Kra. The event was very well attended and the organization seems poised to receive significant support from the German government which is recently interested in questions of cultural identity in an increasingly multiethnic Germany.

And This From Oba Erediauwa...

Included below is Oba Erediauwa's Introductory Note to the catalog of the Quai Branly exhibition of Benin art.

The organizers of this exhibition of Benin bronze and Ivory works requested us to write an introductory note to this catalog. They also sought permission for courtiers of the Benin Royal Court to come over and model some of their ceremonial outfit. We have granted both requests in the hope that by animating the exhibition of these ancient works with the presence and involvement of the descendants of the original owners of the works, their appreciation would be further enhanced.

The exhibition is showcasing some of the works that made Benin (Nigeria) famous. It once again reminds the world of a civilization truncated by the imperial forces of the colonialist. The works on show at this exhibition are some of the 3,000 odd pieces of bronze and ivory works forcibly removed from my great grandfather's palace by some Britons who invaded Benin in 1897. The British kept some of the loot for themselves and sold the rest to European and American buyers. These works now adorn public museums and private collectors' galleries, all over the world.

As you step into the exhibition hall today, you will behold some of Africa's most exquisite works. But it is important to note that they were not originally meant to be mere museum pieces simply to be displayed for art lovers to admire. They were objects with religious and archival value to my people. They were made only under royal command. Whenever an event of significance took place, the Oba (King) commissioned the Igun-Eromnwon (members of the guild of bronze casters) to make a bronze-cast of it. Thus the bronzes were records of events in the absence of photography. Those of the works which were not made for record keeping, were made for a religious purpose and kept on altars. So as you step into the hall today, you will be viewing objects of our spirituality, albeit, you may not fully understand its import.

We are pleased to participate in this exhibition. It links us, nostalgically with our past. As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humanness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.

Omo N'Oba Erediauwa CFR
Oba of Benin
.


Oba's statement taken from © Barbara Plankensteiner (ed). Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, 2007.

The Sword of Oba Ovonramwen

It is now precisely four weeks since I went to the Musee du Quai Branly to see the exhibition of royal art from the Edo Kingdom of Benin (poster illustrated left). I needed that much time to wind down from the complex emotions that resulted from my visit. My people, the Ezechime Clan of mid-Western Nigeria, claim origin from Benin through an ancestral progenitor named Chime. The nine towns that comprise my clan have been subjects of great curiosity but little scholarship because their hybrid ethnicity did not fit into early colonial ethnography's invention of ethnic identities in Nigeria. Ezechime peoples use a dialect of the Igbo language speckled with Edo words but their kingship system is completely based on Edo-Benin templates with all the major Benin royal titles and position represented. When I went to bury my father last November, we spent a long time deliberating on the orientation of his grave because the head of a dead chief must point West towards Idu, as the ancestral homeland of Benin is known among my people. The final rituals of any such funeral are conducted in a remnant form of the Edo language, as are the songs that accompany the dead to the afterlife, even though many no longer know the meanings of the songs. You will however hear Ezechime peoples insist vehemently (using the Igbo language) that they are NOT Igbo and until you learn that they use several non-Igbo languages of ritual and communication, this kind of claim tends to be dismissed as irrelevant. Such dismissal leads to the simplistic analysis often carried out about ethnic identities in Africa where the obvious use of a language is often enough to incorporate a people into an ethnic identity often contrary to their own histories of origin. In any case, ethnographers steered clear of Ezechime Igbo peoples and saw their hybridity as a mark of ethnic impurity. It is only in the past couple of decades that scholarship started to recognize that hybridity is the primary mode of cultural production and the idea of ethnic purity is in fact a blatantly bad idea. Ezechime peoples are the ultimate hybrids and are made up of combinant groups of Igbo, Edo-Benin, Niger Delta, and Yoruba peoples with at least two known lines of descendants of Portuguese sailors who jumped ship at Ughoton and settled inland among the local peoples. Some of these Portuguese sailors were vassals of the Benin kings who were given titles, land and wives among the outlying towns under Edo rule. Traits of this Portuguese line pop up in from time to time in the form of very light skinned, grey-eyed and red-haired children.

It is not immediately apparent that the Benin exhibition considered the above issues. Instead it chose to focus tightly on an ideal of Edo-Benin ethnicity centered on the court of the Oba (kings). This might be because the exhibition uses artworks looted from Benin in the 1897 invasion of the kingdom by British soldiers. To shrink down the boundaries of an empire composed of multiethnic identities into this singular ideal of Benin ethnicity does incalculable injury to the history of Benin. It also produced the kind of problematic analysis that looks at modern Benin sculpture (for instance) solely in relation to ethnic Edo-Benin artists of the 20th Century without considering the impact of an artist like Ben Enwonwu, of the Onitsha-Ezechime, whose reinterpretation of classical Benin sculpture inaugurated a modernist reading of Benin art from 1950 onwards. Surely the use of various forms of Ozo title staffs (called Osisi and usually sourced from Benin artists) among the Ezechime classifies as parts of the wider Edo kingdom’s aesthetics. However, you don’t get this kind of nuance in scholarship that promotes an ethnic agenda in interpretations of indigenous African cultures.

As for the artworks shown in the Quai Branly exhibition, their history is by now very famous. In February 1897, an elite British force of about 1200 men (supported by several hundred African auxiliary troops and thousands of African porters) besieged Benin City, capital of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, whose ruler, the Oba Ovonramwen sat on a throne that was a thousand years old. The British Punitive Expedition used Maxim machine guns to mow down most of the Oba’s 130,000 soldiers and secure control of the capital city. They set fire to the city and looted the palace of 500 years worth of bronze objects that constituted the royal archive of Benin’s history, an irreplaceable national treasure. The king and his principal chiefs fled into the countryside, pursued by British forces who lay waste to the countryside as a strategy to force the people of Benin to give up their fugitive king. According to Richard Gott, for a further six months, a small British force harried the countryside in search of the Oba and his chiefs who had fled. Cattle was seized and villages destroyed. Not until August was the Oba cornered and brought back to his ruined city. An immense throng was assembled to witness the ritual humiliation that the British imposed on their subject peoples. The Oba was required to kneel down in front of the British military "resident" the town and to literally bite the dust. Supported by two chiefs, the king made obeisance three times, rubbing his forehead on the ground three times. He was told that he had been deposed. Oba Ovonramwen finally surrendered to stem the slaughter of his people. Many of his soldiers considered his surrender an unbearable catastrophe and committed suicide rather than see the king humiliated. A significant number, led by some chiefs, maintained guerilla warfare against the British for almost two years until their leaders were captured and executed. The remaining arms of the resistance thereafter gave up their arms and merged back into the general population.

I need to do a systematic analysis of the Quai Branly’s Benin exhibition, not as an academic evaluation but as a way of examining how the tangled skeins of Benin history impacted my own life as an individual. In that regard, bear in mind the above brief account of Oba Ovonramwen’s ouster. My grandfather—James Anyasibuokwuenu Ogbechie, son of Ugbaja, grandson of Iyeyi the Dreaded, herself a daughter of an Edo-Benin father—was in the Benin of Oba Ovonramwen when the British invaded Benin in 1897. Families lost parents, wives and children in the invasion and until his death in 1986, when I asked him about what happened in Benin on that day, he said “Uwa Kpu Epku” (the world turned upside down). The order of things was surely inverted when a God-King is defeated in battle, his palace burnt and looted, over one hundred thousand of his people killed, he is forced to kiss the ground in submission before British troops and have the local British resident place his foot on the royal head before being sent into exile. The king’s ouster disrupted the entire region of Edo control and its local economy collapsed. My grandfather lost everything. However he worked hard, married another wife and was just getting back on his feet when simultaneous tragedies struck. The British colonial government amalgamated their protectorates to create Nigeria in 1914. They subsequently did away with local money and introduced the British currency, thereby destroying the indigenous economy and wiping out local forms of wealth. My grandfather lost everything again and was reduced to penury. He fought against his fate and rebuilt but in 1918 but his new wife and son died in the Influenza epidemic. After a suitable period of mourning, he married my grandmother and they had nine sons many of whom died in various stages of childhood. Of the two surviving sons, one (Sylvester Okafor Ogbechie, whose name I bear) was conscripted into the British colonial auxiliaries during World War II and saw action in Burma. He was killed on his way back to Nigeria after the war. Left with only one son and despondent, my grandfather tried to kill himself. My father intervened and was able to save his life. Thereafter, as the only remaining son on his father, my father—Francis Osenweniwe Ogbechie-- spent the rest of his life working hard to raise the family out of poverty. He literally worked himself to death over the course of six decades but finally managed to rescue the family from penury and provide it with a modicum of the wealth and respect that was lost as a result of British colonization. My grandfather died in 1986 as the oldest man in the Nine Towns of the Ezechime clan. His son did not live nearly as long and passed away in 2006 finally exhausted after a lifetime of battling fate in this age our people call Enu Oyibo, the world brought about by the white incursion.

Ethnic identities are fluid among the Ezechime but this does not mean that individual identities are nebulous. I am Sylvester Okwunodu Uzugbodiuno Ogbechie the Second, Diviner Chieftain and Ozo of Onicha-Ugbo of the Ezechime Clan, son of Osenweniwe the Valiant--the king's cousin, grandson of Anyasibuokwuenu of great perseverance, grandson of Inyaji NwaAgamunye of the devotees of Nnem-Onicha the matriach goddess, descendant of a lineage dating back to the reign in Idu of Ogbuala the Giant (Oba Ozolua, 1483-1504) who laid waste to the riverine plains (Enuani). Last November, I buried my father on the front porch of his house in Onicha-Ugbo with his head pointing towards Idu, the ancestral homeland and watched his spirit cross the great river into the realm of the ancestors (his funeral is documented here: click to page 8). I sang the old songs, performed the ancient funeral rituals, and received emissaries from my cousins and uncles the kings of the Nine Towns who themselves are emissaries of the Idu/Edo kings. I say that UmuEzechime descend from Idu and that no amount of objective scholarship can undermine the strength of Ezechime claim to Benin ancestry.

I have written here at length to explain how British colonization ruined many things for my family and to point out that the kind of dry history of Africa that is common fare in scholarship is very problematic. The history of Benin is the history of its impact in the area of its empire, in the same way as the history of Britain is the history of its imperial ambitions and actions. This history is very complex. It was customary for representatives of the Benin kings to attend important royal functions in the Ezechime clan. It was also customary for all those chiefs in areas subject to the Oba’s rule to salute the royal sword of state at one time or another (pictured far right in this image).
The two swords taken from Oba Ovonramwen are now in Western museum collections. One is in the Pitt Rivers Museum and the other (the main bronze sword) was exhibited at the Quai Branly exhibition. After a lifetime of hearing about the Sword of Ovonramwen, I finally had a chance to see the sword and perform in front of it the traditional salute to Oba-Idu, the king. The sword of the King is the King and it is unlikely a chance to salute the sword would arise again soon. So I stood in front of the sword and gave the royal salute, dropping down on one knee with my hands crossed in front of my chest, palms flat out. With his sword in hand, the Oba dances the steps of the Ododuwa masquerade, a regal move that Don Pedro Obaseki has identified as owing in part to Portuguese dance moves performed in the 17th century court of Edo Kings. I’m sure the general audience witnessing my salute to the sword at the Museum was nonplussed by my action. However, it was important that I performed this obligation even at this distance, several thousand miles away from home.

In this regard, the sword of Ovonramwen does not belong to the Berlin Museum, the British Museum, or the Quai Branly, it belongs to his great grandson, Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Solomon Igbinoghodua Asiokuoba Akenzua, Erediauwa the First, 38th Oba of the Edo Kingdom of Benin who sits on the throne of his forefathers in a dynasty that dates back to the 12th Century. In time, even the most objective scholarship must confront the crime committed against the Edo Kingdom of Benin as a consequence of British colonization. In the meantime, Ezechime history shows that the story of Benin is very complex and full of nuances that are often overlooked in standard scholarship.

Nov 28, 2007

Travels and Oracles: Images


Some images from the Frankfurt and Munich trip. On the left, Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof and in the station, a field office for Ethiopian Airlines. Of all the African immigrant populations to the West, only the Ethiopians have built the kind of immigrant acceptability and exhibit a cohesive location in many American cities. There is an Ethiopian neighborhood in Washington DC for several blocks from 18th and Columbia all the way down to the intersection of U Street and 18th, and a Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles on Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and Pico Boulevards. Although Nigerians abound in Houston, Washington DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles and New Jersey, there is no "Little Nigeria" in any of these places and it bears wondering about why this is so. As far as I know, there is no Little Kenya or little any other African nationality either.
The Volkerkunde Museum facade (left) is impressive in the general way that all such neo-classical buildings are, with their monumental pillars and the overwhelming ornamentation. Inside the foyer, a display of greeting cards showing the active monetization of culture, part of the museum's stream of income. The sculptural assemblage of a Kongo Nkisi Nduda (feathered ritual object) depicted here is one of my favorite sculptures and I was glad to see it in person.



Also interesting were the small ivory sculptures from the museum's collection of tourist souvenirs (aka tourist art) a term that seriously underestimates the high level of artistic skill shown in the production of some of these objects. However, the most startling image I saw at the museum was the second floor display rooms for the African art collection, which was adorned with the mural below. The murals are part of the history of the building and have been meticulously restored but there is no redeeming their dated image of Bavarian explorers bringing light to West African savages. The representation of the Africans in this image shows the problematic racial ideology of white supremacy that allowed European colonizers to conveniently forget the long history of African interaction with Europe. These earlier engagements were rudely interrupted by slavery and from that hiatus sprang the ideology of white supremacy. For slavery to work, Africans had to be defined as non-human. For colonization to work, Africans had to be redefined as savages. This mural was quite usual for its time and I will not debate its historical value. Instead let's just say that displaying the museum's collection of African art in this hall shows utmost insensitivity.

Travels and Oracles...

Whirlwind trips this week. I left Berlin on Monday November 27 to visit the Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt and the archives of one of the most significant ethnographers who worked in Africa. Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) looms large in my research during my tenure at the American Academy in Berlin and I have been mulling over the meaning of his vast archive for the past few months. Contemporary scholarship is deeply divided about the legacy of Leo Frobenius. He was the first Western ethnographer to document some very important aspects of African art, the first Westerner to publish information about the famous Ife royal sculpture, and he led an important team of scholars who created meticulous documentation of many forms of African art and culture during several expeditions to Africa. Nevertheless Frobenius disbelieved the evidence of his own eyes/experience and tried to claim Ife culture for a mythical Atlantis. He wrote with grudging respect for the artworks but less consideration for the people who produced these works. He was very impacted by the racial ideologies of his time with significant implications for his scholarship but I think a review of his archives compels respect for the prodigious nature of his research focus. His research team’s documentation of African rock art (on huge sheets of watercolor paper) are impressive and can stand on their own as abstract art. I was particularly impressed by their reproduction of graphic forms on African artworks especially of the carved calabash containers that are ubiquitous in the Sudanic region of West Africa and can be found on a wide belt stretching from Senegal to the Indian Ocean. These colorful drawings are significant for the vast range of their pictographic and ideographic forms. The ethnographer himself has largely faded into memory and his scholarship outdated. The entire Frobenius archive of images is currently being digitized and when this process is completed, it may change how his scholarship is viewed. In the meantime, we can acknowledge Frobenius’s significant influence in the development of Pan-Africanist ideologies like Negritude (he was a major influence on Leopold Sedar Senghor) and also on the reconfiguration of African cultural production as great works of art. Frobenius taught at the University of Frankfurt where his archive currently resides. I like to joke that he is a member of the Frankfurt School in the sense that his legacy of research on African art permeates the field of African intellectual work whether it is acknowledged or not, in the same manner as the work of the Frankfurt School philosophers (Adorno, Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, etc.) permeates cultural criticism and contemporary intellectual endeavor in the humanities and social sciences.

I left Frankfurt late in the evening for Munich by train, to visit on the following morning the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde with its collection of African and non-Western art. With 30,000 objects, this museum has a respectable collection and has featured prominently in international exhibitions of African art. I was given a tour of the holdings and among the impressive items in storage, I found a divination manual for the Ifa oracle inscribed on two calabash bowls (two halves of one single container) that laid out an exponential iteration of the binary code of Odu Ifa (the oracular text). This was easily the most exciting thing I had seen in ages and it reminded me of the important work being done by Ron Eglash on African fractals, which sheds new light on a very neglected aspect of African knowledge—the advanced structures of oracular numerology and its symbolic meanings. The binary code of Ifa numerology underlies a pan-West African divination system that goes by many names (‘Fa in Dahomey, Ifa among the Yoruba, Efa in Benin-Edo, Afa among the Igbo, and so on) but is most recognizable in the Yoruba Ifa corpus (Ifa Divination platform illustrated left; below, basic iterations of the binary code of Odu Ifa). Its iterations are endless in keeping with the open-ended structure of Ifa as a system of interpretation. (For examples of how basic structures can have infinite iterations, see Steven Wolfram’s use of algorithms to explain the workings of complex automata in his book “A New Kind of Science”).
My excitement was contagious and I spent many minutes trying to remember enough of my training in oracular numerology to give the curators an illustration of the basic iterations of this particular oracular system. It is this sense of the odd find that makes archival research so interesting since they contain many wonderful things and finding a good items like this provides a major sense of rediscovery, like meeting an old friend long forgotten.

But what of the archives themselves? Surely no one disputes the importance of the Frobenius archive (the actual documentation, not his problematic interpretation of his data) or that archives of collections like those of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde Munich have a contemporary relevance. In truth, archives (both of artworks and artifacts in museums, or of other sorts of documents) are problematic in many ways. It is usual to depend on contact-era documents in interpretations of African cultures, which ensures that many African peoples are linked to forms of cultural production that are now extinct. This problem of fossilization keeps scholars busy as they try to reconcile older data with contemporary cultural use and interpretation of their historical past. There is also the issue of the ownership of Africa’s cultural patrimony that was liberally looted to fill the archives of European collections. So vast was this process and so pernicious its effects that I predict that the issue of Africa’s looted cultural patrimony will become the main issue of this age: therefore Africa and the West need to have a conversation about this matter. However, there is something to be said for the preservation of artifacts in these archives that enables the kind of encounter I had yesterday with a pair of simple calabash bowls in the Volkerkunde that turned out to be the only other example I have yet seen of the instruction manual for teaching Ifa numerology. Normally, in indigenous cultures one encounters an object like this and the knowledge it contains under contexts of utmost secrecy. Stored away in the vaults of the Volkerkunde Munich and opaque to most observers, the secrecy is preserved (without the key to decode its mysteries, the signs are just another set of beautiful marks). Because of the rigorous requirements of its formal education protocols, the number of younger Africans taking an interest in oracular instruction or divination training has seriously declined. It was never large enough to begin with and the impatient modern age creates a great impediment for the younger generation. (As for me, I skipped out of divination training without completing my studies: the lure of higher education proved more enticing than life as a diviner’s apprentice. I similarly skipped Jesuit priesthood training after a long childhood as a Catholic altar boy). In any case, my head was full of wonder as I left the museum to catch an evening flight back to Munich. Any oracle priest would have marveled at the vast distances I covered in this couple of days. At the start of the new millennium, we, their disgraced descendants, have nevertheless become wizards who flit through the air from one place to another. We have become the wind.

Nov 25, 2007

Exhibition of South African Photography

Ongoing in Chemnitz, the Zeitgenossische Fotokunst Aus SudAfrika, featuring Bridget Baker, Lien Botha, Jean Brundrit, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Santu Mofokeng, Zanele Muholi, Jo Ractliffe, Mikhael Subotzky, Guy Tillim, Andrew Tshabangu, Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko. The photography exhibition is curated by Pam Warne/Iziko South African National Gallery.

Nov 24, 2007

Notable Person: Kolade Oshinowo

My notable person for this week is the Nigerian artist Kolade Oshinowo, Director of School of Art, Design and Printing at the Yaba College of Techonology Lagos, and dean of the famous Yaba School movement of Nigerian art. Oshinowo is one of the most notable modern Nigerian artists with over 35 years of practice and very many national and international exhibitions to his credit. The Yaba School style of figurative painting, a major intellectual orientation in modern Nigerian, has been shortchanged in the critical literature of modern and contemporary African art practice where it is often described as an anachronistic mode of representation dependent on hackneyed genreism. However, this judgment is wrong and very biased. The meaning of figurative imagery differs considerably in modern Nigerian art as does the styles and aesthetic concepts adopted by modern Nigerian artists in their use of such imagery. Figuration is the process of giving allegorical or emblematic form to something abstract, especially by representing it as using human or animal figures. Figurative Imagery defines the use of an allegorical or emblematic human or animal figure to represent an abstract idea or quality. Figurative imagery has a complex historical pedigree in Nigerian art and abounds in many forms of African and African Diaspora modernist expression but so far, there is no research or exhibition that focuses on the reasons for its persistence and ubiquity. Thelma Golden showcased African American expressions of this style in the Black Romantic art exhibition at the Studio Museum Harlem but so far, there has been no major international exhibition(s) focusing on the figurative art of the Yaba School style which means that serous critical engagement is lacking. One may surmise that many curators lack enough knowledge of styles and symbolism in African figurative art to read such artworks and thus ignore them. However, in an age where figurative art is being revived internationally as a major stylistic attitude (as is evident in the works of John Currin, Bo Bartlett, Odd Nerdrum, Norman Rockwell, and [shudder!!!] Thomas Kincaid) dismissing figurative art from Africa for its focus on questions of cultural and national identity reflects a problematic curatorial bias. Oshinowo is a preeminent interpreter of indigenous culture in a context of modern transformations, whose works range across a vast complex of styles. He is a very exciting Nigerian artist who, with other African figurative painters of note, deserves a lot more recognition than he is currently given in the discourse of contemporary African art.

Lagos International Film Festival 2007

The increasing global reputation of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry will be showcased next week at the 2007 Lagos International Film Festival (LIFF) scheduled to take place in Lagos Nigeria from December 4-7. LIFF aims to create a convergence between related sectors of the Nigerian film industry by initiating platforms for manpower and intellectual property rights development in areas such as movie business, film production and distribution which brings together financiers, relevant regulatory agencies, actors and industry guilds for a few days of discussion in the business capital of Nigeria. The Nollywood Foundation is collaborating with LIFF to produce a panel on movie financing protocols. Speakers at this panel include Parminder Vir (OBE), British movie producer and financial consultant, and Rob Aft, CEO of Compliance Consulting, both members of the Advisory Board of the Nollywood Foundation. I will be in Lagos to represent the Nollywood Foundation at this event.

Nov 22, 2007

Reparation/Restitution

The issue of what to do about looted African art in Western museums/art collections will be prominent in this century and Aachronym will devote a considerable amount of ink to this subject starting with the Quai Branly's exhibition of Benin art. In the meantime, I will post news of similar issues being resolved by various means as a basis for asking why foreign commentators largely disregard African demands for some sort of justice with regard to Western colonial looting of Africa's cultural patrimony. (For example, see the massive restitution claim against the Dutch Museum, or the successful claim against the Getty for repatriation of artworks to Italy). The case of African claims for restitution is closer in spirit to demands for return of the Elgin marbles and it obviously raises important questions about restitution in relation to historical engagements, which for most Western commentators render the matter moot (see Holland Cotter's insightful review of the issue here. Nevertheless, is there a way that this issue can be framed with some measure of rationality? Can African countries and European holders of African cultural patrimony have a reasonable conversation about this matter and how should such a conversation be framed? One thing is clear: this issue will not go away anytime soon and the more we see news of restitution involving claims against Western museums being resolved, the harder it will be to justify the usual Western dismissal of African claims for similar resolution.

Nov 20, 2007

In Passing...

Radio New Zealand reports that Ian Smith, the former prime minister of Rhodesia, has died. "His government issued a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965 rather than accept proposals for black-majority rule. Despite international sanctions, he remained prime minister until a guerrilla war forced him to accept a ceasefire and political settlement in 1979. Elections were held the following year, when Rhodesia became the black-ruled republic of Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe as prime minister. Parliamentary seats reserved for whites were abolished in 1987. Ian Smith was aged 88, and died at a residential home in South Africa". As Robert Mugabe's misrule and international sanctions pauperize Zimbabwe for the audacity of demanding that land appropriated by British colonization be redistriubted in postcolonial Zimbabwe, it pays to reflect on the fact that Ian Smith was allowed to live out his life in the country despite his bitter opposition to black majority rule and insistence until death that black people are best ruled by whites. Consider also that no Western government or political leader has ever been charged or indicted for atrocities against Africans and that most of the intractable political gridlocks in Africa resulted in full pardon for its colonizers.

Borders and Access 7: Native Son (apologies Richard Wright)

I got a comment from a friend about my posts about the treatment of Africans at international borders, especially in the examples I gave of the general treatment of Nigerians. “The fault for this”, he said, “is entirely ours for screwing up our own country. If Nigeria had lived up to its potential, we wouldn’t be in a situation where foreign governments treat our people like dogs”. This is not an uncommon sentiment of Nigerians and in fact, you can hear it said anywhere Nigerians abroad gather to discuss the seemingly intractable problems of our country. I’ve been reflecting on this comment for the answer it poses to the taunt I mentioned earlier, encountered often in daily lives: if you feel so badly treated in the West, why don’t you go back to %*#@! (insert your choice of expletive here) Africa? I thus want to wrap up my posts on Borders and Access by reviewing my relationship to my home country as a Nigerian abroad and the persistent assumption that our presence as black peoples in the West is not only undesirable but also illegitimate.

There is no doubt that Africans face great constraint in their global migrations and black people cannot claim anonymity in the West simply due to the fact of our obvious difference. However I think it is necessary to debunk this idea that our presence in the West is due to any noblesse oblige by Western governments. First off, Africans have a right to be in the West. European countries never asked for permission from Africans before invading African lands and taking over huge chunks of it. Africa has in fact been subsidizing Western growth and development since the slave ships started sailing in the 16th century. Where would the West be today without the freedom afforded and genocide engendered by such avarice? What would the population of England be like if it did not export labor (literally) under the guise of colonialism? Today, Africa expends more than four billion dollars annually to employ 100,000 so-called technical experts from the West, which constitutes over 35% of global aid to the continent. No one wants to say that Africa is essentially providing work for these individuals and this recognizes that some of them do good work but nevertheless, the majority don't have any skills that cannot be replicated in the host country: all they essentially have is the power of whiteness. Will the West be sanguine enough to recall its experts if African countries ask them to? Why don't Western experts train Africans to carry on their work? Really, what will young white people in Europe and America do if they can’t do NGO work in Africa or engage questions of African underdevelopment? Of course, we don’t call these people migrants or laborers: we call them technical experts and they wield immense power not unlike the colonial officers of old. On the other hand, African economic migrants to Europe are rounded up and locked up in floating jails, held in concentration camps in Ukraine and other countries. They get treated like scum and have in fact been so identified…by the French leader Nicolas Sarkozy who described Algerian immigrants as racaille during the summer riots of 2005. Let’s put aside the fact that he himself is the son of a Hungarian immigrant to France. Consider instead the immense upward mobility afforded by his whiteness that provided him with enough inclusiveness to insult Algerians of the same immigrant status as himself (let’s just say he barely makes it into whiteness; tipped a stone’s throw across the Mediterranean, Sarkozy could easily pass as an Algerian. He sure looks like one). This feeds into my earlier axiom that current discourses of global relations assume a natural universality and freedom of movement for white people while insisting on restricted mobility and localization for Africans and other black and brown peoples. I started out insisting that we can in fact define an Africa that accommodates people of all races and complexions. The trend is otherwise in the West with its insistence on whiteness as a precondition for belonging.

There is enough public information about the travails of African migrants to Europe to get the attention of people with a conscience so let’s leave that subject alone for the time being. South African poet Lesogo Rampolokeng once mentioned being told by a white critic that Africans have no culture of criticism, only a tradition of bitching: constant gripping about how THEY oppress us does often get dismissed as bitching. Instead, let’s ask about Africa and its peripatetic giant, Nigeria. Almost all Nigerians abroad consider their existence to be a condition of exile from the homeland. We miss the country terribly even when we are exasperated by its intransigent devotion to failure. We miss the flow of its myriad peoples, the unbridled energy of Eko (Lagos), the petty ethnic squabbles and kleptocracy of our political order, and the endless optimism of our fellow Nigerians who never exhaust their supply of good cheer even under the worst conditions imaginable. There is no place like home but despite this obvious love (braced with large helpings of nostalgia) anyone with experience of my people will tell you that Nigerians are relentless critics of their country’s shortcomings. At any newsstand in Lagos, you can hear intelligent commentary on political events of the day and very harsh indictment of the kleptocrats whose avarice keeps the country teetering on the brink of ruin. We have no illusions about the country’s prospects, are acutely aware of its shortcomings and deal with its problems as they arise. But Nigerians are also a global people and migrate in large numbers. This has been an aspect of its cultural development over the millennia and continues unabated today. Much of this migration is due to economic pressures but also due to taking for granted that we are global citizens. If white people can migrate anywhere in the world they choose to go, no one has the right to tell black people to confine themselves to local or national spaces.

That said, Nigeria is obviously a disgrace to her people and I say this as someone who knows the country intimately. In fact, I knew the new capital Abuja when most of it was farmland. I worked with the Federal Capital Territory administration during the construction of Abuja and the unbridled corruption I witnessed during my tenure compelled me to leave the country. I was present when the first bulldozers plowed the ground to start construction on Abuja international airport. I saw Aso Rock, the official residence of the president, while it was under construction. I have lived in many parts of Nigeria, speak its major languages fluently and can shapeshift through various ethnic identities as the need arises. I therefore often define myself as a Nigerian above all else. Nigeria was supposed to be a pathfinder of a country, a beacon for black peoples everywhere, a multiethnic democracy that helped improve the lot of Africans across the globe but I suspect that such oversized expectations were totally unbearable. It is true that an oversized reputation weighs down even the mightiest but things weren't supposed to turn out this way. Nigeria wasn't supposed to be an underdeveloped country at the start of the 21st century and it certainly wasn't supposed to be a country locked in a ceaseless destructive cycle of self immolation. What cannot be disputed is that Nigeria is a mess today and the its intransigent devotion to failure eats away at all segments of society and especially impacts on Nigerians abroad. I remember the promise of a Nigeria stalwart on the global stage: I sure would settle today for a country that runs its affairs with a minimum of decency so that we cease to have a situation where criminals loot the national treasury and remain unaccountable.

I will return to this subject in due course. I wanted to post this preliminary comment on the failure of my country--Nigeria--to obviate the assumption that I am only interested in bitching about how much oppression black peoples face in the so-called global order. For us to truly get an idea of what is at stake, we must be able to speak fairly to all constituencies and all aspects of relevant issues. I believe that we live in a global world and as global citizens we must try to understand what conditions our individual experiences within this context. If we insist on indicting the West for its pervasive racism, we must also be willing to blame a country like Nigeria for not living up to its potential. Only in this manner can we shed light on what divides us.

Nov 19, 2007

American Academy Event...

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, gave a speech at the American Academy in Berlin to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan that rescued Germany from post-WWII destitution. She spoke of the importance of the TransAtlantic Relationship between Europe (and Germany in particular) and the USA. The speech was attended by a host of luminaries including an ex-German president, ambassadors, the trustees and leaders of the American Academy in Berlin and notable dignitaries. I have had some success in explaining to anyone who would listen that the TransAtlantic world belongs in part to Africa, which is why it is worrisome that the continent is so totally marginalized in contemporary discourses of this relationship. Nevertheless, I recognize that the current alliance is an alliance of the powerful. Again, I do not begrudge them this power; all that is asked of the powerful is that they treat the world well. Pictured is Chancellor Merkel during her speech: below, the corridors of power.

Nov 17, 2007

Exhibition...

Queen Nefertiti of Kh'Met (aka Egypt), 18th Dynasty, wife of Akhenaten whose worship of the sun disk Aten was the first known monotheistic religion on the planet. Her royal bust is one of the most recognizable icons in the history of art. Photograph taken at the ongoing exhibition of Egyptian art at the Altesmuseum in Berlin's museum island. The exhibition inexplicably featured a bust from the Yoruba Kingdom of Ife, presented without explanation but which I think points to a willingness to compare the notable similarities between Ife royal art and Dynastic art from Kh'Met.

Nov 15, 2007

In Advance of a Broken Arm (apologies Marcel Duchamp)

I’ve hedged a bit about posting on my blog after reading some of my earlier posts. It occurred to me that my original hesitation about blogging actually derived from a well-honed instinct for survival that I flout often but never disregard, encapsulated in my late grandfather’s favorite saying that "one is often done in not by what goes into the mouth but quite often by what comes out of it". Muse said the poet, in thy orifices be all my sins remembered. The Internet is a vast pool of commentary whose still waters dispense carefree retribution for careless utterances. It is now obvious that every word inscribed in this context is archived. For those of us who live on the margins of things, speech is no longer free and it is increasingly obvious that whatever one says will in due time be held against you in this Orwellian age. But I contend that we must speak in the full glare of our creative endeavor, for unrealized creativity is a cancer and it destroys the body from the inside.

And why this worry? I write as an immigrant to the West writing about the experience of migration among other things. Not about the official story of the melting pot in which immigrants find their place in a social order that is welcoming but the story of immigration’s complexity; of how the world breaks down neatly into circumscribed spaces where one is either a first-worlder or a denizen of the increasing numbers of second-order worlds spun by the centrifugal force of the center. An immigrant has no rights in this new world of Patriot Acts with their punitive social orders where complaining about your situation has been criminalized. In fact, an immigrant is a liminal subject: you can lose it all in the blink of an eye—residency permit, naturalization, your right to exist, and increasingly either no one will know or no one will care. This is paranoid to be sure but if we have learned anything through recent political events, it is that even the paranoid have enemies. Analysis of an immigrant’s status in the global order is bound to encounter the politics of representation. But to be an immigrant is to be denied a politics: until you get naturalized somewhere, you cannot participate in politics either in the country you leave or the country to migrate to despite that fact that immigrant status is a most obvious political issue. In this day and age, a naturalized person can be stripped of their new nationality and disappeared into limbo. The best course of action for the immigrant is of course to do nothing, to attract as little attention as possible, in essence to efface oneself. Quiet people (who know their place) survive and even thrive. All that is required is that you shut up and submit, as all religions have demanded through the ages. And all eventually submit, whether to a religious or intellectual ideal or a social or political order (pun intended). But I contend again that we must speak in the full glare of our experiences, for unrealized creativity is a cancer and it destroys the body from the inside.

Let me be clear: I have done well as an immigrant and my experience is nothing like the heartrending stories one reads in the daily pool of information. I have a good job (knock on wood) and have even better memories of my immigration to the USA. As an intellectual, I have encountered many interesting situations and enjoy decent access to global contexts. All of these are good things and one wishes of course to retain what is good about life. But something remains to be said and it is reflected in an utterance I often hear when I bring notice of one infraction or the other against African and African Diaspora peoples to my white friends: they mostly say “I didn’t know such things happened’. I have heard this in relation to my earlier posts on Borders and Access, and I hear it from my students when I tell them about how black endeavors have been written out of history. How can such things possibly happen, they ask? And it occurs to me that we may be living in the age of total information but people still really are only aware of things that impact on their immediate wellbeing. It is true: such things don’t happen in their neighborhoods or immediate vicinity and as such they simply are not aware of it: racism, inequality, torture, whatever it is, they simply have no experience of it. After a while, you have to ask: is it that people are not aware or simply that they do not wish to know?

I started this blog to ask myself some of these questions and hopefully to provide a place where my particular experience can be brought to bear on some of what I consider very important issues of human equality especially in relation to the question of Africa’s ownership of its culture, its very existence. We must thus speak as citizens of the world who live everywhere and nowhere; we must say to our friends that such things do happen and those who avert their gaze enable what they fear to look at. We live in a very unequal world and it is important for an intellectual to ask how this affects our endeavors as human beings. I do not begrudge the powerful their power. Among my people, power is not proscribed. Anyone can aspire to be powerful and the powerful are celebrated (this accounts in part for Africa’s accommodation with despots and other problematic leaders). All that is asked of the powerful is that they treat the world well. And this is the crux of the matter, that the powerful have not always treated the world well and their haughty imposition of will is becoming the norm of the global order. I am concerned about Africa’s place in this new world order when the fact of blackness complicates what are sometimes mere problems of human indecency. I have been trying to work out a vision of what it might mean for Africa to emerge from the bottom of the global order, using my country Nigeria as an example. And in the past week, I have been deliberating on whether to continue to write this blog or not, sensing its archive of random thoughts as a dangerous pastime that might one day come back to haunt me. I have decided to continue writing it and to make clear here that I chose to do this, being well aware that writing in this context might have consequences. It is inevitable that some of my comments will not be well received; however, it is important to me that I say them anyway. I have no political motives or agenda and I make no claims for their relevance—they are merely my opinion.

To those who read then…greetings: we must speak in the full glare of our experiences, for our lives are all we have and life is precious.

Nov 12, 2007

Nov 10, 2007

Changing Seasons


Two views of the Wansee lake today photographed a few hours apart. First, sunshine on the Wansee, circa 11am followed by a brief snowstorm strong enough to coat the ground in softhail. Looks like winter's come early. Below, views of "Moby Dick", a tour-boat moored in Wansee pier.

Nov 9, 2007

Skoto Gallery voted best gallery in Chelsea

A recent Village Voice readers' poll nominated Skoto Gallery as the best gallery in Chelsea. The poll results published in October 17-23, 2007 edition of Village Voice reflects the opinion of actual residents of New York enunciating their personal preferences. The legendary Village Voice is a New York institution and the first of what was subsequently known as "alternative weeklies", strong voices for independent opinion on issues of the day. Aachronym congratulates Skoto Gallery on its increasing visibility.

2014 Commonwealth Games

BBC just broke the news that Glasgow has won the right to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games for which it was in contention with Nigeria as one of two finalists. I am usually not bothered by such news except that earlier in the day, I caught a BBC tv-newscast in which the reporter describing Nigeria's bid mentioned that commentators feel that the 500 million dollars cost of the game was prohibitive for Nigeria, and such funds could be put to better use in "a country where most of the population is starving". The report also mentioned that games organizers were worried about the potential for corrupt embezzlement of said funds by avaricious Nigerian officials (see its evaluation of Nigeria's bid here). This logic appears flawless: Nigeria is indeed a country with many problems and corruption is rife. The country's infrastructure suffers increasing decline (check out the impassable Lagos-Ibadan or Lagos-Benin "expressways") and poverty is endemic despite the boom from surging oil prices for the past few years. It might thus make sense to award the games to Scotland where people are not starving, the infrastructure already exists and there is apparently no corruption.

I want to argue though that the logic of the BBC reporter is flawed. Nigeria has many intractable problems but it is very capable of hosting the Commonwealth Games, which I imagine would have been hosted in Abuja (see pictures of Abuja here). Nigeria's capital city Abuja is a planned, world class city with very excellent facilities. (pictured: Abuja Stadium). Even if it didn't have these, international sports and entertainment programs like the Olympic Games and Commonwealth games have long been used as a means of directing attention to particular nations and enhancing infrastructural development by their insistence on world-class facilities. Africa has clearly not benefited from such attention and has often been derided as incapable of handling such events. However Nigeria did host the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture--FESTAC. FESTAC led to the development of vast new infrastructure in Lagos that still benefits the city today. The award of the Commonwealth Games would have provided an incentive to build new infrastructures that could conceivably serve Nigeria after the games are over. Apart from this fact, there is implicit in this decision the intrusive idea that Western countries can best define for Nigeria how to manage its affairs. When Nigeria launched a satellite a year ago, it elicited a lot of mirth from foreigners who made the same point: why launch a satellite when your people are starving? However, in the information age when satellites provide much needed independence for host countries, Nigeria's satellite (among other providers of bandwidth) have spawned a veritable web of commerce thus ensuring that many people have money to feed their families. We must therefore question the logic that marginalizes African nations on the flawed assumption that immediate needs of sustenance prevent investment in large scale projects. The Commonwealth Games have never been held in Africa. Similarly, Nigeria has long bid for the World Cup but was consistently denied the opportunity to host the games even in the boom years when resources were available. Africa finally got a chance to host the world cup and it was predictably awarded to South Africa. I have to assume that there are no poor people in South Africa, no corruption, and that everyone is well fed and healthy though any visit to Soweto or other shantytowns in the country will demolish that assumption.

There is a fundamentally problematic attitude involved in the assumption that Africa must operate at the level of European countries before they can be trusted to handle any global events. Part of the continent's poverty derives precisely from the fact that it is excluded from the global circulation of culture and capital. Were it included in this global circulation, some African countries might actually be given the opportunity to improve on their infrastructural facilities by the boost from hosting major international events. The paternalistic attitude of Western countries ensure that this will not happen. It is more insulting when such attitudes are couched in the language of benevolent patronage. This is the myopic view of charity-based NGO response to Africa's problems that shows concern for bare sustenance but not for any higher purpose in the lives of Africans. Obviously we must feed the masses of hungry people in Africa but if I remember correctly, Jesus Christ himself once said that "man shall not live by bread alone". He also said "the poor will always be with you". If we wait until we solve the problem of African poverty before including the continent in the flow of global culture and capital, we will only be imposing another layer of marginalization on Africa that ensures it remains as Hegel once stated "outside of History".

I wish Glasgow and Scotland well as it prepares to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Africans are already aware that the Commonwealth is anything but. Let it be said that we are not amused by the persistent paternalism of Western nations or the wry sarcasm of the BBC whose persistently negative coverage of African affairs deserves condemnation.

Nov 7, 2007

American Academy in Berlin Dailmer Lecture 2007

I presented the Daimler Lecture at the American Academy in Berlin yesterday evening on the experience of modernity in African art. These lectures are primary functions at the Academy and preceded by a formal dinner. The Nigerian Ambassador to Germany, Abdul bin Rimdap (pictured with me at the academy dinner) graced the occasion as did many other interesting people including Santu Mofokeng, internationally acclaimed South African photographer, and Karl Werckmeister (both pictured below) my erstwhile graduate professor who retired a few years ago as Mary Jane Crow Distinguished Professor at Northwestern University and moved back to Berlin. The lecture was well received although weather was bothersome yesterday. First it rained all day with intermittent flashes of sunlight. Then as night fell (by 5pm these days) the skies clouded up again and the wind kicked up. By 6.15pm it started drizzling and a few minutes later, I heard a thumping sound outside, looked out and saw ice pellets falling in large numbers. Hailstones!!! "What next", I thought, Locusts? The hailstones dissipated quickly though and by 6.30pm my guests started arriving and we went in for dinner until 8pm. The lecture began by 8.10pm with an introduction by Academy Director Gary Smith followed by a speaker-introduction by moderator Lydia Haustein. I spoke for 50 minutes, took questions afterwards and the whole program wrapped up by 10.30pm.
With Autumn in full swing in Wansee, the trees have all lost their leaves and the weather is harsh with cold winds and rain most days. I have been experiencing massive temporal and spatial displacement with the changing season, flashing back forcefully to Evanston (Illinois) where I spent several years in graduate school. For the past week, I've walked the streets of Wansee saddled with the feeling that I was back in Chicago. It took me a while to figure out why: the entire Northern Illinois region is riddled with Germanic influences and Evanston in particular looks exactly like Wansee does at this same time of the year: same kinds of buildings, similar weather, and above all, both are located near lakes. Lake Michigan however dwarfs the Wansee by several orders of magnitude. Back in Evanston, I always marveled at the fact that lake Michigan froze for a considerable distance from shore during the height of winter, testament to the vicious weather of Chicago during that dreary season. Nevertheless, long-time residents of Chicago come to appreciate the harsh beauty of its seasons. I was pleasantly surprised by the conjunction of events and memory, reflecting on how identities are shaped by passage through these distant plains.

Nov 5, 2007

At the Quai Branly, Paris

I was in Paris one week ago to visit the Benin exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly (Benin: Five Centuries of Royal Art). I am still processing the experience of my visit to the museum and intend to do a comprehensive analysis of the exhibition and its impressive catalog. In the meantime, a few images of the impressive architecture of the Quai Branly museum and some interesting posters from the exhibit. From top: A sign at the Museum Entrance shows the aggregation of African, Oceanic and other non-Western cultures at this museum separate from the cluster of museums of Western art centered on the Louvre. Posters advertising current exhibitions provide an unwitting juxtaposition of stereotypes (the cannibalism reference is particularly notable)and a jump from primitivism through traditional art to the African diaspora. This tripartite structure completely omits Africa's engagements with modernity (I am aware that these posters represent only the exhibitions on display but they are notable nevertheless). Lastly, two views of the architecture.


Nov 4, 2007

In Passing...

I attended part of the closing ceremony yesterday for New York-States of Mind at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW or House of World Cultures) on the bank of the Spree in Berlin, a cultural space for engaging contemporary art and current developments in world cultures of non-European origin. The institution is housed in an impressive building with vast interior space that somewhat reminded me both in its form and function, of Nigeria's favorite white elephant project--the FESTAC National Theater edifice in Lagos.
According to the organization's website, the comprehensive program for New York-States of Mind illustrates the range of strategies by which visual artists and filmmakers in the USA construct and negotiate multiple allegiances and hyphenated identities. This focus on the motile identities of contemporary cultural practitioners is fine but the institution itself could be wrongly seen as ghettoizing these developments by its demarcation between Europe and the "rest of the world", what the African philosopher Chinweizu characterized elsewhere as the West and the Rest of Us. I teach a class called Arts of Africa, Oceania and Native North America, which shows the anthropological and problematic nature of this aggregation (forget for an instance the pertinent question of what qualifies an Africanist art historian to teach about Native American, Oceanic, Australian Aborigine and other indigenous cultures other than their identity as "Natives" in anthropological literature). This fact feeds into my earlier post about borders and access that the West has individuality AND universality while the Rest form an indistinguishable mass of inchoate communality. In a Berlin that is making a great effort to integrate formerly antagonistic ideologies and peoples, the HKW seems a throwback to concepts of Western supremacy in global culture. However, many have argued that globalization itself merely replicates older imperialist structures of occidental domination, which perhaps means that HKW's focus is not so anachronistic. I do know that many Berliners I have spoken to about the HKW flatly dismiss it as a ghetto for non-Western projects, which pretty much ensures that it does not attract the kind of crowd I encountered on Friday at the Deutsche Guggenheim reception for Jeff Wall. The Berlin Wall may have fallen but apparently a cultural separation between things of Europe and things of the Rest remains alive and well.

Consider in this regard the ongoing exhibition of paintings by Christian Awe at Vonderbank Art Gallery. A native East Berliner, Awe studied painting under George Baselitz at the Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) Berlin and is doing quite well as a young professional artist age 29 years. Awe studied for a year in the United States and seems to have retained a major fascination with sports such asbasketball. Overall, his paintings unfold within the expressionist tradition (a distinct echo of Pollock) although seriously worked through with influences from graffiti, Japanese Ukiyo-E printmaking (Hokusai and great waves are favorite subjects), tags (spray painting on public spaces) and a very restless surface laden with overlays of scratches and colors. I was attracted to Awe's paintings by their vibrant color-surface and also (as I found out by looking closer) because of what his artist statement describes as a "commitment to larger social issues, such as his participation in projects for asylum-seeking immigrants and migrant workers" and his focus on sports imagery that often includes African American sports figures. I asked Awe about his use of black subjects and he explained that aside from their ubiquity in sports, he was struck by the plight of undocumented black immigrants in Berlin, citing the specific issue that children of undocumented immigrants have no access to public education in this city. He was friends with one such person, a woman whose ten year old child has never had a single day of primary education and along with his mother are compelled to do what Awe described without irony as "black jobs" (his discursive language certainly needs work). It is hard to argue against a state's desire to protect its borders from unchecked immigration but I think it is particularly callous to deny a child education on account of the mother's status. Unchecked immigration to non-Western countries and continents accounts in large part for Europe's wealth and success today and the EU should definitely have more sympathy for the different factors that drive immigration unless of course, it is specifically opposed to immigration of Africans and other non-white people into Europe. A more humane process of immigration and appropriate legislation might help resolve these issues but this being prime political football, such developments seem unlikely. Pictured below is Awe's painting, Culture Deportation.

Nov 3, 2007

Jeff Wall at Deutsche Guggenheim


The Deutsche Guggenheim hosted a reception for a new installation of Jeff Wall photographs. I have followed the artist closely since I reviewed his astounding photograph--After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison. Based upon Ellison’s scathing novel about the travails of African Americans in Jim-Crow America, Jeff Wall recreated in stark detail the underground abode of Ellison’s protagonist, where he subsisted surrounded by a thousand light bulbs. In the novel, the lights were kept burning by electricity purloined from the state utility company. I found the effect of the literal cluster of lightbulbs in Wall’s photograph a memorable and horror-inducing metaphor for the condition of non-Western actors in the discourse of globalization; an invisibility I have commented upon in my posts about borders and access. Other artworks in the exhibition included a large photograph of migrant workers hanging out at a street corner waiting for work and a devastating image of kids playing at war titled War Games with its crystaline focus on a bedrame behind which three young boys lay playing dead, watched over by their captor who brandished a supersoaker brand toy gun (in partial view behind me in the picture).

The Duetsche Guggenheim is described on its website as a unique joint venture between a bank and a museum, which illustrates Frederic Jameson's point that about contemporary art (he actually specified postmodernism) channeling the logic of late capitalism. The surroundings were plush as befits one of the largest banking houses in the world and its gallery space quite impressive. The bank is definitely not hurting which makes its response to the Herero lawsuit perplexing. For those who don't know, in 2004 the Herero peoples of Namibia filed a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank (named in a general lawsuit against Germany and other German companies) for complicity in genocide against the Herero people by German colonisers. The 1904 slaughter of the Herero under General von Trotha has been described elsewhere as the first genocide of the 20th century (I suppose it is if you discount the slaughter of Congolese under King Leopold of Belgium or the large numbers of African killed during the continent-wide effort to impose general colonial rule on Africa after the Berlin conference of 1884-85 granted broad rights of ownership of African territories to European powers). Predictably, Germany urged the Herero to drop the lawsuit in exchange for an apology, thus following in the unwritten script where Western atrocities against Africans (slavery, colonization, the massive forced labor policies of South Africa in the apartheid era, Jim Crow, the invasion of Benin, etc.) only merit an apology and no actual compensation for loss, injury, or the sheer insult of holding African lives valueless. I imagine that Deutsche Bank was not overly worried about the loss of $2 billion dollars sought by the Herero lawsuit but more concerned about not setting a precedent whereby Africans have recourse to the courts to assuage predatory assaults on their lives and resources.

The Herero genocide lawsuit was filed in a Washington DC court. Predictably, the court refused to hear the lawsuit. As most Africans already know, when it comes to matters of law that concern black people (and this holds even within African countries), too often there is law but no justice. Hence the slogan No Justice No Peace, the standard cris de couer at black rallies. Below, Jeff Wall, Men Waiting 2006, © Jeff Wall courtesy of Artnews.info

Nov 2, 2007

More Posters

More posters from different parts of Berlin (click poster for larger image). Top, an advertisement for liquor at the Wansee train station. Below, two posters soliciting support for NGO relief work in Africa, the one on the right taken at Shonenfeld airport (which used to be in East Germany), and the other at the train station in Wansee. There appears to be a fluid turnover in the posters at this train station with regular changes to the posters displayed.