Dec 30, 2007

Repatriations

Click here for an interesting essay on the subject of repatriations of African artworks.

"Give Us Back Our God"

In the early 1980s, the Nigerian museum removed a shrine object from a town in Eastern Nigeria and moved it to the National Museum for better preservation and storage. The said shrine object, a sculpture, was at that time still a focus of communal veneration and the museum's action led to widespread unrest in the community and demands for the immediate return of the sculpture to its shrine. The community's anger was reflected in newspaper reports of local demonstrations. A particular report in a leading newspaper caught my eye. Its header read: Give Us Back Our God, a clear statement of demand couched in gross misunderstanding of the nature of local veneration of the deity by the reporter (who I'm pretty sure mistranslated what he heard). Shrine objects were not worshiped: rather they serve as a channel of communication between humans and spirits. In any case, the important point is that the community made a very strong case for repatriation of the sculpture and it was ultimately returned to its shrine.

Artworks have many kinds of value for their cultural producers. In this coming year, Aachronym will explore the question of the value of African cultural production, specifically to determine how it is valued in the global economy. African knowledge and resources are undervalued in the global economy and this has contributed in large measure to the impoverishment of the continent. The relevant question is this: why is African knowledge undervalued in the global economy and what can be done to change this? The undervaluing of African cultural production (African art especially) is noticeable in a context in which scholarship (in my field of African art history at least) considers as valuable only those objects of traditional African art held in Western collections. Since this new value does not accrue to African producers of these artworks, some African countries have been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to repatriate artworks looted from them during the colonial period. In this regard, I have been following an international discussion on the subject of repatriation of looted artworks in order to gauge whether the time is right to launch a more formal case for repatriation of some African artworks from the West. My research on African art and cultural objects in German ethnographic museum collections focused in part on this topic to initiate a new discussion on the fate of African cultural objects in Western holdings and open a legal conversation about the claim of African countries to cultural patrimony looted from the continent during Western colonization. These objects now have great financial value but more importantly, they represent long durations of African creative expression that are largely inaccessible to African peoples on the continent and African Diaspora peoples worldwide.

Expectedly, the topic of repatriation of African art is not a popular subject in Europe although many museum curators I spoke to were aware of the issue, given the important discussions going on internationally on the question of looted art. For example, Greece has long sought return of the Elgin marbles, which it claims were improperly removed by the British aristocrat Lord Elgin. Holocaust victims have been largely supported by Euro-American legal systems in recovering art looted by the Nazis during WWII. Native American peoples in the continental USA have succeeded in repatriating many cultural objects (including bones of their ancestors) from American museums and now have a large say in how such objects are exhibited if at all. Even the almighty Getty Museum was recently humbled by accusations that it improperly acquired art looted from Italy, which led to the indictment in Italy of Getty curator Marion True on charges of conspiracy to traffic in cultural antiquities (she denies the charges: see Hugh Eakin “Treasure Hunt”, New Yorker, December 17, 2007: 62-75 for a fantastic analysis of this story). The Getty’s effort to extricate itself from these charges caused it to return certain of the artworks to Italy and arrange for long term loans of the remaining. Considering that the Getty sits on an endowment worth billions of dollars and could afford the finest lawyers, its quick capitulation and decision to negotiate is significant for its effort to protect the brand name created since the Getty opened its museum on the mountains of Santa Monica, far above the sprawling smog of Los Angeles.

In short, the 21st century appears set to see very important challenges to the natural right to loot the assets of conquered subject assumed by colonizing countries and would-be world conquerors. Despite this, the subject of repatriation of looted African art does not make it into any of the conversations on repatriation I am privy to. In the current edition of the Berlin Journal (in house journal of the American Academy in Berlin), Philippe de Montebello, long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, gave an assessment of the issue of repatriations from his viewpoint engaging this particular problem at the Met (de Montebello, Whose Culture Is It? Museums and the Collection of Antiquities. Berlin Journal Number 15, 2007: 33-37). His analysis pointedly omitted any mention of Africa or of African claims to the cultural patrimony of their artworks held in Western museums such as the Met. This oversight is egregious because the Met holds among myriad African artworks, one of the ivory hip pendant masks of Iyoba (Queen Mother) Idia, one of thousands of artworks looted from the palace of Oba Ovonramwen of Benin during the British Invasion of 1897. In fact, there is no way Montebello can claim ignorance of the fact that the Met holds a large quantity of Benin and African art acquired from various benefactors who in turn obtained these through problematic purchase agreements. By overlooking Africa’s claim to these objects in his discussion of repatriation, Montebello assumes the classic Western viewpoint of treating African art, cultures, bodies and resources as items free for plunder without retribution or remorse. This attitude underlies the stance championed by the British Museum, which has declared that it holds its African artworks in trust for humanity and has passed a law expressly forbidding the museum to repatriate any objects in its collection. The problem with this calculation is that the British museum arrogates to itself the right to manage Africa’s cultural patrimony even though it is clear it acquired most of the artworks in its holding illegally through colonization. It should be noted that Britain itself jealously guards what it considers to be British heritage and it institutes a massive amount of laws (including increasingly draconian immigration restrictions in recent times) to exclude just about any black person from claims to British identity or heritage. As far as I know, there is no African museum safeguarding any aspect of British cultural patrimony, which is treated as a very British property over which the UK has absolute rights. (In that regard, kudos to the UK-based Africa Reparations Movement whose campaign for the return of the Benin bronzes is very commendable. It is important that people of good conscience speak up for the ethical treatment of Africa in the global economy).

Obviously, the issue of repatriating African artworks back to Africa is highly contentious. The refusal to even consider this issue as a matter for proper discussion is vexing to many Africans and even to some Westerners who see in this attitude a continuing imperialist behavior of the West. However, my new year prediction is that this issue will not go away. Just as those aspects of global power once considered the singular domain of the West (nuclear power, strong economies and currencies, superpower status) are now passing to non-Western countries, I predict that there will be in the future an accounting of the question of looted cultural patrimony. Aachronym will contribute to this emergent discussion in the hope that even the Western museums that hold African artworks will soon realize that it is a subject whose time has come.

Dec 25, 2007

Season's Greetings

Compliments of the season to all according to their belief, and best wishes for a happy New Year. The picture below is from a series I did of the first snowstorm in Wansee during my residency in Berlin. There is no snow in my area of sunny California and it is a nice change from the cold weather of the Berlin winter. No matter. December 21 was the shortest day of the year and already the days are getting longer even though the change is yet imperceptible. As the poet said, the cycle of nature continues with the changing seasons: man comes, man goes, earth abides. Strength and long life to all who live in hope of better things to come.

Dec 24, 2007

Notable Institution: African Colours

My notable institution for this week is African Colours Network, which runs AfricanColours, a website that provides information on contemporary African art from a wide range of sources. Based in Kenya, the organization provides a detailed view of East African art and general information on art from other parts of the continent. Their scope is rapidly expanding and they are a good resource for general information on contemporary African art.

Dec 21, 2007

Homecoming

I completed my residency at the American Academy in Berlin and returned to the USA on December 19. I have since been sleeping off jet lag, readjusting my ear to American English, and recoding my sensibilities to the frenetic pace of life in this here USA. As the cliche goes, home is where one lays his head. It is nice to sleep in my own bed again. During my stay in Berlin, I made a guest appearance on the Collegium TV program to discuss the issue of African art in German ethnographic collections, the focus of my research at the American Academy. I was also interviewed for a radio program on the subject of modern African art and its contentious relationship to the global context of modernity. I spent the last couple of weeks in Berlin reviewing Germany's devotion to historical reflection most notable in its abundant memorials. It then struck me that of all the things I have seen in Germany during my few months there, the most heartrending is the fact that while Germany is committed fully to examining its history of violence in the last century, there is no willingness to examine the history of German violence against Africans both here in Germany and in Africa. In the year 2007, a battle is raging in Germany for recognition of Afro-Germans and for recognition of German assaults on Africans in its colonies in Africa (Cameroon, Tanzania, Togo and most egregiously, Namibia). Contemporary German children do not know that blacks have been resident in Germany in small but notable numbers for several centuries, or that over 20,000 African auxiliary troops (mostly French Senegalese) were stationed in Germany to enforce treaties signed to end WWI. The antipathy of the Nazis to Africans and black people in general is better known but there is no general knowledge of the fact that the eugenics program of the Third Reich was first tried out on biracial children born to these soldiers by German women, or that in what came to known as the Black Holocaust, more than 50,000 black people (either African or of African ancestry) were murdered in German concentration camps during WWII. As far as I know, the only memorial to African victims of the Nazi Holocaust is a single 10-centimeter-squared brass plaque (stolpersteine) installed in front of the former residence of Mahjub bin Adam Mohamed, a Tanzanian murdered by the Third Reich. This single plaque is one of a proposed 12,500 similar markers being created by Cologne based artist Gunter Demning and made news by being devoted to an African victim of the Holocaust. There is no memorial to the Rhineland maidens, mostly biracial daughters of the African soldiers who were either killed or compelled to undergo forced sterilization. Above all, there is definitely no memorial to the history of German genocide against the Herero of Namibia, subject of an earlier blog comment. Despite the above, it must be said that Germany has made great strides in confronting its past, and has in fact done this more judiciously than many other nations with similar history. The important issue is whether it will continue to reflect on its past in a manner that enables it come to terms with its unjust historical treatment of African and other black people within its sphere of influence. The contemporary sensibility of Europe in general is shifting uncomfortably towards xenophobia and this development might rekindle negative attitudes towards foreigners in Germany. Time will tell. I can only say that even for the short time I spent in the country, I felt the weight of memory on its citizens, especially the young, in the way they remain vigilant against the return of those attitudes that enabled the mass genocide of the Holocaust. It is for this reason, I think, that Berlin is notable as a place of the utmost freedom, whose allure of endless permissiveness draws youth from all over the Western world, dancing the nights (and sometimes days) away in nightclubs that seem permanently open. It seemed to me they revel to forget their inheritance, searching for a space in which they can lay down the burden of memory and just be themselves. I found their insistence on living at the edge at once poignant and profound. And when time came for me to leave the city, I looked out of the windows of my departing jet at the Fernsehturm spire of Alexanderplatz (the television tower), at whose foot the most radical youth gather on sunny days to refashion what William Gibson described as "the protocols of appearance" in his recent novel, Spook Country. Here German youth stand at the edges of memory and gaze into the future. They are different from their parents, these young ones, with their devotion to transracial self identification. I see in their edgy lives the promise of a future multiracial Germany, a multiracial Europe, and multiracial world. And I wish them well.

Pictures: top, the Brandenbug Gate photographed at night from the roofs of the Reichstag, the German house of parliament in Berlin; the hall of parliament at the Reichstag; rained out shot of Brandenburg Tur; The television tower at Alexanderplatz; Christmas decorations at the Sony Center Arcade at Potsdamer Platz.

Dec 17, 2007

The Edges of Memory...

American Academy Farewell Dinner

The American Academy in Berlin hosted a farewell reception and dinner for the Fall 2007 Fellows, which formally marked the end of the Fall Quarter of the Academy's 2007/2008 program. It has been an intense four months and quite productive for all the fellows, myself included. Berlin is a vibrant city with a very deep and complicated history and lots of interesting things to see. As with all research projects, my original program of evaluating African art in German ethnographic collections was immediately augmented by my chronicle of representations of blacks in Berlin public spaces. I have over the past few months posted images of such representations to my blog and used those to riff on questions of transcultural racial identification. In all this has been a very useful period of time and I can say without reservation that the American Academy in Berlin is a most wonderful place. Great praise goes to the Director, Gary Smith whose singular vision sustains the frenetic pace of activity at the Academy. Its programs have global significance but the pace and tenor of discourse here is very civil and understated. The Academy's goal is to foster greater discussion and exchange between both sides of the Atlantic World and in this it succeeds beyond measure. Hopefully, subsequent discussions take into consideration the African dimension of the Trans-Atlantic relationship. Pictured above, Director Gary Smith with Fall 2007 Fellows: from left, Mark Butler, Gary Shteyngart, Elizabeth Greenspan, Academy Director Gary Smith, Sylvester Ogbechie, Sidra Stich, Jason Johnson, Diane McWhorter and Ann Carson.

Dec 16, 2007

St. Maurice of Magdeburg

Day trip yesterday to Magdeburg to visit the Cathedral of Madgeburg where stands the sculpture of St. Maurice (aka St. Mauritius, Morris, or Moritz). Erected circa 1250 AD, the sculpture of St. Mauritius, patron saint of Magdeburg, is one of the oldest representations of a black man in European art. Over the years, I have mentioned this sculpture in my art history classes as an example of the long history of Africans in Europe. I thus decided to visit the cathedral to get a first hand look at the sculpture before I left Germany at the end of my residency at the American Academy in Berlin. Magdeburg, capital city of the Bundesland of Saxony-Anhalt, is a pleasant one and half hour train ride from Berlin and quite an interesting town. Long a significant entry in the history of science, I had first heard of the town as the place where the fact of was vacuum first demonstrated in 1654 by the German scientist Otto von Guericke.
The Magdeburg Cathedral is undergoing restoration but still in use during this process. The sculpture of St. Maurice stands near the altar and he is also represented on the lectern where sections of the bible are read during mass. The pictures here show various views of the sculpture. Below are other pictures taken of a house by the Austrian eco-artist Hundertwasser, located near the cathedral (see additional Hundertwasser images here). Hundertwasser is one of my favorite artists and strangely enough, his influence on modern Nigerian art is quite extensive. Suzanne Wenger (Adunni Olorisa), a major figure of the Oshobgbo School was very influenced by his art and expressed aspects of this in her own practice in Oshogbo. Georgina Beier also introduced his style of art into the Oshogbo School through her paintings and it remained a notable echo especially in the art of Muraina Oyelami. This was the first Hundertwasser house I have seen and its radical prescriptions for sustainable development predate the eco/environmentalism of this era by several decades.

Dec 14, 2007

Views of the City

Pictured top, ruins of the old train station at Anhalter Bahnhof, Berlin, on a rainy morning. Here, one train stop away from Potsdamer Platz on the S1 from Wansee to Oranienburg, is the outer ring of the Potsdamer redevelopment, the tourist heart of the city where the Daimler Corporation development and Sony Center Mall (below) provide significant draws for visitors.



Documentary Film: Welcome to Nollywood

Worth seeing: Jamie Meltzer's documentary film, Welcome to Nollywood, which tracks the production processes of two major Nollywood filmmakers--Chico Ejiro (Mr. Prolific) and Izu Ojukwu--as they adroitly weave through the complex social and economic constraints to their work in Nigeria (see preview here). Chico Ejiro is very well known for his fast pace of production (hence his nickname, Mr. Prolific). Likewise, the young director, Izu Ojukwu, is already a veteran in the hyperactive context of the Nollywood Film industry, with many films to his credit. (Nollywood is noted for its prolific production: an established director like Lancelot Oduwa-Imasuen has directed well over 120 films in about twelve years). Welcome to Nollywood followed Izu Ojukwu through the production of his film La Viva, a story about war set in the Liberian conflict. Izu Okjukwu aspires to international protocols of film production and he is a very exciting director with a distinctive style. Welcome To Nollywood shows that the Nigerian Film industry is aspiring to greater things and will transform into a more respected context of practice as higher quality productions propel Nollywood films into the global film festival circuit. When this happens, I predict that Izu Ojukwu will have a large role to play in this transformation. He is certainly a director to watch.

Dec 13, 2007

At the End of Documenta 12...

The current issue of Art South Africa provides an interesting postscript on Documenta 12, illustrated with briliant pictures of haute couture by Senegalese fashion designer Oumou Sy.

Primitivism Inc.: The Pigozzi Paradigm

The Art Newspaper published this interview with Italian collector Jean Pigozzi who continues to peddle his canard that the only true and pure African artist is informally trained, preferably uneducated in Western style schools whose creative genius is unacknowledged until it is discovered and nurtured by a white collector. Over the past two decades, Pigozzi has used the sheer force of his wealth to distort the global interpretation and mediation of contemporary African art. It is hard to indict someone for what they choose to collect and in that regard, I think Pigozzi has every right to collect whatever he wants. However his persistent attempt to legitimize his collection as the only significant protocol possible for engaging African contemporary art wallows in the worst primitivism and it is time that we pointed this out without sugarcoating it. If Pigozzi were the intellectual he claims to be, he would give greater consideration to the overmediated nature of his art holdings and at least try to engage in a broader context with other examples of contemporary African art in the global arena. However, he chooses not to do so, and aided by his curator Andre Magnin, he has stuck to this very racist idea of what constitutes contemporary African creativity. This cant is getting very old and it needs resisting more actively than Africanist art historians have dared to do.

I was at the opening of the Pigozzi exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African art and I noted that the collector has largely succeeded in leveraging his collection (which has been very profitable to him) by getting them shown in the most prestigious art spaces. This fact alone indicts these spaces for their willingness to promote kitsch over intelligent discourse but also for their willingness to accept exhibitions underwritten by large sums of money (hey, check out the lavish opening parties for these shows to get an idea of what I am talking about). This is all a very shameful and quite disturbing development in our so-called discourse. Pigozzi proves that in the field of African art history perhaps the only way to get significant work done is to pay for it yourself, a pay-to-play protocol, and as we know, he who pays the piper dictates the tune. (This holds of course for many other areas of art history but is particularly worrisome in a field where funding is traditionally non-existent and over 90% of publications take the form of exhibition catalogs, often paid for by collectors whose artworks are being exhibited).

Pigozzi likes to compare his relationship with his artists and his curator--Magnin-- to the great collaborations between Renaissance patrons and artists which spawned some of the best art of the period. Fittingly, he displays some of the despotic attitudes of the patrons he so admires. And so far, I haven't heard of the Pigozzi Prize for excellence in African art research or the Pigozzi Fellowship for any kind of research besides his collection, or a school he built or an art center endowed. His work is one hundred percent focused on promoting his collection. He has done some good by bringing some hitherto unknown artists to international recognition (Cheri Samba, Malik Sidibe, Seydou Keita of whom a controversy still rages about his involvement with Pigozzi's collection): however, his collecting practices and expository models have drawn persistent criticism. Most of this criticism consists of muffled grumbling by scholars who regard his interventions with a large measure of scorn. These scholars will do well to speak up loudly and make their voices heard. The point is not only that we are displeased with his problematic inscription of Africa (and in fact, we are), it is that Pigozzi is literally squandering a great opportunity to rise above his egotistic focus and messiah mentality. If he is truly interested in scholarship and in the nuances of African creativity, he should sponsor detailed analysis of the artists in this holding to enable scholars determine exactly how they are significant and their role in the larger exegesis of cultural development. This would be a worthwhile goal instead of the vanity publications that accompany exhibitions of his collections which serve well as coffee table books but are literally useless as discursive texts. But to engage in such enlightened protocol will obviously challenge Pigozzi's perception of himself as a later day David Livingstone carving a path through the thorny jungles in the heart of darkness to rescue African artists who have no sense of their self worth. This idea, that African art has no value until it is mediated by Western collectors, is precisely what needs to be challenged.

Anne Somers Cocks' interview with Pigozzi in the Art Newspaper is titled In Search of Purity from Africa and this sums up the problematic nature of Pigozzi's intervention in the discourse of contemporary African art. This interview is disturbing for the blanket statements it makes about African art, and African peoples in general (TAN: Do you go round Africa yourself? JPigozzi: I have never been to Africa. I want to keep my illusion about it being a nice, friendly place). As a response, it might be worth rereading my recent posting in which I criticized this tendency to enshrine informally trained artists as the core representatives of contemporary African creativity (See Africa's Interlocutors Part II). We are lucky to have intelligent interlocutors such as Okwui Enwezor, Olu Oguibe, N'Gone Fall, Simon Njami, Mario Pisarra, Bisi Silva and many others whose work demonstrates the variety of global African creativity to which they bring erudite interpretation. I don't always agree with everything they do or say about contemporary African art but at least I can never fault them for purveying the kind of crass primitivism that Pigozzi profits from. But then, this is what happens when we abandon the field of discourse to people whose principal desire is to merely profit from their engagements with Africa. Pigozzi has profited handsomely from his investment in contemporary African art. He can now afford to, and should, regard his collection and engagement with Africa with more nuance. He can start by at least visiting the continent and taking a first hand look at the people and artists from whom he has amassed over 10,000 artworks and objects.

Dec 11, 2007

Grim Comedy of Errors

As a follow up on my earlier posts on Borders and Access, consider this grim comedy of errors (though the protagonist is surely not laughing). A news item in the Nigerian Vanguard newspaper reports that an African American man and US citizen was mistakenly deported to Nigeria by the American government after serving a jail term in the USA. The man Mr. Ernest Eugene Grayson was then arrested and charged in Nigeria for loitering around the US Embassy, where he was hoping to have this mistake corrected. According to the news report, Mr. Grayson, now embroiled in a Nigerian court case, told the court while giving evidence, "that he was born on September 3, 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina to Mr Grayson and Ms Sylvia Atkins, adding that he is not a Nigerian and had only heard of Nigeria in current affairs where he lived at Brooklyn, New York City, which he described as a community of African blacks". The report also said that Mr. Grayson's counsel "told the court that her client had given his social security number, asking what stopped the American Embassy, with all their sophistication, from cross-checking the information provided by her client, adding that the injustices of her client’s deportation to a country he has never lived was compounded by the refusal of the American Embassy to take his finger prints and do a DNA test as the accused person had requested". "She submitted that the accused person was not criminally liable as he is a victim of circumstances, stressing that it is shocking and pathetic for her client to be uprooted from the only home he knows just because of the color of his skin".

It will be interesting to get the American Embassy's side of this story but the newspaper reports that it had shown no interest in responding to this matter. My commentary does not negate the fact that the man in question served a prison term in the USA but instead focuses on why he should afterwards be deported to Nigeria if indeed he is an American citizen (other than the fact that he is a black man). In that regard this story, if true, provides a very pertinent commentary on the nebulous and very fragile nature of African existence in the Western world.

Dec 10, 2007

AFRICA'S INTERLOCUTORS: Lize van Robbroeck in conversation with Sylvester Ogbechie (Part III)

LvR: Responses to the Africa Remix exhibition seem to indicate a new trend to dispense with politically correct responses to African art in the West, and to revert to a more open racism and cultural imperialism that is disturbingly reminiscent of the colonial era. What, to your mind, is eliciting this response? What, do you feel, would be an appropriate response to this blatant neo-colonialism?

SO: This response arises from a new confidence in the Western project of imperialism, which has been growing in leaps and bounds since the fall of the Soviet Union. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York (September 11, 2001) may have provided the basis for a bold move to bring the rest of the world under the control of the West through the might of the USA. Without demeaning the suffering of those who died in this attack or minimizing the threat posed by terrorism, it is obvious that this incident provided the US with a chance to try and remake the world in its own image, by making it safe for transnational predatory capitalism. This effort has run into significant resistance in Iraq, and is increasingly unraveling but nevertheless persistent. The racism and neo-colonial adventurism of the West emerges in light of the new feeling of global dominance described above. The Manichean division of the world into “us” (the US-led block of white Western nations) and ‘terrorists’ (describing actual terrorists and all else who oppose the American grab for global power in the post-Soviet era) has diminished the constraints imposed by pleas for greater social equality and global justice that framed much of the last half of the 20th century. Without anyone to be accountable to, racism has re-emerged in the West as a favored way of dealing with non-white peoples. I have in press an article that investigates the persistence of this Western colonial mindset and its racist effects, which allows us to compare the US invasion of Iraq in 1991 and 2003 with the British invasion of Benin in 1897. The similarities in the modus operandi and reasons proffered for both invasions are scary. But really, in a world where you do not have to bother about the humanity or equality of someone you are intent on subjugating, racism and barbarism rules; witness the current conflagration in the Middle East. What is the appropriate response to this current racism, neo-colonialism and imperialism? Frantz Fanon suggests that oppositional struggle in an inevitable response to oppression. One hopes for a more reasonable engagement with our shared humanity although contemporary political struggles suggest that Fanonian opposition may ultimately become the norm.

LvR: One of the major conundrums facing African artists is the issue of pre-selection in exhibitions on African art in the West. You mention in your response to Brian Sewell’s review of Africa Remix that Western curators are only prepared to showcase work by African artists that have already been validated by their selection for prior shows or if they feature in major collections (artists such as Samba come to mind). It is therefore an unfortunate byproduct of the West’s centrality that the canon of African art is determined by Western curators and collectors. How can this issue be addressed?

SO: I really have no idea what can be done about this since this issue derives again from Western control of technologies of discourse. The problems engendered by the Western desire to create and sustain its idea of a canon of African art (traditional and modern) are the same deriving from the West’s subjugation of black peoples in the wider order of things. He who pays the piper dictates the tune, and as long as the West has this inordinate power to dictate the discourse, it might be impossible to create any meaningful opposition . The question of canon formation is one of power and it has played out in other sectors. Take South Africa for example: under its international isolation during the apartheid regimes, South African art history created its own narrative of national practice which mostly engaged local white art and denied adequate representation to black art or global art for that matter. This approach was roundly criticized and after the end of apartheid, South African art history has made attempts to become very inclusive. However, less than 14 years after apartheid, there are major exhibitions in South Africa devoted to Randlord art, and intense efforts are being made to re-legitimise much of the white art that was promoted during apartheid. In addition, white South African artists are being more easily incorporated into the global art discourse while black South African art of the resistance period is being undermined as propaganda art. This practice ironically absorbs white South African artists into an international network of global apartheid in which their works become easily more valued and valuable than the work of black artists. The white artists benefit from this pre-selection process that at the same time undermines their fellow black South African artists.

We are confronted here with a truly insidious problem of global inequality and racism, which is going to be very difficult to overcome. I sat at a panel during eKAPA and listened to a white South African artist declare that after a decade of post-apartheid, he was free to not have to bother about its history or the fate of black art, thus free to make any kind of art he wanted. At a conference at the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles, I raised this issue and a panelist told me that she was not obliged to worry about the question of Western colonial power every time she wanted to talk about modernism. This kind of blanket dismissal assumes that the issues have been resolved and we can now move on, and it reflects a very problematic lack of sensibility of the part of these individuals, an unwillingness common to white people who steadfastly refuse to interrogate how they benefit from the structures of global racism.

I should reiterate here that we can’t solve the above problem by asking Africans to create their own discourse and choose their own canon. This will be like instituting the apartheid ideal of ‘separate but equal’, which we have seen from its manifestation worldwide, actually means separate and unequal. We can ask curators to be more receptive to issues that concern African artists, and allow their selection of artworks to reflect the actual conditions of practice on the ground, but that brings us back to the question of power in the first place, and thus proves to be a diabolical circle of negation, a catch-22.

LvR: How do you think Africa’s numerous Biennales can gain greater visibility and attract greater interest globally?

SO:
They need more funds. The financial outlay for art exhibitions in the West is astounding, mainly because these exhibitions are folded into major programs of civic development. The budget for DocumentaXI was in the range of 27 million Euros, and major exhibitions in the USA often easily top $5 million. Western countries use art exhibitions and cultural events as a money-mill, establishing an iconic identity that draws tourism and benefits the local economy. African Biennales have to aspire to that kind of total package in order to increase their visibility. That said, we have to engage the ethics of diverting huge national funds to African Biennales in a context in which the countries in question have not created useful infrastructure to engage this kind of practice. There is a legitimate question of whether it is right for African countries to try to replicate Western forms and institutions of visual culture such as museums and biennales. By replicating these institutions, African countries are locked into a subsidiary role in the international marketplace of ideas. Outside of South Africa, I see no possibility of any African country being able to benefit immensely from the tourism that such events attract not because they are incapable of creating tourist industries, but because there is often concerted efforts by the West to sabotage African tourism by declaring most African countries unsafe to travel in.

We may also need to rethink the idea of Biennales as the primary location for exhibiting and promoting global art. Biennales not only extend the history of West’s World Fair ideology, they also explicitly bring contemporary art into the purview and control of global capital. Both aspects make it a problematic model for African countries to follow, the first for validating the racist heritage of the Biennale model, the second for not taking into consideration the fact that lack of adequate capital often makes a mockery of such grandiose programs.

LvR: You have expressed doubts, in your response to Sewell’s review of Africa Remix, about the desirability of exhibitions with a continental or Pan-African scope. Would you like to discuss why you have such reservations? Do you feel that there are possible strategic benefits to be had from organizing such a show on African soil?


SO: I have written a sustained critique of this practice (which I call ‘Omnibus Exhibitions’), but I am not against them per se. I only ask that curators who produce such shows take full responsibility for them and not try to pass them off as groundbreaking efforts to do one new thing or another. The continued tendency to mass ‘Africa’ into one lump has become quite insulting, since it negates a focus on what distinguishes peoples from various parts of the continents and makes mockery of regional, national or even cultural political aspirations. Omnibus exhibitions are laundry lists and unfortunately will be here with us for a while to come. However, critics can and should make an effort to find new ways to engage African art. Ways that respect the individuality of artists and cultural producers, while giving an audience clear explanations of how things come to be. As to the strategic benefits of organizing such a show on African soil, why not? Large exhibitions allow us to interact with a wide range of artworks and can be as inclusive as possible. We are often forced into this kind of continental overview because funds for major exhibitions of African art arrive intermittently and are often seen as best spent in this manner. What curators should not lose sight of is the need to create new ways of engaging African art.

Concluded

AFRICA'S INTERLOCUTORS: Lize van Robbroeck in conversation with Sylvester Ogbechie (Part II)

LvR: In an attempt to dislodge Western (in Enwezor’s terms) ‘pornographic’ presuppositions about naïve and primitive Africa, Diaspora African intellectuals have made a concerted effort to re-present contemporary African art as cutting edge, sophisticated and competitive. In the process they often tend to focus on African artists who have had some kind of access, ironically, to Western art training. Yet, when I recently acted as external examiner for an art department at a prominent East African university, I was struck by how little infrastructure the art school had. The students have no access to computers, the rooms are small and barely equipped, and the standard materials they have to work with are cartridge paper and poster paints. The theory syllabus seems to deal largely with local art and is almost exclusively Afrocentric. Given that this seems to be the norm for African universities, how can African students compete with students from the ‘international’ arena who have access to the latest technologies, who regard themselves as part of a global, trans-national art arena, and who are immersed in contemporary art discourses? Is it necessary for African artists to compete?

SO: I guess the issue is twofold: judged by international (which means, Western) standards, of course one would argue that the lack of resources hampers the ability of African artists to compete globally. After all it is difficult to imagine that they can realize their best potential without adequate tools. However, the Afrocentric focus of the students mentioned above is not necessarily a liability. I teach in the USA and I know that American schools are equally ethnocentric, and most Western art schools do not give any attention to art practices from Africa or outside of the West for that matter. In fact, most of my students know absolutely nothing about Africa. However, the products of Western art students are seen as somehow more ‘universal’ than those from Africa. Why is it that African concerns are not a valid subject for art in the West but the work that results from this marginalization of the continent is not seen as parochial? The ‘global trans-national’ arena of ‘contemporary art’ is too often a limited terrain, in which the same individuals are recycled endlessly.

The lack of infrastructure remains, however, a persistent problem in African education, and it raises the legitimate question of how various governments view art in the larger scheme of national development. Let’s face it: the value of art is directly proportional to its use as an expression of power (aesthetic, political, cultural, social, etc., but power nevertheless). In a struggling economy, people wonder whether it is proper to devote money to promoting fine arts or such practices when other sectors of the national economy equally need funding. Also, when African governments like Nigeria and Senegal have tried to expand funding in the arts, usually World Bank policies force them to cut these funds and direct more money to paying off external debts. Also, it is important to note that the kind of art that you refer to above reflects European practices of art, which reifies the singular product and is treated as a commodity that supposedly has intrinsic value. I have argued elsewhere that African conceptions of art differ and that contemporary art is now moving towards a non-Western conception of art that emphasizes process and performance rather than product. Whether African countries should devote huge funds towards exhibiting these new kinds of art is a question to ponder.

I am not sure that we should expect African art students to compete in the sense of requiring them to engage issues in a manner consistent with what obtains in Europe. Critical practice (and great art) results from encounters with space, in its sense as a location from which one engages the world. No one lives in ‘transnational space’; one lives in Lagos, London, Lubumbashi or Luxemborg. I think the more important question is why we consistently refuse to take African creativity on its own merit. Don’t get me wrong: I have been a merciless critic of the laziness of some African artists who routinely recycle favored motifs using a hackneyed negritude as shield from public criticism. However, there are quite a lot of very innovative art coming out of Africa. If we dismiss this work because it doesn’t look like the art coming out of New York, we do it great injustice. That said, I travel often to New York to see what is in the galleries, and it strikes me that the return of narrative painting in the West actually mirrors similar kinds of art in Africa, Nigeria most especially. In an era when John Currin, Odd Nerdrum and other figurative artists are prominent, we may be making a mistake in what we perceive as ‘contemporary art’ in the West, which in recent times have turned emphatically figurative and parochial.

It is obvious that an increase in technology will greatly expand the capability and vision of contemporary African artists in Africa. The pertinent question however is whether we are not placing too much emphasis on the value of technology as a thing in itself. The vast amount of technology available in the West does not seem to me to be increasing the quality of art out there; rather it has often driven Western artists to nihilism by enshrining a demand for ever more esoteric forms of newness.

LvR: (a) Given the flourishing and prolific informal production of art (especially for the tourist market) in Africa, do you feel that there is a need for academic art training in Africa? (b) Do you think that the common workshop situation, where young artists are apprenticed to experienced older artists, perhaps supplies Africa with enough art expertise to dispense with institutional art praxis?

SO: No to both questions. You cannot dispense with institutional art education/praxis and to even suggest such a thing is scandalous (it raises the very racist idea that Africans have an innate creative spark which is best represented by artists who have no formal education—I call this the ‘Pigozzi Paradigm’ and Africanist scholars have fought against its presumptions for decades). For one, art historians have been unwilling to grant tourist art any measure of critical validation and we can’t posit any alternative to formal or institutional art education unless we are prepared to engage the tourist art market with a high degree of critical analysis. So far, tourist art is routinely dismissed although it is obvious that it is more ubiquitous than products of institutional praxis. I have in recent times started to interrogate tourist art as evidence of a new kind of visual culture engendered by the totalizing force of transnational capital. These artworks are literally ‘objects’ that become invested with value through the validating power of Western institutions rather than by their intrinsic or cultural characteristics.

We however make a major error when we focus too much on tourist art or expect this kind of production to take the place of institutional training and praxis. Academic art training (actually ‘formal education’ is a better term) does not merely provide the artist with practical skills for art making; Art institutions define for students their location on the continuum of visual culture and material production in the arts seen from the specificity of contemporary cultural practice. For European artists, this invariably means a study of the development of art in Europe and its reification of genius in the practice of individual artists whose localized production were often held up as examples of ‘universal’ ideals to which art aspires. For the colonized or formerly colonized subject, the issue of locale is paramount since he/she lives in contested relationship with the production of European artists with whom it is difficult to establish any cultural affinity. Colonial ideology denigrates the indigenous art of colonized populations and expects colonial subjects’ encounter with European culture to be the defining impetus of their subsequent creativity. Contemporary African artists who obtain formal education receive a critical apparatus that enables them to deal with this contested heritage and subsequently allow them to intervene in the production of narratives about their contexts of practice. Producers of tourist art and other informally trained artists (except those actively promoted by local or foreign curators) often lack this awareness of their role or position in their cultural context of practice. They are also often not given credit for their work (most tourist art are ‘anonymous’ although the dealers often know who produces them, much like most traditional African art in Western museums are identified as anonymous productions), which allows these artists to be truly spoken for. Finally, by reducing their work to the status of commodities, the artists and their works are undervalued, which ensures that whatever benefit accrues from collecting such work goes directly to the mostly European collector who ends up creating provenance for the artworks by virtue of his status as its collector (African artworks in the West are often identified less by their African producers and more by their European collectors. The works gain value from their inclusion in Western collections and modes of provenance). The ultimate result of the above process is that tourist art and its modes of dissemination carry on a clearly colonialist process of appropriation which reduces African creativity to ‘tribal’ and ‘cultural’ objects in order to deny them any significant value in the global market and discourse of ideas.

The above process silences the producers of tourist art, and this is why they can never emerge as active agents in any discourse of cultural practice. It is not that they aren’t aware of their roles or activities, but that they are denied the opportunity to see their practice as anything beyond the production of objects of mere economic subsistence. To suggest that this category of cultural producers mitigates any need for formal or academic training for African artists is to engage in the worst form of racism possible. In the USA, tourist art abound, but no one has yet suggested that the art schools close down because of the abundance of folk artists who churn out endless numbers of velvet Elvis paintings. Note however, that the American art market and discourse has found ingenuous ways to elevate artists formerly regarded as producers of tourist art into the canon of American masters. At a recent meeting of the College Arts Association (the umbrella organization of art historians in the USA), a whole panel was devoted to Thomas Kincaid, who is clearly a producer of tourist art; and artists like Norman Rockwell are quickly being canonized. However this attention is selective, and the art market in the USA makes a definite distinction between the works of academically trained artists who work within the gallery system, and those who operate in the informal art market (by which I mean those who sell their works at art fairs, and often make more money doing so). When critics want to take the measure of cultural practice, they analyze the works of the artists who work within the gallery system, not those who operate outside of it. I think the same system should apply to African artists.

LvR: Most of the art produced on the African continent today is unfashionable in ‘international’ terms. A lot of the art may be described as nationalistic; or primitivistic (in the sense that it hearkens back to a romanticisation of tradition in a Negritudinist vein); or as a kind of formalistic Modernism. What are your feelings about the relative isolation and conservatism of the African art scene?

SO: We have to decide as scholars whether we are interested in studying African art as it is practiced, or in prescribing for Africans what African contemporary art ought to be and then seeking practitioners who fit this mold. I think scholars have not quite worked hard enough to identify the different strands of work done by African artists but even if we think we have, it is arrogant to imagine that the West can prescribe conditions of artistic practice for Africans. I have long maintained that most Western curators dismiss figurative art from Africa (which you describe above as nationalistic, primitivist, romantic, or Negritudinist) because they simply do not know how to read them. When an artwork invokes cultural icons of significance to its African audience, it is often dismissed as parochial and unimaginative. Yet, there are vast resources devoted to artworks that reflect nationalist and figurative ideals in American art, many of which are now being promoted as ‘cutting edge’ . These works, very similar in style and substance to Yaba School art from Nigeria, is not denigrated. Instead, it is highly praised. Western scholars casually dismiss figurative art from Africa because they lack knowledge of its cultural context and have deemed these cultural contexts to be marginal and thus not of importance. This celebrates the ignorance of Western critics while accepting their biased judgment as credible. There has not been any exhibition in the West devoted to figurative art from Africa, at the scale of other kinds of major exhibitions. The principal artists who worked in this medium have not had their day because their works have narrative components that require deep knowledge of cultural history and politics. It is easy to apply postmodernist jargon to the work of Diaspora artists, and celebrate their transnational existence (which is basically a lie since these artists carry Western passports and live quite comfortably in specific national spaces). Until we have exhibitions that engage figurative work from Africa, I don’t think scholars have any right to judge this work negatively. Primum vivere, deinde philosophari (‘Live first, then philosophise’, as the Latin proverb goes). First subject the works to appropriate critical analysis, then judge it in any way you want. You can’t jump to judgment without first engaging the works.

I am not saying that we don’t have bad art from Africa. However, in this era after postmodernism, after a period in which Western scholars vigorously argued that anything can be art, to continue to insist on this summary dismissal of African figurative art is quite hypocritical. If anything can be art, then it should be possible to engage figurative art and especially tourist art from Africa as legitimate contexts of artistic practice, especially since they deal with those issues - such as displacement, boundaries, the glocal and the instability of identity and representation - which you identify as resonating with postmodern academic discourse. It is hideously biased to assume that these issues have resonance only in the West. Africans travel much farther than most Westerners ever do in their lifetimes, and it is wrong to assume that the above issues do not figure in their works, even in those who mainly live and work on the continent. What we should be doing, if we are to be honest as scholars, is to try to figure out (through detailed and unbiased analysis) how African artists engage such issues in their figurative art.

Continued in Part III

AFRICA’S INTERLOCUTORS: Lize van Robbroeck in conversation with Sylvester Ogbechie (Part I)

The following post (in three parts) is an interview conducted by Lize van Robbroeck (LvR) with me (SO) in 2006, originally as part of a proposed Cape Platform publication on Africa's Interlocutors. The project fell through and I have decided to post the interview to my blog. Dr. Lize van Robbroeck is a senior lecturer in visual studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
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Africa's Interlocutors: Lize van Robbroeck in conversation with Sylvester Ogbechie.

While many have criticized the representation of Africa by western curators, few voices have been as openly critical of Africa’s representation by Africans in the diaspora as Dr. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie. Apart from an interest in the issue of interlocution, Dr. Ogbechie’s research focuses on alternative modernities, and the colonial and postcolonial conventions of representation in the arts and visual cultures of African and African Diaspora populations.

Born in Nigeria, Ogbechie is a faculty of the department of History of Arts and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He serves in several advisory and consultative capacities, and his writings have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. A self-declared “cultural entrepreneur” Ogbechie recently inaugurated a scholarly discourse on contemporary African visual culture and new media from the perspective of the Nigerian video film industry. In addition, he founded Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture, a bold initiative aimed at providing opportunities for publication of detailed research on African topics. His monograph on pioneering African modernist artist Ben Enwonwu is forthcoming.


LvR: One of the most distinguishing features of colonialist discourse is the tendency to speak on behalf of the colonized Other. The result is that the representation of African culture has been an almost exclusively Western preserve for centuries. While the need for self-representation is frequently raised by Africans, it seems that it is not easily attained. Could you discuss some of the problems Africans are encountering in their efforts to be heard?

SO: The principal problem that Africans encounter in their effort to be heard is that they are subject to the hegemony of Western discourses. The hegemony of the West is most evident in its control of technologies of discourse (publishing, research funding, museum access, academic appointments, etc.), and lack of access to these impedes the production of knowledge about Africa. Second, the work and opinion of Western scholars are valued far higher than those of African scholars . Third, African scholars have a very difficult time publishing in the USA especially when they try to publish books on African subjects. I spent four years trying to get various University presses in the USA to accept a manuscript about Ben Enwonwu, one of the foremost African artists of the 20th century, and all except one of them rejected it outright. One went as far as claiming that analysis of Enwonwu’s art does not fit into their understanding of art history. Usually, publishers dismiss books on African subjects by claiming that they do not have a market for them. However, by not publishing in these areas, they ensure that no market emerges or at least they can continue to claim that there is no market for these books. In my field of art history, you can find countless books on even the most insignificant white artists but it is hard to find decent texts that analyze modern and contemporary African artists. Additionally, 98% of all publications on African art in the USA are exhibition catalogs that often promote the collection of one or another Western collector, and publishing in African art history is indelibly yoked to the needs of the art market for “tribal” art.

True power, according to Louis Marin, consists of the ability to silence discourse. The West has this power and African interlocutors in recent times have struggled mightily to wrench some measure of this power away from the West. It is obvious that this effort, while yielding some results, is not necessarily working well. For one, the continued impoverishment of the continent prevents the development of valuable means of producing and disseminating information. Bad governance by African rulers has a lot to do with this situation but so does the use of global financial control to cripple African aspiration in order to make the continent’s wealth available to the West.

One thing I found when I came to the USA was that there was a lot of misinformation about Africa, including from scholars who have actually devoted a lot of time to the study of various African peoples. These scholars were extremely knowledgeable about many African practices but many of them lacked adequate language skills suitable to their subjects of study. Nevertheless, the research of Western scholars is often validated far above the cultural knowledge of someone who actually emerges from the cultures in question. Behind this issue is the assumption that African knowledge is easily accessible to an interviewer, which is often far from the case. This doesn’t mean that someone is more credible merely because they come from the culture concerned (the insider-interlocutor paradigm) but that Western scholars often do not question their modes of knowledge production (which often consist of securing second-hand knowledge from interviews with local interlocutors), yet their research is seen as more objective and unassailable.

Finally, we have to consider the role of museums in this whole issue. The discourse of art is one of the most mediated discourses in the entire field of humanities. Artworks are objects of great financial and political value in the West and the reification of artworks supports a massive industry that venerates artworks as cultural artifacts. Museums are the high temples of this new form of worship. A colleague once told me that museums are the quintessential foundations of Western hegemony and their power will never be broken. Museums serve as the funnel through which African artworks are transformed into Westernized objects. Museums break down African art objects and invest them with new meanings. They provide the cover of “objective analysis” that allows these objects to be redefined according to Western interests, and above all, they ensure that the value of the objects is directly proportional to the provenance they attach to it. Museums are also the repository of the great looting of African cultural patrimony by Western colonial powers. There are scholars who have argued for a closer look at the role of museums in this regard, and its role in silencing oppositional statements about art collections. Usually such focus is discouraged.

So overall, African scholars confront great obstacles in their effort to redirect the manner in which knowledge about African art is created and disseminated in the West. Their continued marginalization is a testament to the hegemony of Western control of discourse. There is an often-heard argument that African scholars should not expect to be well treated in the West or have the West be overly concerned with Africans’ lack of access to Western knowledge sectors. This argument asserts that Africans should develop their own technologies of discourse and use it to counter Western hegemony. It is a facile argument since we exist in a global culture and the whole point of Western hegemony is to undermine the emergence of alternative centers of power or discourse that can challenge its control. African scholars and artists are right to insist on engaging Western culture on its own terrain, since the West’s reach is global and hegemonic.

LvR: In the last few decades, Diaspora African artists, intellectuals and curators such as Okwui Enwezor, Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe and yourself have made a concerted effort to gain a platform in the West as interlocutors and re-presenters of African art. Do you feel that Diaspora Africans are perhaps ideally situated (since they are in the West, but of Africa) to perform this task? Or do you feel that there are also disadvantages to the fact that African artists are today largely represented by Diaspora writers and curators?

SO:
I do think there are distinct advantages to the increasing prominence of Diaspora voices in the West, but I have also criticized our willingness to throw African-based practices and artists overboard in the process. There are advantages to being in the West, but of Africa; however, we need to be aware that extended duration of life as an expatriate cuts one off from the flow of cultural practice in Africa. While I keep abreast of developments in contemporary Nigerian art, my study-from-a-distance approach is essentially research-based in the same manner as that of any other scholar. So although I have the advantage of being familiar with the context of artistic practice in Nigeria, it is also true that I have minimal knowledge of the subtle movements of taste and critical responses since I left my country. I see this most clearly in my lack of knowledge about contemporary Nigerian music. I am simply not au courante with current tastes in music, which is usually a good indicator that one has lost touch with the flow of cultural life. I am sure this has an impact on my work as an art historian, and I have recently tried to rectify this gap by becoming interested in visual culture, especially that of the newly popular Nollywood-Nigerian film industry.

In essence, I am saying that our presence in the West has advantages but also has a cost. We have very definitely changed the tenor of the discourse here, and have in various manners shaped the direction of the field in significant ways. However, the longer we stay here, the clearer we identify with the West and the more difficult it is to claim to speak for Africa. In fact, I have never claimed to do such a thing, but I have always insisted on speaking to my own experience and scholarship. And I think being of Africa is very important to that experience, and that it has some value to our collective discourse on African art and culture.

LvR: It is a fact that Diaspora studies are a very fashionable academic topic at the moment. The reasons for this seem to reside in the fact that Diaspora raises many pertinent questions about cultural identity and the politics of the global and the local. There are, however, increasingly fears that this focus on Diaspora constitutes a second wave of marginalization of Africans and the complexities and problems of the African cultural milieu. What are your feelings about this?

SO: Diaspora studies are relevant and can help integrate Africa into global history, by showing the impact of peoples of African descent on the production of the modern world - a project that they essentially bore on their back but are routinely denied credit for. However, fears that this new vogue and focus on Diaspora studies might be a new way to marginalize Africa are not unfounded. I have vehemently opposed the attempt to position Diaspora Africans as representatives of African cultural practice. This project is no less colonialist in nature than the Western attempt to speak for Africa. There is undoubtedly a need for interlocutors and no one can argue against the good has come out of the curatorial work done by Okwui Enwezor and others. However, I watched in amazement as museums in the West use the works of Diaspora African artists to fill their collections of ‘contemporary African art’. This endeavor effaces Africans from the site of their own creativity and continues to sanction Western preferences over the actual practice of African artists. It is historically immoral, intellectually unethical, and quite insulting to African artists who live and work on the continent. Africa is a mess, and there is unwillingness in the West to take responsibility for helping create the mess Africa is in, and also a desire to not be bothered with this anymore. In that regard, the focus on the African Diaspora has similar impact as the use of African artists based in the West to represent contemporary African art in general. Both deflect attention from the cultural environments of African artists based on the continent and promote the idea that this region has nothing significant to contribute to contemporary global art practice or discourses. The focus on Diaspora African artists must operate in tandem with a focus on Africans who live and work on the continent. (To use an example, there are large numbers of Irish emigrants in Chicago, but nobody goes to Chicago to study “contemporary Irish art”).

Continued in Part II

"I Am Not Afraid: The Market Photo Workshop" in Austria

Camera Austria, a notable journal of contemporary photography, launched its 100th issue with an exhibition of South African photography from the MarketPhoto Workshop which opened on November 30 in Graz, Austria. Photographers in the exhibition included Bonile Bam, Jodi Bieber, Lerato Maduna, Sabelo Mlangeni, Zanele Muholi and Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko. Founded by David Goldblatt in the late 1980s, the Market Photo Workshop trains aspiring photographers to develop a critical engagement with the medium and also fosters collaborative partnerships with local and global institutions.
"I'm not afraid: The Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg" is accompanied by the 100th issue of Camera Austria International, a platform through which the photographs explore issues of violence, sexual politics, and economic parity. A symposium on December 1 was also included as part of the overall program. Photos posted here copyright Eva Ocherbauer, 2007. Click here for additional pictures from the event.

Notable Person: Nike

My notable person for this week is the internationally acclaimed Nigerian artist, cultural activist and social entrepreneur, Chief Monika Nike Davies Okundaye, aka Nike. A foremost batik artist, Nike has transformed the classical Yoruba textile art of Adire (indigo resist dyeing into a global art form and has been singularly associated with its contemporary revival. As a result, she has been written up in the most prestigious international has lectured at the most prestigious institutions worldwide and constantly uses her skill to elevate the status of women in society. In fact, Nike's enduring legacy resides in the cultural centers she set up in Oshogbo to teach women the art of batik textile production. Many graduates of her center have since set up profitable trades in textile production and through this achieve a measure of economic independence. Nike provides training free of charge and is very generous with her time and knowledge. As Juliet Highet noted (in "African Renaissance: Contemporary Nigerian Art from Oshogbo and Ile-Ife") "Nike represents the new breed of African woman artist, many of whose realities are now international, though in essence they are perpetuating the living tradition of female artists and 'cloth-queens', controlling heady empires of fabric - wealthy powerful women. Nike's concerns may differ and her range of techniques may have expanded from those of their ancestors, but they are still working with cloth... The passion of her life, she declares, is to help emancipate Nigerian women through art. She had an extremely tough early life, and having broken free of an unhappy first marriage, is determined to inspire other women to expand their horizons. 'The resurgence of interest in local cloth in Nigeria is helping women to become more financially independent".

Nike's achievements are great but her generosity is even greater. Rob Aft and I visited Nike at her Lekki residence (Nike Art Center Lagos) on Sunday morning December 9 at 8.45am and she kindly received us, had her gallery manager show us around, and took time to share her vast knowledge of Nigerian textiles with us . The spacious residence/center was completely filled with artworks from Nike and many other artists whose presence in her gallery benefits from the immense traffic she receives from local and foreign visitors. Nike was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary film titled For Love of Indigo, which documents her art and educational programs devoted to empowering women. Due to the broad range and impact of her art, it is no exaggeration to say that Nike is one of the most significant African artists ever and definitely the most important female artist in the history of modern Nigerian art. Pictured above, Nike; below, Rob Aft, Nike and I; one of Nike's attendants demonstrating a Yoruba textile ensemble; random sculptures on the wall of the Nike Art Center in Lagos. The lifelike metal sculptures of red-head lizards reflect a Yoruba saying that the presence of red-head lizards indicates a peaceful environment since they would immediately run from a threatening environment.


Grand Opening: Center for Contemporary Arts Lagos

Nigerian curator Bisi Silva has accomplished an extraordinary feat in setting up the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, which formally opened on Saturday December 8, 2007 with an inaugural exhibition of the album cover art of Ghariokwu Lemi, resident artist of the Afrika 70 organization of renowned Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Ghariokwu started designing album covers for Fela at the age of nineteen until Fela's death in 1997 during which he produced over 23 album covers in an iconic style that became inseparable from Fela's music. The Black President, as Fela was widely known, threw down the gauntlet to many corrupt Nigeria governments and was actively persecuted for his political views. Ghariokwu's album covers captured the political and sometimes surrealist antics of Fela in vivid imagery and represent a very unique achievement in contemporary African art. He is widely collected and internationally acclaimed for this work especially since Fela's death and subsequent immortalization of the Afrobeat legend's memory in books, documentaries and other media (see for example, the excellent analysis of Fela's music by Tejumola Olaniyan titled Arrest the Music, and also the Fela Project website).

The inaugural exhibition of Bisi Silva's Center for Contemporary Art-Lagos was well attended by Lagos art glitterati including El Anatsui, a trustee of the CCA-Lagos, Ndidi Dike, veteran Nigerian actor Olu Jacobs, Joke Silva (the curator's sister), and other supporters of the program. The event was chaired by Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi (pictured left with Ndidi Dike), renowned Nigerian art collector and businessman, who called on everyone to support the center and assist in its growth and sustenance. The exhibition was declared open by acclaimed Nigerian printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya, who commended Silva on the effort it took to secure the spacious building for the CCA-Lagos and set up its internal components. The Center includes an exhibition space, a library, workshop centers and lecture hall. In all, it looks like a promising venture and Bisi Silva already set an ambitious pace for the center by scheduling three inaugural exhibitions. No doubt, her curatorial skills and experience with global art exhibitions will come in handy, especially with regard to her work on the last Dak'Art Biennalle where she was one of six associate curators. Aachronym wishes Bisi Silva and CCA-Lagos a good run. Pictured top: Bisi Silva and guests at the opening; above, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Lemmy Ghariokwu; below, Chief Gbadamosi giving the opening addresss, Ghariokwu speaking about his art, and below, Onobrakpeya, Anatsui and I.


Back to Black (apologies Amy Winehouse)

I'm back in Berlin after my hectic but very fulfilling trip to Lagos. On Saturday last week, one day after I arrived Lagos, I met up with Rob Aft of Consultant Compliance Consulting, a Hollywood-based firm that consults on film finance and distribution. It was his first trip to Nigeria and I was essentially ensuring that his travel unfolded without complications. Rob turned out to be a seasoned traveler and at the end of his trip, while we were waiting to check in at Muritala Mohammed International Airport, he commented that his experience of Nigeria had been quite pleasant and not at all tainted by the kind of problems he often saw expressed in Western reportage of Africa. He had been on the ground in many countries on the cusp of change (China and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, many parts of Asia undergoing economic transformation, Dubai and the UAE, etc.) and he recognized in Lagos the same frantic pace of change he witnessed in those countries all of which saw important economic and political transformation in subsequent years. Undoubtedly, it helped to have someone with experience of Nigeria show him around but I think his statement is significant since it recognizes that Lagos is increasingly tied to the global flow of capital and culture. Time Out has published its first insider's guide to Nigeria in which Lagos gets significant coverage. This means that Nigeria and its economic and cultural capital, Lagos, is now on the list of international youth tourism destinations, defined as a place where you can actually travel albeit with appropriate precautions: this international focus will in time increase the flow of people to the country.

Rob Aft certainly enjoyed his visit and was able to see aspects of Lagos that elicit the fanatical devotion of everyone who lives there even as they complain about its gridlocked streets, chaotic contexts and muse about the its feral edge. I noticed that a lot of the gridlocked traffic was due to construction projects for new roads, HOV lanes for buses, the vast Bar Beach (Atlantic Coast) revitalization project, planned developments in many parts of Lagos including Ikoyi and Lekki, etc. In short, vast new infrastructural development is under construction and as they come online, the face of Lagos will be changed for the better. At meetings with business magnates, investment fund managers, bankers, cultural development experts and the general public, I detected a great optimism in their visions of the future. Vast amounts of money is flowing into Nigeria in the form of investment capital and a lot of it is reflected in the large numbers of new real estate developments for banks, corporations and others. Small Business enterprises are booming (micro-enterprise has always been a major aspect of African economies) and the wave of Chinese and Asian influx proceeds unabated with major implications for Africa/Western relationships, as evident in the recently concluded Africa/EU Summit where African leaders assertively rejected the EU's attempt to foist unfavorable terms of trade on the continent. Above all, the young are very prominent and a new generation of Nigerian youth are making important contributions to the national and global culture of the country.

In short, Lagos epitomizes the radical changes going on in Africa and Nigeria appears poised for transition out of its current status as an underdeveloped country. I have been tracking this prospective change since 1997 when I encountered Igbo traders importing massive amounts of motherboards for locally assembled computers that were sold at very cheap prices in Nigeria. Cell phone use is ubiquitous and South African companies that got into the Nigerian market early now corner the market and make extraordinary profits. The information age may finally provide black Africa with a means of leveling the playing field and will prove an important catalyst in turning the continent around. No doubt, there will be many false starts and pitfalls ahead but whatever happens, we can say for sure that this is not the Lagos or Nigeria of old. For the first time in the past two decades, it finally makes sense to invest in Nigeria and the pace of international investment is clearly spiraling. As its economic capital, Lagos will benefit greatly from the emergence of Nigeria into the global economy. I predict that I will remember the Lagos of this visit as the time when everything changed. I pray that this time, the change will be permanent and progressive. Below, guests at a reception for Rob Aft at the City Mall, Onikan Lagos. Front row from left, Tunde Kelani--a famous Nigerian Director, Rob Aft, Joke Silva--acclaimed Nigerian actress, Sylvester Ogbechie, Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago--Director of Communicating for Change, and Egbe Dawodu--President Nollywood Foundation.

Dec 6, 2007

Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos

Bisi Silva, one of the six curators of the Dakar Biennale 2006, announces the launch of the Center for Contemporary Art Lagos with the official opening of "Artspace" and the Visual Arts Reference Library. The event is scheduled for December 8. Trustees of CCA-Lagos include El Anatsui, Bisi Silva, Joke Jacobs, Kehinde Oyeleke and Valerie Edozien-Nwogbe.

NIgeria Trip (Images)

Some more photographs from my trip to Nigeria. A night view of the City Mall at Onikan; below, a residential mansion at the new Lekki Phase I development in Victoria Island and an Evangelical Meeting at the MUSON hall in Onikan. Evangelical Christianity is the fastest growing trend in Nigerian religion and it is matched in Northern Nigeria by an equal growth in Evangelical Islam.