Feb 29, 2008

Eyes on the Prices...

Of interest: an ART+AUCTION article describing a growing interest in African American art from art auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's. This growing interest is translating into a surge in prices paid for artworks by selected African American artists who are rapidly being canonized. It's about time that the value of African American and global African artworks rose in relation to those of Western artists. This emergent interest answers to global Capitalism's persistent need for new commodities by bringing these artists and marginal centers of art to the purview of the west, thereby making them available for consumption. Given the obvious scorn shown to collectors of African American and global African art by mainstream institutions over the past one hundred years (which led the the emergence of fully functional but essentially segregated contexts of art collecting practices in black communities), we may consider this new interest a subtle form of predatory capitalism. In this context, interest in such artworks may simply prove to be a sort of speculative market in which mainstream auction houses expend minimal resources in an effort to buy up relevant artworks and resell them for large profits, cutting out in the process the African American galleries and black art collectors who have nurtured these artists and contexts of practice in the long decades of their marginalization.

It is therefore important to state categorically that the production of value in art and art collecting is a very technical process that is currently controlled by the validation of Western institutions. One might therefore ask: does black art or global African art have any value outside of this system of validation? It appears the answer is no. If it were otherwise, it might be possible for black art collectors and artists to fully gain from the sudden interest in their works. African American artists (and collectors of global African arts in general) need to be aware that artworks, like other commodities of capitalism, have their ups and downs. Tons of Harlem renaissance figurative art form African American artists are considered worthless by mainstream American museums and galleries, ironically in a context where figurative art of white artists like John Currin are being praised to high heavens. If mainstream art auction houses become interested in African American works today, it is not because they suddenly think that African American art is intrinsically valuable but simply because they see a chance to profit from it. This is essentially a system of marginalizing a constituency and then exploiting them as a condition of their inclusion. The primary example can be seen in American banks that profit from the "Poverty Market" by denying African Americans access to banking services and then littering their neighborhoods with "Payday-Loans and Check-Cashing shops" charging murderous interest rates that any self-respecting loan-shark would consider exorbitant to make credit and loans available. The same ideal underlies the Prison-Industrial complex that directly profits from slave-system economics engendered through dispossessing African American peoples of control over their own bodies (one in three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in prison or jail) and prison stocks are routinely traded on the NYSE.

Dubois once said that the great question of the 20th century is about the color line. The great question of our age is about the economics of cultural production and how value is produced for artworks. What is the value of global African cultural knowledge and how is this value produced and consumed? Who benefits from the value created from African and African Diaspora artworks and cultural production? It behooves everyone to ensure that significant profits from the new interest in African American art reaches African American artists who toiled in obscurity for decades to make artworks but were often locked out of opportunities for showing and selling their artworks in a highly segregated mainstream contexts of gallery and museum promotion. It will be a travesty of their suffering if African American artists get marginalized in their lives and pass away with they or their families not being able to profit from their artworks. We must then pay great attention to this new gold rush to corral black cultural resources and once again dispossess black peoples of their cultural commodities. Capitalism is ruthless in its capability for rapacious exploitation: it is not moral or accommodating of naivety. African American artists should welcome the emergent interest in their artworks from mainstream auction houses but at the same time, they should demand their due. As Igbo peoples say, if you don't lick your lips, the dry harmattan winds will lick them for you, and shred them in the process.

Feb 27, 2008

Ladies-In-Waiting

2008 Shirley Kennedy Memorial Lecture

Dr. Charles Long, Emeritus Professor of Religion and former Director of the Center for Black Studies UCSB, gave the 2008 Shirley Kennedy Memorial Lecture at UCSB yesterday. The Lecture honors the late Santa Barbara activist and UCSB lecturer Shirley Kennedy who was a notable proponent of interracial and intercultural dialogue in Santa Barbara. Through her 30 years as a resident of the Santa Barbara community Shirley Kennedy devoted herself to an enormous variety of political, human rights and cultural issues. One of her last accomplishments and the one closest to her heart was her dream of seeing the opening of the Henrietta Marie exhibit, which showcased artifacts recovered from the wreck of a Slave Ship, one of th few finds documenting the actual history of the Middle Passage and its role in the Transatlantic slave trade. She brought this exhibit to Santa Barbara in 2002 after many years of research and preparation with the Building Bridges Community Coalition of which she was a founding member. Shirley Kennedy continued to teach and work for issues of social justice into the final weeks of her life. She died January 20, 2003.

Dr. Long spoke about the history of Black Studies Programs in American University from his perspective as an active participant in the creation and sustenance of these programs from the 1960s onwards. "In 1968, student protests led to the creation of the Black Studies Department and Center for Black Studies at UCSB. Charles H. Long has been a mentor, professor, and director critical to the development of what was an emerging field of African Diasporic studies. His distinguished career includes serving as the Director for the UCSB Center for Black Studies and as a professor at the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and Syracuse University. Many of the students he advised have become key scholars in African Diaspora studies and in Religious Studies." Dr. Long tied 1960s student activism to the history of African American pursuit of literacy as a reflection of the ultimate right of free peoples. He analyzed the African American intellectual tradition, reflected on the successes and failures of the Black Studies programs and suggested ways in which these programs might be reconfigured to respond to contemporary realities.

The Neverland Eviction

The BBC reports that "Pop star Michael Jackson could lose his Neverland Ranch if he fails to pay nearly $25m (£12.5m) that he owes on the sprawling California property". This outcome perhaps reflect the inevitable result of the relentless hounding that the pop star has endured over the past decade in an effort to wrest from his grip one of the largest and most lucrative land holdings in Santa Barbara county during which he was beset by lawsuits that then Santa Barbara district attorney openly gloated would generate lots of money for the county due to public interest. In that particular case, Jackson was charged with child molestation and endured a harrowing trial in which he would have surely been sent to jail for a long time had be been found guilty. The Pop Star relocated out of the USA after gaining acquital in a bid to preserve his freedom.

I want to preface this post by stating clearly that I AM AGAINST CHILD ABUSE IN ALL ITS FORMS and if Michael Jackson had ever been found guilty in court of molesting children, I would not be writing this. However, in the rather medieval context of general demands for unending punishment prevalent in popular culture today (I call it the Scarlet Letter syndrome), the taint of such an accusation makes a person accused of such charges very vulnerable since acquittal in court does not often translate into innocence in the public eye.

I remembered being horrified by nature of the charge against Michael Jackson (child molestation is a very serious offense) but also by the conduct of the Santa Barbara county district attorney's office during the Michael Jackson trial because of its public pronouncements which I thought were enough to invalidate their legal case. They spoke of cashing in on the celebrity status of the pop star and of creating a committee to maximize the profit to the county from the trial (the canibalistic protocols of this sacrificed celebrity model of economics is being played out in the grim example of Britney Spears' media free fall. The principle is the same, to profit from the public dismantling of an eccentric celebrity). I predicted then that no matter the result of his trials and tribulations, the outcome would saddle Michael Jackson with so much debt that he will have no choice but to sell Neverland. Three years later, that prediction comes to pass.

Many people who commented on this trial suggested that the charges were deliberately concocted to destroy the pop star. Such conspiracy theories abound in Black communities due to prejudicial and predatory law enforcement oversight and the perennial problem of negative racial attitudes. No doubt many of these conspiracy theories are paranoid even though history proves that the paranoid sometimes have good grounds for their paranoia, especially in the Black community where horrendous and unbelievable things have happened that are facts but hard to believe. The period in question (2001-2006) was replete with legal smackdown of major African American stars. So many major African American stars went to jail or were caught up in legal cases. Many of these individuals were rightly charged for various antisocial conduct. Still others I thought should have been less harshly treated than they were given public tolerance of other stars who escaped serious punishment for their infractions (review Robert Downey Jr's arrest record on drug possession charges and reflect on what his fate would have been were he an African American).

There is no doubt that MJ contributed to his own demise. No one should ever question his musical genius. However, the debt on Neverland is massive and Jackson's stupendous wealth has largely been frittered away on his lush lifestyle but also on his gigantic legal debts which has subsidized the lush lifestyles of several attorneys and plaintiffs over the years. In addition, the land in Santa Ynez county where Neverland Ranch is located is increasingly some of the most valuable real estate in the world and MJ's residence here has been always contentious especially since his star dimmed. We'll see if he pulls out a miracle to save his house but I won't bet on it. If Jackson is evicted from Neverland, it will mark the climax of a long battle to preserve his eccentricity. Eccentrics used to do much better in the past when their strange behavior was seen as creative. Today, difference is merely deviant.

Feb 26, 2008

Paul Gardère at Skoto Gallery

"Skoto Gallery is pleased to present "Multiple Narratives", an exhibition of recent works, mixed media on paper, by Paul Gardère . This will be his first solo show at the gallery. The exhibition runs from March 6 to April 12: reception is Thursday, March 6th, 6-8pm, and the artist will be present.

Paul Gardère was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he was raised and educated in the midst of the bourgeoisie. He came to New York at the age of fourteen. He sought art education as a teenager at the Art Students League, later obtaining a B.A at Cooper Union and an MFA at Hunter College. He has exhibited both in the U.S and in his homeland. His work is included in numerous private and public collections including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research, Jersey City Museum, Gidde Museum, Davenport, Iowa, Musée S. Pierre, Port-au-Prince, and in libraries of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum, Beinecke Library at Yale University and the Herbert Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

The formal complexity of Gardère 's work reflects the artist's mixed ancestry, his attachment to his Haitian origins as well as a mind open to the subtleties of today's art environment. His artistic means range the gamut of Western art history, including Caribbean and local American culture. The theme "Multiple Narratives", refers to the confluence of these diverse sources. The work is resolutely committed to figuration although there are no specific story lines here. It is the simultaneous presentation of many iconic sources that eventually create powerfully expressive perspectives at once biographical, social and historical. Gardère's considerable knowledge of art history and its context, as well as his impressive technical control allow him to stand at a point where cultures overlap and new meanings are generated". (Culled from Skoto Gallery. Illustrated above: Paul Gardère, American Cousins (detail), 2007, wood, paper, pigment, 50x60 inches.).

Feb 25, 2008

Isaac Julien at UCSB

Acclaimed British artist Isaac Julien is the subject of an upcoming art exhibition at the University Art Museum (UAM) of the University of California Santa Barbara. Julien is presenting his film installation, Fantôme Afrique, for which he took a camera crew to Ouagadogou in Burkina Faso to capture the complexity of its urban culture and sparse beauty of its countryside landscape. Spliced with historical footage and additional data, Julien's film looks at the complex intersections of African and global worlds within the context of the moving image. Fantôme Afrique runs from February 28 through May 11. Image Credit: Harvard University Gazette, October 3, 2002.

Borders and Access Revisited

The New York Times reports that
a passenger returning home to New York from Haiti collapsed and died aboard an American Airlines flight after a flight attendant first told her that he could not give her any oxygen, and then brought her an oxygen tank that was empty
The NY Times story clearly stated that the 44-year old dead passenger, Carin Desay, complained of shortness of breath but was ignored by the flight crew even after she explicitly asked for an oxygen tank. When the crew finally took some action, she was past helping and then died before the plane could make an emergency landing.

I did a series of posts on "Borders and Access" in November 2007 to evaluate the difficulties imposed on African and African Diaspora peoples as they traverse the spaces of the new global order. This news item caught my eyes because it illustrates the specific charge I made in my earlier post that some of the problems encountered by African and African Diaspora travelers appear quite willful and malevolent. It is no secret to people who travel to Nigeria, Africa (perhaps with the exception of South Africa perhaps), and as I learned from talking to Haitians in Miami recently , those who also travel to Haiti, that major airlines fly their most decrepit airlines to these destinations. Customer service on these flights are also quite abysmal and replete with bad food, flight attendants who insult their passengers, banished immigrants shackled and confined to their seats for the duration of the flight, and inadequate flight supplies. It is not unusual for flights to Lagos from Europe (just to cite an example) to run out of basic supplies such as toilet paper hours before the flight ended. Consider that this is a six hour flight and longer flights from the USA to Europe remain well stocked with more supplies that is needed for the duration.

Consider the outrageous situation encountered by this Haitian traveler who was flying on an airplane where the flight crew responded to her emergency health condition in a such a cavalier manner and her terror as she discovers that the crew was in fact flying without basic medical equipment such as full oxygen tanks. The operative problem here is a sort of institutionalized racism that ensures that even when black customers pay the same amount of money for much-needed services, they cannot expect to receive the same quality of service for their money as anyone would rightly expect. One can understand if American Airlines chooses to stop flying to Haiti for any reason but while it flies, would it be too much for its Haitian passengers to be treated with basic human dignity like all fee-paying consumers? The New York City medical examiner's office determined that Carin Desay died of "natural causes". I will like to suggest that this is in fact a clear case of manslaughter since it is likely that if the airline had the prerequisite medical equipment (such as oxygen in its oxygen tanks) as required by international flight rules AND if the flight attendants had indeed promptly attended to the passenger's medical complaints, the dead woman would still be alive.

For the record, American Airlines (on CNN) denied any wrongdoing and insisted that the plane was well stocked and all medical equipment were functional. However, the woman still died and remains dead. George Orwell once stated that all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Would the flight attendants had behaved in such a crass manner if flight had originated anywhere else but Haiti?

Feb 24, 2008

A Blank Check to Plunder?

Guest blogger Kwame Opoku takes umbrage at recent comments by James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, over recent statements that appear to undermine African claims to ownership of its cultural patrimony. Opoku's article below responds to a Time Magazine interview with James Cuno, who is widely expected to succeed Phillippe De Montebello as Director of the Met (see the original interview here). If Cuno indeed believes his own comments, then it is safe to say that the Met is in for a rude awakening when the question of looted African cultural patrimony becomes a topical issue.

*************
A BLANK CHECK TO PLUNDER NOK TERRACOTTA?
KWAME OPOKU

In his Time Magazine interview of January 27, 2008 James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, makes many controversial statements but I will like to comment only on a few.

Anthony Appiah said something wonderful in his book Cosmopolitanism. He says, Look we don’t know who made these Nok sculptures, these ancient sculptures that are found today in Nigeria. We don’t know if they were made for royalty or for one’s ancestors or on speculation. But what we know for sure is that they weren’t made for Nigeria. Because at the time there was no Nigeria.


Does Cuno realize the implications of such a statement if it were to be taken seriously? Is he suggesting that the modern State of Nigeria has no right to the
archaeological findings on its own territory? Who then has rights over the Nok findings in Nigeria? Is he aware that there were Nigerians before the present State of Nigeria was born at Independence in 1960? Or does he have another date of birth in mind? If the date of birth of present modern States were to be related to acquisition of rights to archaeological findings, how many States would have any rights since most of these findings relate to objects created thousands of years ago? What will happen to control over activities in the areas where excavations take place? Who will keep order in such areas or will it be a free for all, leaving it to the strong to grab whatever they can? One can imagine easily what chaos will ensue if modern governments did not assert their authority and control over archaeological excavations. Is Cuno pleading for anarchical excavations? Is he at all aware that under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, a State such as Nigeria has the duty “ to protect the cultural property existing within its territory against the dangers of theft,clandestine excavation,and illicit export?” Moreover, Article 4 of this Covention provides that : “The States Parties to this Convention recognize that for the purpose of the Convention property which belongs to the following categories forms part of the cultural heritage of each State:
a. Cultural property created by the individual or collective genius of nationals of the State concerned, and cultural property of importance to the State concerned created within the territory of that State by foreign nationals or stateless persons resident within such territory;
b. Cultural property found within the national territory;
c. Cultural property acquired by archaeological, ethnological or natural science missions, with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property;
d. Cultural property which has been the subject of a freely agreed exchange;
e. Cultural property received as a gift or purchased legally with the consent of the competent authorities of the country of origin of such property.

In view of the provisions of Article 4 how can anybody dare to suggest that archaeological findings made in Nigeria do not belong to the modern State of Nigeria? Cuno states that if certain objects are crucial to the identity of Italy, then those objects should be everywhere:
… if [these objects] are indeed crucial to the identity of Italy, then as cultural diplomacy you would want that material everywhere. You would want Italy to be represented everywhere as an important modern nation by virtue of its claimed legacy from ancient Rome. You would want that appreciated in Beijing, in Shanghai, in Mexico City.

How does this argument square with the usual argument presented by supporters of the so-called universal museums that we must have these cultural objects in one place, preferably in London, Paris or New York? Cuno goes so far as to say that Italians live not only in Italy but also in New York and around the world and therefore Italian cultural objects should be made available to them too. Is there no limit to these absurd arguments presented by respected museum directors? Nobody ever suggested that Britain, France or the USA should make their cultural objects available everywhere in the world where their citizens live.

Cuno exceeds himself in his last statement in the interview with Richard Lacy:
Looting is a not a casual past time. It’s desperate people in desperate circumstances who loot. They risk their lives. Museums recognize that there is a relationship between the marketplace and looting, and we want to distance ourselves from it as much as we can and still preserve these things that will otherwise be lost. How do you behave responsibly in this realm? There has to be a package of responses. One part of the package is partage. And another part has to do with allowing museums to reasonably acquire.

Is this a song of praise for looters? It sounds almost like a unionist urging higher wages for workers who risk their lives in the mines. When are the western museum directors going to stop issuing such statements which do not contribute to solving the issue of restitution but only increase the anger and disputes from those people who were crassly dispossessed of their cultural properties?

Feb 22, 2008

CAA 2008, Dallas

I'm in Dallas attending the 96th Annual College Arts Association meeting, the largest gathering of art historians in the world. Among the pleasures of being at this event, there is the thrill of meeting old friends and putting a face on well-known names of professional colleagues whose works on engages in great detail. Meetings of professional associations of this sort have very definable protocols and are filled with much bustle as people literally run from one conference panel to another over the course of four days. The technological device of choice is an Apple Macbook laptop (many people were still sporting the older Mac G4 laptop models) and a cell phone. The atmosphere is very corporate.

Dallas...staying at a hotel down the street from the grassy knoll where President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. Matter of fact, I can see the building from where the assassin fired his gun, which is now a museum along with the historical stretch of Houston Street that Kennedy's motorcade was driving down. Many conference attendees made the pilgrimage to this place to connect with that history, their introspective encounter with memory providing a counterpoint to the rush of academic discourse at the conference venue. I have attended way too many of these conferences, working my way from a wide-eyed graduate student fresh off the boat from Nigeria, trying desperately to make sense of American narratives of art historical analysis. You can see many of the new attendees fighting their panic, fresh graduate students for whom major scholars seem more idol than human. I spoke to a few of them: hang in there...it gets better and soon you'll be expressing similar sentiments to fresh attendees grappling with the complex dynamics of these huge conferences.

I have not seen much of the city but it is clear that Dallas is fighting its way back from the brink. Downtown is revitalizing though still afflicted with that Texas problem of empty downtowns. It is truly eerie to visit downtown Dallas on midday during a work week and find downtown bereft of people. I have seen a similar situation in Houston whose downtown is (hard to believe) slightly busier than Dallas's but still quite vacuous. Friends told me however that the Dallas metropolitan area is busier than what I experienced. I am inclined to believe them since they invariably confirm that they are happy living in this area. Many Africans live here and there is a thriving Nigerian community, smaller than the one in Houston but significant nevertheless.

And the roads...the best feature of Texas in general. The Interstate 45's diagonal run to Houston four hours south...a smooth multi-lane run at 75 miles per hour or at what the traffic will bear.

Tommorrow, I will visit the JFK memorial, make the round of museums and mark the passage of time.

Feb 21, 2008

Grounded?

Rumor has it that North American Airlines (NAA), one of the two airlines with direct flights to Nigeria from the USA (they fly from JFK) is planning to suspend its operations in Nigeria. The other airline, Delta, started flying to Nigeria in December and they don't seem to have done well with customer relations since everyone I know whose flown the airline so far have had only complaints about them. I am flying Delta to Nigeria in March so I will definitely see for myself if the complaints are true. Delta flies direct from Atlanta to Lagos. I flew NAA from JFK to Lagos in 2006 and thought the flight was decent though they were clearly flying a very old Boeing 767. They had bought a couple of new 767s and seem to have solidified their operations in Lagos but apparently things are not working out. This is strange because the USA to Lagos route is very heavy with lots of passengers. If NAA grounds its Lagos route, things will get only more difficult for Nigerian travelers whose choices become further reduced.

Feb 20, 2008

New Culture Foundation Creative Technology Workshops

The New Culture Foundation announced calls for a series of Creative Technology Workshops in Nigeria starting March 2008. Founded by the eminent Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko, the New Culture Foundation carries on his radical experiments in art, architecture and practical design, all hallmarks of Nwoko's career since his involvement with the postcolonial movement, Zaria Art Society (1958-1962), otherwise known in the literature on modern African art as The Zaria Rebels. Of all the artists involved in the Zaria experiment (Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, among others), Nwoko has pursued a major focus on architecture and practical design in his art in addition to his important interventions in the production of knowledge about African art and culture. His journal New Culture, published for a couple of years in the 1970s, was a foundational text for most scholars of my generation and his professional practice has always been an inspiration.

According to the organization, the New Culture Foundation Creative Technology workshop is designed as a retraining project for art teachers and other professionals, to improve their efficiency in the development of critical designs and improvement in the use of locally available materials through practical workshops. This continues Nwoko's fascination with using indigenous aesthetics to mediate modern Nigerian and African art, for instance, by applying indigenous Nigerian architectural protocols to the production of modern buildings and churches throughout Nigeria. In this regard, Nwoko is a pioneer and very influential artist.

Nwoko's workshops may be modeled on the success of Bruce Onobrakpeya's Harmattan Workshop located in Bruce's hometown of Agbarha-Otor, a long way out of the hustle and bustle of Lagos. Likewise, Nwoko's workshop is located in Idumuje-Ugboko, his hometown (and that of my maternal grandmother as well). Consider also Uche Okeke's Asele Institute, the first major art-research institution founded by a Nigerian artist, which he located in his home town of Nimo. All these places are far away from Lagos and represent attempts by each artist to draw attention to the rich cultural heritage of Nigeria's rural areas. Such a move makes sense for artists whose primary intellectual orientation was to integrate indigenous Nigerian aesthetics into contemporary practice. Their chosen locations are however accessible only with great difficulty and I thus question whether this kind of move is necessarily logical. Although Onobrakpeya's Harmattan workshop is thriving, subsidized massively by his personal wealth, Uche Okeke's Asele Institute is a shell of its original success having been impacted by diminishing numbers of visitors due to its remote location. However, Demas Nwoko has operated a major industrial production program from Ugboko for over three decades and he may have the financial resources to sustain its operations while the Creative Technology Workshop find its feet. If these institutions survive, they will cement the Zarianists' reputation for topical interventions in the history and development of modern Nigerian art in the postcolonial period.

I remember growing up in Ibadan and marveled at Demas Nwoko's audacious architecture, which was recently the focus of a full length monograph by Nnimmo Bassey. I remember also visiting his home in Ugboko which was for a while the most notable building in the entire region but is now eclipsed by the McMansions of the new Nigerian elite. Nwoko has a deserved reputation for being a maverick and once even mounted a political campaign for the Nigerian Presidency. However, over the years he has quietly built a formidable legacy of artistic and professional practice which requires closer scrutiny. I am very sure he will be able to sustain his new project and it will be interesting to see what the workshop achieves in the coming year.

Feb 18, 2008

Nollywood YouTube Links

Received a lot of questions on the subject of Nollywood. It is basically a direct-to-video digital filmmaking industry dominant in Nigerian (and increasingly, African) film. Click here for a few Nollywood clips on YouTube.

Feb 17, 2008

Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Series

The 9th Santa Barbara African Heritage Film Series and Art Exhibition (SBHAFS) is ongoing and and will run through the end of the month. According to the organizers, Friday and Gwendolyn Hampton, the organization addresses an unmet need in the Santa Barbara community by offering films, discussions with filmmakers, dialogue between cultures and exhibits that reflect the rich heritage of African Americans and Africa's descendants around the world. Various programs have been offered since February 1. February 15 was billed as a community day featuring an exhibition of artworks from Ugandan artist Dan Tumusiime (below), founder of "Art for Peace" an organization working with orphaned children from Uganda. Paintings by the artist were auctioned to provide funds to the Art for Peace program. In the lead-up to this year's program, David Sterling Hampton, son of program organizers Friday and Gwendolyn Hampton, passed away in January at the age of 24. The organizers bravely chose to carry on with the program despite this devastating loss and dedicate this year's event to his memory. May his soul rest in peace.

Nollywood and Mike Okiro

An ongoing controversy in Nollywood, the Nigerian Film industry concerning the depiction of Nigerian law enforcement agents, specifically Policemen, in Nigerian Films. Nigerian newspapers report that the Inspector General of Police is demanding the right to review film scripts and censor those he thinks unfairly or negatively represent Policemen. Aside from the strange logic of the Inspector General's request and its suggestions of censorship, there is already a legally constituted body--the Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB)-- charged with rating Nollywood movies for their contents and who ideally provides oversight on such matters. The NFCVB, led by Director General, Emeka Mba, has done an incredible job regularizing the Nollywood industry in the past few years. One worries that the Inspector General of Police might damage the gains already made in this regard by intruding into the workings of an autonomous legal institution. Esteemed Nigerian journalist Reuben Abati offers a very good refutation of the logic behind IG Mike Okoro's demand for censorship oversight of Nollywood movies in this article from the Nigerian Village Square.

Feb 15, 2008

Kara Walker at the Hammer

Opening this weekend at the Hammer Museum (UCLA) in Los Angeles, an exhibition by Kara Walker. The MacArthur "Genius" award-winner's artworks are embroiled in controversy over her use of explicitly stereotypical images drawn from caricatures of African Americans and blacks in antebellum and post-slavery USA. According to the Hammer, this exhibition is the first comprehensive presentation of this remarkable African American artist’s career. Walker has risen to international prominence for visually stunning works that challenge conventional narratives of American history and the antebellum South. With biting humor, the artist comments on race, slavery and liberation, sexual attraction and exploitation, discrimination, and modernity The exhibition originated at the Walker Art Center and is traveling widely. Illustrated above, Kara Walker, Darkytown Rebellion, 2001, projection, cut paper and adhesive on wall, 14 x 37".

Feb 13, 2008

Kehinde Wiley at the Smithsonian

Speaking of figurative painters, consider the New York-based Los Angeles artist Kehinde Wiley whose heroic portraits of black male subjects is garnering international acclaim, celebrity endorsements and very good prices on the art market. His artworks are part of the exhibition Recognise: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Portraiture at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery (February 8-October 26). Illusrated: Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte, 2005

PAFF 2008 Art Mart (II)

As art fairs go, the PAFF 2008 Art Mart was a mixed bag. (<) Jane Walker is easily the doyen of this exhibition. Her late husband, Walt Walker, was the one of the first African Americans to own a gallery featuring Black art. Together they launched a successful art business and have influenced many African American artists in the Los Angeles area. A recently released documentary honors the personal and business relationship between both pioneers. Mrs. Walker has participated in LA art fairs for over 30 years and is still going strong. Her works focus on black empowerment images.

Charles Bibbs is one of the most successful artists in this exhibition. Widely described as an "acclaimed artist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Bibbs studied at Long Beach State University, University of Redlands and California State University Dominguez. He is actively involved in the promotion and preservation of Black art but also spends much time conducting workshops and seminars for young aspiring artists through his non-profit organization Art 2000. Bibbs runs a successful art publishing business and is also the publisher of Images Magazine. He is widely considered a blue-chip artist in the Black art tradition and his paintings are very widely collected. Other notable entries include Alice Patrick whose paintings focus on Black women. Paul Antonelleo Houzell had the most accomplished artworks on display in the exhibition. His idealized paintings of images derived from Egyptian art and also from contemporary global black culture have been featured in major African American museums and publications. He was also one of the artists selected to paint one of the Los Angeles Freeway Murals during the 1984 Olympics. Gail Deculus-Johnson's stall was easily the most jarring, with its memorabilia of African American history and pointed political statements. Original copies of Slave Auction notices jostled with reconstruction era stereotype images of blacks to create a very disturbing tableau. Ms. Deculus-Johnson uses this collection and her store Sable Images Inc. to lecture various audiences on the history of Africans in America. Joann Steward Green, a.k.a. Ms. Wackie Tackie was a literal kid's magnet in her clown make-up and whimsical paintings. There were two Nigerian-American artists at this event, Buchi Upjohn Aghaji and Chuma Okoli. Upjohn is an alumnus of the University of Nigeria, my alma matter, and Chuma attended art school at the Institute of Management and Technology (IMT) in the neighboring town of Enugu. Both artists displayed artworks adapted from the canonical Uli style of Nsukka School art mediated through the figurative focus of much modern Nigerian art.

Pictures below show in descending order: Alice Patrick, Gail Deculus-Johnson, Joann Steward Green (Ms. Wackie Tackie), Charles Bibbs and additional artwork by the artist, Roscoe Lee Owens, Stuart McClean, Arts Africains Textiles, and Chuma Okoli's painting.







PAFF 2008 Art Mart (I)

The ongoing program of the pan African Film and Arts Festival in Los Angeles features an art mart with exhibitors from many parts of the African world. This year, the PAFF Art Mart was held in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles, close to Leimert Park, the heart of LA's African American art scene. The organizers described it as a major juried exhibit of Black fine art and quality crafts featuring the work of over one hundred different artists and artisans. The artistic works range in scope from oil paintings, watercolors, sculpture, mixed media, pen and ink drawings, glass painting and carvings to jewelry art and woven apparel. Art fairs of this sort get short shrift from scholars who disdain their commercial focus and stereotypical forms of expression (pictured above, artworks by Charles Bibbs). However, the persistence and success of many artists who show in such fairs point to a class conflict that assumes increasing importance in global arts and culture discourses. Art Fairs are considered a huge notch below the elite context of art galleries. I frequent art fairs worldwide and have seen some impressive works exhibited by artists who argue that their participation in art fairs is no different from contexts of exhibition used by canonical artists who show through prestigious gallery spaces since both groups ultimately sell their works. Huge art fairs that feature large numbers of galleries are in essence a market for buying and selling art. In fact, commercial artists view their practice as a form of professional practice, a notion of the artist as a blue-collar worker who produces art objects and is entitled to make a living from his work. And many commercial artists make quite a good living from their work. Also, some notable white commercial artists (such as Thomas Kincaid and Norman Rockwell) have made it into the pristine spaces of museum discourses and their works are increasingly adopted as canonical products of American genius. It is impossible to produce artworks that are more commercial or more vacuous than those made by Thomas Kincaid but at the same time, no contemporary artist has been more commercially successful. In this success lies a very disturbing development whereby the sheer force of money has slowly taken over control of the discourse of art.

In the era after postmodernism, the entire art world has gone pointedly commercial thus fulfilling Fredric Jameson’s prediction that postmodernism was merely the cultural logic of late capitalism. The art world is also in constant need of new commodities to satisfy the cravings of newly flush collectors. The focus on art as commodity reinforces an aspect of cultural discourse that remains a permanent subtext in analysis of art objects but in recent time, this subtext has become the main text. The major international art fairs have been affected by the ongoing bubble in the global economy. As vast sums of money flows into the art market, discussions about artworks focus less on their intrinsic quality and more on their sale value. Any object in this world is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it, and if scholarship were to be true to cultural nuances, we would pay great attention to what people buy when we discuss the value of art in general. I want to argue that there is in fact such an overlay because if you evaluate the value of most “artworks” in museum collections, you will discover that their value within this context is directly related to the financial value of the objects in the art market. Museums serve mainly as brokerage houses that uses institutional imprimatur to leverage up the value of art objects. The museum makes art of objects culled from the vast flow of cultural aesthetics and elevates them as examples of the highest cultural achievements. As any scholar can tell you, this process of elevation is not without controversy, which is why the reputations of artists rise and fall over time.

Can we define what is sold at these African American art fairs as art? Given the contentious nature of definitions today, what exactly is art anyway? There are a thousand answers each relevant to its context and tomes of philosophy have been written on the subject. While museum objects easily pass muster as art, it is usually more difficult to apply the term to commercial art produced for sale in art fairs. My favorite response is always to consult a dictionary AND ask Sotheby’s (and its cousin, Christies): the first provides a literal definition while the latter provides a practical answer--if Sotheby’s can sell it, it is art and there really is no end to what can be transformed into art in capitalism’s voracious appetite for new commodities. Damien Hirst’s recent sale of a $100 million diamond-encrusted skull clearly shows that cultural politics and commodification of value affect the designation of objects as art. (Fast forward a few years and I foresee a distraught art collector beating himself to death with his prized Damien Hirst diamond boondoggle, which for one reason or the other, was now rendered worthless).

For African American artists, the question of “art” is very complicated. When Thelma Golden curated an exhibition titled Black Romantic in 2002, she became the first curator at a major art museum to focus on figurative art from African American artists (click here for a review of the exhibition). Many of the artists subsequently represented in this exhibition had (and in many cases, still have) zero name recognition in the art world but are widely collected by African American collectors who hold their works with pride. The return of Figurative art in general belies a long period of negligence of this form in art history during which it remained THE principal mode of representation in African American and other global African contexts. Modern Nigerian art has been intensely figurative for over 100 years and the style remains associated with one of the most prestigious art schools in the country—The Yaba College of Technology. Strangely, we are now seeing books that laud contemporary figurative painters but as usual, notable African American artists who work in the figurative tradition are excluded. One might argue that a lot of work can be done to evaluate the reason why many African American artists choose to work within the art fair tradition or why black collectors continue to collect their work. Their exclusion from white gallery spaces and demeaning of their work as cultural signage is only one issue among many. The corollary suggestion that African Americans or other African peoples who buy this work are unsophisticated consumers also must be retired. The obvious fact that someone like Oprah Winfrey (who has enough money to buy the expertise of whole art history departments) also collects such artworks means we need another explanation for their success. While we wait for the these kinds of artwork to be recognized, Black art fairs persist and the artists who show in these fairs continue to rack up different degrees of success.

Found Objects

On the 1300 block of Martin Luther King Boulevard in Los Angeles, a strange choice of business name...

Feb 11, 2008

HippieSapiens Americanus

California is full of strangeness and nothing is stranger than its entrenched population of Hippie hold-outs from the Flower Power era, a very unique specie of humans that I call HippieSapien Americanus (©). You can find many of them in Santa Barbara and even more on the drive southbound to Los Angeles through CA State Route 1, which runs along a major length of the Pacific Coast Highway, where I imagine pockets of HippieSapien Americanus holed out in the nooks of the Santa Monica mountains. They are easily identifiable by their devotion to outsider art of which the Art Car phenomenon is easily the most flamboyant and notable. (The granddaddy of outsider art events in the world is probably the Burning Man Festival). I passed a fleet of Art Cars over the weekend on California Highway 101 southbound at Thousand Oaks en-route to Los Angeles. They were headed for an Art Car Fest somewhere and I managed to shoot this picture of the lead vehicle. Googling yielded this website of an Art Car Fest from 2007.

Feb 8, 2008

Hugh Masekela and the Chissa All-Stars

Attended a concert by Hugh Masekela and the Chissa All-Stars at UCSB. The legendary South African Jazz maestro was at there at the emergence of "World Music" having produced groundbreaking music and played with important global musicians throughout his career. Along with Miriam Makeba (both were married at one time) he introduced South African music to the world. His performance tonight was redolent with memories of great moments, from the protest music of his apartheid era smash hit--Stimela, to the fluid torrent of pennywhistle tunes, mbaqanga, and township jive. Masekela is currently touring the USA and his stop in Santa Barbara was a night to remember.

The Stakes of Art Criticism in Africa

I've been rereading an important article by Yacouba Konate, artistic director of the Dak'Art Biennale 2006. Konate's article, The Stakes of Art Criticism in Africa was originally published in Gallery No. 19, March 1999, pp. 14-15; and reprinted by Mario Pissara in his impressive website Art South Africa Initiative (ASAI). Konate's comments are very important and they find precedence in the critical practice of Prof. Ola Oloidi of the University of Nigeria, whose interventions in the development of the Nsukka School's apparatus of critical analysis is grossly under-represented in the discourse of African art history. Read Konate's article here and compare it to this article by Prof. Olu Oguibe, a former student of Ola Oloidi (as I was) which hits all the main notes of Oloidi's exegesis on African art criticism.

February's 1st Thursday in Santa Barbara

The picturesque city of Santa Barbara is a bundle of nervous energy, manifest in surges of sudden focus on diverse cultural activities within the laid back climate of daily life. The locals take its extraordinary beauty for granted, almost as if the exquisite microclimate peculiar to this sandwich of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez mountain range represents a common order of things. Thousands of tourists beg to differ and their fascination with the city' natural beauty and Mediterranean architecture provides a steady inflow of tourist dollars (pictured above, the Santa Barbara Courthouse at night). Part of the city's allure also arises from the very wealthy people who live here including the dense concentration of millionaires in nearby Montecito where daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey has a majestic estate. Cruise ships and Navy ships moor off the coast and on any given day, Main Street is full of visitors from around the world window shopping. The city has a very respectable film festival (the Santa Barbara International Film Festival), a Symphony Orchestra and Theater, and plays host to many cultural activities through the year. However, the city has a very negligible black population and there has been significant problems for black people here over the decades (more on this in a future post). Balanced against this is one of the most dedicated activist communities in the USA who constantly struggle against any perceived racism and injustice.

1st Thursday is a new and fast growing tradition in the city of Santa Barbara: on the first Thursday of each month, participating galleries and other art-related venues offer free access to art in a fun and social environment from 5-8 p.m. Yesterday's version of this event was my first time attending (I teach locally and live in the next county south). Many art galleries in Santa Barbara show and sell very conservative art to the Conde Nast crowd and the town has many antique stores. Among these, the Spirits In Stone Gallery is a commercial gallery that sells African art, its downtown Santa Barbara gallery being one of six different establishments located in various California cities. The gallery shows mainly Shona Sculpture but also represents the Ethiopian-American artist Wosene Kosrof, whose exquisite paintings I think are some of the most beautiful accomplishments of contemporary African art. Spirits in Stone held an open house yesterday evening and treated guests to a speech by gallery owner/curator Anthony Ponter, a Zimbabwe born African of British ancestry (pictured below).
Edward Cella Art+Architecture gallery mounted an equally important display of contemporary art through a group exhibition including the sculptures of Kofi Cole, a.k.a. Herbert "Skip" Cole, emeritus professor of African art history at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Since his retirement six years ago, Cole has created an interesting body of miniature replicas of canonical African masks. Usually no larger than a few inches in size, these sculptures pay homage to African cultural traditions but also raise interesting questions about cultural appropriation. I own four Kofi Cole sculptures and can attest to his meticulous craftsmanship. He displays them in clusters (as they are shown here) and they seem to be very collectible.

My final stop was at Gallery Ten Twenty Nine for an exhibition of photographs of Tanzania by David Litschel, Provost of the Brooks Institute of Photography, an eminent institution in Southern California. Among the photographs of Masai Moran and the savanah landscape of Tanzania, Litschel captured some striking images of young people that suggest a nuanced engagement with his subjects.

Pictured below, masks and examples of Shona Sculptures from Spirits in Stone Gallery,

Feb 7, 2008

Pan African Film and Arts Festival 2008

The 2008 Pan African Film and Arts Festival (PAFF) kicks off in Los Angeles today with an opening night gala featuring "Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation", a film by director Charles Burnett (click here for the announcement page). Established in 1992, PAFF is a non-profit corporation "dedicated to the promotion of cultural and racial tolerance and understanding through the exhibition of film, art and creative expression". Namibia features Danny Glover who is to be greatly respected for his willingness to support and participate in African-themed film projects even with his eminence in Hollywood. The great man served as the special guest of honor for the 2007 Nollywood Foundation Convention where he spoke about the need for an expanded focus on African creativity in film. Pictured below, Danny Glover with the Nollywood Foundation board of directors and advisory board members: (l-r: Parminder Vir, Dapo Otunla, Egbe Osifo-Dawodu, Danny Glover, Sylvester Ogbechie, Said Kakese Dibinga).

Hersza Barjon's Pictorial Incantations

Hersza (Ezza) Barjon, an Haitian expatriate artist living in Miami, is conducting an ongoing examination of Haitian religious experience through pictorial representation of the gods of the Vodou Pantheon, among other objects (pictured above, the artist). Barjon’s paintings of the Haitian gods are an important addition to the global tradition of visionary art, an aesthetic and stylistic orientation that conspicuously references the myriad deities of the Haitian Vodou pantheon, the Loa with their numinous and metaphysical manifestations. Her work is however distinguished by how she adapts the fecund powers of feminine creativity to her representation and artistic invocation of the loa. Her paintings are themselves a form of worship, and her inscription of Vodou deities afford the viewer a chance to partake in her forceful devotion. The metamorphosis of African deities into European saints is one of the most poignant acts of trans-substantiation in human history. In the strange lands to which they were forcibly removed, the descendants of enslaved Africans fashioned new theologies, which they used to narrate a new identity for themselves in a hostile Diaspora. Cloaked in the visage of Christian saints, African deities were reconstituted as patron saints of the oppressed. Among the myriad transformations that occurred, Legba, the loa of communications became incarnated as St. Peter, the gatekeeper: Baron Samedi, lord of the Graveyards (pictured above), became transformed into St. Andrew, and Erzulie Freda, divine loa of love was transformed into the Virgin Mary. Preserved in this transformation is the enduring lesson that reality is mutable and cultural interaction (by whatever means engendered) is the norm of the world. As Baudrillard noted, here is no gap here between the sign (the loa) and its referent (Catholic Saints) because simulations of this nature operate on the principle of equivalence. Posited as reflections of a basic supernatural reality, the paintings represent the loa in their original and catholic incarnations as a convergent order of sacrament.

In Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third novel in his acclaimed Cyberspace trilogy, William Gibson used the loa and cosmology of Vodou to explain cyberspace as a consensual matrix of psychospatial technology utilizing an advanced global construct of linked computers and minds. The principles of Vodou and the mutative capabilities of the loa, Gibson explains, come closest to approximating the complex structure of the new technology of cyberspace. Through this explanation, Gibson apprehends something that eludes most observers of Vodou theology and practice, its pragmatic devotion to actualization of transhuman interfaces through which it focuses on “getting things done”. In Ezza’s painting, this theology also applies to the process of making a painting, of “doing” art as an expression of metaphysical realities. The artist puts herself in the position of a devotee and allows the deities to speak through her work. The result are paintings with dense form and precise technical execution reflecting the symbolic orientation of an art that seeks spiritual harmony.Ezza’s focus on the loa and the symbols of their veneration may constitute her most important contribution to the tradition of visionary art. In the past decade, she produced a set of one hundred and twenty-six paintings representing the different Vodou deities. The large archive of artworks hints at the large agglomeration of deities that constitute the Vodou pantheon. However, the myriad loa should not encourage the conclusion that the Vodou pantheon represents a devotion to many gods or to sophisticated forms of idol worship as the fevered imagination of Western popular culture usually imagines Vodou practices (as “voodoo”). The loa are best described as manifestations of the same great spirit/god, Gran M’èt, who is simply too powerful to be directly involved in human affairs. The loa operate on his behalf, much like sub-programs enable a computer program to run multiple functions simultaneously. While they can be represented in figurative forms, the true form of the loa resides in cryptic inscriptions called Veve, signs of their intangible presence and their capability for simultaneous existence in the material and metaphysical worlds. The loa are made present through invocation, and in Ezza’s paintings, this invocation is in turn constructed as a representation of their figurative forms. The loa achieve figurative form by riding their “divine horses”, in essence becoming one with devoted worshippers who partake in the sacrament of trans-substantiation by channeling the deities. If the language of computers enables better comprehension of the loa in recent times, there is no doubt that the visual arts have enabled cogent representation of the loa since they first emerged as deities in Africa. Hersza Barjon’s art reaffirms this ancient connection as a labor of love and proves that a devotion to spirituality transcends language and geographical boundaries.

Miami in February

Went out to Miami Florida last weekend to visit with Hersza Barjon, a Haitian expatriate mixed-media artist whose archive of artworks recently came to my attention (see comment on Hersza's art in next blog-post. Above...at the Miami Art Museum). My first trip to Miami and I was struck by the strange feeling of being in another country. The United States of America is a true agglomeration of multiple ethnicities masquerading as a "European-majority" country and nowhere is this more evident than in the southern border states but mostly in Miami, California (Southern California specifically or as the trans-cultural locals call it, "Calexico") and Southern Texas ("Texico") whose broad population of Spanish speaking peoples recreate a vibrant Latin culture in these places. In Miami however, I became forcibly aware of the Haitian expatriate community and their location within the city's complex politics of race and ethnicity. Spanish speaking Cubans of the Émigré class are dominant in Miami's civic discourse as are the other Spanish speaking peoples. However, the Haitians are very notable and have carved out their own niche in this environment, traveling back and forth from Haiti and making viable lives in both Haiti and the USA. Haiti is a very dysfunctional country whose political and economic viability has been grossly undermined by its hegemon neighbor to the north, and by the systematic racism of a global system determined to crush the first Black country in the Western hemisphere after its earthshaking freedom struggle of Haitian slaves led by General Toussaint L'ouverture whose leadership eventually led to the independence of Haiti between 1791 and 1804 (Toussaint L'ouverture himself was tricked into captivity by the French and exiled to a prison in the Jura Mountains where he died of pneumonia). Internal and external despotism has since crippled the state to the extent where today it is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Large numbers of Haitians have migrated or tried to emigrate to the USA. However, while Cuban refugees sometimes get consideration in the American immigration system as political refugees (the perennial embargo on Cuba by the USA providing appropriate political cover) Haitian refugees are treated as the scum of the earth, and are often turned back to sea in their rickety boats often drowning in the attempt. In the contemporary era, many Haitians I spoke to complained of being undermined by the racial politics of Spanish-speaking Miami. Nevertheless they persevere and many have made good lives for themselves here and have in the process leveraged their success to help various relatives back in Haiti, the money they send through Western Union and other money transfer organizations (who have grown ridiculously wealthy through such transactions) being a major source of sustenance to the country as it is in many other African countries.

I got only a brief view of Miami and cannot judge the overall condition of the city on such a minimal engagement. It is a fine port city and it is growing rapidly. It also has a free elevated-transit line (Miami Metromover) to move people through downtown, something I have never seen in any other city I've visited.The pier is vibrant with visitors and the tourist trade is alive and well judging from all the cruise ships visible in the port. I plan to return to Miami later in the year, to spend a week or so exploring the city during the next Art Basel Miami, which is now a major stop on the global circuit of international art fairs. The city's art institutions are upgrading accordingly. I caught an exhibition of high-school student art from the Miami Art Museum with some impressive artworks (like these ones shown below) given the skill level of the artists in question. Overall, a memorable experience.

Feb 5, 2008

Now, AFRICA

Ongoing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) an exhibition of African art titled "Tradition as Innovation in African Art". The exhibition opened on January 22 and will run until November 2008, which makes it a primary exhibition on the LACMA calendar, one of the few times the museum has focused on African art in this manner in recent times. Los Angeles has a good convergence of significant focus on Africa art, spearheaded by the excellent collection of the UCLA Fowler Museum, a global leader in African art exegesis and research. African Arts, the doyen journal of the field, is housed in the UCLA African Studies Institute. The California African American Museum holds an important collection of African art and although its focus is primarily on European art with major holdings in sculptures of the Greek and Roman Classical world, the Getty nevertheless has a minimal but notable interest in African art research, having awarded a few Africanist scholars some of its much sought after residencies. Despite this focus, it is an obvious fact that as the African American influence diminishes in Southern California, so does the focus on Africa outside of the institutions described above. LACMA has especially been remiss in this regard, mostly marginalizing the African continent as it tries to bootstrap its reputation into world class status.

It is thus very heartening to see LACMA devote a major exhibition to African art, and in a new gallery no less. I'll be visiting the museum over the weekend to review the exhibition. In the meantime, the Los Angeles Times carried a major front page review of the exhibition on January 29, 2008, in which it reported on the effort by Fowler Museum Chief Curator Polly Nooter Roberts (curator of the exhibition) to consolidate a notion of African artists as explorers whose creative experiments were central to the emergence of modernist aesthetics in the 20th century. This issue has been a long-vexing matter for Africanist scholars who bemoan the manner in which African contributions to global aesthetics have often been marginalized. (As usual, Ms. Roberts, an excellent scholar, targets a topical issue in African art history. The basic argument is as follows: Picasso appropriates African art and is seen as an innovator; modern African artists who appropriate European art are seen as imitators and parochial). Anne-Marie O'Connor, reporting on this exhibition in the LA Times, noted that "a neo-colonial fascination with exoticism misreads" the meaning of African art. One hopes in that regard that the exhibition will help reorient viewers towards appreciating the complex aesthetics of African art and its relentless drive for formal and conceptual excellence.

The LACMA website states that loan objects for the exhibition were "drawn from the collections of eight private lenders, as well as the collections of the Fowler Museum at UCLA and LACMA". Given the recent trouble of the museum (the FBI raid of LACMA and other Southern California museums recently on charges of exhibiting improperly acquired artworks), the lending and acquisition process of major museum exhibitions of this kind bears increased scrutiny and now need to be part of our discussions about exhibition production and reception.

The LACMA exhibition converges with another important exhibition going on at the Fowler--Inscribing Meaning, which brings together contemporary African artists who use African writing and graphic systems as conceptual frameworks for their art. Both shows should make for a full day this weekend. Be sure to visit the original website of this exhibition which originated at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art (NMaFA) in Washington DC.

Feb 1, 2008

Waka-Into-Bondage: The Last 3/4 Mile

Ndidi Dike's new exhibition, The Last 3/4 Mile, opens tomorrow at the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos. This show forms part of The Democracy Project curated by Bisi Silver to kick of the CCAL's ambitious program of exhibitions for 2008. In this exhibition, Ndidi Dike actualizes an ongoing transformation of her sculpture into full-scale installations thus bringing to maturity a decade-long process of gradual change in her work.

Waka-Into-Bondage is an ambulatory narrative of the final section of the journey of enslaved Africans en-route to the “New World”, told through selected images of Badagry’s slave port. It is a performance piece designed as a personal re-tracing of the steps of enslaved Africans as they moved through the port of Badagry on their way into slavery in the New World. The artist narrates the story as a personal investigation of ancestral memory through the physical traces of the march into bondage, documented through photographs taken of the route, and the artist’s interaction with specific markers of memory. This interaction is designed as a cleansing ritual, but also as a memorial to the pain and horror of the slave trade. Operating on the premise that enslavement wrought harsher effects on African women who were subject to sustained rape and enforced separation from their families for the 300-years duration of the slave trade, the artist transposes herself into the memory of these degradations through her artistic meditation on the subject. The exhibition and its process is a “waka” (West African Pidgin word for “walk”) into history that investigates the continued bondage of Africans as they struggle to overcome the impact of the history of slavery, and the contemporary impact of global apartheid that contributes towards the subordinate location of black people in global contemporary culture.

The dominant theme of this exhibition is the idea of “trace”, which unfolds as a physical tracing of memory and as a conceptual investigation of traces of the slave trade, conceived of as markers and mnemonic devices of a ritual cleansing. The artist reconstitutes an ancestral memory of self as a female force-marched into slavery through the port of Badagry. Using the historical signposts of this march as mnemonic devises, she performs a ritual of cleansing at each signpost, where through engagement with these physical traces of memory, she attempts to assuage the sundered spirits of the ancestors in the Diaspora. The exhibition features an aspect of the overall performance art representing the last three-quarter mile of the journey to the slave ships, when the enslaved Africans truly grasped the horror of their situation. It is said that the ghosts of the departed haunt the location of their greatest trauma. Dike's exhibition suggests that far little attention has been paid to the African context of the slave trade, and through this, its local and global impact on contemporary African existence. Overall, the exhibition is a significant development in Ndidi Dike's sustained practice as a foremost contemporary African artist.

Pictured below:
Ndidi Dike, Voyage, mixed media (reconfigured wooden boats and harbor pallets, slave chains, padlocks, nails, mirrors and cowrie shells), 2008.
Ndidi Dike, Canoes at Badagry, digital photograph, 2007.
Ndidi Dike, The Last 3/4 Mile, digital photograph, 2007, showing the actual path of the final walk to the Slave ships at Badagry.