Apr 25, 2008

Nollywood Foundation Convention Update

Two months to the 2008 Nollywood Foundation (NF) Convention in Los Angeles. This year's event is shaping up very well. NF is partnering with Film Independent's Los Angeles Film Festival participating organization. LAFF's program this year is very expansive and will include a few events specifically targeted to the NF audience including an NF-hosted film screening. Nollywood Foundation expects to receive a sizable contingent of Nollywood filmmakers in Los Angeles for its 2008 annual convention.

Apr 18, 2008

Tapestry of Life: Ndidi Dike Exhibition

Opening at the National Museum Lagos, Ndidi Dike's new exhibition titled Tapestry of Life, showing recent paintings and sculptures from the artist. Opening reception is scheduled for Saturday April 26 with special guest of honor Chief Ojo Maduekwe, the Nigerian Minister for Foreign Affairs. Tajudeen Sowole reviewed the exhibition for Guardian Newspapers Nigeria.

Time...

Long hiatus there between posts, needing time to work through a few important life changes. My aunt died two weeks ago. As a lineage chief, I am usually informed when someone passes away in my hometown and clan. It seems I have heard a lot of news of such deaths lately. This is of course sad. Each death takes with it a huge compendium of indigenous knowledge much of which is yet to be documented. I remember my grandfather in his last days in the long summer of 1985 (he passed away in August 1986). It seems I spent the last ten years of his life discovering strange things about him, such as the fact that he knew a few words of Portuguese or that he was a renowned trader in coral beads famous for his long foot-voyages through the Niger Delta region. I tried that summer to get him to narrate his life but he steadfastly refused. Attempts to video-tape him also met with great resistance. As a revered elder, he was regarded as a living oracle and numinous powers were attributed to him. "Point that thing at me", he said speaking of the video camera, "and I'll make you regret it". The few pictures we have of him show him in the ubiquitous pose of the wise man prevalent in early African photography which consists of a full frontal stance, passive mask-like face, symmetrical situatedness, a combative engagement with the photographic medium itself (feet firmly planted on the ground and eyes staring directly at the camera), and bodily gravitas deployed as a formal gesture by photographed subjects. Later he explained that my focus on his past was unseemly: it was past and done. And bear in mind, he lived through momentous events such as the British Invasion of Benin Kingdom in 1897. However, that was HIS past. What I needed to focus on, he said, was my own present and my future. I could take from his life his stoicism in the face of adversity and also adopt his cardinal rules of unfailing ethical behavior and honesty. There wasn't much else that was useful to a young man since his world was very very different from the one his grandsons were born into. Imagine the fact that in these days (1985) one could go from my hometown to Lagos and back in one day. He remembered trips that took two weeks and was accomplished on foot. Thus much as he was amused by my desire to know what his life was like, his question and this he insisted on, was for me to tell him what I wanted my life to be like. From his viewpoint, it didn't seem like I was doing much with it especially since by that time, it seemed to him that I had been in school all my life and this he found especially exasperating, because it didn't seem as if the school taught anything you can use to make a life. he complained about children who were full of "book knowledge" but totally without wisdom. "Your father got only a grade school education", he said to me, "and see how well he's done". No matter, he said, that's an issue for you to deal with as your life unfolds. As for him, he had lived a good life. Soon the next rains will come and then he must go. True to his word, he passed away during the next rains, in the damp days of August. He was the last diviner-Chief in my lineage and a revered lineage oracle.

It seems time speeds up the older you get: deaths in the lineage have increased of late. Sheer luck and a cat's nine lives saved me from being one of the passing, when two weeks ago my car spun off the road into a ravine in slick rainy weather and missed crashing tail first into fast moving Southbound CA highway 101 traffic. It is something to joke about mortality and quite another to stare death in the face. I have been sitting at home since then reflecting on the passing of the age as lineage and clan relatives fall on both sides of me. When life tests you in this manner, it is vital you remain still the better to take stock and observe your surroundings in greater detail. When you do this, things deemed important turn out to be quite trivial in retrospect. I turned off my phone, missed deadlines and largely spent time in autopilot, literally killing time. But that passes too and I have continued to drive, secure in the knowledge that it is not yet my time. In my clan we believe the ancestors abide at the edges of memory, watching, and sometimes they intervene to protect the living.

In time the rains will come again and then even the hardiest must go. Meanwhile, life goes on and time passes; in the meantime, one does as best as one can. So then...greetings.

Apr 9, 2008

40 Acres and A Mule...

The acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee is well known for making controversial movies and political statements. The Hollywood Reporter posted this video of Spike Lee commenting on the politics of race in Hollywood in his acceptance speech for the Behind the Lens award on March 26 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. From the comments posted about the video, Spike's opinions did not go down well with the majority of readers of the Hollywood Reporter who mostly found it flat-out racist. For many commentators, Spike's comments amount to merely blaming white people for black people's misfortunes and thus nothing more than reverse race-baiting. Spike Lee was however talking about the dearth of opportunities for African American people in Hollywood and he speaks to this from deep personal experience. His company's name, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, reiterates a longstanding demand from African Americans for the economic support promised to them at the end of slavery, which it can be argued is yet to be delivered by the government. It is possible to be put off by Spike Lee's tone in delivering these comments but a relevant question remains: is there any way at all to speak about the problems of racism in today's society without being branded a bigot, reactionary demagogue, or a racist?

O'JEZ

On a recent visit to Nigeria in December 2007, I traveled with Rob Aft of Compliance Consulting, a Hollywood Consulting firm interested in Nollywood, the Nigerian Film Industry. Rob Aft's report on Nollywood was published in the Guardian (Nigeria) newspapers on December 21 2008. His experience of Nigerian cuisine is highlighted in this blurb mention of O'Jez, the bona-fide hangout of the Nollywood elite.

Apr 4, 2008

"Afropolitanism": Africa without Africans (II)

Ongoing at the Studio Museum in Harlem (SMH), Flow, described as “the first twenty-first century exhibition focusing on art by a new generation of international artists from Africa”. However, SMH notes, the artists, who hail from eleven African nations, reside mainly in Europe and North America and travel to and from Africa regularly. The majority has never been included in a significant U.S. museum exhibition and is virtually unknown in this country…. Flow will illustrate the individuality and complexity of the visual art produced by a dynamic generation of young artists, this time with a global perspective. (Full disclosure: I was asked to write for the “Flow” catalog but was hesitant because I thought its premise was faulty: by the time I decided to contribute my objections, the organizers had closed on submissions).

The critique below touches on very sensitive subjects so I will try to be as clear as possible. I had commented earlier on this blog about the persistent evacuation of Africans from the site of their own creative discourses in my review of Disney's representation of Africa without Africans. Nowhere is this attitude more evident than in the representation of contemporary African art and it is now reaching a point of epidemic proportions. Although "Contemporary African art" is now evident in "mainstream" (read "Western") art and critical discourses, this context of practice continues to be represented almost exclusively as the domain of African artists who live and work in the West. These artists are largely Africa-descended citizens of Western countries trained in elite Western institutions of art whose practice unfolds in places like New York, Amsterdam, London, etc. Their art channels the prevailing ethos of Western mainstream contemporary art and is therefore more accessible to curators who have since 1990 used these artists to enunciate a narrative of contemporary "African " art. As an art historian I have written against this trend, not because I don't consider such artists "African" enough but because I explicitly think that the persistent focus on such artists occurs at the expense of African artists based in Africa. This focus is increasingly offensive, intellectually bankrupt, very biased and racist in its assumptions, but above all, it is quite stunning that its narrative of contemporary African creativity is being adopted as a dogma in art history.

I was reminded of this attitude again in Holland Cotter's excellent review of Flow in today's New York Times. (I should point out here that Holland Cotter is a first rate critic and I have immense respect for his work). Titled Out of Africa, Whatever Africa May Be, Cotter seemed baffled by the assumptions of this exhibition and notes as much in his analysis. “Afropolitanism", Cotter notes, is the modish tag for new work made by young African artists both in and outside Africa. What unites the artists is a shared view of Africa, less as a place than as a concept; a cultural force, one that runs through the world the way a gulf stream runs through an ocean: part of the whole, but with its own tides and temperatures. The idea that Africa is less a place than as a concept is one of the conceits of recent postcolonial discourse, which to me is a supremely evasive response to the marginalization of Africa in global discourses. In all my work as a scholar, Africa is the ONLY continent I have ever heard discussed as “less than a place and more as a concept” which often serves as a basis for moving the discussion away from the continent entirely. Coming from an intellectual history in which philosophers like Hegel declared that Africa was no part of history, contemporary discourses grudgingly concede Africa’s historicity but argue about its concrete geographical existence. The problem here of course is that contemporary curators and critics argue for the global identity of contemporary practice but I believe I have demonstrated clearly on this blog that such arguments are illusory. Africans have almost absolute immobility in a contemporary global world that works very hard to keep Africans in their place on the African continent (see Aachronym's Borders and Access series of posts in October and November 2007). There is no immigration policy anywhere in the Western world that welcomes Africans and evidence of major bias against African global mobility abounds in international media. As Kwame Opoku noted on this blog, there is no Western country anywhere that will grant an African a visa merely to visit Western museums and Africa-based African artists find it almost impossible to secure visas to show their works abroad. (In my series of blog-posts titled Borders and Access, I demonstrated how difficult it was even for highly accomplished African scholars based in Western institutions to secure visas and humiliation-free passage through Western airports). Those African artists who live and and work in Africa and are compelled by global immobility to remain in that context serve mainly as props in the personal narrative of Western (and increasingly African) curators who take the liberty to pick and choose those they promote to the category of “global artists”. This liberty to pick-and-choose limits the viability of continental African artists and also undervalues their artworks in the “global” art market. It thus seems that living and working on the African continent automatically render artworks made by such artists valueless. This latter problem of how their locality contributes to undervalue African artworks is completely not addressed in discussions of contemporary African art.

Cotter rightly notes that the question engaged in Flow concerns the idea of Africa as a fixed identity or sensibility and in this regard, the artists in Flow have every right to argue against any identification that denies their international location as artists. I am not arguing that African artists have to live in Africa for their works to be acceptable: I am for example an African living in California and writing as a historian of global African arts. I am however arguing against a concept of globalization that erases Africans who live on the African continent from its purview. Are African artists who live in Africa part of the global world? If so, why don’t we see exhibitions of their art that takes their particular aesthetic concerns into consideration? In a truly global world, why does it seem as if all contemporary “global” artists take their cue from New York? If indeed they take their cue from New York, why do we talk about their work as if it transcends space, place and time? It seems to me that what we have here is a supremely colonial and imperialist discourse of art masquerading as a global discourse that assumes that an artist is global only to the extent that he or she lives in the West or assumes aesthetic attitudes that comply with prevailing orthodoxy in New York, London or Paris. Consider also that all the exhibitions produced to tout the “internationalization” of African art rarely make it back to Africa and are not accessible to Africa-based artists except through the internet. This is itself points to their marginalization. Few art exhibitions that originate in the West reach Africa and it is only South Africa in recent times that has managed to get on the international exhibition circuit.

Cotter concludes his analysis with an important point that without geographical specificity, flow easily becomes drift”. I point out usually in this context that no one lives in "global" space although analysis of artists based in New York often sound as if they do not live in actual locations. Cotter defends the rights of artists not to “wrap themselves in evidence of their origins” (the earlier crass artworld demand for evidence of “Africanness” which undermined earlier generations of African artists whose works produced in this vein are now regarded as worthless) but he also defends the viewpoint that we cannot speak of Africa without engaging the African context itself. And CONTEXT is what I am talking about here: WHAT IS THE CONTEXT OF CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART? Is the context Africa itself in all its contemporary complexity? If this context is truly global, why are curators not exhibiting the works of African artists who live and work in Africa, to enunciate their particular aesthetic and political orientation or at least get their viewpoint about how they see themselves in relation to the global context? Do African artists always have to wait to be “discovered” by Western curators or discourses before they and their contexts of practice assume global importance? Why is the continent not treated as a significant context of globalization? For example, the Ghanaian sculptor El Anstsui moved to Nigeria in 1975 and has remained there all this while, creating astonishing new styles of art and training several generations of contemporary Nigerian artists, myself included. Why is El’s Nigerian sojourn not seen as evidence of transnationalism but instead, his exhibitions in New York (for which he is now globally famous) taken as evidence of his ‘arrival” in mainstream discourse as a global artist?

Global discourses mask obvious relationships of power, not the least of which is the power to frame and if necessary silence discourse. Western discourses largely define Africans as blank slates that can be interpreted to conform to Western ideals. One of the truly horrendous problems of scholarship in African art history is the extent to which Africa is denied any credit for its own knowledge systems and forms of cultural production. This is conundrum of our age, a dastardly version of the lament of the Ancient Mariner: “Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink”. In contemporary art discourses, “Africa” is everywhere but the African continent itself is everywhere invisible. It may come as a surprise to many that there is indeed an African continent composed of many countries where large numbers of artists live, work, and engage as best as they can in global discourses: their practice deserves recognition on its own terms. There are also notable numbers of expatriate African artists working in the West whose practice deserve to be taken seriously but I always argue that such artists ought to be defined as truly global artists and their work discussed in relation to their primary contexts of residence and practice. Every time I pass through the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I see European and even South American artists assimilated into the mainstream American art narrative (their works as titled thus: Arshile Gorky, American, born Armenian…). I will like to see the Flow artists represented thus (Latifa Echakhch, French, born Morrocco; or Adel Abdessemed, French, born Algeria…) which recognizes their African origins but locates them squarely in the French context of their contemporary practice. Doing otherwise only marginalizes these artists and enables the curators to maintain a conceit of absolute Frenchness that excludes any black person from consideration. And for crying out loud, doesn’t being born in a Western country make someone a native of that country of birth? Why then does Flow describe someone like Grace Ndiritu as anything but a British artist seeing as she was born in London?

I credit exhibitions like Flow for bringing artists unknown in the USA to the purview of Americans and as an American museum it probably has no other credible mandate. However, some of these artists who grew to adulthood in African had already achieved measures of fame in their own countries within a national context that provided their initial engagements with the creative and discursive processes. Modou Dieng was not entirely unknown in Senegal and I wager that the other African-born artists in this exhibition similarly achieved some fame in their countries before emigrating. I think it is now very important for curators to turn their attention to Africa's geographical context so that they can better understand what is going on in various African countries and treat African contexts as valid sectors of the global world. Globalizations shouldn’t always require Africa to emerge only in the West: people in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Zimbabwe are active agents of global change even though we tend to marginalize their existence and contributions. The percentage of African artists who live and work in the West is very minuscule (less than 0.0001%) but they occupy 99% of the discourse of contemporary African art. This inversion holds only for African artists: Chicago is full of expatriate Irish but no one goes to Chicago to study “contemporary Irish art”. If this inversion persists, we must at some point declare the scholarship it produces as valueless because its subject focus is questionable. If on the other hand, we don’t need to study Africa to understand Africa, then we should state so upfront and spare everyone the sleight of hand that passes for contemporary curatorial focus and scholarship on the subject.

Apr 3, 2008

Wangechi Mutu at UCSB

The Kenyan-born contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu (left) will be presenting a Regents Lecture in the Arts at the University of California Santa Barbara on April 23, 2008. According to an official press release for the event, "UCSB Arts and Lectures, the UCSB Department of Art and the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum present a free illustrated lecture with Kenyan-born visual artist Wangechi Mutu in An Evening with the Artist on Wednesday, April 23 at 8 pm in UCSB Campbell Hall. Mutu is a multimedia artist who creates bold aesthetically challenging work through ironic use of materials that represent feminist concerns and themes of cultural identity crisis. She creates figures that are both glamorous and repulsive, with exaggerated features and carefree media that satirically reveal prophetic allusions to pressing issues such as the atrocities of war, the illegal diamond trade, and the self-inflicted "improvements" of plastic surgery. Time Out, New York calls Mutu's work "Divine and decadent, both liberating and disturbing." Wangechi Mutu's visit to UCSB comes on the heels of the recent successful week-long visit by acclaimed filmmaker and multimedia artist Isaac Julien whose Fantome Afrique installation is still playing at the UCSB University Art Museum. Below, Wangechi Mutu, Untitled 2003, mixed media on mylar,90 x 61 cm. Photo: Saatchi Gallery.

Apr 1, 2008

"Monkey Business": The Vogue Cover-Page Controversy Redux

Wesley Morris' article in Slate (Monkey Business) provides an interesting take on the Vogue controversy and reaches similar conclusions to those in my earlier post on the subject. However, Morris' argument is undermined by its conclusion of the writer that he "for one, [has] racism fatigue" and is "wiped out" by the sudden spike in race-based controversies in recent times. This conclusion reminds me of a film I saw long ago (I forget the title now) about a white reporter who went through Jim Crow South disguised as a black man in order to experience life from the viewpoint of African Americans in the segregated South. When he finally makes his identity known to a black man who offered him a place to sleep (after local hotels refused to rent him a room on account of his black skin), his host pointed out the incongruity of their situation: "you will go back up North and remove your make-up and return to your life as a white person" he told the reporter. His host on the other hand will always be a black person and will always be impacted by that fact. It is really jarring when you hear a white reporter talk about "racism fatigue". Black people don't have that option since they live what Frantz Fanon calls "the fact of blackness". The luxury of NOT THINKING about race is precisely the power of whiteness, and lack of that luxury is one of the reason why it seems black people are always angry about racial discourses. Consider that Barack Obama's campaign for a post-racial discourse in American politics have been reconfigured in the popular media as a racialized candidacy and you get a sense of this difficulty. His opponent in the democratic primary is consistently defined as a "woman" (not "white woman") while Obama is always spoken of as a "black man". Then ask yourself, why doesn't the media simply identify him as "a man"? Wasn't this the point of all those civil rights demonstrations with people carrying placards that read "I am a MAN"? Race trumps gender every time and when you are a black person, it almost always trumps everything else. This is the crux of the anger over the Vogue cover-page. Both Morris and I agree that it is insensitive but not necessarily racist; however, those who consider this level of crass insensitivity racist are not being unduly paranoid. It is proper to understand why each constituency is entitled to its opinion.

Illustration above: Slate

Running Away?

Guest Blogger Kwame Opoku comments on an amusing moment in the ongoing struggle to get the British Museum to discuss restitution. And this is NOT an April Fool's joke.
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KWAME OPOKU
BRITISH MUSEUM DIRECTOR AVOIDS AFRICANS REQUESTING TO DISCUSS RESTITUTION OF STOLEN AFRICAN OBJECTS

It is becoming increasingly clear that many European museum directors are not very convinced of the soundness of the arguments they present in favor of the retention of stolen African cultural objects by their museums. We have shown the illegality, illegitimacy and immorality of the continued holding of thousands of African cultural objects which the museums are unable to display for lack of space. We have also demonstrated their denial of the cultural and human rights of many Africans by the persistent refusal even to discuss the issue of restitution of stolen cultural object and also that the refusal to return these items constitutes a violation of several United Nations and UNESCO resolutions (see Kwame Opoku, NEFERTITI, IDIA AND OTHER AFRICAN ICONS IN EUROPEAN MUSEUMS: THE THIN EDGE OF EUROPEAN MORALITY).

If any further proof were required as evidence of the untenable behavior of institutions like the British Museum, the article below would be more than sufficient. It describes how the Director of the British Museum, the leader of those Western institutions resisting any attempts to return stolen African cultural objects, ran away from a group of Africans who sought to discuss the issue with him. He ran away for very good reasons: he would have had no legally acceptable explanation for the refusal to repatriate these stolen African cultural objects. The recent UNESCO International Conference, The Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin (March 17, 2008, Athens), has emphasized the importance of the cultural heritage of a people as an indispensable element for their self-definition as a people and community, serving as a link between the past, present and future, and urged museums to open discussions on the return of important cultural property to the countries and communities of origin.

The British will of course not be impressed by the conclusions of the UNESCO conference in Greece since they do not appear to have much respect for international organizations and definitely do not want to return the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles. The completion of the new magnificent museum at the Acropolis will not move them. They are keeping the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta stone, Ethiopian historical documents and religious objects and other illegally appropriated cultural objects that fill the British Museum and other museums in Great Britain. It seems when British interests are involved, law and morality have no place in their considerations.

How long will the British, the French, the Germans, the Americans, the Portuguese and other Europeans hold on to the stolen cultural property of other peoples? I sometimes have the impression that they do not read the publications of the ethnologists and other social scientists. They would by now have understood and appreciated the importance of these cultural objects in their societies of origin. They would have realized how much these objects are linked to the history, religion language and culture of the societies concerned. Western countries are thus depriving other peoples of essential elements for cultural development by keeping cultural objects which are not necessary for European or American self-definition but are kept merely for aesthetic contemplation. By holding on to these stolen items, the British and their allies are contributing to violations of human rights and disrespect of international law as well as disregarding the right to self-determination and the independence of African and other exploited peoples. They are also directly sustaining and nurturing an illegal market for plundered archaeological items. The rampant theft of cultural objects, even from churches, cannot be halted if venerable Western museum in Europe and the Americas fail to denounce cultural pilferage, renounce any “rights” to and return stolen items. One cannot cultivate thievery and immorality in higher public institutions and expect to produce honesty and high morality in private life. One cannot have a very high private or public morality in a society where museum directors praise robbers for their bravery and condemn States for attempts to control illicit trade in archaeological objects. There must be dialogue on the legality of holding on to African cultural objects in Western museums and the problem cannot be wished away simply by running away from it.