Sep 30, 2008

NEW GETTY FOUNDATION GRANTS TO AID AFRICA’S MUSEUMS

News from the GETTY
DATE: September 30, 2008
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW GETTY FOUNDATION GRANTS TO AID AFRICA’S MUSEUMS

LOS ANGELES—Two new grants from the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles are supporting African museums, marking over 20 years of commitment by the Getty to training museum professionals in sub-Saharan Africa. The Foundation’s new grants will support two types of heritage preservation. One, a $200,000 grant for the West African Museums Program (WAMP) in Senegal, will fund training in the preservation of historical photographs. The other $175,000 grant to the International Council of African Museums in Kenya (AFRICOM) will help the organization restructure to better serve the African museum community. This is the Getty’s fourth grant in support of AFRICOM. “Strengthening these key professional organizations helps to build capacity for museums across the continent,” said Deborah Marrow, Director of the Getty Foundation.

African museums house a wide variety of objects, from ritual objects such as tribal masks, musical instruments, and statues, to clothing and historical photographs, many of them increasingly fragile and in need of protection. “The grant received by WAMP from the Getty Foundation will make a huge impact on West African institutions in the preventive conservation of some of the most threatened photographic collections,” said Dr. Boureima Diamitani, WAMP Executive Director.

The Getty Foundation’s commitment to African museums started in 1986, when the Foundation began working with the International Centre for Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome to launch the landmark year-long Prevention in Museums in Africa program for professionals, also known as PREMA. The program’s purpose was to train conservators, curators, and museum directors to undertake preventive conservation for the objects in their care, and importantly, to share their knowledge with others. “The philosophy was really to ‘train the trainers,’” said Joan Weinstein, associate director of the Getty Foundation. “Course graduates were able to share their knowledge with colleagues in their home countries, allowing them to network and find solutions in an increasingly challenging museum environment.” The Getty Foundation also provided funding for PREMA graduates to conduct similar training programs throughout sub-Saharan Africa. To date, more than 400 museum professionals from 40 nations have completed training, and the programs have led to the creation of the first permanent African organizations dedicated to preserving museum collections, the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain in Benin, and the Center for Heritage Development in Africa in Kenya.

MEDIA CONTACT:
Melissa Abraham
Getty Communications
310-440-6861
mabraham@getty.edu

Sep 27, 2008

Nnenna Okorie at October Gallery, London

The Nigerian artist Nnenna Okorie, a graduate of the Nsukka School, is having her first solo exhibition in London at the October Gallery. Ulukububa- Infinite Flow opens on Thursday 16th of October 2008, and will present Okorie's highly tactile sculptutes and installations. The October Gallery press release reads:
Nnenna Okore is a shining new talent at the forefront of Nigeria’s emerging generation of conceptual artists. Working with clay, wire, wax, rope and newspaper, she creates highly tactile wall sculptures. Her organically textured installations create intimate architectural spaces and shelters, encouraging the viewer to ‘inhabit’ and socially engage with the object. Okore first studied at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, under celebrated sculptor El Anatsui. She is currently Assistant Professor of Art at North Park University, Chicago. Her work was recently exhibited at Channel 4’s headquarters and is included in the inaugural exhibition 'Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary', at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York.

Sep 26, 2008

Free Wi-Fi

I'm at Berkeley for the UC Berkeley Conference on African and Afro-Caribbean Performance, at the invitation of my good friend and colleague, Catherine Cole. I'm at an outdoor cafe surfing the web on a free wi-fi access node. The access link actually identifies itself as Free Wi-Fi. An interesting development in the availability of wide-range access systems: I'm told Berkeley has one of the highest concentrations of free wi-f hotspots in the country. I haven't encountered much of this kind of web access in Southern California although many university campuses are hooking up to such systems.

Sep 22, 2008

Steep Climb Up the Mountain...

A notable and interesting Associated Press report: Poll shows gap between blacks and whites over racial discrimination. Among other statistics, the article states that Barack Obama's path to the presidency is steeper than it would be if he were white. Similar reports are popping up in the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

"Holy Hip-Hop": Melamid's Tainted Vision

The Los Angeles Times reports ongoing at the Forum Gallery in Los Angeles from Sept. 12 through Nov. 1, an exhibition of paintings about major hip-hop musicians by the Russian conceptualist Alexander Melamid. Famous in the 1980s as part of the conceptual art duo Kolmar and Melamid, the artist was an important figure credited, along with Vitaly Kolmar, as architects of the Soviet Realist Pop Art movement. The duo were famous for their most wanted series of paintings in which they critiqued public taste in art by interviewing "ordinary" Americans and transcribing their aesthetic preferences into rather cliched paintings. Melamid's turn to the aesthetics of hip-hop is startling and raises many questions about the appropriation of "blackness" in this new and supposedly "post-black" cultural economy. The LA-Times notes that Melamid's introduction to hip-hop came through his son, Dan "The Man" Melamid, a video director who interacts with the hip-hop scene and provided his father with access to A-list hip hop stars. Melamid sat in during their recording sessions (sketching and photographing) and also invited some of the musicians to sit for him. Melamid developed these paintings from his photographs and drawings of hip-hop artists. The LA-Times also reports that this is Melamid's first solo exhibition, a startling nugget of information explainable by the fact that Melamid had previously worked (for quite a long time) as a member of a two-man team of artists (curious though: where is Vitaly Kolmar?). In any case, this exhibition is receiving important international commentary and praise.

I personally do not think that Melamid's portraits of hip-hop artists is groundbreaking in any respect other than the fact that a noted Russian conceptualist is now turning to full-fledged figurative portraiture as a style, which in itself highlights the conservative nature of contemporary tastes and ironically recalls the 1980s when Kolmar and Melamid were top art-world stars. Obviously, the past has returned to haunt us in major ways: the financial markets are collapsing as they did in the 1980s and strangely enough, bombastic art in a brash figurative style is also making a comeback. In fact, Melamid may be riding a bubble in the proliferation and art-market consumption of African American images, which American sports marketing has already shown to be a gold mine. But figurative art of more ambitious mien have been a staple of African American art since the Harlem Renaissance, as was demonstrated by several important exhibitions in the past decade, most especially by the Studio Museum in Harlem's presentation of curator Thelma Golden's Black Romantic. Until Golden presented this exhibition, no non-African American art museum in the United States or significant “mainstream” art historian had really given these artworks even the most cursory attention: instead they were usually dismissed as romantic and parochial outpourings of intellectually challenged minority artists. However, African American artists had long maintained that it was important to them to reflect African Americans in their art in the same manner that white artists take their white subjects for granted. (See my February 2008 posting on this subject here). In the course of the past one hundred years, African American artists have explored all nuances of figurative imagery in art. The current focus on hip-hop aesthetics has also been very well explored in photography as anyone can see by reviewing VIBE and legions of other hip-hop magazines.

So what exactly is significant about Melamid’s paintings of hip-hop moguls? Not much I think. Melamid’s paintings come across as sketches for more detailed work and they betray the socialist realism origins of his art. They are also very stereotypical and affected by the hyperbolic styling of hip-hop evident in the music videos of the sort produced by his son. Thus, although they show the musicians in various poses, engaged in the conduct of their expanding conglomerates, they nevertheless manage to depict their subjects in a manner that encourages surprise that these musicians are actually working. His portrait of Kanye West (above) is frankly speaking, offensive for its echoes of gang-signage although the intensity of Snoop Dog comes cross clearly in Melamid’s painting of the musician engaged with a computer. It is worth asking how come Reverend Run (of pioneering hip-hop group Run-DMC) was painted talking on a landline phone. He is clearly holding a cell-phone in his right hand but let’s not quibble about small things. In this regard, one might compare Melamid's paintings to those of Kehinde Wiley which are obviously superior in their overall composition and allusions, but above all in the eminent assurance of his subjects and structural integrity of his images. Wiley, an African American (of Nigerian ancestry) in turn channels a figurative style of painting famous in Nigeria among artists of the Yaba School and an earlier generation of figurative painters dating back to Aina Onabolu, Nigeria’s first formally trained artist and noted portrait painter. In fact, figurative paintings focused on quotidian images of black people are abundant across the global African world, especially in the Afro-Atlantic world. None of the eminent African American artists or other global African artists who have worked in this style for decades have ever received significant validation of their work. Their works sell for very little money, nothing in the range of the millions of dollars Melamid stands to collect for his paintings. (Rumor has it that a Russian oligarch has already acquired Melamid’s hip-hop series for $2.2 million). One could equally compare Melamid to other white contemporary figurative painters like John Currin, Odd Nerdrum and the Midwestern American Ruralist Bo Bartlett (in my opinion, only Odd Nerdrum really ascends to the level of “master” in this group. Bartlett will get there in time although his recent attempts at allegory often devolve into sentimentality: John Currin is a horribly overrated hack). Other artists like the Californian painter John Nava also work in the figurative style, in this case, directed to liturgical subjects (his Neo-Icon series of tapestries for the Los Angeles Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is a masterpiece). One would class Nava in the category of neo-figurative artists who focus on local ethnic and cultural identity except that for some reason, Nava has seen fit to almost completely exclude African Americans from his conception of ethnic identities in urban Los Angeles. Even his “Hispanic” subjects are carefully caucasianized.

The International Herald Tribune states that Melamid’s images of hip-hop artists (as well as portraits of clergy, which formed the other nexus of his paintings in recent times) marks a “sudden embrace of serious painting”. An artist of Melamid’s professional status reaches a point where they would have to work very hard to produce “bad art” although anyone familiar with Kolmar and Melamid’s “Most Wanted Series of Paintings” might conclude that Melamid had devoted the past two decades to doing just that, producing in this period some really ghastly images attributed to American public taste in art. These works succeeded brilliantly as conceptual art. The problem with his turn to “serious painting” is that it negates the entire premise of his previous work by suggesting an investment in the same beliefs the artist and his collaborator formerly disdained during the freewheeling 1980s. But hey, everything old is new again: Melamid is back on the cusp of another season of dispossession where financial downturns in the economy are used as excuse to further push unstable African American communities and the American middle class in general into ruin. If the International Herald Tribue is to be believed, Melamid turned to the subject of hip-hop after a fallow period in which he was at a loss for subject matter. Holy Hip Hop shows the crass results of that cynical calculation. It is baffling that the artist thought this was a positive way to go since it does not seem that he invested any time at all evaluating the historical meanings and impact of hip hop aesthetics or how the relative success of the few moguls he depicted masks a culture of destructive self-representation in African American communities. Instead, Melamid celebrates hip-hop as a free-floating signifier, a culture without spatial or conceptual grounding. Let’s be clear, Melamid captures the physical image of his subjects but no more masterfully than a fresh art school graduate (actually, I’ve seen better paintings from recent art school graduates): his representation is that of an anthropologist observing a strange species of man. The paintings are completely devoid of any deep engagement with its subjects; as such, they fail as portraits and deserve to be called signage.

It bears saying once more that African Americans (and black people in general) do not exist merely to provide directionless white artists with subject matter. And on this note, let's hope to never see Melamid paint hip-hop images again unless he is willing to work harder at his understanding of the cultural phenomenon he depicts. Dan "The Man" Melamid, his son, is deservedly given props in hip-hop culture for his work as a video-director, which is why Alexander Melamid had access to the hip-hop stars in the first place. But access is not understanding: his lack of the latter is why Melamid's paintings fail.

Sep 16, 2008

Returner Redux

I'm back in California after six weeks of summer research in Nigeria. The life of the nomad is full of strange coincidences and it is true, as the cliche goes, that you can never go home again. The Nigeria I spent these previous six weeks in is definitely a different Nigeria from the one I left fifteen years ago despite the fact I've been back frequently for the past decade. As I chronicled in recent weeks, lots have changed as a new country struggles to emerge from the carcass of the old Nigeria. In similar manner, the USA I returned to is rapidly looking like a different country. This new country is stuck in economic crises engendered by what looks like a horror movie version of Back to the Future where ghosts of discredited politicians and economists return with vengeance to make mockery of our contemporary aspirations. This process first took hold as the current administration appointed the husks of 1980s mismanagers to significant national posts. In that regard, the current economic crises resembles the savings and loan scandals of yesteryear and it reiterates the adage that those who do not pay attention to history are condemned to repeat it. I hope the looming stock market crash forever banishes all that talk of national, political, economic and social exceptionalism that fed the worst sense of national hubris ever in recent history. This attitude has now brought the mightiest nation in the history of humanity to its knees and may yet undo it altogether. And this is a sad thing: a mighty nation ought not to go out like this, done in by corporate greed and the rabid rantings of wanna-be warriors.

The strangest thing however, is that I've been "back home" to two homes during this trip. The ultimate cost of migration is the reality of not belonging to any one place with certainty. I travel on my Nigerian passport but Nigeria is no longer really home. In fact, after spending four weeks there, people I met greeted me with surprise: "Is everything Ok? Why are you still around"? they asked incredulously, causing me to repeat over and over my explanation of the requirements of long-term field research. I have in turn returned to an America I equally call home, except that my residency here is tenuous in its totality. If an African American candidate for the American presidency can still be considered an outsider and his patriotism contrasted with those of "real Americans" (racially coded reference to white Americans) even after four hundred years of African American existence in this country, then a recent African immigrant always needs to tread carefully. In the age of the Patriot Act, it is quite possible for one to lose all residency privileges, even if one is a naturalized citizen. When you live such a tenuous existence and you travel out of the country, it is not possible to say with certainty (as the Gubernator once said) "I'll be back!!!"

But I'm back, and this too is home. Life is full of ironies but no matter...man comes, man goes, earth abides.

For The City Yet to Come

The title of this post is taken from a fine book on African architecture (full citation: Abdoumaliq Sadim, For The City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities. Duke University Press, 2004). It's been stuck in my head as a way of describing the Lagos of my experience of the past six weeks. There is a new city in Lagos struggling to emerge from the carcass of the old city. This new city aspires to world-class global status and it has a way to go yet. But already, glimpses of the new city can be seen in the public space of old Lagos, a collective yearning for new ways of doing things, an impatience with the failings of the old order. True, electric power supply is not guaranteed and the road network is terrible but new roads are being built and the old ones revamped. In fact, the Third Mainland Bridge was closed recently for renovation and this has the cumulative effect of making Lagos traffic hold-ups (Nigerians call it go-slow) much worse that I remembered. That said, the city keeps moving and if you don't look closely, you might just miss the clearest evidence of its changing facade. It took me two weeks to notice the absence of Molue buses on the road: the notable yellow buses, fabled staple of the Lagos transportation system have been replaced by sparkling new buses that run on specially demarcated roadways called BRT lanes (something like the HOV lanes prevalent in Los Angeles designed to move multi-passenger vehicles through traffic faster). I also noticed something very shocking--Lagosians standing in queue to board the new transit buses. The last time anyone stood in queue in Lagos was during the Buhari-Idiagbon dictatorship, when failing to do so at a bus station could easily have led to a stint in jail. The regime was justifiably accused of massive repression but many Nigerians remember it with nostalgia because it really tried to change social mores for the better.
So it seems that the social order is changing and this may reflect changes in the wider social environment of Nigeria as a whole. With this change comes new architecture, new forms of social organization, and a completely different attitude to life. Don't get me wrong: life in Lagos is tough and doubly so for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. In this, the city resembles its counterparts in richer sections of the world, where great wealth shares space with great poverty. In time, some of these problems will be solved and yet others created. For now however, the prevalent mood is hopeful. Nigerians greet the most desperate situation with a philosophical shrug and the comment "god dey" (hard to translate but it means something like "god's watching").
I took tons of pictures of this changing city during my trip. I post a few below to illustrate Nigeria's contemporary reality. They are presented here as votive images for the city yet to come.

Pictures above, from top: View of Lagos from the Third Mainland Bridge--notice the long line of cars held up by construction on the bridge. Slow traffic in Lekki. Molue buses in Lagos. MegaPlaza mall in Victoria Island. New Construction in Lekki.

Pictures below: View of Yaba showing telecommunication towers—these are now ubiquitous in Lagos and other Nigerian cities. The Jazzhole—the best and most intellectually stimulating bookshop in Lagos. View of Lekki Office complex construction. Two views of Shoprite mall at Lekki. View of the Third Mainland Bridge at Oworo. Lagos State Transport Management Authority staff managing traffic diversion on Third Mainland Bridge at Yaba junction. Corporate offices on Ikorodu Road.








Sep 11, 2008

To The Fateful Departed

September 11, 2001. I had arrived in California on September 7 to start a new job at the University of California Santa Barbara, after driving for four days from Chicago in my 1989 Honda Accord, one of many such cross country trips I made during that period. I was starting a tenure track job at UCSB and eager to move into my campus housing and get on with the Fall quarter. However, I had one issue that needed urgent attention: my visa was expiring and I needed to travel to Canada to renew it. Usually, one needed to renew such visas in your home country but like any other immigrant from Africa, when it comes to leaving the USA while you were still on various forms of visas, the sensible thing to do was to leave as infrequently as possible. It wasn’t unheard of to return to your home country for a visa renewal and be denied permission to return to the USA for whatever reason. Canada was thus a favorite destination. A quick trip to Vancouver (in this particular instance), an application at the US Consulate there and presto, a new visa to extend your ongoing residency in the good ol’ USA.

I got up early on September 11, 2001. I had planned to make a quick run to Vancouver to take care of this pressing problem. However, my passport was also expiring and I needed to renew it. I woke up that morning and called the Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC and wasn’t surprised that the phone tolled a busy tone. It would have been news to call the Nigerian Embassy and actually have someone pick up the phone to conduct the nation’s business (things have changed quite a lot since then and the Nigerian Embassy in DC is now more responsive to phone calls). I tried a couple more calls on different numbers, none worked. I then called the Nigerian consulate in New York and couldn’t get through. I still didn’t think anything of it. Finally I called my sister in Maryland and got seriously nervous when I couldn’t get through to her phone. After repeated tries, I called the phone company to inform them that I couldn’t get through to the East Coast. The young man who picked up the phone was quite incredulous at my complaint: “don’t you have a TV?” he asked. I didn’t and in a very sharp tone asked him what owning a TV had to do with the fact that phone lines weren’t working. I had arrived in Santa Barbara with all my possessions stuffed into my Honda Accord and that didn’t include a TV or radio. I am information aggregator and my natural instinct is to follow news with rabid devotion. At some point in the lead up to the Y2K phenomenon (year 2000 for those too young to remember), I got fed up by the hysteria surrounding the millennium and gave my TV and radio away. I was planning to buy a new set but didn’t consider it a priority. “Get to a TV” the phone operator said. “There’s been an attack on New York city”.

I jumped into a pair of jeans and raced to the UCSB Student’s center where I saw a large number of people watching the news on CNN. One of the Twin Towers was burning and the atmosphere in the hall was quite mordant. I joined the group and watched the CNN ticker unfold the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. At this point, no one quite knew what was going on. On another screen, Peter Jennings of ABC, spoke of the event in calm, measured tones and I quickly turned to listen to his commentary. Jennings reiterated the fact that no one knew if the plane crashed into the building intentionally or by accident. I turned to the other screen with CNN on just in time to see the second plane hit tower two. On the ABC screen, Peter Jennings turned white and his voice failed briefly. He breathed deeply and in a devastated tone stated flatly that it appears another airplane has intentionally struck the second tower.

I stood with the crowd at UCSB and watched the event unfold until the two towers fell. Things got very weird afterwards, as news came in of yet other aircraft gone missing, and later, of the airplane crashed into the Pentagon, and the executive order to ground all the aircraft in US airspace. For three days afterwards, the skies were clear of any planes and of jet-trail. When the first tower fell, I was very sure that the American response would include nuking whoever was responsible for the attack. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve thought a lot about that day and how it changed American and global geo-politics. In time it will be possible to determine what this event really means in the overall unfolding of history. For months afterwards in the aftermath of the attack, the fallen towers spiked my dreams and threw me back into the defining conflict of my own life, into memories of incendiary attacks amidst the carnage of the Nigerian civil war. I watched how news of the September 11 attack focused on the terrified populace and contemplated how the transcultural armature of fear highlights the common humanity of all those caught in the cold grip of terror. Many people died on that day and countless more have died since then, in the endless recriminations of implacable antagonists. I remember all the dead but more than anything, I remember Peter Jennings, how his voice broke and the immense willpower and professionalism he summoned to continue to do his job—to inform all who tuned in of the magnitude of the disaster that was unfolding, while pleading that everyone refrain from jumping to conclusions. Above all, I remember his empathy and later that evening, I thought of those poor souls stranded in the top floors of the doomed towers who chose to jump to their death rather than wait to be consumed by fire, and I was in turn consumed by the utter hopelessness of their demise…and I wept.

To the fateful departed then, victims of the fallen towers and to all those who have died since they fell, I proffer these memories, fragile beyond belief. Et in Arcadia Ego. May their souls rest in peace.

ARESUVA Day 4

Pictures from Day 4 of the ARESUVA conference. From top: (i) Profs. Manthia Diawara and Deborah Wilis (r-l) both of New York University at their panel on "Networking Working Opportunities in Visual Arts--Nigeria and USA linkages". Prof. Awam Ankpa was also on this panel (ii) Veteran Nigerian cultural interlocutor Toyin Akinosho commenting on the presentations, (iii) Nigerian artist Pius Waritimi photographed in "traditional" Bayelsa State costume, (iv) Detail of Waritimi's traditional costume showing Mickey Mouse imagery.




ARESUVA Day 3

Day three of ARESUVA kicked off with a morning panel featuring presentations from Profs. Ogunduyile (Federal University of Technology Akure, Nigeria) and Prof. Dele Jegede (Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, USA). Ogunduyile spoke about the Visual arts sub-sector in poverty eradication programs while Jegede evaluated strictures and structures in the Nigerian art space, a wide-ranging account of the history of activist engagements by artists and scholars in Nigerian art within the past few decades.

My presentation at ARESUVA took place September 10 at an afternoon panel. Titled “Monetizing Nigerian/African arts and cultural production in the global economy, the paper discussed how art management and art-equity consultancy can be used to improve the value of modern and contemporary African art (specifically those produced by artists based in Africa) in the global art market. The abstract for my presentation reads as follows:
The industry of culture is now big business and its tangible and intangible aspects are rapidly being monetized. The business of art is recognized as a major aspect of intellectual production in studies of Western art, and the buying and selling of art and its ancillary products form a significant aspect of the conversion of artworks to objects of intellectual and financial value. Modern and contemporary African art lags behind in this respect. Local value of art is low and a global market for this art is practically non-existent. There is no secondary market for modern African art and structures of art management needed for documentation, promotion and discourse are sorely lacking. What then is the value of modern and contemporary African art in the global market and what can be done to improve its value?

My presentation was followed by Prof. Awam Amkpa (New York University) who stepped in on short notice to replace Claudine Pommier (Art in Action Society of Toronto Canada) who was unable to attend ARESUVA due to conflicting schedules. Prof. Amkpa spoke about the reception of African art in the West and suggested that it was time Africans started thinking of what kind of Africa they are interested in producing/projecting in the new century. Ampkpa discussed several constraints on African interaction and suggested ways around this problem. He also called for a reexamination of the idea of Africa engendered by Africa’s interlocutors, and greater contact between African artists, scholars and culture workers. After these presentations, a lively discussion brought the evening to a very satisfying close. Pictures, from top: (i) With (l-r) Prof. Dele Jegede, Dr. Chris Iyimoga, and eminent Nigerian artist Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, (ii) with (l-r) Prof. Ikem Okoye, Nigerian/British artist Sokari Douglas-Camp, and sculptor Prof. Chris Afuba, (iii) Sokari Douglas-Camp, (iv) Prof. Ikem Okoye in conversation with Sokari Douglas-Camp, (v) Prof. Ola Oloidi





Sep 10, 2008

Artworks from ARESUVA exhibition

A selection of artworks from the ongoing ARESUVA conference and art exhibition. From top: (i) General view of the exhibition showing works by Tola Wewe (the orange colored painting), Kunle Adeyemi (to the left of Wewe) and Tayo Quaye (to its right); (ii)Bunmi Babatunde, African Maiden (iii) Pius Waritimi, Neo-Slavery (detail) (iv) Pius Waritimi, Gas Flaring (v) Lema Guya, Portraits (vi) Uche Onyishi, Brain Drain, (vii) Chris Echeta, Faces, and (viii) Yusuf Grillo, Symbol of Justice









ARESUVA DAY 2

The plenary sessions of ARESUVA took off on September 9 with a presentation by Prof. Ola Oloidi of the University of Nigeria. Oloidi spoke at length on visual arts can be used to advance national needs in the age of globalization. Prof. Oloidi is a flamboyant speaker and a pioneer modern African art historian whose intellectual rigor anchored the creative experiments of the Nsukka School’s Uli Revivalist aesthetics.
If a teacher’s importance is measured by the progress of his students, then Oloidi is someone to reckon with. He supervised Olu Oguibe, the first student to receive a master’s degree in modern and contemporary African art at UNN, and other students included this author, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, all of whom now hold important positions in major American universities.

Lisa Binder, my good friend, was regrettably absent but she was in Nigeria barely one month ago to carry out research on an upcoming exhibition of El Anatsui scheduled as the first major exhibition in the new Museum of African Art, currently under construction. The panels thus continued with talks by Profs. Ikem OKoye (University of Delaware) and Agbo Folarin (Obafemi Awolowo University, known to most as the erstwhile University of Ife), Okoye’s lecture presented a critique of the idea of art as luxury and suggested that integrating the arts into all aspects of education has been shown to markedly improve learning. Agbo Folarin made a strong case for the economic benefits of monumental art while reviewing successful examples from all over the world. These talks were followed by spirited discussions and a tangential but significant debate on the merits of a new accreditation protocol in Nigerian Universities that requires all professors, even those teaching in art studio programs, to receive Ph.D certification. The day’s program was capped off by a dance-drama performance in the evening.

Pictures from top: Prof. Ola Oloidi presents his paper; Joe Musa, Director-General of the National Gallery of Art and ARESUVA convener, wth Prof. Agbo Folarin; the high-table listening to Prof. Ikem Okoye's presentation; Prof. Okoye during the question and answer session, a cross section of the audience at the presentation, and art historian Prof. Peju Layiwola (University of Lagos) providing a commentary on communal appropriations of public sculpture as ritual objects in Benin. Apparently, many public sculptures in Benin City are being repurposed as sites of ritual engagement by the general public. Her comments, in response to Prof. Folarin's paper, reveals an interesting side to the general focus on modes and uses of public monuments in Nigeria.





Sep 8, 2008

Blogging from ARESUVA

I'm attending ARESUVA conference in Abuja and will be posting items from the conference over the next few days. The conference opened today at the Abuja International Conference center in a very formal official ceremony. Afterwards, the Nigerian Minister of Culture opened an exhibition of artworks from African artists from several countries, curated by the Nigerian artist Nsikak Essien. The opening ceremonies drew quite a crowd comprising of artists, art enthusiasts, curators, gallery owners and the general public. ARESUVA's program lineup continues with lectures and presentations until September 13. Photo from top: Nsikak Essien, ARESUVA exhibition curator; with (r-l) Profs. Dele Jegede, Ola Oloidi, and Bona Ezeudu in the foreground; Crowd at opening ceremony; and during the formal exhibition opening event



Sep 3, 2008

Italy Pays Reparations to LIbya

A sign of things to come? Italy apparently decided to pay reparations to Libya in response to Italian colonial rule of Libya in early 20th century. The deal between Ghadaffi and Belusconi appear to be full of pork for Italy but nevertheless signifies a sea change in bringing European colonial powers to accountability for their colonization of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now, if only this new awareness extends to say, Britain paying reparations to any of the countries it colonized in Sub-Saharan Africa, or at least taking some responsibility for setting up the conditions that inexorably led to Zimbabwe's recent implosion (allocating land owned by indigenous people to a few white settlers and then affirming their right to the land after a mere 80 years of occupation, with no viable compensation paid to the dispossessed blacks). I am tempted to say "I should live so long" but then, stranger things have happened.

Sep 1, 2008

An Alien Inheritance

Richard Dowden, writing in the Prospect Magazine, makes a very persuasive case that it is time to create a specifically African form of democracy. According to the author,
Colonial powers created African states with arbitrary borders and unsuitable systems of "winner-takes-all" multi-party electoral democracy. As recent elections show, this has been a failure. It is time to develop an African form of democracy.
Read the full article here

Commentary on "The Messiah Mentality..."

My previous post titled "The Messiah Mentality" may have wrongly suggested that Obama's candidacy represents a "post-black" phase of American politics. I think the desire for post-black" discourses in general (whether in politics, arts, or any other form of discourse) is a very problematic proposition. Renowned intellectual Cornel West puts it best in relation to the current fascination with the meaning of Obama's candidacy, which most American commentators are describing as the end of civil rights era politics. West challenges the assumptions of "post-black" discourses in a recent interview with Tavis Smiley:

Cornel West:

How do we characterize this new historical era? Why is it that whenever people refer to: post racial, colorblind and now post black politics that black people always have to do all the disappearing acts .... and black suffering still exists.

What we are witnessing is the end of the Southern strategy which scapegoated black people ... not the end of black politics. The Southern strategy and its end is a much more interesting way of characterizing the era rather than saying black politics is disappearing...

Capitalism in Lagos: Mining the Poverty Market

I’ve been observing aspects of the Nigerian economy closely in the past month. Lots seem familiar, but tinged with a sense of slight dislocation, like a view through a wet window. You recognize the general shape of the capitalist system unfolding in this hot-market environment, yet it is less like the measured pace of established capitalist systems and more like the frenzied markets of frontier economies. Sure there is evidence of major movements in the economic sector. Each day brings word of new private public partnerships pumping good money into Nigerian projects. Banks are sprouting like weed in Lagos (or at least branches of the banks that survived the enforced regularization of the capital markets carried out by the previous administration). Mortgage banks abound to take advantage of the incendiary property markets in Lagos, where undeveloped lots in sections of town no one would be seen dead in just two years ago now go for astronomical sums. Traditionally hoity-toity places like Victoria Island, Ikoyi and the new Lekki developments are trading in serious hard currency. I skimmed through a local real-estate magazine and saw ads for available plots in these areas selling for above N4billion Naira ($400 million dollars).

Driving through Lekki astonishes me: the new houses already built or under construction are opulent by any standards. Owning a house like this would set you back some serious sums even in the West, and the houses of the rich in Nigeria compare favorably to any kind of McMansion you’ve ever seen in the tony stretches of Connecticut. Then there are the simply unbelievable edifices, like the vast estate of a famous Nigerian industrialist, an immense oceanfront property sitting on a huge expanse of land. Armed patrols stand guard everywhere around this incredible estate. Nearby, literally a stone’s throw away, the gargantuan Chevron estate recreates a little corner of America in Lekki. The vast holding of Chevron, a major exploiter of Nigerian oil and gas, includes a private airport, gated communities with private residences for its top staff, an independent power generating station, and apparently (and speaking here from the harrowing experience of a recent encounter), dedicated guards authorized to use deadly force in protection of the company’s assets. These opulent estates contrast with the woeful state of roads and infrastructure in a supposedly planned city development area that two decades ago comprised mainly of forests and salt water marshes. The estates are also haunted by the ghost of Maroko, one of the largest "slum" settlements in Lagos, whose residents fell victim to the rising value of their land. In 1986, the Lagos state government demolished Maroko and forced out its residents. Most of the land they formerly occupied became Lekki. (The Mobil corporate headquarters in Lekki sits on the former location of Maroko market). The legions of the poor forced from their homes live in the interstices of Lekki’s upscale buildings and largely bedevil the rich stuck in traffic on their way from and to their opulent mansions. Lekki’s traffic is increasingly snarled and a few hundred meters down the road from the Chevron estate, street peddlers besiege cars at roundabouts, selling everything from pirated videos and music to sexual enhancement pills of dubious provenance. The peddlers operate a fast-forward economy, running after cars in traffic like sprinters to bargain furiously on prices and complete their sales before cars pull away. They are happy to thrust their wares into your car while they negotiate a price with you. After all, traffic is moving at a snail’s pace and it is literally impossible for a driver to scoot off without paying for items procured. This is the paradox of Lagos, that there is some kind of street ethics which demands you pay for goods or services rendered, even through the agreed upon price of any object is usually less than one-third of the original asking price.

Cell phones are the most visible aspect of Nigeria’s new economy and each person carries two or three, the better to outwit the unreliable satellite networks systems that drop calls on a whim and provide less than creditable connections when it does work. However, it works and in being available, communication technologies have transformed Nigeria (and I suspect, other parts of Africa) in ways no one could have foreseen two decades ago. The foreign communication companies and their Nigerian partners provide unreliable basic services and still make gargantuan profits. And they’ve even managed to develop a foolproof way of collecting their money so that it is not affected by the usual Nigerian habit of pocketing cash from corporate and governmental transactions, the much-decried “corruption” that has Nigeria in a chokehold. It thus seems there is a lot to celebrate in Nigeria’s rapid incorporation into the global economy. But something still seemed not quite kosher. Then it occurred to me: I’ve seen this system of capitalism before, in the inner cities of the United States, where vampiric enterprises investing in what is euphemistically called “the poverty market” move in to exploit communities denied basic economic services because they are considered unprofitable markets.

The poverty market works like this: vast sections of African American communities are redlined by corporate interests (the basic reason behind this action is racism) and considered no-go areas. People from these places find it difficult to set up bank accounts, get basic phone services, bus services, city cleaning services, or even access to decent food. You could walk miles and not see a single bank or grocery store in these inner cities but every block usually has a fast food franchise (mainly lesser known brands rather than top brands like McDonalds or Burger King though KFC is a major player here), bail-bonds companies (to service the huge numbers of blacks who get sent to jail everyday), tons of liquor stores very few run by African Americans, pawn shops and sometimes, one or two car dealerships selling 20-year old gas guzzlers. There used to be large number of pay phones but these have been replaced by pay-per-use cell phones activated by specially secured phone cards (in essence you pay in advance for your phone calls). Inner city people even have their own type of “money” in the form of food stamps that are quite fungible in the underground economy. Lotteries are another aspect of the poverty market and a rapidly growing sector of the local economy. “I can’t believe it”, a wit once said—speaking of the state and national lotteries in the USA, “the government finally found a way to tax stupidity”. Despite the great odds against winning the lottery, millions of poor people still religiously hand over hard earned money to buy lottery tickets. Consider this an additional tax on poor people.

The poverty market emerged to take advantage of these lacks. The same banks that refuse to allow inner city people to establish bank accounts set up “Check-Cashing” companies where workers can cash their checks for a percentage of the total sum and also borrow money at ruinous interest rates. The loan term is short, usually on a monthly basis with interest rates above 30% (standard USA bank interest rates are 8-18%). These shops serve as an alternative economic center and successfully retain as much as 20% of the earnings of individuals in the communities they exploit, an additional tax on individual earnings after the 30% government tax on standard paychecks. Transactions are carried out with the lenders behind thick bulletproof glass.

All other aspects of the poverty market operate on the same basic principle: provide distorted service to a high-risk sector at high costs to take advantage of perceived lacks. In Nigeria, these systems are now operating unfettered and strangely enough, they are being celebrated as an enlightened response to Nigeria’s need for globalization. I have often railed against the marginalization of African countries in a global economy that denies them basic access while promoting major access for South Africa. The poverty market and its exploitative policies are the obverse of this complaint. The marginalization of African countries in the global economy goes hand in hand with their exploitation by the same global economy. So in Lagos, banks are expanding fast but are still under-serving the people, interest rates on lending are at 30% or higher, Payday Advance lenders are proliferating, fast food is the fastest growing business in town, companies request that prospective job seekers BUY employment forms through which these companies generate huge sums of money and end up sometimes offering no jobs at all to anyone, and the cell phone companies are literally making a killing. Initially, I paid no notice to cell phone charges but after spending almost $200 in one single week on phone calls (none of which lasted for more than two minutes), I reviewed the costs of owning a cell phone here and noticed something curious. The cell phone calls are all routed through an international signal and each call carries Nigeria’s call code, which means that Nigerians are all essentially making international calls every time they call someone in Lagos, even if that person is standing right next to each other. The phone companies set the billing rate at their own discretion and charge you per minute even on dropped calls (a friend told me that consumer advocates fought this and succeeded in securing per-second charges for dropped calls). So you buy a phone card, say $50 worth, load your cell phone and make calls until the account is drawn down and then you reload the phone by buying another card. As a side effect, aside from the egregiously high rates of these phone calls, discarded phone cards litter the streets of Lagos.

In the end, the poverty markets succeed because there is usually no alternative. However, Nigeria is a country rich in resources and the government can afford to take a more active interest if evidence exists that corporate bodies are crassly exploiting its citizens. However, the government itself has failed to create needed infrastructure to enable the country participate in the global economy and thereby opened the door to Nigeria’s exploitation by companies investing in the poverty market. Believe me when I say that these companies are delivering unimaginable profits to their primary owners largely foreign firms who face no restriction in moving their gains abroad. It remains to be seen whether Nigeria will ever develop any consumer protection advocacies. I am certain that when such protections arise, the poverty market economy will simply relocate to some other bedeviled African country and replicate the process. After all, Africa is the last market where you can operate in this manner without challenge. The basic drive is to get while the getting is good and for now, the poverty market economy is cleaning up in Nigeria.