Nov 26, 2008

Cleveland Museum of Art to Return Artifacts to Italy

The inevitable reckoning rolls on: Reuters reports that
"The U.S. Cleveland Museum of Art agreed on Wednesday to return looted art to Italy, including an ancient vase and a 14th-century cross, as museums worldwide face pressure to ensure their collections were acquired legally. The Cleveland said it would return 14 artifacts within three months. Among them are an Apulian Volute Krater vase from 33O BC and a rare gold processional cross from 1375, which was stolen from a Siena church and acquired by the museum in 1977.

Read the full story here...

Nov 21, 2008

Before the Rains...

What is the impact of the current global economic meltdown on the art, artists and the market? Reports from the auction houses are painting dire pictures and the commensurate speculation in visual culture from newly rich investors seems to be drying up slowly. We may be seeing the first glimpses of a global catastrophe in our understanding of culture, seeing as cultural institutions need significant funds to maintain themselves and put on new exhibitions. Already I hear that an exhibitions for Yinka Shonibare planned for next year is in doubt due to lack of funds. If titans like Shonibare are affected in this manner, it does not bode well for less-known artists who may face total loss of prospects.

It is heartening to see however that even bad economic times cannot curtail the vanity of the super-rich. Eli Broad has decided to build his own museum after all, after giving the Los Angeles Museum of Art funds to build an Eli Broad wing addition to the museum complex. Similar initiatives are underway from Lagos to Leningrad (sorry, St. Petersburg) funded by very rich people who are convinced that they can do better at managing their cultural property, especially considering the huge amounts they ponied up to buy artworks at the height of the art market boom of recent years.

It will be interesting to see what this does to cultural institutions that depend on donations for their survival.

Nov 15, 2008

Windy City Blues...

Chicago, at the edge of winter. I haven't been back to the city in a long while, almost four years, and it's surprising to see how easily memory takes charge when you move from one place to another in a place you lived in and left such a long time ago. I did my graduate studies here, at Northwestern University in the suburban town of Evanston, just north of the city; lived in Chicago for eight years and essentially negotiated my immigration experience in this region, having come directly to Chicago from Nigeria for graduate studies. Graduate school was one long dark night of the soul and even now, walking through the Evanston campus of NU triggers very strong memories.

There is something you hear often in the West about someone being "a self-made man". Only a very juvenile culture can come up with such an inane statement, since it is very clear to anyone who gives it even a smidgen of thought, that no one can be a self-made man or woman. We are all made by the grace of our life's chances and the kindness of strangers. Mine took the form of several people who gave freely of time, resources and experiences to guide me through the challenge of interacting with a foreign and sometime very difficult cultural environment. America of 1993 is not the same America that elected Barack Obama president last week: racism was more overt, and it came full force to me when a friend cautioned me against straying into Wilmette or Kenilworth. The police in these cities, he said, don't take too kindly to seeing black people in those areas. I stayed out of such places and in time, my horizons shrank to a few blocks: wake up, trek ten blocks to campus (often without breakfast—low cash flow was a constant fact), study all day, return to my apartment at night and repeat the same process next day and the next. For one living such a bare life already, winter cuts you off completely from contact with most people. Sustained solitary existence itself can darken your head and then, you really have something to worry about. I painted, watched the Simpsons (Go Homer!!!) and plodded on.

And that’s where the people came in: I met many wonderful people who helped me make it through these tough times. In my first year, a homeless man who sold Streetwise newspapers on the corner of Church Street and Sherman Avenue rescued me from a Police Officer I was exchanging harsh words with after he tried to run me down in his patrol car. The policeman denied trying to run me down and was already threatening to arrest me when this homeless man, an African American, intervened. He did the most embarrassing shucking and jiving but got the police officer to let me go. Afterwards, he lectured me in very stern tones about how a black person should act when a policeman takes an interest in you for whatever reason: don’t make any aggressive moves, don’t talk back and for %$*@ sake, don’t start arguing or raising your voice. It was clear that if he hadn’t intervened, I would have been arrested all because a renegade policeman with dubious motives tried to run me off the street. I saw that Vendor many times during the next few years and always gave him some money. In 2003, long after I had already completed my graduate education and moved on to my current job, I returned to Evanston and found my friend still homeless, still selling newspapers to raise a few dollars. And though I was very glad to see him, it broke my heart to see him still that way. He was very glad to see me though, and very happy to see I was doing well. We spent some time talking: I gave him all the money I had on me, and left. And even then, as he’d done in all the time we’d known each other, he still refused to tell me his name.

And there were the Reinheimers, who essentially adopted me as their son and supported my graduate education in every manner possible. Martin and Lucy Reinheimer bought me my first laptop computer, and in 1999, Martin provided me with a large house on Grand Avenue, just off River West, rent-free for one year. I wrote my dissertation in that house and spent many days in their house in the north suburbs: they are the kindest people I have ever known and I made this my visit to Chicago specifically to see them again. Martin is a WWII veteran and getting quite old. Martin and Lucy gave freely of their time and resources to support a very wide range of foreign graduate students, creating in the process a mini-United Nations of surrogate children who now live all over the globe and remember them as fondly as I do. Martin worked as an architect for several decades and built one skyscraper and many buildings in the city. During my stay in Berlin last year, I attended an art exhibition and encountered a display of photographs of prominent buildings photographed in many parts of the world. I pointed the photographer’s attention to one of his photographs, a striking multistory building lit up like a beacon: “you took this picture in Chicago” I said, “on Lake Shore Drive”. He was puzzled and asked me how I knew. The building was designed and built by Martin Reinheimer. I remembered him driving me through the city to show me all the buildings he designed over the years he worked as an architect.

Many other people on three continents helped me and I remember them fondly too, and because of them, I insist that people are made by other people, made also the chances afforded each one by virtue of fortuitous life conditions, but also by the vagaries of fate. Things could have gone horribly wrong for me on many occasions: I am grateful they didn’t. I have returned in part to muse on all those experiences, and in remembering that time, to proffer gratitude for my survival. And to see the City again: I will always think of it more fondly than anywhere else. You see, Chicago is also my hometown and I grew up here.

Image: Leopard Skinned House in Roger’s Park, Chicago, November 14, 2008.

Nov 11, 2008

Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist

My book, Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist, has just been published by the University of Rochester Press. Advance copies of the book arrived in the mail yesterday and will start shipping generally on December 1. has provisions for advance purchase (click here). The blurb for the book reads:

The history of world art has long neglected the work of modern African artists and their search for forms of modernist expression as either irrelevant to the discourse of modern art or as fundamentally subservient to the established narrative of Western European modernist practice. With this engaging new volume, Sylvester Ogbechie refutes this approach by examining the life and work of Ben Enwonwu (1917-94), a premier African modernist and pioneer whose career opened the way for the postcolonial proliferation and increased visibility of African art.

In the decades between Enwonwu's birth and death, modernization produced new political structures and new forms of expression in African cultures, inspiring important developments in modern African art. Within this context, Ogbechie evaluates important issues such as the role of Anglo-Nigerian colonial culture in the development of modern Nigerian art, and Enwonwu's involvement with international discourses of modernism in Europe, Africa, and the United States over a period of five decades. The author also interrogates Enwonwu's use of the radical politics of Negritude ideology to define modern African art against canonical interpretations of Euro-modernism; and the artist's visual and critical contributions to Pan Africanism, Nigerian nationalism, and postcolonial interpretations of African modernity.

First and foremost an intellectual biography of Ben Enwonwu as a modern African artist, Ogbechie's book situates the artist historically and interprets his work in ways that surpass traditional discourse around the canon of modern art.

Image: "Enwonwu the Bohemian". Photograph from West African Review (Liverpool), August 1948: 909

Nov 10, 2008


Miriam Makeba, Mama Afrika, Indlovu, the great Elephant, the forceful one, Africa's songbird, has fallen. According to the New York Times, the renowned "South African singer whose voice stirred hopes of freedom among millions in her own country though her music was formally banned by the apartheid authorities she struggled against, died overnight after performing at a concert in Italy on Sunday. She was 76". Makeba's songs (such as Pata Pata, one of her signature tunes) introduced many Africans to the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and spaked in me personally a love of South African urban music, which is one of the great musical traditions of the world,a melting pot of stirring rhythms.

Makeba died while performing in a concert in support of an Italian author under threat from organized crime. She died as she lived, a ferocious supporter of human rights and advocate for the oppressed. Mandela himself noted that Makeba put a human face on the liberation struggle in South Africa through her songs during her long exile, which helped bring the Apartheid government into disrepute. Her music will remain a major soundtrack on the ongoing search for political and economic actualization in Africa (click here for a list of her albums). May her soul rest in peace.

Nov 7, 2008

ARTHOUSE Contemporary Art November Auction

Arthouse Contemporary, a Nigeria-based art auction corporation, will hold an auction of contemporary Nigerian art on November 19, 2008 at the Civic Center, Victoria Island, Lagos. The company produced the first international art auction in Nigeria on April 7, 2008.

Nov 6, 2008


I thought I'd give it a day to sink in before posting any comments on President-Elect Barack Obama's monumental victory in the recently concluded American elections of 2008. Like many others in the good 'ol USA, I am breathing again and there is hope again in the streets. It has been very refreshing to see the global outpouring of goodwill towards the USA as Obama's election was announced. I was touched by those expressions of goodwill because it shows that the whole world has a stake in this election.

Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama. His name “Barack” means “blessing in Swahili (it is a version of the “Baraka” of Islam and the “Baruch” of Judaism: in that regard, “UHURU” means freedom in Swahili). May his days and ours be equally blessed. America renewed itself in the eyes of the world. As the president-elect said, only in America is his story even remotely possible. The world owes a great thanks to the good citizens of the United States who finally decided to overthrow centuries of racial prejudice. One act alone does not atone for all injuries but this one comes very close.

Let me disagree with those who would define Obama as a post-racial politician: he is still black though look for the mainstream media to mediate his blackness by increasing references to his white ancestry. This is OK. He is white too and if it takes an African American president of interracial ancestry to overturn the odious American "one drop" rule, then so be it (under American law until recently, and even in the current social context, one drop of black blood qualifies you as a black person). In actual fact, Obama is not post-racial: he is post-national, hence global. All he did was minimize the perceived threat of blackness in his public presentation and utterances. He refused to fall for the "angry black man" stereotype in which any African American attempt to stand up for their rights and dignity is often redefined as aggression. At well over six feet tall, big for that size, and given to sudden sharp bursts of motion, I often fall prey to this perception. I found Obama’s preternatural cool amazing and throughout the campaign, I marveled at how he always seemed to rise above attempts to rile him. He was flagging in the last days, depressed I thought, from the thought of losing his grandmother, who unfortunately did not live to see her grandson become the president of the USA. Obama’s call demeanor and gravitas presents a new and valuable role model for black males worldwide, but most especially in the USA, where a history of social oppression makes black male interaction with the world fraught with violence. Perhaps now, after two years of watching Obama’s grace under pressure, young black men will opt for other ways of resolving conflict.

President-elect Obama is the first global politician to emerge on the American stage. He embodies the tangled web of social and cultural interaction that defines our age (click here to see how news of his election was received across the globe). He has roots in four continents and all those places were rife with jubilation as news of his election spread worldwide. It is this outpouring of global goodwill that I think bodes well for his administration: he can at least begin his term counting on this goodwill. Aspects of some of his decisions in the days ahead will no doubt be unpopular, or even controversial: he is a man after all, not a saint. But he begins knowing that many people wish him well and that he can count on the support of all those well wishes. I hope that everyone gives him some time to breathe a little before he begins the hard task ahead.

(for Image credit: click here)

Nov 4, 2008

PRESIDENT OBAMA just called the election for Obama. Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States of America.

For a More Perfect Union...

I thought I'd post this before the election results come in. Obviously I, like many people around the world, have focused great attention on this cycle of the USA elections. The polls are now open and if all goes well, we'll soon know the next president of the United States. Many pundits have predicted an Obama win but the only thing certain today is that the winner will only emerge after the votes are counted. And it is the electoral process I want to focus on briefly here, for what it tells us about the state of democracy in the world today.

I sometimes teach courses on African American art history, which confronts me with the horrific history of African Diaspora existence in the USA and other parts of the Western world. Often while discussing constraints of African American existence especially in the dark days of Slavery and even darker days of Jim Crow (at least the slaves had a clear idea of their subjection: the Jim Crow era promised freedom to blacks but only delivered greater slavery), I see my student flinch as they encounter shocking graphic images of black life in the antebellum south. Mostly young, white and from affluent backgrounds, these students are truly shocked to see visual expression of America’s flawed racial history and often end up with pained and confused looks on their faces. At such times, I stop to clarify that these are historical matters and even if they have an impact on contemporary events, they are not supposed to determine how we relate to ourselves in the contemporary era. Sure, black American life is hard but not all its negative conditions can be attributed to slavery. One cannot engage this historical condition by ascribing evil intention to even the most heinous slave owners. The slave trade was a global business involving Europeans and Africans working together as trading partners. I trace ancestry to the Benin Kingdom and often note that the Benin kings were very active participants in the slave trade as suppliers of human cargo. One must thus always deal with the facts provided by each historical moment: slavery was legal in the United States and there were at all times, black and whites that fought against its legality. Their combined struggle led to abolition of slavery, the emancipation of African Americans, the Civil Rights struggle and if Obama wins this election, it would have led to the most significant change in American politics since the American declaration of independence.

Since I couple the history of slavery with its impact on Africa (a subject usually elided in the discourse), my students sometimes are puzzled by my effort to prevent analysis of historical data from shifting into a blame game. Why am I not more partisan in my analysis? (Answer: Teaching history is not about expressing partisan opinion but about investigating available historical facts). Why do I shut down arguments that lay the blame for slavery solely with white people? (Answer: This would eliminate consideration of the immense contributions of other white people to abolishing slavery and injustice in general). Why am I so gung-ho about America anyway? I treat this last question with great interest. I made a conscious choice to emigrate from Nigeria to America. I had the option of studying in Europe but turned it down to accept a scholarship to Northwestern University in Illinois (Go Wildcats!). The USA seemed more suited to my personality type than Europe and I had no doubt I would do well here. Of course, I experienced major culture shock to discover the conditions of life of many African Americans and like all immigrants, I had to work my way through conflicted feelings. I still feel very conflicted when I hear news of discrimination against blacks, and I have felt rage in situations when one jackass or another told me to “go the F*#k back to f*&#@*g Africa” as many have done over the years. But over the same years I came to understood what made the choice to come here special for me:

America is not perfect but it enshrines as an ideal the opportunity for perfection.

If Obama wins the elections today, it will be the culmination of a long road to greater perfection for the union. The mere fact of having an African American in the White House validates the original goal of the constitution, the original intention of “We the people of the United State…to form a more perfect Union”. I am not expecting his victory to herald a miraculous end to racism but at least one can expect a change in public perception of African Americans within the America polity. The fact of his victory will validate the historical fact that great change has occurred in America only with the collaboration of all its citizens, Black, White, and Asian. As Obama said at many points during his campaign, it is only in America that his story is even remotely possible. Racism runs rampant in Europe and the Holocaust proves what its murderous rage can unleash if left unchecked. I don’t see any situation in which a black person will ever rise to lead any European nation in their current configuration. The fact that we stand on the threshold of such an event in the USA is a powerful argument for the superiority of its ideal and the pragmatic nature of its politics. Coming from a continent with a truly dysfunctional political landscape, this ideal remains very powerful for me and I think it accounts for America’s mystique in the global context despite its obvious reality as a global hegemon.

In an ideal universe, Obama won’t be saddled with the label of being America’s first “black” President, if he wins. It is only the racial codes of American that label Obama black; after all, his mother is white. In this regard, he is the true American, a person whose bloodline unites the divergent racial heritage of this great country. He is however by conscious choice an African American. This is fine and it is good that he be recognized as such. However, I don’t accept the premise that he represents a “post-black” politics, which assumes, even if unconsciously, an ideal of assimilation into whiteness and is for me a very racist thing to say (have you ever heard of “post-white” politics? Have you ever heard of a white person decolorized for the purpose of being acceptable in society?). I am not interested in color-blindness and I hope that expression dies out very soon. As human beings, we have to engage each other in the full glory of our diversity but with firm knowledge of our equality as human beings. This is the American ideal that the struggle for equality in America naturally leads to. In whatever state or situation America finds itself, this will always be a powerful ideal and a true light to the world.

Nov 2, 2008

Africans say 'no deal' to $14 million movie studio

The Christian Science Monitor reports on an interesting disagreement between indigenous landowners and consortium over plans to build a film set on Khoi-san ancestral lands in South Africa.

Pella, Northern Cape - A filmmaker's dream of building a Hollywood-style studio in the northern part of South Africa has been blocked after a passionate campaign by the local Khoi-San community. Residents of the remote and desolate town of Pella say they do not care about the millions of dollars promised or the prospect of A-list celebrities flying in on private jets and instead wanted to keep their "sacred" scrubland, which was won in battle by their forefathers..."No money in the world can buy this land," says Ina Basson, secretary of the Pella Community Forum. "It is ours and has sentimental value. Our forefathers fought the Germans for this land and had to battle to keep it. They have spilled blood for the land and for us, and it is not for sale.

(Read the full story here)

Georgianne Nienaber: Bearing Witness

Pursuant to my recent post on the Congo, more information on Georgianne Nienaber, an award winning journalist, who has worked hard to bring stories about contemporary Congo conflict to global attention. She has written an eloquent plea for greater focus on Congo conflict by the next USA administration (see the article here).