Dec 31, 2008

Dec 17, 2008

Astronomical Feature on Mercury named after Ben Enwonwu

NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) program reports that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently approved a proposal from the MESSENGER Science Team to name 15 craters on Mercury, one of which was named for renowned African modernist, Ben Enwonwu. All of the newly named craters were imaged during the mission’s first flyby of the solar system’s innermost planet in January 2008. The naming of an astronomical feature after an African artist is unprecedented and marks the increasing global recognition of Enwonwu's significant career and interventions as an African modernist in 20th century discourses of modern art. According to MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, “these latest names honor a diverse suite of some of the most accomplished contributors to mankind’s higher aspirations. They also make it much easier for planetary scientists to refer to major features on Mercury in talks and publications.” (Click here for an image of the newly named Enwonwu crater on Mercury: use zoom tool for details)

Dec 13, 2008

Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria

A notable new organization on the Nigerian art scene, the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria comprises important mid-career artists with significant following in Nigeria and internationally. The Guild is currently spearheading a major program focused on inter-generational exchanges between guild members and older eminent Nigerian artists/intellectuals. Members include Olu Ajayi, Edosa Oguigo, Tola Wewe, Abiodun Olaku, Fidelis Odogwu, Alex Nwokolo, Kehinde Sanwo, Sam Ovraiti, Tayo Quaye, Segun Adejumo, Reuben Ugbine, Bunmi Babatunde, Sam Ebohon, Ndidi Dike, Hamid Ibrahim, Ben Osaghae, Nsikak Essien, Zino Orara, Abraham Uyovbisere, Gbenga Offor, Lekan Onabanjo, Rom Isichei, Duke Asidere, and Ekpenyong Koko Ayi (click here for examples of their works). Below:
1. Rom Isichei, Scape
2. Ndidi Dike, Urban Debris
3. Genga Offor, Crowded Space
4. Lekan Onabanjo, Ibadan

Dec 11, 2008

Africa Now! Redux

An addendum to my earlier post on the World Bank art exhibition--Africa Now! A very close friend and respected colleague sent me the following description of the event. :

On December 9th there was an all-day symposium, tours, and exhibition opening, “Africa Now”. What was interesting about the program, which included invited artists, was the almost totally new set of artists invited. A slam poet/performer from Angola, a woman sculptor from Tanzania, a Spanish filmmaker who is making films with African artists (Africalls), a self-taught Senegalese fashion designer and humanitarian/businesswomen, an Eritrean painter based in Johannesburg, a Cameroonian recycler, a Ghanaian-Swedish public relations person, based in Lagos, who uses high fashion to raise money to fight hunger (Google Catwalk the World Fashion for Food) etc., etc. Victor Ekpuk also participated. There is also a catalog of the exhibition (designed and printed in South Africa).

It appears from her analysis of the exhibition that there is much to commend the World Bank for, both in their decision to sponsor the exhibition and in their effort to bring to global attention a new set of artists from Africa who are engaged in innovative forms of visual practice. I have sent for the art exhibition catalog and will post a review when I get it. (ADDENDUM, December 12, 2008: click here to download a copy of the exhibition catalog). In the meantime, I should point out that my post was not a criticism of the World Bank art exhibition per se, but of what I considered to be a poor choice of words in their description of the artists as "emergent artists". I am now convinced that the description was literal, and meant to describe the particular cadre of artists involved in the exhibition.

In any case, I am happy to hear that the exhibition is interesting and praiseworthy. Much credit for that goes to Marina Galvani, curator and head of the World Bank Art Program. This addendum serves as an apology if my earlier post caused her any offense.

Dec 8, 2008

Ben Enwonwu Foundation 5th Annual Lecture

The Ben Enwonwu Foundation's 5th Annual Lecture took place in Lagos on November 26, 2008. The lecture, titled Positioning Arts and Culture for Sustainable Influence in Nigeria, was presented by distinguished art historian Freida High, the Evjue-Bascom Professor of African and African-American Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. Mr. Oliver Enwonwu, Director of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation, provided the following images from the event. From top:
1. Prof. Freida High delivering her talk
2. Chairman of the event--Chief Emeka Anyaoku deliberating with Prof. Freida High
3. Exhibition of Black and white photographs of Enwonwu's professional practice
4. Guest of Honor, Mr. Robert Dewar, British High Commissioner to Nigeria
5. Former Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku giving opening address
6. Director General of the National Gallery of Art Joe Musa (left) in conversation with Mr. Oliver Enwonwu, Director of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation
7. Guests viewing the photography exhibition
8. Audience listening to the lecture
9. Guests at the event
(NOTE: Blog entry edited December 10 for errors in name citations. The version here is final).

Dec 6, 2008

Art Basel Miami Beach

A revealing NY Times commentary on the ongoing merchandise-fest called Art Basel Miami Beach. The artworld's commodification of numinous affect appears to be self-sustaining, even as the global economy crashes everywhere.


Opening Tuesday December 9, 2008 in Washington D.C., the World Bank sponsored art exhibition--AFRICA NOW! Defined as a showcase of emerging talents from a continent on the move, the exhibition features 150 artists and ten designers from 34 African countries. It's announcement stated that it was "conceived and organized by the World Bank Art Program in partnership with the World Bank Vice Presidency for the Africa Region and the Biennale of Contemporary African Art, Dak'Art, Senegal".

The exhibition no doubt points to the increased interest in African art (traditional, modern and contemporary) in the global context and highlights the work of the World Bank in the area of culture where, truth be told, it and other NGOs working in Africa have been very very negligent. The funding for cultural activities is usually the lowest percentage of NGO funding and their understanding of culture operates on some very dubious foundations. For example, the current exhibition indulges in a description of African art and artists as emergent contexts of practice, which problematically denies the coevalness of African art with all forms of global artistic practice. Traditional African art is the oldest context of art in the world (human beings have made art since humans first appeared in Africa--the oldest cultural object so identified dates to 70,000 years); the history of modern art in Africa parallels its rise in Europe and the globe in general (you can argue for an earlier context of modernity if you take indigenous transformations of African art into question, and also include the history of art produced by enslaved Africans in the new world, who are the first real modern subjects). Contemporary African art has shown its mettle in all contexts of global practice and even as we speak, some of the most interesting and groundbreaking contexts of contemporary art practice are taking place in Africa.

Given this obvious history, why would the World Bank describe African art of any sort as an emergent context of practice? The word "emerging" is one of the code words used to undervalue African art in the global context in order to minimize its value as a global commodity. This marginalization fits into what James Clifford describes as the "Art/Culture" complex in which the value of European “art” is determined by its difference and distance from African "culture". The racist underpinning of this attitude is evident in colonial and ongoing discourses about Africans that contrast European law to African custom, European art to African culture, European literature to African folktales and European medicine to African witchdoctor practices. In a very real sense, this kind of language undervalues African knowledge and cultural production, and locks African artists into a state of perpetual becoming. I mean, how many times does the West have to discover Africa? Yet no matter how many times such attitudes are criticized (my commentary here marks the 20th year I have criticized this particular idea of "emergence" in African art, in my own field of African art history: see in particular, my scathing review of the concept in Ottenberg 2002), you are sure to find again and again, art exhibitions focusing on "emerging" African artists, which hews to the rhetoric of discovery and suggests that African art has no value unless mediated by a discovering Western individual or institution. In what manner of truthful speaking can one describe an artist with more than a decade of professional experience as an "emergent" artist, or describe a context of artistic practice with more than three thousand years of history as an emergent context? By locating African artists in this perpetual cycle of emergence, such statements efface the true historical nature of the engagement of African art and artists with contexts of modern and contemporary art. Overall, such description amounts to a very calculated insult to their professionalism and intelligence.

That said, I hope the exhibition works out and enhances the international visibility of the African artists included in it. While I find such patronizing language difficult to swallow as a scholar, I understand the need for visibility that compels African artists (especially those who live and work in Africa) to allow themselves to be represented in this manner and I do not fault them for being involved in this exhibition. The World Bank assembled a symposium to discuss aspects of the exhibition and I hope in the future, they will spend a little money or make even a little effort to secure expert evaluation of their language of discourse before they make this kind of blunder (actually, they could get such advice for free). For an organization (and this applies to many other similar organizations as well) that routinely pays tin-pot "experts" significant money for expert consultation on most of projects, the tendency to assume that engagements with cultural practice can be carried out by the lowest common denominator is highly objectionable. It is such assumptions that lead to the use of exclamation marks around titles of exhibitions of African art (AFRICA NOW!!!), with its implication of discovering something new and significant about African art in any context. 80 years of formal study of African art in the West, and two decades of the sustained professional interventions on African art in the contemporary era belie this kind of claim. But I'm sure it will not stop the next exhibition from trumpeting its "discovery" of Africa yet again. What is the continent after all but a context where the West can perpetually reinvent itself as the primary agent of history?

Dec 5, 2008

Obituary: Warren M. Robbins

The Washington Post reports on the death of Warren M. Robbins.

Museum of African Art Founder Warren Robbins
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008; B07

Warren M. Robbins, 85, founder of the Museum of African Art, forerunner to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, died Dec. 4 at George Washington University Hospital of complications from a fall at his home last month.
When he started the Museum of African Art in 1964, Mr. Robbins had never been to Africa, never worked in a museum, never been involved with the arts and never raised money.

His vision of a museum of African art for Washington grew out of a trip he took in the early 1960s, when he was a cultural attache with the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, Germany. He and Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) were visiting Hamburg one day, and on impulse the two men strolled into an antique shop where a collection of African sculptures caught Mr. Robbins's eye. He ended up buying 32 pieces.

From that initial purchase, Mr. Robbins started his museum in the basement of his home, in part to promote cross-cultural communication at a time of civil rights ferment. Six years later, he heard that a former Capitol Hill home of Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century abolitionist icon, was on the market. Mr. Robbins raised $13,000 -- his first foray into fundraising -- and took out a $35,000 mortgage to buy the house, where he put his pieces on display as the Museum of African Art. Later he purchased other houses on the block -- nine in all -- as his collection grew...

(Read the full story here)