Jan 29, 2009

Herman Bigham: Culture Warrior

Over the past four years, I have carried out an ongoing conversation with Herman Bigham, an African American collector, preserver and presenter of African art, who fights for the rights of Africans to have a significant voice in how African culture is preserved, presented and used in various discourses in the United States of America. Bigham (pictured above with Prof. Cornell West [right] and Tavis Smiley) is a culture warrior and a significant voice in the emerging struggle over the rights to African cultural patrimony. Like all visionary figures, Bigham invites divergent responses: for those who understand the scope and enormity of Bigham’s struggle (and especially for his primarily African American constituency), he is a hero. However, for many in the academic context of my professional practice as an Africanist art historian, he is a dangerous dilettante. Suffice to say there is method in his modes of conduct and after interacting with him for the past four years, I can say definitely that his work is important and topical.

The African American experience has often been narrated in political terms, with focus on the ongoing struggle to achieve coeval citizenship for African Americans in the American story. There is however one aspect of this struggle that is equally important—the relationship between African Americans and Africa, their ancestral homeland which plays out in complex acts of identification, negotiation, engagement and even rejection. Africa is an imaginary in the African American mind: it is the promise of wholeness and at once a land of myth. Here in the USA, the demonization of Africa in the public imagination compels complex emotional reactions among African Americans played out in forms of social engagements with the cultural heritage of the continent. Africanisms abound, as does signage of all kinds—kente fabrics used as markers of African identity, corn-rows as fashionable hairstyles, and other such modes of African-inspired worldmaking. I recently watched a video of Los Angeles inner city youth pioneering a dance form they called Krump and was both elated and very sad: it seemed to me an untutored form of spirit possession, such as one might encounter in the higher echelons of Vodun or masquerading rituals. Here then are African children in the Diaspora trying to dance their way through to spiritual transcendence. I was glad to see them digging back to this complex root of African identity but also worried about the dangers inherent in a search for spirit possession pursued without the benefit of trained diviners. But hey, they call it dance and Krump, like most African American cultural inventions, is now making its way into music videos and Nike Ads (of course!), where it enriches corporations who exploit these inventions without regard for the original inventors.
It is necessary to see Bigham’s work in terms of this struggle to secure for Africans a share of the discursive and economic benefits of their own cultural heritage. Many African Americans who can afford it collect forms of African art as a form of identification with the continent but you won’t know it from reviews art exhibitions documented in principal books and journals of African art history over the past fifty years. I have actually researched this subject and can attest that the primary journal in the field of African art history has not documented a single exhibition of African art from the collection of an African American collector of African art in over forty years of its publication. This raises the question: do African Americans, and Africans for that matter, collect African art? If so, why are their art collections not visible in the discourse? Is this omission deliberate or accidental? Above all, what does this fact tell us about the discourse itself and its assumptions of objectivity in scholarship? The usual ploy is to describe the artworks in such collections as valueless agglomerations of replicas and forgeries but surely, not all African American or African collections of African art can be so defined. Herman Bigham has a significant collection of African art built up over the past decades. I have personally seen this collection and it is as credible as those of several other collections I’ve seen exhibited in various museums in Europe and the USA over the past two decades. Bigham is also an art dealer and advises a large number of collectors in the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis or BAMA (apologies William Gibson). He attends art fairs in Europe and the USA and interacts with many of the same dealers who supply notable museums in both contexts. Bigham mainly pursues the stated objective of using his art collection as a tool to educate African Americans about their cultural heritage and in this his collection is used pretty much in the same manner as those of many museums. Unlike them however, he has produced and executed many exhibitions of his artworks in public libraries, airports and other high-profile areas where the works are encountered by large numbers of people (apparently, many museums he contacted have refused to feature his sculptures in their spaces thus consolidating a process of exclusion that essentially contributes to the marginalization pointed out above). Basically, Bigham asks pointed questions about how African art is presented in the USA, especially with regard to the unstated fact that many American museum exhibitions of African art mainly recycle the collections of a handful of white collectors and use these to define structures of financial and discursive value that completely marginalizes African American and African collectors. Bigham sees this tendency as part of the armature of racial segregation since it essentially excludes African American voices from discussions about African cultural heritage and cultural objects, in a context where these objects continue to have major cultural significance for African Americans in general.
There is an issue here—the question of cultural equity, which basically involves investigating how and why African American and African cultural capital continues to be transferred whole cloth to white ownership, with the attendant problems of authenticating and validating African art implied in such ownership. I met Bigham because I was working on this problem from a similar angle, asking questions about why African and African Diaspora cultural knowledge is undervalued in the global economy. It seemed to me that he has not been given a proper hearing.

Herman Bigham is a cultural activist and over the years he has sustained an important cultural and educational project in Philadelphia focused on presentation of African art. This work is now receiving important national attention. The depth and consistency of Bigham’s work over the past decade is impressive and requires nuanced engagement and respect. Over the past decade, Herman Bigham and Associates (HBA), a grassroots, self-motivated, passionate collective of African Cultural Arts preservers and presenters, has initiated independently produced exhibitions, educational events and materials that provide new audiences with a richer vision and knowledge of African cultures. HBA has produced and marketed twenty presentations that have appeared in eight national publications and on numerous television shows in seven years. More than a million viewers in nine cities nationally have enthusiastically welcomed its exhibitions of African sculpture at museum and public venues. Bigham’s current project involves artworks lent to the America I AM: The African American Imprint exhibition currently showing at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The exhibition, which celebrates 500 years of African American contributions to the USA, opened on January 15 and will run through May 3 before traveling on a tour that could include up to ten museums over a five-year period. According to a press release, the exhibition was developed in partnership with prominent late-night talk host Travis Smiley, and organized by Cincinnati Museum Center and Arts and Exhibitions International, which also organized the King Tut exhibition that last year became the most attended touring exhibition in the world. The 15,000 square foot exhibition, with over 200 items presents a historical continuum of pivotal moments in courage, conviction, and creativity that solidifies the undeniable imprint of African Americans across the nation and around the world. America I AM provides context for how African Americans contributed to and shaped American culture across four core areas: economic, socio-political, cultural, and spiritual, up to present-day events, including the inauguration of the first African American president.
I am intrigued by the fact that this exhibition is in part a Tavis Smiley Project. The renowned PBS journalist is one of a number of African Americans who are coming to the center of the national dialogue after years spent building up independent practices initially directed at black audiences. Tyler Perry's success in Hollywood is another important example and I think Herman Bigham is engaged in similar focus with his work in Philadelphia. Pay attention to this cultural activist: he is clearly on to something.

Images above courtesy of Herman Bigham & Associates African Art Preservers and Presenters.

PAFF 2009: List of Movies by Country

The selections for the 2009 Pan African Film and Arts Festival come from an impressive international roster. See the full list of submissions and countries of origin here.

Jan 28, 2009

2009 Pan African Film & Arts Festival, Los Angeles

All is set for the 2009 Pan African Film & Arts Festival, which opens on February 5 in Los Angeles. PAFF is one of the two major film festivals (the other is the New York based African Film Festival) focused on Global African Film, and recently, arts. This year's event, the 17th, consolidates PAFF's pioneering and dominant role in this context. The opening night event on February 5 presents a South African film titled JERUSALEMA, directed by Ralph Zinman. According to a PAFF press release:
Opening this year's festival is the acclaimed South African drama
"Jerusalema" directed by Ralph Zinman. Part Robin Hood, part Horatio Alger, after cutting his teeth on local carjackings, young Lucky Kunene dreams of bigger scores than his best friend Zakes. Moving to the rough-and-tumble Hillbrow section of Johannesburg, Kunene, whose heroes are Karl Marx, Al Capone and Dale Carnegie, transforms himself into a real-estate crime boss even as he tries to elude determined white cop Blakkie Swart, vengeful renegade Nazareth Mbolelo and Nigerian drug lord Tony Ngu.

Look to see more gangster movies coming out of South Africa with the earlier success of Totsi. Let's hope that in such films, Nigerians get cast in roles other than that of drug dealer or drug kingpin. Already there is another important film from Director Anthony Fabian, SKIN, which screens on February 11. It features the Nigerian/British actress Sophie Okonedo acting out a "true" story of a woman born to white South African parents who was born with black skin out of a genetic anomaly (or perhaps evidence of an earlier interracial mix in the family--this being my own interpretation). Okonedo has been steadily raising her profile since her groundbreaking work in Dirty Pretty Things where she starred alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Erratta January 29, 2009: Anthony Fabian, Director of CENTERPIECE, is from Britain.

Jan 27, 2009

Signs of the Apocalypse

The Boston Globe reports that as part of cost-cutting measures designed to weather the economic storms de jour, Brandeis University has decided to close down its art museum and sell off the art collection. There are also plans underway to reduce the faculty rolls by 10 percent among other suggested cuts. It thus appears that we may be reaching the end of public collections as repositories of art and cultural heritage. The costs for sustaining such institutions may increasingly be too much to bear, with the result that we can expect many more of them to close in the near future. Obviously, Brandeis hopes to sell its collection to whomever is willing to purchase them--which in this case mainly means private collectors. However, private collectors themselves are hurting (e.g. Florida based victims of Bernie Madoff's scam are currently liquidating large holdings of art to stay afloat. It is not known whether Brandeis was affected by Madoff's ponzi scheme). Is the demise of Brandeis's Rose Museum a harbinger of things to come?
Rocked by a budget crisis, Brandeis University will close its Rose Art Museum and sell off a 6,000-object collection that includes work by such contemporary masters as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Nam June Paik...(read full story here).

Elias Sime at the Santa Monica Museum of Art

Announcement on ArtFacts.Net:

The Santa Monica Museum of Art presents Elias Simé: Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart, the first survey exhibition in the United States of one of Ethiopia’s most original and prolific contemporary artists. The exhibition, co-curated by Meskerem Assegued, a revered Ethiopian curator and anthropologist, and visionary theater, opera, and multi-disciplinary arts impresario, Peter Sellars, is comprised of more than 100 works in a variety of mediums, scale, and forms. A highlight of the exhibition is a series of striking thrones made of leather, wood, mud and straw, which will be integrated into conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s final Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts staged by Sellars in mid-April.

Elias Simé: Eye of the Needle, Eye of the Heart will be accompanied by a film by award-winning filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) that will uniquely document the exhibition...

Jan 26, 2009

Global Cocaine Trade Moves to West Africa

According to the Huffington Post (culled from GlobalPost), Global Cocaine Trade Moves to West Africa.

ACCRA, Ghana -- West Africa is an unlikely center for the international cocaine trade. It is not a producer of the drug nor is it a consumer, as the vast majority of its people are very poor.Yet a startling 50 tons of cocaine is transported through West Africa each year, according to the latest United Nations estimates. The value of this illicit trade dwarfs entire economies and has the potential to corrupt the region's fragile states, which are just pulling out of decades of bitter civil wars.

In the past Africa has been a treasure trove looted by covetous colonialists, voracious rebels and kleptocratic rulers -- over the last 300 years think slaves, ivory, gold, diamonds, tin and coltan. Now it is a transit point and storeroom for the cocaine trade.

This is the underside of globalization, the broad expansion of international organized crime. This issue of drug trafficking however presents another major problem to worry about, in a region where there is already too much going wrong.

Creating the Global Image Archive

An interesting upcoming conference at Goldsmiths College London, on the subject of image archives in the global context. Like all forms of information aggregation, the consolidation of image archives is introducing new questions about ownership and access of public and private images. Check out this conference if you are anywhere near London.

Jan 18, 2009

About Washington D.C.

As Barack Obama heads into Washington DC to take the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States and the first African American (or American of any ethnicity other than white) to hold the job, it is worth reflecting that he is relocating to a majority black town that is still ruled mostly according to plantation slavery-era mores. It will be worth seeing whether his incoming administration reviews this stain on American democracy, the completely paradoxical situation of being a democratic country with a very undemocratic capital whose inhabitants have no significant rights over their own lives, ruled by a Congress with very little interest in its future as a place to live. The city's motto is "Taxation Without Representation" (I'm not making this up: it is inscribed on the license plates): it has one of the highest murder rates in the world consisting mainly of black on black violence, and above all, it is highly segregated.

I have lived in Washington DC on and off since I came to the USA. In fact, I first landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and have spent a lot of time living in the city and its suburbs in Maryland. I lived for two years in the heart of the city (in the U-Street and Adams Morgan neighborhood) while working at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art. I was shocked by my first impression of the city because I didn’t expect to find it so colonial. Someone once said that blacks in New York live in a third world ghetto but nowhere is this truer than of blacks in Washington DC. Washington DC residents have no significant representation in Congress and the "city government" has minimal authority over its territory. In fact, Congress can impose its will on laws made by city government any time, and it often does. The land area of DC is full of non-profit and governmental institutions, churches, foreign embassies and institutions, and international organizations none of whom pay any taxes to the local government, which largely cripples the financial base of the city. Aside from the highly integrated community of multiracial and international residents of Adams Morgan, the rest of the city is neatly divided along racial lines. If you travel the Red Line on the DC Metroline from Catholic University to Van Ness, you can see the residential shift in city’s neighborhoods. The line runs through the government and museum complexes from Gallery Place, Chinatown to Farragut North, onwards to Van Ness and beyond to Shady Grove in Montgomery County, you are in white-town. This is the area where the city’s affluent live, and where the President-elect’s children will go to school. The public buses here have air-conditioning and are mostly brand new. The urban spillover of this area, comprised mostly of incoming students to the prestigious American University, Georgetown and George Washington Universities, have slowly backed up into Adams Morgan and in 1996, sparked one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in the USA: the gentrification of blighted neighborhoods abandoned since the urban riots of the 1960s. As part of this project, the Green Line from U-Street to Fort Totten was completed and now students at the University of Maryland in College Park live in DC and commute north to campus. When I lived in the U-Street area in 1996-1998, there were large fortified prison-like apartment complexes right opposite my house, where the African American inhabitants had to pass through metal detectors and show personal identification to armed guards in order to gain access to their own “homes”. In 1997, the residents were evacuated and the building complex redeveloped into luxury condominiums, as were most of the properties in the general area, including the apartment I formerly rented among others. Many of the black-owned shops that survived the lean years when U-Street was a no-go area have now been forced out (see how this process of gentrification is spun in the media in this NY Times article). A friend of mine who ran a Nigerian restaurant informed me of the process: when he refused to sell his shop to a developer, the city pulled his liquor license and later shut him down for health code violations.

If you ride the Green Line metro in the opposite direction from Gallery Place to Anacostia, you see the other side of the city, in the South East quadrant of the city, in what you can call the heart of black town. Anacostia doesn’t show up on any tourist map of the city and although it hasn’t escaped gentrification, few white people go there except to drive through on the I-95 corridor link (the 395 I think) into the Virginia suburbs (see Gridskipper's funny take down of DC tourism as it concerns Anacostia). Friends told me when I first moved to the city that the highway system was used to destroy large chunks of viable black urban neighborhoods during the 1950s by creating a physical partition between the black and white areas of the city. You can see its impact even today in the SW and SE quadrants of the city where major highways bisect whole neighborhoods and basically isolate them from everyone else. The homeless reign supreme in this area although they are found all over the city: in the affluent NW quadrant, they tend to be limited mainly to Dupont Circle, where heterogeneous zones of politics and sexuality flourish. In a place where homeless people staked out ground in Lafayette Park, directly opposite the White House (at least until when the “War on Terror” provided an easy excuse to forcibly relocate them), the issue of DC’s large number of homeless people will seem hardly notable except that it is a persistent problem. I have only ever seen more homeless people in San Francisco. Yet Anacostia is very beautiful and its waterfront, a premium patch of urban property, is now set for major redevelopment. It also always had a very deep pool of committed African American residents who have stuck through thick and thin, and fought for better commitment of resources from a city that had largely neglected them through the decades.

The warped nature of Washington DC’s urban geography has been consistently noted by commentators over the years: taking umbrage at its unfairness is nothing new and I should point out that many white Americans who live in the city have also been outraged by its racial segregation (see Frank Rich's insightful review of DC segregation here). I know many white people who live in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and take great pride in its vibrant mixture of ethnicities. I was lucky to live there when it still had elements of its core-black identity intact. Today, the highly motivated but scrabbly elements of the Black nationalist core of U-Street is largely gone, forced out by rising rent prices on properties owned by slumlords who sat on them during the long years of blight, who now return as landlords to reap the rewards of urban gentrification. In many ways, this is the story of America’s cities, the unpleasant fact that most blacks in American exist mainly as renters dependent on the whims of absentee landlords, and that they can always be forced to move, to make way when economic winds demand it. I used to wonder where these people moved to. What happened to the residents of the prison-apartment units on U-Street when they were cleared out to make way for luxury condominiums? I have never found a good answer for this question.

The incoming president inherits a country that has too often been willing to go to war rather than spend money on social development projects for its own impoverished underclass. In the past few months, more than one trillion dollars of public money has been committed to saving this company and bailing out that industry. If the government had committed even a fraction of this money, say $100 billion dollars, to resolving the problem of DC’s urban blight, it would have been able to rebuild all the under funded schools in the district, provide new public housing and create some much needed jobs for the black population. This hasn’t happened and as such, Washington DC remains a huge paradox of a place. You have some of the highest placed and affluent black people in the world here, in a city where you have conditions of life for other black people that managed to horrify me, even though I come from Africa, a place synonymous with poverty in the public imagination. President Obama will inherit this problem among the major problems left over from "Dubya" Bush's administration’s wreck of the ship of state, the USS-America. It is harsh to impose this additional burden on his already overburdened plate but it has to be said. Obama will after all live in the "white house" in Washington DC. Let’s hope he finds time during the next four years to make the drive to "black" Anacostia, to see how the other half lives and finally, if possible, achieve the desegregation of Washington DC, America's capital. It is long overdue.

Image Credit: Aerial View of Washington DC from Sprout DC: Exploring the Anacostia.

Jan 13, 2009





“The great Elephant has fallen”. So said Oloye Oyelami, announcing the death and burial of Suzanne Wenger who passed to the realms of the incarnate dead on Monday after spending six decades living and working in Osogbo, in the heart of Yoruba country. The announcement is topical because it presents in clearest terms the formations of honor necessary to accommodate her passing. You see, Suzanne Wenger was a Yoruba priestess and one of the few people who truly understood what it meant to live out one’s beliefs. Adunni-Olorisa was her name and to the myriad of people who grew up and prospered under her tutelage, she was a mother. Let it be said that she gave freely of herself and that she worked hard to earn her place in the pantheon of ancestors who gaze on the benevolent face of the Orisa.

I last saw Suzanne Wenger in 1991. At that time, I was a graduate student at the University of Nigeria with a lucrative sideline—I served as guide to several American and European scholars who came to do research in Nigeria. I traveled with them to various locations of interest and arranged to make their trips problems free while assisting with matters of language translation and negotiations for access to relevant research data. Because of a special relationships built up through his professional practice, many of these scholars usually visited Obiora Udechukwu, who at that time was my tutor and mentor. Udechukwu’s house was an oasis of calm logic in the unruly landscape of a Nigeria fragmenting under major economic problems. He provided free lodging to many of these foreign scholars and managed their logistics. Since he also had a significant professional presence in Germany, we had many Germans come through. That was how I met Norbert Aas from Bayreuth, who published the poetry and art of Nsukka artists like Obiora and Ada Udechukwu, and Olu Oguibe. Norbert was interested in research on Osogbo and Obiora arranged for me to travel with him as a guide. I was born in Ibadan and I speak fluent Ibadan-Yoruba, which is one of the principal dialects. I had also grown up in Western Nigeria and was familiar with the terrain: the trip was thus very interesting to me. Norbert and I set out to Osogbo and arrived late at night. We had a link to Nike, a renowned batik artist who gave us lodgings for the night and provided someone to take us to Suzanne Wenger’s house. When we got there, she received us warmly and seemed glad to find someone with whom she could speak German. Wenger and Norbert spoke for a while in German and gradually, the conversation reverted to English as the hostess, in impeccable manners, sought to include the rest of us in the room in her conversation. And she said volumes…

It was impossible to grow up in Yorubaland in the 1970s and not be aware of Suzanne Wenger. She and Ulli Beier had founded the most significant workshop institution for art and cultural education in Nigeria in the post-independence era. But while Ulli eventually left the country, Wenger remained in Osogbo for the rest of her life in the house she and Ulli built, with very brief visits out of the country for the purposes of producing and managing art exhibitions of artists from Osogbo. In 1991 when I met her, I was aware of meeting with a legend. As usual, legends differ from the actual nature of the person or event that becomes legendary. The Suzanne Wenger I met was a small old woman already frail, who spoke a heavily Austrian-inflected but fluent Yoruba, and who looked at you with light-green eyes sharp as glass, highlighted by bold Egyptian style dark outlines. She spoke about her adopted children in Osogbo, about efforts to secure UNESCO protection for her work with the Osun Osogbo sacred grove and her struggle for continued relevance in a changing world. But surprisingly for me, after an hour of conversation, she spoke to Norbert of her visit to Austria the previous year, and how out of place she felt. “I did not fit in,” she said, noting that Europe had become for her a very strange place. She said then she had returned to Osogbo knowing that she would die there and that when her time eventually came, she hoped to be buried in the sacred grove of Osun, somewhere among the sculptures that were her life’s work. Afterwards, she took us on a tour of the sacred grove. While Ulli Beier was busy creating the Osogbo school of artists, Wenger turned her attention to the Sacred Grove of Osun, the Goddess of the Waters. Her focus was astute—the deity was particularly favored by local women, and this gave her a chance to work on issues of importance to women, in a context where Beier’s experiments sold a parochial idea of male supremacy in cultural practice (review the bitter experiences of Nike as a female artist in the Osogbo group, and the irony of her emerging as one of the few artists from that period with an independent reputation and success). Wenger devoted the next six decades to reactivating several aspects of Osun worship, transforming Osun’s grove into a sculpture garden filled with her own art, modernist sculptures inflected by the Gesamtkunstwerk aesthetics of late-modern Viennesse art, most famously concretized by the visionary artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It is hard to explain the overall impact of these sculptures—they have to be seen to be understood. And many have come to see them: the Osun festival is now on the international circuit of global festivals, and it delivers to Osogbo one of the few self-sustaining cultural tourism sites in Nigeria.
I remembered sitting with Norbert that night at Nike’s house, listening to her bata drummers perform for us, and discussing the meaning of our conversation with Wenger. I was touched by her account of how she’d become a stranger in Europe, warm with the knowledge of being a stranger in my own cultures—an Igbo in Yorubaland, a Yoruba in Igboland. It seemed to me we don’t choose where we come from but we definitely have the power to choose where we end up. Wenger had resolutely chosen to become Yoruba, and she is the only white artist that I can comfortably define as an African artist. For me, her Yoruba heritage is quite notable: afterall, she spent more time in Osogbo than in her country of birth. I know of her birthplace, Graz in Austria. It couldn’t be more different from Osogbo, and Wenger’s choice certainly came with a price. After the initial flush of foreigners into Nigeria in the post-independence period, almost all of them left as Nigeria began the long struggle towards becoming a viable nation. Wenger stayed on when everyone left. Over the years, she remained devoted to her original intention—to understand Yoruba culture and thereby help her Osogbo hosts sustain aspects of their indigenous culture in the contemporary era.

That day, as she spoke to us about her work and showed us around her house, I listened keenly to the ambient conversations around us. In a place where most people assume you don’t speak the language, they will usually speak freely and you can get a sense of how they perceive your presence. No one I heard spoke ill of Wenger; if anything, they spoke of her with great praise. Yet that too can be seen as part of a carefully orchestrated process of presentation, the protocols of appearance. There has been much criticism of the Osogbo initiative of Beier, which Wenger sustained in some manner for years after Beier left. Beier subscribed to the ideal that true African art must be unmediated by exposure to the external world in any form, and Wenger must have believed this too at some point: they both made great effort to shield their students from external influences to the extent of minimizing the need for Western-style education. In stating this fact, we must not assume that the students were thereby illiterate: Yoruba educational protocols are equally formal and take a substantial investment in time to master (try learning 1000 proverbs and tell me how easy you find it: then try to master the 256 Odu of the Ifa oracle, among other bodies of knowledge). There has been much criticism of this attitude of Beier, and Wenger got her share of blame. Many accused her of setting herself up as a principal arbiter among Osogbo people and their gods. In fact, there were times when it seemed that Wenger had become a spokesperson for Osun worship in general. Some of these accusations point to the errors of an acolyte in earlier stages of her education. In her old age, she had become wiser and less assuming. Some of the blame also lay with Western scholars who are interested in Africa art only if they can find a Western interlocutor to explain it to them. The Osogbo experiment gained immense critical validation in Germany and Austria: it was inevitable that Beier and Wenger would emerge as primary interlocutors for these initiatives. When Beier left, Wenger continued to manage the exposure of the Osogbo artists. In time this led to conflict with some of the artists who wanted greater control over their own creativity and professional reputations. Wenger can be indicted for attempting to hold on for too long but what mother doesn’t want to hold on to her children for far longer than is appropriate? The grown up children left, and Wenger turned her attention to a younger generation. She has nurtured at least three generations of artists during the six decades she spent in Osogbo. She did much good and should be highly commended for her devotion.

As I listened to Wenger talk wistfully about her life in the sacred grove, it occurred to me she was in a manner of speaking, a lost soul, wandering the edges of memory where intentions are subsumed into the reality of old age, wondering if her devotion to the deity guaranteed her a place among the ancestors. I have to say it does: a lifetime of devotion is its own reward. Oloye Oyelami—her student and one of her “sons”—states clearly that Adunni-Olorisa was buried according to Orisa burial customs. I am sure they sang her oriki (praisesongs) and that her name was incorporated into the oriki of the Olosun lineage in Osogbo—the revered priestesses of the goddess of the waters. I am sure she was sent off to the afterlife with the formal admonitions: Ti e ba d’orun, e ma je’kolo; oun ti won ba nje nibe ni k’e ba won je (when you get to heaven, do not eat earthworms; whatever they eat there you should partake with them). In time, her memory will pass into myth, to be shaped (by those who knew her and those who didn’t) into accounts of her legendary acts. She has ascended into the realms of the ancestors: she will be reborn into the lineage, and in the future, they will speak of the reincarnation of Adunni-Olorisa, of a newborn child with diamantine eyes who gazes at the world with the wisdom of the great elders. Osun will be here waiting for her, and Adunni-Olorisa’s ancestral spirit will be here, waiting as well. May her soul rest in peace.


Picture Credits:
Photograph of Wenger by Victoria Scott, Osogbo, 2006.

Susanne Wenger. God of Small Pox. Clay sculpture, The Sacred Forest. Oshogbo, Nigeria (photograph by Sughra Raza, June 22, 2008. Click here).


Applicants for the annual United States Diversity Visa Lottery (aka Green Card lottery) should be aware that there is a US-Green Card visa lottery scam making the rounds. This scam, like the Visa lottery, is an annual event and it preys on the hopes of many uninformed would-be immigrants to the USA. The scam informs its marks that they've won the immigrant lottery visa to the USA and should claim their visa by sending $1200 to $2000 (the sums vary) to bogus addresses, along with their passport data and personal information. As with most current scams, this visa lottery scam seems too obvious to fool anyone, but so are advance fee fraud scams (the so-called "Nigerian 419 scam"), that have so far skimmed billions of dollars off gullible American and Western marks. I'd say I'm particularly incensed by this type of fraud because it plays on the hopes of its marks but then, so do all frauds.

The US Diversity Visa Lottery does not charge any fees for processing and its application and accreditation protocols can be investigated at its website accurate information. I know people who have emigrated to the USA by winning this lottery. None of these individuals were asked to pay any money to receive the visa and they were certainly not asked to send funds in advance of anything, or as a condition for processing any documents.

Unfortunately, the fraudulent effort to rip off visa applicants is a lucrative trade and one that the US and other western countries are guilty of in their dealings with Africans. For example, all Western countries charge exorbitant fees for visa applications in their African embassies and they secure a considerable sum of its operating funds from such fees. Embassies of Western countries charge no fees for providing visas to citizens of other Western countries but charge above $100 for visa applications from African visa applicants. The truly disgusting thing is that you have to pay visa fees merely to secure transit through Western airports, an added burden when you consider that most airlines that fly out of Africa to the West transit through European airports. Consider also that the acceptance rate of visa provision for Nigerians at European or American embassies in Nigeria is less than one percent. That means that for every 100 applications, less than one is approved. Despite that, visa applicants get no refund of all or part of the money they pay for visa applications that are often not granted to them. If you look at it critically, this process is nothing more than a form of advance fee fraud (which asks you for money upfront but neither provides services nor delivers products ordered). Over the years, a sizable chunk of the income of Nigerian visa applicants have been sucked up in this manner. This money subsidizes the lavish lifestyle of Western embassy staff, who live in Lagos in luxuries that they can only imagine in their countries of origin.

The crash of the financial markets may ultimately help us clarify obvious forms of neo-colonial oppression that lock Africans across the globe into local spaces through such stringent and oppressive barriers to movement. We can at least put one canard to rest in this era after the fall--the idea of an open world where movement is unrestricted. One Western diplomat--a friend--once told me that it is the explicit policy of the West to minimize immigration from Africa. I have already said much about this issue in earlier posts. It is however important to continue to harp on it, because this kind of practice engaged in by Western embassies is fraudulent and it mirrors their policy of aid to Africa which ironically produces no aid at all--giving with one hand and taking it all away with the other.

So to all visa applicants and would-be immigrants to the West, visa frauds abound, some of them perpetrated by the very institutions one applies to for visas. Buyer beware.

Jan 12, 2009

New Mural at National Museum Onikan, Lagos

The Ford Foundation is currently sponsoring a redevelopment initiative for the Nigerian National Museum system, starting with a massive redevelopment plan for the flagship National Museum Onikan Lagos. This institutions, which has a huge and important collection of Nigerian antiquities, has fallen on hard times over the past decades. The Ford Foundation's plan is to revitalize the museum in order to enable it provide better services to the Nigerian culture community. I visited the museum in September last year and already there are signs of ongoing work. Some of the older buildings have been demolished and the grounds are being prepared for reconstruction. A new mural, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, and titled Glory to the Fatherland, has now been put up in the National Museum complex as part of the redevelopment project. The mural was produced by a team of artists including Ndidi Dike, Richmond Ogolo, Peju Alatise, Tony Gomez, and Jefferson Jonahson. The collaborative nature of the production is topical here; all the artists collaborated in painting the mural. This focus extends existing patterns of collaboration between these Nigerian artists who often participate in group exhibitions of their works. This new kind of collaboration revitalizes an earlier spirit of communal art production that was prevalent in the early era of postcolonial Nigeria. The following images of the new mural were taken by photographer Chriss Aghana Nwobu.

Jan 6, 2009

The Revisiting Modernization Conference: Legon, Ghana: July 27 to 31, 2009

The African Studies Multi-Campus Research Focus Group of the University of California announces following conference, with a deadline of January 15 for submissions of abstracts. Africa is notorious for the barriers it imposes on mobility and scholarship especially suffers because of this fact. I am posting this here in the hope that Nigerian scholars will consider attending this event in Ghana, especially since the Nigerian Government now issues an ECOWAS passport (which guarantees open borders between West African States), and available ground and air transportation now exists from Lagos to Accra direct (Oshodi ma wole o!). It's time for Africans to start talking to themselves and collaborate more on cross-border projects. I am on the Advisory Board of this program and highly commend the conveners for their hard work in putting it together. See you all then in Legon.

The Revisiting Modernization Conference
To be held from 27th - 31st July 2009 at
University of Ghana, Legon

Conference Theme

Revisiting Modernization is an interdisciplinary array of activities that features an academic conference, art exhibition, creative writing competition, film screenings, and two keynote addresses to be held at the University of Ghana, Legon, from 27th - 31st July 2009. These activities, a collaboration between the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon and the African Studies Multi-Campus Research Group at the University of California, inaugurate an inclusive approach to thinking about the resonance of modernization in relation to the contemporary lexicon of globalization and the shifting parameters of development. This event is conceived as a forum with pre-circulated papers and contributions from a wide range of academics, policymakers, and artists from the African continent, North America, Europe, and beyond. This conference will be the first of three conferences to be held over a five-year period on the African continent (Ghana 2009, Senegal 2011, South Africa 2013) that include academic and public events, initiated by the African Studies Multi-Campus Research Group at the University of California.

Call for Papers

We invite submissions of a 500-word abstract that explores the conference theme Revisiting Modernization, in relation to one of the sub-themes. Please submit your abstract and a 50-word biographical statement as an MSWord attachment via email by 15 January 2009 to: africanstudiesmrg@ihc.ucsb.edu

Abstracts and biographical statements may also be mailed to:
UCSB/Humanities Center
African Studies MRG
Attention: Conference Proposals
6046 HSSB
Santa Barbara, California 93106-4010

Accommodation and Travel
Accommodations, meals and local transportation will be provided for all conference participants for the duration of the conference in Ghana. Travel stipends to Accra for conference participants will be available subject to funding. Further information about the availability of travel stipends and flight reservations will be provided by March 15, 2009.

Conference Conveners
Peter J. Bloom, UC-Santa Barbara
Takyiwaa Manuh, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon
Stephan F. Miescher, UC-Santa Barbara

For further inquires, please contact:

Jan 3, 2009

According to Eshu, Lord of the Crossroads...

Happy New Year 2009 to everyone. I thought it wise to allow a couple of days into the year before getting back on this blog. This post will mark the start of my third year of blogging, a sustained process of public commentary I now find myself rethinking. I am a keen student of popular culture and it seems to me that blogs by their very nature do not lend themselves to weighty commentary. Over the past two years, I have observed myself writing such commentary and have been contacted by people who tell me they gain a lot from reading my posts (I’ve also been contacted by others who are apparently tired of my pontifications but I usually disregard such naysayers. What’s the use of living in the good ol’ USA if you can’t tell a naysayer to %&*# off?). It is possible I will blog less this year, as other important obligation claims my attention but I’ll continue to try to work out some interesting problems through the blog. This particular post will be convoluted. For those who have read my blog these past two years, and those with the patience to read this particular post to the very end, please accept my sincerest greetings.

It is customary to start a new year with greetings. Like many African peoples, Yoruba peoples have a myriad number of greetings, the cultural act of social engagement involved being a sophisticated measure of a person's intellectual and moral compass. Of all the greetings I am familiar with in the language, I find one most intriguing. The normal Yoruba casual greeting goes--"E ku ise" (which means "greetings", or literally "well done with your work", the work specified being the work of living). However, a related greeting goes--"E Ku Aise" which acknowledges and criticizes inaction. The closest American translation of this other greeting is probably the expression, "thanks for nothing" with an inflection on "nuthin' ", and it is usually uttered with some measure of contempt. “E Ku Aise” acknowledges the destructive nature and actions of those human beings who stand on the margins and allow bad things to happen. It is especially directed to those who hinder progress, who actively work against someone’s efforts to get ahead in life. There is a very deep philosophy behind this greeting. Yoruba worlds (and also in the Igbo world of my experience—I’m polycultural in this regard) understand existence as a multiple context of social relations. These include physical relations between humans, and supernatural relations between humans and spiritual forces. It is considered very prudent to acknowledge each sphere: there is after all no light without darkness. You salute God but also acknowledge the mordant forces of daemons and other such beings because, unlike the distant Supreme Being (insert your supreme-being/deity of choice here—Chukwu; Allah and his cousin EL, whose mad children are even now slaughtering each other; Shiva, Olodumare, Ahura-Mazda, Nirvana, etc), these daemons live and work on the realms of mortals. Thus as one acknowledges those who help, one also acknowledges the machinations of those who don’t, even though it is usual to weight greetings to such individuals with large does of contempt.

My grandfather, a diviner of note, once told me that the great irony of divination is that a diviner ultimately has to live in the world s/he predicts. In my classes on African art history, I have tried several times to explain divination to my students. True divination combines a deep store of learning with brief examples of supernatural ability. For the most part, a diviner is a sophisticated futurist unusually gifted with a capacity for lateral thinking. The diviner is an information aggregator, an indigenous knowledge systems manager equipped with browser-like abilities long before the Internet was ever conceived. It is said that any suitably advanced technology will invariably look like magic. The true diviner’s ability is mysterious and mystifying precisely for this reason: they understood long ago that the cosmos is composed entirely of data, long before technology enabled this truth to be widely shared among all peoples. Diviners are the original sojourners in the ocean of data, and the wisest of them sailed the null point of data convergence. The great diviner and futurist William Gibson approaches this null point. Read his books: they have a habit of predicting the future. It was Gibson after all who first grasped the important truth that the structures of Vodun—propelled by the inderterminacy of Eshu, Lord of the Crossroads—provide the clearest interpretation of the silicon sea of contemporary technology. In the Cyberspace Trilogy, Gibson comes closest to a decent interpretation of indigenous African divination as I’ve ever seen anyone approach in the West: and believe me, I have read and heard a lot of nonsense in Western attempts to interpret African divination.

I had posted on this blog in 2007 that I skipped out on divination training. I regret that now, since it seems to me that a diviner with any measure of skill would do quite well in this voodoo “economy” as many cherished certainties fell apart, with what seems to be much more dire news ahead. “E Ku Aise” is particularly relevant to the year just ended because several shibboleths met their match in this past year 2008, aided by people whose actions can only be described as pure evil. As markets crashed and burnt across several continents, it turned out that the global economy was actually based on nothing more than sheer belief, much in the same manner as subprime mortgages were based on nothing but air. I remembered my first economics class in high school, where an economics teacher concluded his explanation of market forces by saying that “ceteris paribus” –all things being equal--market forces usually determine the fair value of commodities (basically, a thing is worth what someone is willing to pay for it). I remembered being incensed beyond belief by this caveat—all things being equal. I asked the economics teacher to explain to us his belief in a universe where all things are ever equal. I walked out of that classroom and refused to take economics as a subject after that. Instead, I tried to educate myself in the subject and read all the classic economics texts, without much being able to shake my original annoyance at its glib generalizations. I still think of economics as a pseudo-science, mainly for the impact of economic actions of the West on African existence—in brief, the current global economy is designed to maintain Africa as an underclass. The current economic situation bears me out: all the data that any rational thinker could have put together two years ago pointed to a coming crash of the housing market, and with it, some major pain for the global economy. What I couldn’t have foreseen was that nations will subsequently hand over the national treasury to privately held companies. It turns out that all things are not ever equal. The same Western countries that have ruined many African nations by enforcing Structural Adjustment Programs (aptly named “SAP”) as conditions for World Bank lending all are now refusing to take by their own medicine. The several trillion dollars in public money funneled to private companies completes the project began in the 1980s in the USA to privatize the economy, which apparently describes a process of actively transferring public wealth into private hands. The year 2008 delivered a royal %#*& you to generations yet unborn. Look for these poor saps of the future to be fully owned bot-units of some corporation named GLOBEX, whose barcode will be tattooed on the butt of newborns at birth.

2008 was the year of the great flim-flam, a year when the high-flying financial sector turned out to be one great Ponzi scheme. In that regard, I will like to nominate Charles Ponzi (1884-1949) for the Nobel Prize in Economics and declare this “The Age of Ponzi”. Give the man a break—he’s earned our respect. The classic Pyramid-scheme fraud bears his name today, a testament to his indefatigable devotion to the fast con. Charles Ponzi is the spirit of this age and the patron saint of all fraudsters, from Nigerian scam artists of 419 fame, to their cousins the Bernie Madoffs and other high-flying, global barons of ledgerdemain. I mean, how many people can name even one single Nobel prizewinner in economics: Ponzi’s name however is part of the common speech. My nomination of Ponzi for the Nobel Prize in Economics is not in support of fraudulent behavior nor is it meant to minimize the economic problems facing everyone today. It simply acknowledges what the convoluted language of finance refused to state openly, that the global economy is a context of power in which powerful nations take advantage of everyone else. What is money after all but a pure fetish—what value does it have beyond what everyone believes it has? Haven’t you heard that Zimbabwe’s worthless currency is currently denominated in $10 billion dollar notes? Even at this astronomical sum, it remains worthless. What is the difference between the money before, when it underwrote the wealth of white farmers, and its value today as it attempts to underwrite the sustenance of a black despot? It is still the same country, except for the fact that it now has a noose of an economic blockade tied firmly around its neck. This noose chokes the common people to death while the leaders thumb their noses at the West.

A diviner does not foretell the future: he forecasts it, without guile or greed, because this is what his training compels him to do. But the scary truth behind divination is the knowledge that there is actually no future: all we have is the past and the diamond edge of the present, where the fragile human body encounters time. The great Odu Ifa, the Yoruba divination corpus, opens each reading by invoking a legendary event of the past, to proffer a template for contemporary action. Thus all the Odu have somewhere or the other the expression—“Dia fun…” or “d’Ifa fun…” (meaning “divination was performed for…”). This reference does not compel the supplicant to accept the solutions of the past; it merely suggests a template for action along with structures of sacrifice. The supplicant retains the choice of whether to act or not. It seems to me that Eshu reigns supreme in the contemporary Western world, and not in his usual playful form. The Lord of the Crossroads manifests here in his mordant form, in which he drags supplicants to the crossroads of life and abandons them there. The diviner mediates in this confrontation: his job is to guide the supplicant past the confusion of choice and as much as humanly possible, direct them to as much clarity as their own muddled thinking allows for. As it is said in Odu Oturupon Owonrin Ifa:
Ifa ni ti a ba ji
Ogbon ni ka maa ko'raa wa
Ka ma jii ni kutukutu pile e were
Oro ti a ba ro ti ko ba gun
Ikin eni laa kee si
Dia fun Paraka, alawoo winniwinnin
Nijo to nlo ree jij alaranbara labe Odan...

Ifa says that whenever we wake up
We must teach each other wisdom
We must not wake up at dawn and then lay a foundation for foolishness
Whatever matter we’ve deliberated upon, but could not arrive at a satisfactory solution
Should be directed to our our kin [for help]
Thus did Ifa divine to Paraka, the brilliantly-costumed masquerade
On the day he left to engage in a marvelous dancing display beneath the Odan shade tree

It may seem that my post sounds bitter and leans towards doomsaying: in truth, it is neither. In a world given to frivolousness, truthsaying sounds like rain on a parade. It took a shoe hurled at a phenomenally bad president to reveal the truth of his disastrous stewardship. Who now speaks truth for the multitudes trapped in a prison called Gaza deploying sticks and stones against an antagonist raining down death from above? Are these people even seen as human beings anymore: do their lives matter? Shall we ever see a world where international law applies to all regardless of military or economic might? That we actually believe in such ideals shows how completely irrational human perception of reality is. In this, there is no greater truth than that uttered by Geroge Orwell, a great diviner in his own right: “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. We can ask only of the powerful that they treat the world well: in truth, we know they will not. Unilateral power does not respect life: this fact is well known to the myriad dead of history. It is also known that such power carries the seeds of its own destruction. As the year ended has shown, the world doesn’t lack knowledge; it lacks wisdom. Of all the things one could predict, the easiest is that you can always count on human beings to be foolish. It would also be the easiest thing for a diviner to say to a supplicant, “a pox on all your houses”. However, the prophetic voice insists on truth especially when the diviner’s words falter as it does often in the face of senseless death. The diviner knows though that this world is all we have and that time will get the best of us all. We must make the world better, not for ourselves alone, but for generations yet unborn. And this is the basis for the undying hope, that every new-year becomes that one in which our best selves are realized. Eshu urges us all to the crossroads of fate; only in time is it possible to tell how well one does at this portal. For those who aid our progress in such dire moments of need, greetings--“e ku ise”, and for those who oppose our efforts, “e ku aise”. You see, their displeasure does not really matter…time will get the best of us all.