Dec 31, 2009

In Memoriam: Lamidi Olonade Fakeye

The acclaimed Nigerian artist and preeminent wood sculptor, Lamidi Olonade Fakeye, passed away in Ile-Ife on Christmas. He has since been buried. I am besieged by death and have sat the past five days thinking about his passing, in this season of great losses, of friends, mentors and colleagues who have passed into the great beyond. There is no doubt Fakeye's fame will survive his death and only grow, but his passing leaves a great hole in our universe of eminent artists. He was known at home and abroad, and his fame rested on solid personal achievements: his skill in wood sculpture as one of the bearers of the 3000-year old Yoruba tradition of ONA, or great art (hence his name Olonade --the master artist is among us), which is revered among the Yoruba and their neighbors as evidence of divine blessing. Lamidi Fakeye was blessed and he shared his blessing selflessly with everyone he came into contact with. His works were full of grace and power, and astonished everyone by the supreme skill of the artist. I lament his passing, for we have not had time to do justice to his immense contributions to global contemporary art of his lifetime. And these are immense.

Olonade apoginifun, orun re o!
T'o ba d'ohun, ma j'ekolo
Oun ti won ba nje n'ibe ni k'o ba won je!

May his soul rest in peace.

Photograph of Fakeye courtesy of Prof. Benjamin Ray.

Appropriating Africa Redux

Here's an interesting NYTImes report on the new international appropriation of African culture, which is gaining grounds in places like London, New York and other parts of the world where local (read Western) designers are appropriating African cultural patterns for uses as varied as fashion, film and general design. As much as this kind of appropriation benefits African cultural producers, like Duro Olowu, the London-based fashion designer mentioned in the article, there is no indication that the New York Times (Ruth La Ferla) considered the economic impact of cultural appropriation. She mentions that in the previous (20th) century, Western artists like Picasso incorporated pan-African images and forms into their work but fails to note the result of this appropriation, which was that ALL modern and contemporary African art AFTER Picasso has been largely deemed mere mimicry of Western styles, even when African artists use cultural motifs and images from their own cultures. The reasoning was that Picasso (and other Western modernists) "discovered" African art and their use of African motifs and images invalidates any subsequent African experiments with the same forms (even when some European modernists merely copied African sculptures and presented these as modern art). The result of this inane assumption is that while even the least competent artwork by Picasso sells for millions of dollars, there is no sub-Saharan (black) African artist whose artworks sell for a million dollars apiece. Even the current darling black artist of the global art establishment --El Anatsui-- who has over thirty years of major professional practice and whose artworks are keenly sought after by most international museums, still finds his very complex and important artworks selling for mid-six figures. Consider in this regard that artworks by many young American or British artists with less that one-tenth of El's practice and international achievements sell routinely for more than he does.

We should thus understand that appropriation of African cultural properties is an economic issue with detrimental impact on African producers. There is no doubt that the current regime of cultural appropriation will achieve the same result as its predecessors (appropriation of African cultural and economic resources is a staple narrative of Western exegesis). The New York Times article mentions that much of the sudden focus on pan-African aesthetics derive from the concentration of Africans in Western Metropolises like London but also from the emergence of ARISE, a glossy international Africa-focused fashion publication that launched last year, published the Nigerian media magnate, Nduka Obaigbena of THIS DAY, who has done a lot to carve out a place for African cultural production in the realm of haute couture.

I think Obaigbena understands what I have been preaching on this blog for over two years now, that in the information age, you have to stake out your own intellectual property lest someone else appropriate it. And one has to do so urgently (by inserting such forms of cultural production into discourse) before foreign interests get the jump on you. Consider that many African countries (Cameroun is a prime example) do not even own the URL on their own names online. They have to pay other people who have registered these names for the right to use them. And so far, I have not heard of any court in the West that sees the evil in this kind of appropriation, or works to uphold African rights to their bodies or natural resources.

I should make clear that I am not opposed to global exchange of ideas, resources or cultures; I only insist that if such exchange remains one-sided (as it is in this dispensation where African culture and resources are freely available for appropriation but not vice versa), then we are not dealing with globalization but predatory imperialism. In that regard, I will end this year asking the same questions I asked at its beginning: what is Africa's share of this world we live in? Will African children ever see a future in which they do not exist merely as props for international charity organizations that feed fat on their misery? In an age where using even a small sound clip from any Western source could find you dragged into court for intellectual property violation, why is it legal for African intellectual properties to be appropriated freely without repercussions? Why exactly do we have this periodic appropriation of Africa which seems to recur in ten year cycles (I've written tons of stuff criticizing this tendency in exhibitions of African art: see "Exhibiting Africa:...").

I also don't wish to lay all the blame on the West. There is a very serious problem, which I have also earlier blogged about, on the unwillingness of Africans worldwide to understand the need to preserve and claim the intellectual property rights of their own cultural production, despite their proven prowess in this context. This is of course a very shortsighted but predictable condition of global African existence. We will wait until the new generation of Western fashion designers claim African motifs as their own and patent existing African patterns, before trying to secure these rights from them, by which time it will be too late. As my people say, if you don't lick your lips, the Harmattan dry winds will lick them for you. In the meantime, enjoy the new "discovery" of Africa by the New York Times. It is fleeting, and if you check back ten years from now, you will find they are writing on yet another new discovery, in the never ending cycle of Western imagining of Africa in which the continent is a perennially unknowable place. This recurrent pattern of discovery is also a ploy that allows African resources to be transferred to Western ownership. The discoverer gets credit for African resources, which is why Nyanza Nalubaale is currently known as Lake Victoria, named after the first white man that saw it, despite the fact that it had been named by African peoples who had lived on its shores for thousands of years.

Who owns African culture and why does Africa always get short-changed in the exploitation of its natural and cultural resources? This is a question to ponder as we end one year and head towards another decade entirely. The second decade of the 21st century is here and I predict this will be the great issue of the age.

Dec 1, 2009

Black History Month: Whose History, Whose Culture?

An interesting discussion on Black History Month in the United Kingdom, focused on whether Africans in Africa are getting enough knowledge of their own cultural heritage and how repatriation of African artworks held in the West might rekindle an interest in precolonial African heritage.