Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nonsense as Art History

Earlier today, I came across an interview in the "Arts" section of The Guardian Online(Lagos, 10/25/2008) that is symptomatic of the malaise in contemporary arts journalism in Nigeria and the abuse of the history of art in Nigeria by commentators who had better be doing something else. In this interview with the Guardian journalist, Bridget Onochie, the artist/pastor/ public relations officer Rev. Adedapo Tayo had quite a few things to say about his multidisciplinary career. But the part that caught my attention was his comment on "The Art school and schools of art"

"It is high time people knew that the school of art is a department in an institution having art or creative art as a curriculum. It could be art department in any tertiary institution but art school is a different thing entirely; example is the Osogbo Art School, where Oliver Bier came into Nigeria and discovered some people, grouped them together, gave them some inductions and exposed them to art. Subsequently, a school of thought came, and that is the art school. As Fakaye would say, he never belonged to the art school of Oliver Bier because he already existed as an artist before Oliver Bier came to Nigeria. So, the school of art is different, an academic institution where formal training is giving to students to discover their potentials but art school is a pattern of art and its good example is Osogbo Art School."

I am not quite sure why The Guardian thought that this sort of nonsensical statement about the so-called difference between "art school" and "school of art" deserved the honor of its pages. But I find it embarrassing to read stuff like this in this respected newspaper. Why did the journalist not follow up with, "could you please tell me what the heck you are talking about"? More important did this artist actually speak about an "Oliver Bier", when he clearly was referring to Ulli Beier, the co-founder (with Duro Ladipo) of Mbari Mbayo Club, Osogbo? Even if one blamed the printer's devil for the spelling "Bier," or "Fakaye," how "Ulli" morphed into "Oliver" thrice in this passage is incomprehensible. Imagine a student relying on this passage as a credible source (after all it is published in The Guardian!) on the history of Osogbo art, you get why I am miffed at, and cannot give a pass on, stuff like this.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Design Without End: Essential Art of African Textiles" at The Met

Display Cloth from Gambia, Early 19th century (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ceremonial Gown from the Cameroon Grasslands, 19th-20th centuries
(Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Earlier this month, a small but superbly organized exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."Design Without End: Essential Art of African Textiles" organized by in-house curator, Alisa LaGamma demonstrates the richness of African textile art. Although exhibitions of this sort are anything but rare and the scholarship on the subject has been robust (and here I think of the work of John Picton, Joan Eicher and others), LaGamma's is unprecedented--at least as far as I know--in its focus on really old, many from dating from the 19th century, textiles from the British Museum and the Met's collections. Because they are fragile and prone to fading in normal lighting, the fabrics on show in "Design Without End" are normally kept away from view. So for connoisseurs and scholars of African textiles, this is a rare treat. A treasure. I could not help but wonder how these fabrics managed to survive in such great conditions before they entered the museum.

Hausa Protective Shirt, 19th century (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Among the most captivating things on show is the Hausa protective shirt whose entire surface is covered with texts, signs, symbols. The meticulous attention the calligrapher has paid to the task of penning the passages in Arabic, while motivated by a ritual imperative, is impressive, the visual effect almost hallucinatory. This kind of power shirt--different from the more prevalent examples in which ritual packets often containing Quranic or other sacred Islamic passages as well as ritually potent objects are sewn onto shirts/gowns--conveys so powerfully the metaphysical power of the written word: "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God"... and yes the Word is Power!

Grace Ndiritu, Nightingale, 2003 (video piece)(Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

However, I thought that the inclusion of the work of contemporary African artists in the show was not particularly nuanced. The movement from the superb 19th and early 20th-century fabrics and dresses to recent works by few, well-chosen, contemporary African artists felt too jarring, even with the rather didactic placement of an Anatsui "metal cloth" in proximity with a 19th-century Akan kente cloth. The complex historical, discursive and social space in between them is significantly left unfilled in this show. Also I could not help but wonder why there were no examples of the ubiquitous yet visually compelling printed wax fabrics the tradition of which goes back to the 19th century; especially given that these textiles are the sources for the work of Yinka Shonibare and to a lesser extent Sokari Douglas Camp who are included in the show; and Grace Kwami (the mother of Atta Kwami who is in the show) as we learned in the son's panel presentation was herself a designer of printed wax fabrics. In any case, I cannot help but mention that Grace Ndiritu's video piece "Nightingale" is one of the key moments in the show. A fiercely poetic work in which the artist performs, in close up, a bewildering range of sartorial identities through a frenzied yet deft manipulation of a red, patterned shawl accompanied by Baba Maal's music, Ndiritu captures the essence of design without end.

The lecture and panel discussion organized as part of the opening on October 4 turned out to be as successful as the exhibition, judging by the list of participating panelists and audience. Among the highlights were the presentations by Mammadou Diouf and Zoe Strother (of Columbia University) in the panel of scholars, and by the artist Nike Okundaye (whose influence on contemporary adire textile art cannot be overstated) and fashion designer Duro Olowu who presented his new haute couture collection.

Yes, this is a nugget of an exhibition. Which is one more reason for LaGamma's reputation as a fine curator.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Things Fall Apart @ 50 Conference at SOAS

Chinua Achebe and Simon Gikandi (Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Conference audience at the Brunei Theatre, SOAS
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Alain Ricard (Left); Graham Furniss (2nd Left); Margaret Busby (2nd Right); Abdulrazak Gurnah (Right)
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

I have been decompressing after attending the "Things Fall Apart @ 50" conference at SOAS, University of London Oct. 10-11. It turned out to be one of those rare events you feel infinitely grateful to have witnessed, especially if African literature means anything to you. Apart from seeing Achebe again this year (he was in Princeton in the spring for a reading and public conversation with Anthony Appiah), it was a treasure listening to Keith Sambrook who founded the African Writers Series; James Currey (former editor of AWS and founder of James Currey Publishers), and Henry Chakava (the MD of Heinemann Educational Books, East Africa) and Margaret Busby CBE (co-founder of Allison and Busby Ltd). Of the people who could not make the trip, Aig Higo (the founder of Heinemann Educational Books) and Chinweizu were the most significant. Yet, the organizer of the conference Lyn Innes of University of Kent deserves every praise I could summon for putting together a hitchfree, extremely well-attended, and most rewarding conference.
The presentations were for the most part superb, but it was clear that the two highlights of the two-day event were first the conversation between Achebe and Simon Gikandi of Princeton University (Ahem, my esteemed senior colleague!); Watching and listening to Achebe speak or respond to questions always feels like being in the presence of an oracle. His soft yet infinitely weighty voice, and his deliberate manner of speech makes you want to hold on to every word he utters. You leave such sessions wondering how come men like Achebe and Mandela manage to carry so much moral authority, even when they make a joke! The conclusion of the interview with Achebe reading section of Things Fall Apart summed up the whole event. Gikandi asked him to read the section (I suspect it is Achebe's favorite), where Okonkwo's maternal uncle taught him a lesson, in the presence of his maternal kindred, on the value and significance of motherhood, in the early years of his exile. But what the novel does not include is Achebe's rendering in Igbo of the wrenchingly sorrowful song Okonkwo's uncle invoked; a song performed at the funeral of a woman:

"For whom is it well; for whom is it well?
There is no one for whom it is well"

Udechukwu's presentation just before the interview was equally compelling. Seeking to show that Achebe's idea of the "novelist as a teacher" draws from a long tradition of Igbo minstrelsy, Udechukwu demonstrated his own amazing schooling in the art of song. When he finished performing a sung poem in Igbo that he had written for Achebe, the auditorium went quiet, then burst into applause. Did the audience have questions for him (and I; ok, both of us were in a plenary session. My paper was titled: "The Politics of Form: Uche Okeke's Illustrations for Achebe's Things Fall Apart")? No. They just simply called for an encore! Such was the beauty of Udechukwu's act. And then to have the afternoon, and the conference, conclude with the Gikandi and Achebe's conversation-that-ended-with-a-dirge? A state of grace.

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Adele King, Joao Cosme, Michel Naumann in the "Reconsidering Things Fall Apart" panel
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Elleke Boehmer, writer and literary scholar
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writer
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

One more thing, there were so many old friends including Ike Achebe, Ike Okonta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ike Anya--co-travelers from that small town of seven hills in Eastern Nigeria: Nsukka. The conference thus felt like a homecoming for the Nsukka clan. And for this, I thank Professor Lyn Innes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


The artist Iba Ndiaye has passed on. It is impossible to overstate the significance of his work as a modern African and contemporary artist. One of the two (the other being Papa Ibra Taal) giants to come out of Senegal in the post-WWII period, Ndiaye took his place in history as a young artist who, having trained in Paris and associated with the School of Paris, was invited by the prophet of Negritude and first President of Senegal Leopold Senghor to serve as a founding director of the newly established Ecole des Arts' fine arts section. His subtle yet firm critique of the sort of aesthetic Africanism Senghor desired of his new school would mark him as an artist whose commitment to the artistic enterprise trumped any facile, problematically articulated ideological mission for the postcolonial African artist. In this he reminds me of the Ethiopian artist, Gebre Kristos Desta, whose identification with a modernist vision unhitched from national cultural specificity is equally legendary. Given the political climate of the 1960s—the fervor of nationalism and the waning embers of various Africanisms—Ndiaye's insistence on the right of the artist to determine the scope and tenor of his relationship with identity politics was as remarkable as it testified to his artistic and personal integrity.
But also, Ndiaye was a terrific painter, a master of the gestural, expressive-poetic brush and restrained palette in the tradition of the Spaniard, Francesco Goya. His powerful analysis of subjects as ordinary as sheep ready for slaughter, or Jazz musicians, or the arid Sahel landscape, leaves you totally in awe of his stunning ability to evoke metaphysical states by sheer manipulation of paint and recognizable, if altered, forms.
It is compelling to feel a sense of loss—and my heart goes his family at this time—with Ndiaye’s transition. Yet, his achievement as an artist transcended his mortality; he indeed earned his right to join the ancestors, having been eminently successful in his sojourn here. For this, I celebrate his life, his work, his memory. May his journey be smooth, and may his art live long!