Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Memoriam: Agbo Folarin and Gregory Isaacs

The light of our world shines dimmer with the deaths of two remarkable men, the Nigerian sculptor Agbo Folarin, and the Jamaican Reggae star Gregory Isaacs.

Agbo Folarin, who retired as a professor of art at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, was a leading artist of the renowned Ife School. His many sculptural commissions at Ife in no small way have defined, for many, the visual character the beautiful campus. A teacher of acclaimed artists and scholars, Folarin's place in the history of Nigerian art is assured. But thinking about a common problem of Nigerian artists, I worry what happens to the work he left behind and about his invaluable archives. I pray though there are few among his bereaved family who would take on the task of safeguarding the materials that will constitute the basis of future research on the life and work of the master sculptor.

Gregory Isaacs, the gentleman cool ruler who, despite long struggles with his personal demons, gave to reggae music its coolest riddims, its most romantic lyrics, its heart tingling rhymes. I cannot forget the days back in the Umuahia of my youth when my brother Ike and I struggled mightily to extract the bass riddims from Isaacs' (but also Black Uhuru, Marley, etc) sounds with the aid of earthen pots and primitive speakers, which was all we could afford. How so much I pined to weave my own version of the man's silk-threaded voice. Listening to him as I write this now, I cannot help but say: Lord a mercy!

Did the sun come out today?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Achebe's 2010 Gish Prize

Chinua Achebe at home(Aug. 7, 2010). Photo copyright: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Tomorrow (October 27), Chinua Achebe the master of the written word will receive the 2010 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in New York. One of the world's most prestigious awards in the arts, the $300,000 Gish Prize winners include individuals who have defined and extended the horizons of the visual, performing, and literary arts since the later part of the 20th century. And it is no surprise that the same man who, at the expense of his own art, has been indefatigably committed to the development of modern African literature (just imagine this field without the "African Writers Series," published by Heinemann, or the journal Okike!) has now put an African name in the rarefied list of Gish Winners. It sure promises to be a blast of an event at the Hudson Theatre, Millennium Broadway, with many Achebephiles, friends and family in attendance. But first I have to find a "business attire" I am told I must wear to see the big masquerade in the public arena!

The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Recipients:
2010 Chinua Achebe, author
2009 Pete Seeger, folk musician, singer and social activist
2008 Robert Redford, filmmaker, activist, Sundance Institute founder
2007 Laurie Anderson, multimedia performance artist
2006 Shirin Neshat, visual artist and filmmaker
2005 Peter Sellars, theatre and opera director
2004 Ornette Coleman, jazz innovator
2003 Bill T. Jones, dancer/choreographer
2002 Lloyd Richards, theatre director
2001 Jennifer Tipton, lighting designer
2000 Merce Cunningham, dancer/choreographer
1999 Arthur Miller, author/playwright
1998 Isabel Allende, author
1997 Bob Dylan, singer/songwriter
1996 Robert Wilson, artist/director
1995 Ingmar Bergman, film director
1994 Frank Gehry, architect

For further information on the 2010 Gish Prize, Click HERE

Thursday, October 21, 2010

From my photo files

039_Okwui-El_Oct 2 2010

Okwui Enwezor and El Anatsui at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

On Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi

Photos: Courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery

Late this summer I was in New Delhi visiting a bit of its art world, and was struck by the work some of its elite modern and contemporary art galleries in the realm of documentation and research. I had gone to the Delhi Art Gallery to look at its collection of Indian mid-20th-century modernists, particularly Francis Newton Souza who my friend Ulli Beier once held as a model for young Nigerian artists. Of course I saw the art I was after, but it was the range of publications commissioned and produced by the DAG that I found astounding. For years this gallery and others like it, such as the Vadehra Art Gallery, have been at the forefront of producing scholarly publications on especially modern Indian artists. And they have, I think, helped in increasing international scholarly (and yes, commercial) attention these artists are attracting now.

When I think of how these commercial art galleries participate in serious knowledge production only very few galleries, even blue chips of New York's Chelsea district, come to mind. Here you have substantial monographic studies of individual artists-- from Souza, and Raza to Sunil Das, Rabin Mondal, etc--and their wonderful survey volumes, Manifestations. I just involuntarily pined for the day galleries in Lagos would grow up to doing this kind of crucial groundwork. To really invest in artists whose work they claim to promote. So, there I was so thrilled at the work being done by commercial galleries in New Delhi; like a child confronted by a candy-bearer, I packed so much books published by just the DAG and Vadehra, that I had to pay excess luggage on my way back to base. Contrast this with my visit to the "high-end" Mydrim Gallery in Lagos earlier in the summer: I came out empty-handed. Oh, the wish, the wish.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Anatsui at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Earlier this month the much-anticipated El Anatsui retrospective organized by the Museum for African Art, New York opened at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. For years, I was anxious to see what Anatsui's retrospective might look like; what a museological space would make sense of his very diverse body of work, from the round wood panels of the 1970s to the ceramic sculptures of the early 1980s, from the acrylic paintings of the early 80s to the wall plaques and three dimensional wood sculptures of the 80s and 90s, and finally to the metal sculptures of the last ten years. I wondered what the works would look like in the discursive space of the retrospective exhibition, after several years of seeing them up close as Anatsui's sculpture student, and later as his studio assistant, long before I started writing about these works or presenting some of them in exhibitions.

The show organized by Lisa Binder, assistant curator at the Museum for African Art, is quite an effort and must be, for people who know Anatsui only through his stupendous metal sculptures, a revelatory experience. Here for the first time are gathered some of the artist's key early works, with many of the round wood panels, several of the ceramic sculptures, and the paintings only visitors to Anatsui's home at Nsukka knew existed. There is of course the graceful free-standing wood sculpture, Wonder Masquerade, owned by Wole Soyinka, and a few other key wood sculptures, such as When Last I Wrote to You...(which gave the exhibition its title). Surprisingly though, the Crumbling Wall, or the Wast Paper Baskets --works that show a bit more of the range of the artists metal sculptural language, beyond the bottle and milk can top sculptures--are not part of the show, nor are any of the marquee wall-bound metal sculptures of the last decade. Might this be due to loan problems?

Ok. What I have said above is the good thing about the show. I don't even want to rant about the really terrible design of the exhibition. I could, but I wont. But let me just say that whoever came up with the idea of painting the walls, platforms and pedestals with that terrible blue paint, and reddish wood highlights did a great disservice the artist's work. Not only did the color add to the already noisy space (I just can't help wondering what Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the building, thought he was doing with the harsh, messy diagonal walls that compromised the usable space of the galleries, apart from giving me momentary, unappreciated vertigo), it invaded the composition of several of the wood panels. I don't even want to think that the designers of the show wanted to really impress visitors to the work of this "African" artist--after all, are Africans not a people of color!?

So, please, please. Let this craziness just end in Toronto, and could designers of the spaces where this retrospective will travel save these works from the color abuse? Thank you.