Saturday, 25 July 2009

Contemporary Nigerian Art | 1950 - Present

Artist: Bruce Onobrakpeya
Title: Okoroko
Material: Lino Engraving
Size: 12 x 17 cm
Date: 1975

Art, Artists and Art Criticism
Situational Report in Nigeria from 1950 – 2004


This article is focused on some issues concerning contemporary art and its practitioners and art critics as it relates to Nigeria from 1950 to date. In any way the article may not be able to discuss in minute detail due to space constraint. At the same time the theoretical framework of the paper will be historical and also analytical in order to be able to state the author’s views on some issues raised here.

The history of contemporary art in Nigeria cannot be complete without referring to the instrumental figures who through their solo efforts brought Nigerian modern art into the world art history. The history started with Aina Onabolu 1881-1963 as a leading figure who did not only start the art of drawing and painting but also fought single handedly to put art in the school curriculum in 1927. Onabolu consciously went into art of figure drawing and painting to prove and disabuse the minds of the then Europeans who thought no African can dabble into the art of figure drawing and painting. With the help of some European art teachers such as Kenneth Murray who came in 1927, H.E Duckwork and Dennis Duerden who later joined, they later discovered of other talented indigenous artists who did not only continue from Onabolu, they equally made their distinct landmark in the propagation of visual art. Such notable artists include Akinola Lasekan 1921-1972, Justus Akeredolu1915-, Ben Enwonwu 1921 – 1994, Etsu Ngbodaga and others.

These notable Nigerian academically trained, or partially trained or self trained artists started what was later christened Natural Synthesis by the “Zarianist”. For example, Enwonwu’s paintings and sculptures reflect naturalistic and stylized forms which he called “African Style”. As it is argued, Enwonwu’s spirit of synthesis later became the compass upon which the Zarianists members of Zaria Art Society based their popular theory of “Natural Synthesis”. Ademuleya,2003.

The events starting from 1950 have been very topical and have also dictated the trends in contemporary Art in Nigeria. Also events since then have been properly classified by some scholars who wrote on contemporary Nigerian art. These scholars include Dele Jegede 1983, Adepegba 1995, Akatakpo, 1995 Kunle Filani 1998.

Late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed in Nigeria art history the beginning of radical revolution in visual art. The periods consciously witnessed the change of art style from ancient traditions and also jettisoning of western – style realistic approach to execution of artwork. The new consciousness ushered in what was referred to by Filani as “New African” concept which simply means an admixture of traditions and modernism, the philosophy which was later developed as “Natural Synthesis”. This philosophy in the first formal Art School in Nigeria. That is, the college of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria which was later renamed Ahmadu Bello University ABU Zaria. The key actors of this great African philosophy in visual art, who started as students and later spread into various art schools after their graduation are Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Emmanuel Odita, Jimoh Akolo, Solomon Wangboje and a host of others. They formed what was known as Zaria Art Society. .

The artists mentioned above influencee other followers and students who have some common and unique characteristics which reflect in their individual works. For decades they dictated the trends in Nigerian contemporary art. Their ideologies according to Filani were carried to other formal schools or workshops to create vibrant artistic revolution Filani 1998:35. Some of these pioneer artists are still in contention in the country.

Another generation of Artists who were later discovered after the 1950s and 1960s progenitors are 1970s graduates of mostly the Zaria Art School. Among them are Shina Yusuf – painter now dead, Joshua Akande – painter, Nelson Cole – painter now dead, Dele Jegede – painter, cartoonist and critic, David Dale – painter and mosacist, Kolade Oshinowo – painter and Gani Odutokun- painter now dead. Their works have been described as characterized by elongation of forms, with elegant northern architecture, and human figures while some depict northern grassland in their landscapes. Most of these artists’ works are in the collection of National Gallery of Modern Art. It is worth mentioning that artist like Late Professor Adepegba 1941 – 2002 who graduated in 1971 with 1st class degree in sculpture consciously went into art history and criticism. He made his mark as one of the distinguished, outstanding and foremost Africanist Art Historians/Critic the Continent has ever produced.
Most contemporary Nigerian artists are classified along the school in which they graduated from. There are also cases of few artists having other distinct styles or deviating from the usual school styles. Of large number of contemporary artists in the practice today are the 1980s graduates of various formal art schools in Nigeria. The term “school” is also used to describe the philosophy, styles, themes and forms that are peculiarly distinguishing of these schools. The schools that have distinguished themselves with some unique characteristics include Zaria School, Yaba School, Nsukka School, Ife School and Auchi School

The distinguishing characteristics of each school will be briefly mentioned as well as some of their outstanding products or artists. The name of the school represents the location of each art school or may some time bear the name of the founder.

Some Agents of Contemporary Art in Nigeria

Zaria Art School

The works of the school are characterized by elongation of forms, with elegant northern architecture and human figures. Their landscapes, most times reflect the grassland and savannah vegetation of the North. Other later graduates of the Zaria School who have made their marks from 1950s till date as artists, teachers and historians include Prof. Yomi Adetoro, Dr. Tunde Akinwumi, Jerry Buhari, Jacob Jari, Tonie Okpe, Rukeme Noserime, Nse-Abasi Inyang, Tunde Balogun, Tunde Oniyide, Tony Emordi, Victoria Ukpera, Chinwe Abara, Abraham Uyobusere, Akeem Balogun, Wunmi Busuyi, Betty Bassey, Duke Asidere, Emmanuel Irokanumo, Ade Odun, Taiwo Oyejide and Abiola Idowu among others. Their contributions have been in the sustenance of the art tempo which the pioneers started through their constant practice. While some of the listed artists are household names among the art historians, critic, collectors and the art audience, some talents are just emerging.

Yaba School

The Yaba School employs realistic art form that are done in narrative, and descriptive style mostly done in accurate photo-graphic-realism. The initial notable artists who graduated in the 50s and 60s and went for higher studies in Europe include Agbo Folarin, Isiaka Osunde, and Abayomi Barber. The later artists of the School, who were taught by the former graduates of the Zaria School, belong to the 1980s generation. These include Mike Omoighe, Biodun Olaku, Phemi Adeniran, Lara Ige, Felix Osieme, Edosa Oguigo , Joe Amenechi, Ato Arinze, Sam Ebohan among others.

Nsukka School

The calligraphic nature of ‘Uli’ art body painting/decoration influenced the products’, works. The philosophy of application of Uli art form as espoused by Uche Okeke and later supported by Chuka Amefuna, Chike Aniakor and El-Anasui was to intensify the search for Igbo–identity, thereby using the Uli linear forms to depict radical socio-political and cultural subject matters. Their linearity of drawing and modeling according to Filani, became the hall mark of Nsukka’s contribution to modern Nigerian art. The graduates are conceptually rich and fecund in imagination thereby making their themes to penetrate into the social situations of the people. Filani, 1998:36. Notable of late 1970s and 1980s artists of the school include Tayo Adenaike, Olu Oguibe, Ndidi Dike, Chijioke Onuora, Ernest Okoli etc. Of 1990s graduates are Chika Okeke, Krydz Ikwuemesi, Ozioma Onuzulike among others.

Ife School

The school is noted with intellectualization of its works with vigorous emphasis on theoretical content in art form. Noted with cultural inspiration drawn from the Ife location, the school explores a rather diversity of creative exploration in the use of local materials, symbols and images which later developed into the exploration of Yoruba traditional symbols, motifs, structure and concepts termed Ona by some of the 1980s graduates. The lecturers of the Ife School who are not graduates of the school include Babatunde Lawal, J.R.O Ojo, Abiodun Rowland, Ige Ibigbami, Agbo Folarin and PSO Aremu among others.

The late 1970s and 1980s graduate artists of the school who have made their marks in art practice, writing and teaching include Moyo Ogundipe, Nkiru Uwechi-Nzegwu, Moyo Okediji, Don Akatakpo, Sherinat Fafunwa-Ndibe, Kunle Filani, Idowu Otun, CSA Akran, Osi-Audu, Tola Wewe, Eben Sheba among others. The emerging 1990s graduates of the school include Segun Ajiboye, Stephen Folaranmi, Mufu Onifade, Ademola Ogunajo, among others. These artists exhibit often and some also participate in the yearly exhibition of the school graduates tagged “The Best of Ife” which started in 1993.

Auchi School and Its Artists

Auchi Art School is noted with expressionistic naturalism. The use of vibrant and sweet colours are attributed to the graduates of the school. Some of the outstanding artists of the school who have made their impact on the audience and collectors include Ben Osaghae, Sam Ovraiti, Olu Ajayi, Pita Ohiweri, Edwin Debebs, Alex Nwokolo, Toni Oshiame and Olu Amoda metal sculptor among others.

The Informal Schools and Their Artists

These are art locations where artists are informally trained without following rigid rules of formal art syllabus. The training is acquired through apprenticeship system or workshop experience. Within the informal school, some of them do not obey the rules of accurate proportion, and perspective. Mbari Mbayo–Osogbo and Ori-Olokun-Ife schools explored the workshop system. Notable artists that emerged from the Osogbo School include Twin Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Tijani Mayakiri, Rufus Ogundele, Ademola Onibonokuta, Asiru Olatunde, Nike Davies. Their contributions to art history in Nigeria is their deviation from the known western–style realistic form. These artists’ forms are original, spontaneous and naively created with utter disregard for the depth, space or any expected relationship of motif. Their themes are most times derived from folktales, myths and religious stories. The characteristics of which was classified as “Naive Vision encouraged and fossilized” Adepegba, 1995. They hardly follow the cannon of verisimilitude which is common with Western Art. Ori Olokun workshop is seen as an extension of the Osogbo but the style of execution tilts greatly towards naturalism. Prominent artists of Ori-Olokun experiment include Wale Olajide, Rufus Orisayomi, Fela Odaranile, Adeniji Adeyemi, and Ademola Williams. Other important informal school is “Abayomi Barber School” which started in 1973 by Abayomi Barber . Although the founder was formally trained, the trainees of the school are informally trained. There is no curriculum to operate as in formal art school and no specific entry requirements. Emphasis was always placed on importance of drawing as the basis of it all, also the need to see correctly, measure accurately and observe very keenly, the rules that are borrowed from formal school system. Its prominent artists include Muri Adejimi, Olu Spencer, Busari Agbolade, Toyin Alade, Kent Ideh, Bunmi Lasaki, and Bayo Akinwole among others. Their works are widely collected in Nigeria and abroad and have also been documented by researchers in art history Azeez 2002. Many of them have been in active practice from 1980s till date.

Aka Group

Aka Group based in Enugu and Nsukka in the Eastern part of Nigeria, formed in 1989 as a circle of exhibiting artists. It has close affinity to Nsukka School. As reported by Filani, the Aka group and Uli artists are philosophically inclined in thematic choice with clairvoyance in social vision Filani,1998:41. The founding members of Aka include Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, El-Anatsui, Nsikak Essien, Samson Uchendu and Chris Echeta among others.

Eye Society

The Eye society is based in Zaria Ahmadu Bello University. It was formed in 1992. The membership comprises mainly some artist staff of the Department of Fine Arts of the University who also graduated from the Department. Some of the founding members include Gani Odutokun died in 1994, Jerry Buhari, Jacob Jari, Matt Ehizele and Tonie Okpe. The group’s contributions have been in the areas of propagation of visual arts as an instrument of development of the society, publishing of journal called “The Eye”, mounting of exhibitions, organizing workshops conferences and symposia etc.

Uli Movement

It is Nsukka-based. The membership is for an artist who believes in the philosophy of Uli Art as a stylistic expression using its linear and spiral motifs in terms of forms and using themes that have socio-cultural content and advantage. The members of the movement who are both Igbo and non-Igbo include Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, Chris Afuba, Chris Echeta, El-Anasui the famous and prolific Ghana born artist, working in Nsukka University. Chijoke Onuwa, Chika Okeke, Olu Oguibe, Victor Ecoma, Ndidi Dike, Krydz Ikwuemesi, Ozioma Onuzulike and others.

Ona Movement

This was formed in 1990 by the five graduates of “Ife Art School”. The five pioneering founding members include Kunle Filani, Moyo Okediji, Tola Wewe, Bolaji Campbell and Tunde Nasiru. The movement explores the decorative motifs, ornaments, patterns and design peculiar to the rich artistic culture of the Yoruba Filani 1998. One advantage of Ona approach to artistic expression according to Filani is the rich visual grammar it affords the artist to employ, resulting to melody of tones, forms and structure and also enriching the aesthetic sensibilities of the viewers Filani 1997. Some of the other exponents of Ona philosophy as an art include Don Akatakpo, C.S.A Akran, Ojo Bankole, Akin Onipede, Ademola Azeez, Sehinde Ademuleya, Rasheed Amodu, Mufu Onifade ,Kunle Adeyemi and others. One of the major contributions of Ona movement to contemporary art is its enriching the visual aesthetic and appreciation of Art.

Pan-African Circle of Artists PACA

It is an artists’ organisation formed in 1995. Its focus is to provide fora or avenues for African artists within and outside the Continent. It also works “at engineering an indigenous voice for the propagation of African Art”. Ikwuemesi, 2000. Its founding members include Krydz Ikwuemesi, Ayo Adewumi, Nnaemeka Egwuibe, Jerry Buhari etc. One other contribution to art history in Nigeria and African continent is its regular publications that border on African and global issues. Its headquarters is located in Enugu, Nigeria.

Culture and Creative Art Forum CCAF

This organisation was formed in July, 2001. Its objectives among others include intervening and promoting the creative and artistic education of Africans through cultural means in order to encourage their economic and creative independence. It is also to maintain and sustain the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people. Its headquarters is located in Lagos, Nigeria. Its founding members include Dr. Kunle Filani, Ademola Azeez, Dr Ademuleya Sehinde, Akin Onipede, Mike Omoighe, and Austin Emifoniye. It has organised two National Conferences with the themes “Culture and Creativity” in 2002 and Contemporary Challenges in Nigerian Arts” in 2003 . CCAF has published two major books.

Artist: Victor Ekpuk
Title: Market Day
Material: Ink on Paper [edition of 5]
Size: 152 x 114 cm
Date: 2005

Artistic Trends in Nigeria

The artistic trends in the country are still being dictated most times by the mode of training and styles adopted by each school discussed earlier. The artistic trends are as varied as number of art schools formal and informal movements we have. For instance, some artists of formal school orientation still engage in naturalistic art form with the synthesis of tradition and modernity to express their concepts. One other current artistic trend that is prevalent among the workshop trained artists especially of Osogbo and Ife Ori-Olokun is the depiction of their forms in the traditional culture, folklore and myths in a figurative and narrative way. Another artistic trend is the expressionistic expression that is prevalent among the Auchi School graduates.

Exponents of Ulism those who adopt Uli art forms of expression mostly graduates of Nsukka School and Onaists those who adopt Ona art form and concept as found in Yoruba decorative pattern, design and ornament to express their messages also constitute a strong trend in contemporary Nigerian art. The “surrealist-naturalists” of the Abayomi Barber School is equally an artistic trend. The common thing to most of these artists is their thematic expression depicting socio-religious beliefs, socio-economic conditions and social lives of the people.

The Front-liners of the Artistic Scene

The frontliners of the artistic scenes today in Nigeria include established artists pf 1950s those referred to as “Zarianists”, such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yussuf Grillo, established artists of the 1970s, 1980s of formal school and some of the 1990s. The graduates of Informal School system discussed earlier are still in active practice and these are Osogbo and Ori-Olokun artists, and products of Abayomi Barber School the surrealists. Most of these artists’ works are still being collected and exhibited. They are classified as front liners because they exhibit from time to time and not only that, some of them exhibit yearly in solo exhibitions.

Representing 1950s graduates is Bruce Onobrakpeya who exhibits regularly with new works produced in the exhibiting year on display. Of the 1970s graduates is Kolade Oshinowo who apart from exhibiting regularly, also showcases new works. He is arguably the most prolific artist of his generation. Notable among the 1980s graduates who are front liners are Kunle Filani, Tola Wewe Ife School, Mike Omoighe, Olu Amoda, Abiodun Olaku Yaba School, Ndidi Dike female painter Nsukka School, Ben Osaghae, Olu Ajayi, Sam Ovraiti, Alex Nwokolo Auchi School, Duke Asidere Zaria School, Muri Adejimi and Olu Spencer, Informal school. Most of them have been listed in “Who is who” in Nigerian Art. The remarkable thing about these artists’ works is that each artist style of painting or sculpting or modeling is very unique and experimental and their artistic developmental stages can easily be traced by critics.

Art Writing and Criticism

Very few writers are engaged in critical writing on art. Among the few are visual artists and artist academic intellectuals. Their writings can be categorized into articles in art journals, newspaper art reviews , and reviews in exhibition brochures Critics of the 1970s include Ayo Ajayi, Ben Enwonwu, Cyprian Ewensi, Okpu Eze, Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko and Obiora Udechukwu late70s. Art journalists/writers/critics of the 1980s include Ben Tomoloju, Tam Fiofori, Elsy Obasi, Taiwo Ogundipe and Toyin Akinosho, Jahman Anikulapo, Shola Balogun, Lanre Idowu, Wale Aina and Gbile Oshadipe and Dili Ezughan among others. Oloidi, 1996. The academic intellectuals who went into art writing and criticism from the early 1980s-1990s include Adepegba, C.O., Dele Jegede, Ola Oloidi, Olu Oguibe, Sylvester Ogbechie, Kunle Filani, Mike Omoighe, Chika Okeke and Krydz Ikwuemesi.

The art writers/critics who stand at the front line of the artistic scene today include Kunle Filani , Toyin Akinosho, and Jahman Anikulapo,and Krydz Ikwuemesi Their writings are remarkable due to the issues their critical writings generate. These issues range from art policy, art administration, status of the artists in Nigeria and Africa, art practice and theory to collection and appreciation of art among other topical issues. There are also up coming and promising art critics not mentioned here. The front liners listed here have contributed a lot of reviews in exhibition brochures, newspaper articles and reviews, academic art journals and even comments on socio-cultural issues in the country. Some have even curated national exhibitions. The limitation of their writings especially on artists’ works is their inaccessibility to the stages and processes involved in artists’ works before the final exhibition.

National Collection of Contemporary Art

There are collections of contemporary works by both government’s culture institutions and private collectors. The institution charged with the national collection of contemporary art is the National Gallery of Art NGA. It has the largest collection of artists’ works among the other culture institutions created. Its collection was first documented in 1981 in a publication titled “The Nucleus”. There are also private galleries and collectors who have in their keeps works of prominent contemporary artists. Among the private galleries in Lagos are Signature gallery, Treasure House, Nimbus gallery, Mydrim gallery, Galleria Romania, Nike Okundaye gallery, Quintessence and others. Private collectors are few Nigerians and foreigners mostly Europeans and Americans who have in their collections works of most artists mentioned in this article. Of special note among the Nigerian collectors, is Engineer Yemisi Shyllon, an avid art collector who arguably has the largest private collections of contemporary artists’ works both Nigerian and non-Nigerian artists.

Artist: Niyi Olagungu
Title: Untitled (Installation view)
Material: Wood palettes & leather balls
Size: 900 x 750 cm
Date: 2009


It is the view of this writer that art and culture matters such as status of the artist, consistent implementation of art policy, administration of art and artists, production and practice of art, criticism and writing on art have not been given the adequate attention they deserve by the Government. There are many problems confronting contemporary art and artists in Nigeria some of which the artists themselves have attempted to solve but due to financial constraint and lack of political powers, those problems are still there. As individual artists and writers, they have tried to draw attention to some of the topical issues either through their art works or writings. There are a lot of benefits Nigerian Government can derive from artists and other culture activists if they are genuinely involved in the administration and implementation of art and culture matters that directly affect artists and citizens at large. Nigeria as the most populous Black African nation in the world can utilize the capabilities and potentials of her artists and culture activists if the artists are also allowed to put their ideas and skills into fruition as stated in the Cultural Policy for Nigeria. Nigerian artists are looking forward to a day when an established and a seasoned visual artist/administrator would be appointed to head for example, “The National Gallery of Art”. One believes that if this is done critical discourses of issues on art and culture could be widened and more articulated. On a final note, this article does not pretend to discuss and raise all issues on contemporary art and artists due to space constraint. The issues and artists cannot be exhausted in just one article.

Adepegba, C.O. 1995: Nigerian Art: Its Traditions and Modern Tendencies, Jodad Publishers, Ibadan. p.96
Azeez, W.A. 2002: “The Works and Artists of Abayomi Barber School in the Development of Contemporary Nigerian Art” PhD Proposal submitted to the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan
Filani, E. O. 1998: “Form and Content as a Basis for the Classification of Contemporary Nigerian Art” in USO: Journal of Art, National Gallery of Art, Lagos, pp. 33 – 44.
Filani, E.O. 2001: “Trends in Contemporary Yoruba Art: A Delineation by History and Styles” in A Discursive Bazaar : Writing on African art, culture and literature Ikwuemesi, K. C. and Adewumi, A.Eds.. PACA, Enugu Pp.127-140
Filani, E.O. 2003: “Zaria Art Society and the Imperative of Historical Articulation” in Triumph of a Vision: an Anthology on Uche Okeke and Modern Art in Nigeria, Ikwuemesi, K. C. Ed.Pp.133-143
Ikwuemesi, K.C. 2000: “Preface” in Crossroads: Africa in the Twilight, Aniakor,C.C and Ikwuemesi K.C. Eds., National Gallery of Art, Nigeria. p. v
Oloidi, Ola 1996: “Art Criticism in Nigeria, 1920-1996: the Development of Professionalism in the Media and the Academy”, in Art Criticism in Africa, Deepwell Katy Ed. P.p. 41-47
Osa Egonwa 2001: “The Evolution of the Concept of Natural Synthesis” in Uso-Nigeria Journal of Art Vol. 3 1 & 2 pp 52-60 as cited by Ademuleya, B.A. 2003: in “Synthesis: Between Onabolu, Enwonwu and the Zarianists” in Triumph of a Vision: an Anthology on Uche Okeke and Modern Art in Nigeria, Ikwuemesi, K. C. Ed. Pp. 145-153

Friday, 24 July 2009

Contemporary Visual Art from Ghana

Here is an article written by one of the most imaginative, talented artists; originally from Ghana, George Afedzi Hughes.

Contemporary Visual Art from Ghana
by George Afedzi Hughes
Image by George Afedzi Hughes

An Overview

Museums and galleries all over the world regard traditional African art of high aesthetic value. A reputation ignited by the overwhelming influence African art had on modernist European artists at the beginning of the twentieth century. This impact and positive status of traditional African art has over decades resulted in laudable exhibitions, acquisition and documentation of such antiques. Nevertheless, not much favourable interest and documentation is offered most contemporary art of Africa. It is being criticized for being universal and failing to meet the stereotypical African art tradition. This is also the case for contemporary art in Ghana.

Contemporary Art in Ghana

The idea of grouping Ghanaian artists is an anomaly because of its complexity. The artistic climate of Ghana is made up of a variety of styles. This stylistic pluralism may be due to several factors and influences such as ethnicity, religion, education, westernization, globalization and aesthetic preferences of the individual artist under consideration. The complex social structure of the Ghanaian society is due in part to the fact that there are about 79 languages spoken in a country whose population is about 19 million in the year 2000. The Ghanaian cultural melting pot is compounded by the fact that several religions are being practiced. It is within this social fabric that most Ghanaian artists coexist and evolve their aesthetic ideas.

Stylistic groupings create problems such as marginalization, especially when such divisions reference the hierarchy of what is, and what is not art - a barrier that pushes some artists to the periphery and favors a few others.

The intent, purpose and dynamics of ongoing African art has changed to become much more eclectic because of the continent`s experience with proselytism, slavery, and colonialism. Art of any historic era is a direct reflection of the circumstantial ambience past and present within that very setting. Culture is dynamic and susceptible to influence and change. Current art created in Africa is a fabric of the cosmopolitan melting pot, a protean of its past, a reality of its present and a determinant of its future. To this effect, therefore contemporary Ghanaian visual art is a direct offspring of the poly-traumatic African chronicle.

From a general perspective, one may be tempted to categorize Ghanaian visual artists into groups due to which generation they belong to, or the stylistic similarities and differences, within their work. I am much more interested in looking at the Ghanaian art scene from a panoramic viewpoint of the various artistic modes of expression. I am also compelled to concentrate only on those fine artists who have gone beyond formative years, attained a personal stylistic consistency, allowed progressive experimentation, and have been working. This is by no means a complete representation of all the Professional visual artists working in Ghana today.

General Characteristics

Contemporary Ghanaian visual artists are usually unaffiliated to any artistic movements. They are open to a tremendous exploration of indigenous and universal ideas, formal or informal, and are poised to exhibit their works to both local and international audience. In addition some of these independent fine artists create work that shows evidence of experimentation, of research, and an openness that seeks to break the barriers of cultural stagnation through the combination of emotional and intellectual acuity. Ghanaian artists receive art training from varied sources. Some are self-taught and the majority of them receive formal training in Ghana and abroad. They either receive tertiary education at the College of Art, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, training from private institutions such as Ghanatta or Ankle School of Art, both located in Accra apprenticeship from private sign writing workshops, or are self-taught. There are evidently aesthetic differences in the works of artists who receive training at academic institutions and those who go through apprenticeship at sign writing workshops. These differences are not necessarily qualitative but rather stylistic alternatives made by the artists as a result of the opportunities and circumstances they encounter, a conclusion that may displease two schools of thought - firstly, those who believe that College education absolutely yields art of the highest caliber, and secondly those who deride formal training as adulteration and derivative of Western ideas, hence inauthentic. I am compelled to state that artists whose works are often described derogatory as naïve, folk, derivative, grotesque, universal, or academic, and therefore inauthentic may actually be making tremendous inroads and breaking the barriers of the status quo beyond reason, and tradition. After all what do artists need, but an irresistible amount of tenacity beyond hurdles. Influence, either conscious or subliminal is a powerful experience that grips thirsty minds. The concept of borrowing aesthetic ideas from other cultures has been instrumental in the development of art in various societies. Roman artists borrowed ideas from Greek art. European cubists` fascination with and adaptation of the treatment of form in traditional African sculpture is credible and commendable. It is with the same curiosity and empathy that some contemporary Ghanaian visual artists embrace African and Western art forms.

Symbolism and Tradition

A distinguishable group of Ghanaian independent artists are those who are conceptually inspired by African symbols and traditional forms such as adinkra motifs, traditional stools, sculptures, and also ideas about African identity. Oku Ampofo and Vincent Kofi are earlier Ghanaian sculptors who borrowed extensively from traditional African concepts of stylization, emphasis, distortion and symbolism. Public commissions of relief panel murals and busts and monuments of Saka Acquaye, resonate the traditional African practice of the artist`s duty to State. Owusu Ankomah uses in his prints and paintings colossal male figures superimposed on ideograms and symbols. Through an acute reductive system of visual selection Ankomah attains profundity with suspended shapes that defy gravity and attain a metaphysical significance. Martin Dartey, greatly influenced by traditional African art, uses his knowledge in African history as leverage to deliver sociopolitical themes in his paintings.


Artists under this group create work by perceiving and interpreting forms, structures and activities within their immediate environment. The human figure, groups and crowd scenes become the central themes with the figurative artists. Generally the figures, draped in traditional costumes, are in action and either idealized, stylized and/or abstracted. These artists do work that celebrates the everyday realities of Ghanaians such as scenes at the congested open markets, crowded beaches, dancers, musicians, horse riders, lorry stations, bustling beaches and all the paraphernalia that comes with crowd scenes. The pioneer of figuration in Ghana who worked before and around the 1950s and 60s was the late Kofi Antobam. Antobam`s work features natural proportions of humans in complex compositions with content set on royalty, and scenes from the everyday lives of Ghanaians. Since independence forty-five years ago, great transformations in the Art of Ghana have taken place. Several artists have developed alongside one another, with mutual, overlapping influence and juxtaposed parallelisms. Veteran artists within the figurative group are sculptors like Oku Ampofo, Saka Acquaye, Vincent Kofi. and painters like Ablade Glover, Ato Delaquis and Amon Kotei. Color orchestration appears in the work of Amon Kotei through the use of the female model going through her daily chores. Whereas Ablade Glover`s impasto surfaces metaphorically exhume the elegance within the female form, Ato Delaquis creates detailed, color-modulated panoramic scenes of Ashanti warriors and vehicular scenes. Abstracted and condensed color fields act as a delicate veil in Wiz Kudowor`s pointillist figuration of idealized forms. Robert Aryeetey uses subtle colors and creative lines to evoke figures poetically. Evidently there is the rarity of politically fuelled work being done in Ghana. However Kofi Setordji defies the clichés within the everyday festive subject matter and engages the viewer with his succinct socio-politically charged themes. In addition Godfried Donkor`s bold and graphic references to Slavery, the Diaspora, and the plight of minorities encroaches on an avoided content. Donkor is based in London and works in digital and painting media.


The transcendental artists create work that eludes direct representation because these works are symbolically encased within intangible percepts and constructs. In other words what you see on the surface is color and form yet underneath is immense meaning that can only be hinted at either by the title or in dialogue with the artist. The transcendental artists distance their selves from direct communication of meaning and rely deeply on the subliminal, masking and camouflage. In essence the quality of their work is gold foiled in dust. An exponent of this group of Ghanaian artists is Atta Kwami who through his paintings and installations makes intellectual references to familiar Ghanaian local structures such as kiosks, stalls, and suburbs. Kwami creates the transformation of the familiar and often ignored subject matter into an elevated aesthetic, through concise color and shapes. Nanart J.D. Agyeman interprets Ghanaian proverbs in detailed and colorful linear shapes at once mystical and visually organic.

Vocational Designers

In the last two decades some creative Vocational designers such as carpenters, seamstresses, tailors, and hairdressers have attracted the attention of Western historians. A notable achiever within this group of designers is Samuel Kane Kwei and his custom- made coffins that replicate in sculpture recognizable forms such as cars and boats. Caroline Monda Dartey, wife of the Painter Martin Dartey designs African beads and bags from an intellectual perspective. Hopefully her example will inspire female artists in Ghana to pursue professional careers in art.

This recognition of Ghanaian artisans and designers as fine artists has widened the parameters of what is art, and poses the question - who determines the fine art of a people, and upon what qualitative criteria is the measure of fine art based upon? The most crucial question to pose however at this juncture is whether the functional intent of the designers disqualifies them as fine artists? It is however reasonable to state that if most fine artists, who create art for its intrinsic value are seeking recognition in the mainstream, so too some may argue designers would not disallow the respect of galleries, and museums, should the opportunity arise. If the idea of art as a universal language still holds, then it is not harmful to allow all art to be tested and to undergo study and scrutiny, within relative knowledge, empathy and expertise of connoisseurs without recourse to suspicion. The above may seem almost impossible because of the magnitude of art produced by humans all over the world. The closest one can get to this ideal of an open exposure will still require a clear distinction of quality in terms of differences between excellence and mediocrity, between formative and mature and between kitsch and the classic.

Works of art emerge from diverse sources with varied intent and therefore it is wiser to keep an open mind, slow to judgement. If art can thrive on convergent and divergent ideas, of influence and tradition, of the rejection of conventions, and by borrowing from unprecedented sources across board, then the idea of a pure art devoid of influence does not exist and cannot be used as a measure to qualify the authentic in art. Thanks to primitivism, postmodernism, modernism, tradition and academism. Above all thanks to the freedom of expression. This is not a blind wholesale concert that allows every piper to horn along. Rather it is an epiphany of reality that within various times and settings there happens to be multiple alternatives and applications of various qualities of Art. Within these diverse settings is the bitter hierarchy of what is acceptable and unacceptable, a phenomena instituted by those in authority, by society, by institutions, by trends, factions, artists and finally by posterity. In the end Art is the victor.


George Afedzi Hughes is a painter and a poet. He was born in Ghana and works and lives in the U.S. Hughes has taught at Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo. He has worked an assistant professor at the Art Faculty of the University of Oklahoma and presently is the assistant professor at NYC University in Buffalo, NY. An active exhibitor, Hughes regularly shows his work in England, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Ghana. His paintings are mostly executed in mixed media: acrylics, oils, spray paint, polyurethane enamels, fabric paint, oil pastels and found objects.

Peterson Kimwathi and David Kaiza

East Africa, especially Kenya and Kenyans have waited a long time to find a combination as tangible as Peterson Kimwathi and David Kaiza. Finally they have found their writer/artist duo, similar to Oscar Wilde and J.M. Whistler, Eric Newton and Henry Moore, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

Kenya is a nation more familiar with literature than art but the work produced by Peterson speaks volumes. With holes in newspapers encouraging ideas of the media and institutional deceit or seen as forms of masks or white hoods worn by the infamous Klu Klux Klan; all these ideas builds the blatant picture of betrayal. It would be fair to say these artworks are on similar lines to sketches drawn by Francisco Goya in the early 19th Century, 'Disparate quieto', later to develop into the Black Painting of 1819-1823 or ‘The Inevitable’ by Ibrahim El Salahi as within these eight pieces of work, which were created over a 16 month period, rests the weight of a entire Nation. Similar to these Masterpieces Peterson has effectively created monochrome pictures as if printed in a newspaper and in his own personal way attempts to express the truth in black and white, devoid of colour to emphasis the magnitude of the issues he is trying to tackle. The bravery is for all to see, the artist has named and shamed his fellow Kenyans and in doing so shows the rest of the world the function and importance of art.

Here is a slideshow as a record and testimony for history.


Kamwathi’s Charcoal Statement On State Failure

By David Kaiza/

When he was doing research for his subject, Peterson Kamwathi wanted to see what the now notorious Form 16A looked like and he went to the Electoral Commission of Kenya. There, he asked them to show him the forms on which polling results are collated – on the face of it, an innocent enough request.

“When I went for the Form they told me to write to the Chairman of the Commission,” Kamwathi says. “I thought, how do I do this?” It did not take him too long to read the bureaucratic-speak, where “write to…” is jargon interprets as ‘sorry we can’t help you’. “Apparently, it might be a confidential document.”

Peterson Kamwathi started experimenting on the Sitting Allowance collection early 2008. At the time he chose the walls of the GoDown Arts centre exhibition hall as his canvas. Kamwathi was more irritated than surprised. The ECK was after all, the epicenter of the post election violence that convulsed the nation when the figures it had jotted down on those forms were disputed. To an organisation managing an image problem on the scale of the ECK’s, even a request from a fine artist was tantamount to a criminal inquiry. For all it was worth, his failed attempt to get a copy of the form merely added to the weight of the series of the art he was then creating. Bureaucratic imperviousness and the resultant disaster thereof, is after all, the central theme of his current show.

Showing now at the Nairobi Goethe Institut, Kamwathi’s report on the violence, titled Sitting Allowance, is startling: Monochromatic and large, the eight pieces startle by their originality as much as by their rhetorical pull. Done entirely in charcoal, Kamwathi’s show calls attention to itself. By choosing to present it in absolute black, Kamwathi may have felt that what he had to say was so important that if he did not make this loud statement, that his voice might have been ignored. In keeping with the by-now recognizable structuring of the narrative about the violence, hyper-reaction is not an indictment that can be laid solely at Kamwathi’s feet. Since June 2008, Nairobi artists and writers have sharpened their knives and applied it brutally on the surface of their material. Betty Muragori’s poetry, dramatized by StoryMoja, reacted to ethnic hatred with the violent title Cut off my Tongue. The moving photo exhibition, Kenya Burning, breaks a few photographical ethics by showing pictures that frequently but understandably, appeal to morbid curiosity. Kwani? is publishing a two-part magazine focusing exclusively on the violence. In the field of visual art, Kamwathi’s show is doubtless the most impressive so far. It is also, the most subtle, which is probably what makes it worthwhile.

His collection of eight pieces strikes you the moment you enter the gallery by the sheer blackness of their surfaces and by the rather uplifting repetitiveness of the same elements, the legs, the eyes and the grimly menacing faces that surround you as if you the viewer, were on show. He has focused on institutions that were involved in the elections – religion, the police, the media, politics, the ECK, election observers, elected politicians and the mediators that came later to quell the flames once the explosion happened.

It is at first intriguing when you have just walked in. It looks like a collection of group portraits. Then it also looks like a parade, for these staid postures are what you usually encounter on national days when the press is out, the police standing ominously on the sidelines, the professionals and students come out marching. But there is something extra here, for these figures have been brought up for more than simple inspection. After you have walked around, you cannot avoid noticing the deeply satirical treatment they receive. But it is difficult satire, for Kamwathi has never spoken to a simple audience, his large works, his direct messages are delivered without drama, so close to the humdrum surface of the everyday that you might miss the point. He does not do the sensational and the trite.

The portrait of religious leaders out in their garb of office, the police with their shields (written on “police” just so you may notice), the be-suited African leaders, the election observers, presidential candidates and electoral commission officials, simply stand there; everything about them seems ordinary enough, their suits correct and their poses officious. But you start to notice details. You see the manner in which the hands hang down by their sides, the height at which their jackets are set and the looks on their faces. You go back to seeing these pieces a second time and begin to notice moral depravity hinted at in their aspects. Is that naive innocence you see on the religious leaders, what of the relaxed postures of the police – is that intended as irony? What is most damaging satire is the manner in which the presidential candidates, desperately trying to look good in one of the pictures are instantly transformed into the classical long-reigning African leader; their dead faces, their impossible lifelessness, their inaccessibility and pasteboard faces. Seeing and capturing the Eyassingbes and Omar Bongos of African statesmanship is quite a coup for Kamwathi. Why are the mediators who came to save the situation, dressed up as doctors and what are the masks they wear for? More directly satirical is the treatment of ECK officials who hold up tallying forms – Kamwathi’s idea of what the mysterious Form 16A might look like. He brings them out as cowards – dangerous cowards hiding behind officialdom.

The minimalist exposition by the Goethe Institut works to focus like a magnifying glass on the singularity of the medium. The artist’s usage of charcoal carries too this magnification for the charcoal is given liberty to become itself; its absolute blackness, its light and attention absorbing intensity letting us experience at one level, the charisma of this elemental colour.

The simplicity is triumphant restraint. Often, abstraction and colour can hide imperfections or serve, by sheer talkativeness, to make us think there is something very significant going on in there which we might see if we scratched our heads hard enough. Hence, setting out to do something in such singularly is a technical risk; unless you are capable of mastering immense discipline, making a simple statement can be – paradoxically - very difficult. The sheer number of legs, heads, arms and eyes Kamwathi summons up on this parade make the simplicity work well; so much of the same thing, surrounding you and by sheer, nearly, numbing repetitiveness, wangles out its own austere aesthetic.

“Charcoal is easy and difficult,” Kamwathi explains. “Colour is forgiving. There is no responsibility with colour. Charcoal has very little Resistance; it’s almost like a dance, almost like clay. But there is no solvent once you make a mistake.”

It is also wasteful, as Kamwathi explains. The charcoal that holds onto paper is only one-third of what you apply to paper. He wanted to realise these images in life-size but could not find paper large enough. “It depends on what the issues you are addressing are. One way you can engage with the audience is through content, another is scale. I wanted to make it so huge that people notice it. There is a lot in there, there is historical manipulation, exploitation and colonialism going back beyond 2008, 2007, 2002 or 1992.”

The charcoal makes the issues graver. “If I had used colour, 90% of what I had intended would have been lost,” he says.

He mixes image with text, although the actual press release he reproduces, which prematurely declared the December 2007 elections a success, are a task to read.
The pictures are not on sale. As he explains, all eight pieces are a complete narrative and whoever is buying them, would have to take all of them, with the caveat that they make it available to the artist on request. Word going around is that a British collection is bidding for them, but Kamwathi won’t say who it is.
From Nairobi, they will be traveling to Germany. He spent 16 months doing this and 16 months with a dark chapter of one’s country is draining “There were points when it was very bad,” he explains. “I was in despair most of the time. The worst was the atrocities – so much had gone on and realising that those atrocities were backed by institutions so far removed from reality.”

Source: African Colours |

Cultural Renaissance | Algeria

Algiers festival to mark African "cultural renaissance"

The upcoming Pan-African Festival is being fêted as a major event marking Africa’s return to the international cultural stage. For the first time in forty years, African nations will join together to celebrate the continent's artistic revival.
By Mouna Sadek for Magharebia in Algiers – 19/04/09

[Getty Images] Algerian Minister of Culture Khalida Toumi announces PanAf 2009.

African artists will showcase the diversity and creative heritage of their continent at the second Pan-African Festival, which will be held in Algiers from July 5th-20th under the theme "African Renaissance". For two weeks, the stirring rhythms of Africa will pulsate across Algeria.

"Forty years after the famous PanAf of 1969, Algeria will once again celebrate Africa’s cultural renaissance. Algeria is back! And so is Africa!" Algerian Culture Minister Khalida Toumi proclaimed at an Algiers press conference held last month to detail plans for the historic celebration.

Forty-four of the fifty-three member states of the African Union have already confirmed their participation in the festival. Absentees include Morocco, which is not a member of the AU. Other countries invited to attend PanAf 2009 include those with African Diaspora communities, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, and the United States.

"We expect to receive around 8,000 artists, intellectuals, delegates, journalists, and official guests," Toumi said.

Minister for African and Maghreb Affairs Abdelkader Messahel said he hoped PanAf 2009 would be a "starting-point for the revival of African cultural activity", one that would be based on "dynamic cooperation with partners from developed countries".

Panaf 2009 will showcase the richness, beauty, and emotion that characterise the continent and focus on African creativity and genius in drama, music, dance, film, literature, cartoons, visual arts, and traditional crafts.

The programme includes exhibitions of contemporary African art, design, photography, fashion design, architecture, and the Sahara. A dozen or so symposia and conferences will touch on subjects ranging from colonialism in Africa, the origins of the human race and zaouia tidjania to theatre and financing film productions in Africa.

African literature will be in the spotlight, with an international youth literature forum and a writer-in-residence programme in Algiers for African authors and publishers. New editions of more than 200 major African works will also be issued to coincide with the event.

An African film festival will screen recent productions, including a Liamine Merbah documentary portraying Algeria as a haven for African liberation movements. Major African directors, including Algerians Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina and Rachid Bouchareb, will contribute five-minute films to a unique montage addressing African development.
Drama will also be a part of the festival. Some 27 theatre performances are planned, 14 of them Algerian. Staging the festival, however, will be an expensive operation. While Algeria is spending 55 million euros on the event, officials say this sum falls short of what is required.

"We need another 5.5 million euros," Khalida Toumi said. "We’ll do everything we can to get hold of it. We’re in touch with sponsors and will publish the list of all partners once the contracts have been finalised. Africa is a continent of the future. Many large companies are interested in taking a high profile here." Most of the money will be spent on building an artists' residence in Zeralda (west of Algiers) with a capacity of 2,500 beds. The Village des Artistes, designed on the model of the Olympic villages, will feature 24 buildings.

The ultimate goal of all the extraordinary preparations, festival communications officer Zouaoui Benhamadi said in an interview with Egyptian radio station Sawt El-Arab, is for PanAf 2009 to cement "a cultural, economic, political, and social union of all African countries".

"It should become an institution," he added.

This content was commissioned for

The African View of Art and Some Problems Facing the African Artist

I would like to yet again return to essays and texts written over 40 years ago by the writers such as Ben Enwonwu and Okwui Enwezor. The articles written in the 1960's seem to have as much relevance today as they did years ago pressing the constant question, why does African art seem to be asking the same questioning and posing the same problems over half a century of contemporary artistic development?

1968 - First Printed in Paris

Paris: Editions Presence Africaine


Author Ben Enwonwu

The role of Art in Negro-African society is an important one for all who are concerned with the advancement of African Culture, African Thought and The African Personality. It should also concern the present generation of Africans whether they are interested in Art for art`s sake or not. In fact, no emergent African State today, can afford to ignore the urgent role of Art as we march towards renaissance. The Art of Africa is no longer looked upon as fetish, as it had been during the early days of European exploration of the Continent. It is no longer treated with the patronising attitude that was the case when the first missionaries, anthropologists, and travellers collected old pieces of objets d`art and mixed them up with what was genuine nor does African Art only enjoy the reputation of its influence as a result of its historic impact upon modern art. The terms African Negro Art, African Traditional Art, Primitive Art, Tribal Art, and all such aesthetic cliches which have become the currency of aesthetic evaluation of works of African Art must now be reconsidered in the light of the present African view. These cliches, together with the influences they exert on the critical mind, should now be regarded as part and parcel of the evangelical, educational, social, economic, and even the political chapters of the Colonial past. Art in present day Africa is seeking a new role, and this role that must be given to it by Africans themselves, will determine the form that it should take as the mirror of the aspirations of Independent African peoples.

Art is not static. Like Culture, Art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back, to expect that the art form of Africa today, must resemble that of yesterday otherwise, the former will not reflect the African Image. African Art has always even long before western influence, continued to evolve through change and adaptation to new circumstances. And in like manner, the African view of Art has followed the trends of cultural change up to the modern times. But it now appears that the young African painter and sculptor distorts his work deliberately so as to achieve Africaness, or else, that if he does not do so, his work will be imitative of European art. The craftsman-cum-artist on the other hand struggles between reality only with what he possesses of the old technique. This situation represents the psychological effects of Colonialism. It has no African Directive.

In the passing African social context, the African view of his Art was a view which was identified with other aspects of the African life. It was not an objective or an analytical view of Art. The realities of life were expressed in the symbolic structure of the work of art, Image, being the link. Artistic view did not spring from Art itself but from the totality of religio-social significance of the art functioning in the group-mind. For this reason, the African view of Art was an inner knowledge, and a spiritual participation rather than a result of a critical or analytical attitude. One is inter-related with Art, while the other is detached from it. A Western art critic writes of Art, of which he may not be a participant in the creative process of representational Image but the African is an observer as well as a participant or even the creator of his Image for the group. What we accept as Art in the western sense is not the same as what Art is in the African sense.

As a result of Western contact, those most keen as well as most influenced by the works of African Art adapted their own view and centred it mainly on the features of African traditional sculpture particularly, the images of ancestral gods, and went on to press and exploit the Image-Form which has become an enviable revitalising primitiveness sought after by the highly developed civilisations.

It seems absurd that present-day African painters and sculptors should support and sustain this psycho- logy of the Western view by imitating an attitude derived from the influence of African art works upon the Western aesthetic tradition.

Many books have been written about the type-form of African Art as acceptable to the West. Although this view has the highest respect for African Sculpture it is also in itself the central focus of Western aesthetics of African Art and, furthermore, has remained unchallenged in spite of the rapid developments in Africa today. In the most part, such books together with articles, journals, magazines and illustrations, have followed more or less the trend of thought engendered through the memoirs and the reports by some explorers, travellers, and missionaries, in thus stabilising an aesthetic cannon for Art in Africa which is alien to the realities of African Culture. Except for the more erudite and scholarly writings of such men as Leo Frobenius and some protest African writers of today, it might have been very difficult to challenge even the writings by such men as Levi Bruhl who treated the subject of the African Mind as though it was a strange question of homo sapiens. While others like Burton carried the colonialist theory that never the twain shall meet much too far. The rest were blind to the unique differences that do exist. I believe in the difference between Black and White, but it should be complimentary and not opposed to each other.

No books to my knowledge have appeared on great issues about the Art of Africa by Africans. The reason may be due to the problem of thought translation of such an abstract subject as Art, from one language to another. Or else, that the question of writing on the subject of African Art by Africans is a subject of writing about Creative Imagery. African Art is so identified with socio- religious concept that it spontaneously exercises the fullest measure of its viewpoint through recreative activities. Even story telling in a family group was socio-educational. It was handed down orally rather than written. But until the necessity for the African to write fully about his Art made itself felt, it would amount to forcing an analytical approach in a cultural milieu that does not require it. But to speak about the Art of Africa today automatically means The Traditional The Ancient The Tribal and The Primitive as characterized by the Western view of African Art. This must not be the African view today.

The first time that we Africans received the word ART as applied to the Creative Imagery of our Ancestors, was at the beginning of European colonisation of the African Continent. Through the teaching of the English language by the British, the word ART was adopted, as were indeed many thousands of other English words, by use of the language. The word ART has its limitations when defined, to mean the same sense as for instance, the Ibo word NKA. Art is defined in the English Dictionary as human skill as opposed to nature skilful execution of an object in itself skill applied to imitation and design as in painting etc. thing in which skill may be exercised certain branches of learning serving as intellectual instruments for more advanced studies as Bachelor, Master of Arts, one who has obtained a standard of proficiency in these black magic practical application of any sciences industrial pursuit, craft, guild company of craftsmen Fine - s. those in which the mind and imagination are chiefly concerned knack cunning stratagem. Art so defined, provides divergent meanings none of which is the same thing as the world NKA.

NKA may be understood to mean making of which doing the making of doing of a particular kind the object of which is specifically artistic and making is personified i.e., the professional of NKA and so particularised the object of NKA is specific, and so does not refer to any other kind of making, or doing it is strictly art, only by professional competence again. NKA bears a traditional significance as an art handed down from generation to generation - thus it is inheritable of family or even village groups such as in the known case of Benin NKA does not mean human skill as opposed to nature, but does imply identification with the nature of doing, or of Image. Art is subjective and therefore infinite. NKA is an objectification of Image more through the senses than through cunning of hand. Such definitions of Art as the art of running, swimming, black magic, of photography, stratagem, or as the art of doing anything do not refer to NKA.

The prefix OME further explains the identification of a second person i.e., OME-NKA – he is the maker of Nka. Both the maker of, and the art of what is being made. NKA, strictly speaking, has traditional and religious associations. Thus the field of so-called African Art is really the realm of the Ancestral world of Images so confined as it were to creativity in a spiritual sense. In terms of reference then, African Art is not really Art in the Western context, but an invocation of ancestral spirits through giving concrete form or body to them before they can enter into the human world. An illustration of this idea can be summarised in a short story, but which may be taken from the end of it. Juwa took away the spiritual body of his dead father with which the father performs the traditional act of transforming his spiritual body into the human body and vice versa. When his father returned on his way to go back to the spiritual world in which he dwelt, he could not find his spiritual body. Then he sang a song - Juwa Juwa Oh, Nyem Ofo Mo, Ofo`n ji eje Uwa, Onye eji mia elu Mmuo, Uwa dede! - his father calling Juwa, to give him his spiritual body, the body with which he comes into the human world because he who has not got it, cannot return, to the spiritual world.

The word ART is therefore only a classic term. When we Africans speak of Art, therefore, we are thinking of its manifestations from the Western view. We are not thinking of NKA, and what it includes. NKA, which is an Ibo word, satisfies the African meaning and the purpose of ART.

The problem of translating the term ART into a neo-African concept is primarily a linguistic one. So that some research and study are necessary into the diverse African languages and dialects to collect from every region or tribe the words that can mean the same thing as NKA with the prefix, OME. Depending of course on the tribal groupings, and the possibility of unification, we can begin to translate Art into an African term as signifying more, or less the same thing. Since those of us who have come under British rule have become accustomed to the use of the word ART, so have those of us who have come under France, Belgium, Germany and other European countries, become accustomed to their equivalent term for Art. So, at least, we can begin by laying the foundation upon common regional linguistic translations. However, this is mainly a problem for the students in languages to tackle first.

It is necessary therefore that the creative art of Africa today, should be practised with well defined means and aims so as to reflect, not the spurious effects of the very vital qualities of the old vision and cunning of hand of our OME-NKA but the trends of African changing situations as a result of our assimilation of Western culture. This means that more than a synthesis of old and new is to be achieved if a new concept is to follow.

It is to be regretted that the African painter and sculptor today are not facing the realities of the African situation in their artistic expressions. While they must derive inspiration from the old art or NKA, they must also make use of the inner knowledge so as to arrive at the meeting point between inspiration and ideas. They should neither imitate western Art, nor copy their old Art.

The opinions expressed by European anthropologists, collectors of old African sculptures, and the critics may be valid aesthetic considerations. But the concept and philosophy of these opinions are so remote from the African concept that they can no longer serve as the aesthetic cannons or judgement of what Art is, or should or should not be, in the present African situation. Nor can much of European interpretation of African Art today be valid anymore. The colonial status imposed such authority as civic or educational, which are conditions for the existence of art in any country. The Independence of African countries should now remove such conditions even by exercising political power.

Self-appointed art critics whether they are Europeans or Africans by either political or civic authority can influence the trend of artistic change in African countries. Their opinions matter, and can encourage or discourage artistic output, and even artistic thought, that may depend for its growth upon Government generosity. The press serves as a medium of publicising the works of the present-day African painter and sculptor as oppose to the communal use of the masks and figures of ancestors in the dance and the shrines of the old society. This borrowing of Western media of publicity can be highly effective as a means of communicating as well as disseminating artistic thought and appreciation of the functions of art in contemporary African society, but at the same time, it can, and has been misused to play politics Art. Where artistic opinions are fallacious or prejudiced, this medium of the press can only do great harm. Dennis Duerden, an English art critic of African modern art, who was once Art Master in Norther Nigeria, writes a great deal about the current trends of aesthetic manifestations in the art works of Africa today. In the Times Literary Supplement of September 13th. 1965, Mr. Duerden described Art in Africa Today as Art That Does Not Conform. He did not explain further as to what the art does not conform with. Mr. Duerden writes from London without keeping in close touch with the rapid social, economic, educational, and even religious changes that have been taking place in the African countries since he left Nigeria. Valid artistic criticisms must be based on philosophical ideas. For this to be feasible, speculative methods of approach must precede what contentions an art critic may hold, upon the appearance of works of any kind in Art since the appearance of art works must serve as what the eve can see, the perception of which depends on many social, economic and other cultural forces. The critic must know the mind of the artist whose works he writes about. If we should take such art critics as Mr. Duerden to task, we would first be reminded of Levi Bruhl`s contention, when he wrote that the Mind of the Primitive -- meaning the African Mind -- was incapable of logic. That it was pre-logical, meaning that the African mind works in a different orbit from that of the European by arriving at conclusions illogically. Research in the science of biological evolution has since proved that, the races of mankind are basically the same. The African Philosophy of Negritude, with due deference to President Senghor and Aimé Césaire, has defined the kind of knowledge that characterized the African spirit and mind. It is a capacity to identify self with object which has advantage in the -- preservation of the mystique, or the vital force in the creative exercise of Art -- especially in NKA. This has nothing to do with Mind in so far as the human mind is free to exercise action by receiving and giving its attributes in the process of analysis of matter and objects, or of identification with these. The integration of many aspects of the African life made co- existence of mind and matter possible, in the preservation of the vital force of the inner mind or the Inner Klang. That does not mean that the human mind, of any particular race of man is so characterized to be capable of doing only one kind of exercise on matter, but incapable of extending into other things outside its orbit. Analysis of matter depends on objectivity or a detached outlook, and time is one of the means of effecting change, in the human outlook whether in the early stages of the human existence or now. Once the human mind is involved in emotional problems of expression, whether in sorrow, grief, or joy, the reaction is spontaneous. Spontaneity carries with it the spiritual force with which man is endowed by the divine power. Change can only affect the human mind, and at all times, whenever objectivity is a necessity for self-preservation, the preservation of history, of Art, or of any matter as a result of the manifestation of the human Mind on things of the outer world.

The identification of persons with inanimate objects particularly in the creative exercise of Art or NKA gives to the art works the mystique and vital force otherwise known as Magic. Such great African scholars as President Senghor have explored the subject of African Negro Inspiration, Religion, and Ontology that this subject must be left to particular fields of studies in African Culture.

What concerns the African artist today who is facing the dual responsibility of his needs, is to find a new aesthetic creed or philosophy as a guide to his revolutionary ideas. Artistic revolutions do not occur merely by the capacity to adapt one form of art to another, but through revolutionary ideas. First, there must be a protest period, when the artists of a generation reject an aesthetic principle as a guide to their creative exercise. Then speculations and arguments. A revolution must be an intellectual rather than a practical solution. The well sought after synthesis between the old and the new, between the indigenous and the effects of western civilization in African Art today must depend for its realisation, not upon imitating works of any kind that come to the mind of the artist, but through discussions of ideas. In this way, a new school which will allow for individualism can emerge. At the present stage of change in African Art, it is a common experience to find that all so-called progressive African artists are expressing, not a concept of the African advancement and situation, but a concept of the European school of thought which resulted from ideas as well as the influence derived from the old African works of art. Practically every progressive African artist today has a tendency towards abstractionism. And this looks more like modern European expression both in ideas and technique. It is not African.

African art of today does not have to conform to non-representation in order to maintain the name African. It should, in fact, become a startling realism since the problems of the African locale today are realistic and are faced from the most logical and realistic manner. Political meetings in African countries reflect the state of the African mind. They show a balance of thought and a maturity that are typical of an old people. When African countries are described as young, it can only mean in the sense that science and technology have just begun to find their way into the schemes for rehabilitation and advancement along modern lines. This does not mean that what had existed in Africa had not reached stages of advanced sophistication it would also be wrong to condemn African aristocracy because it does not resemble that of Europe. Alien concepts must be sorted out and analysed before they can be acceptable in our new societies. The African must find a solution to the economic problems facing his present- day art, for that has a tremendous influence on the process of change. If art is not used, it cannot go on. The educated or the intellectual African today must equate the financial value of art to the monetary system of the West. To say that a work of art is too expensive is not only to give a higher value to mass products of Western science, such as motor cars having more importance than Art, but also to negate the very intellectual assessment of art of which he is either convinced, or else dabbling in, so as to appear highly educated. If the comparison of money and art presents a difficult problem to the African intellectual, then his convictions are no realistic or honest. Here the importance of the economic aspect of African art today must also be considered along the civic importance of art. African Independent Governments must seek the proper place for artistic manifestations, not merely by the use of art or the teaching of it in Colleges, but by realising the connection between political Independence and Cultural Freedom. Political Freedom in Africa particularly must clothe itself with the colours of culture so as to present the true Culture of the African peoples in pagentry, buildings, and other means by which the prestige of Government makes itself felt.

Apart from the problems of the African artist today being primarily connected with artistic matters and their dependence on outside forces, which means that he must first retain some of the ideas of the old art namely, the sub-realism of Image, Rhythm and Form - African Governments must see African Art as part of the political matters which concern them. To do nothing about imitating Western or colonial pageantry inherited by the African Independent Governments is to perpetuate Colonialism. Since no African Government apes Western democratic systems, it should now be possible for them all to carve out a place of honour for the African Art of today so that it will mirror our political, social, civic, educational, religious, and cultural aspirations and in this way serve the artists of Africa with some of their greatest needs for the solution of these problems in independent African countries.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Global Capital and The War on Culture

Image: Soly Cisse | Une Vie Social

The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis

Okwui Enwezor: The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis

On April 27, 1934 Walter Benjamin delivered a lecture at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. In the lecture, The Author as Producer, Benjamin addressed an important question that, since, has not ceased to pose itself, namely to what degree does political awareness in a work of art becomes a tool for the deracination of the autonomy of the work and that of the author? Benjamin’s second point was to locate what a radical critical spirit in art could be in a time of such momentous, yet undecided direction in the political consciousness of Europe: between the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the productivist model of artistic practice it instantiated and the storms of repression unleashed by fascism and Nazism in Western Europe. In a sense, Benjamin’s lecture addressed the question of the artist’s or writer’s commitment under certain social conditions. This would lead him to ask What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time? Georg Lukács posed a similar question in his 1932 essay Tendency or Partisanship? The conditions of production of the time, was the struggle between capitalism and socialism as the driving force behind modern subjectivity.

It is my intention in this lecture to extend the questions raised by these two thinkers and apply them to the critical context of contemporary culture today. Ever more so, Benjamin and Lukács are not only relevant, but crucial to understanding a visible turn that has become increasingly evident in the field of culture at large, that is the extent to which a certain critical activism in contemporary art has become a way to pose the questions raised seventy years ago anew through collective practices. My focus is not on activism per se, but on work driven by the spirit of activism that bear direct relationship to Benjamin’s and Lukács`s essays.

To that end, recent confrontations within the field of contemporary art have precipitated an awareness that there have emerged in increasing numbers, within the last decade, new critical, artistic formations that foreground and privilege the mode of collective and collaborative production. Is this return an acknowledgment of the repressed memory of a social unconscious? Is the collectivisation of artistic production not a critique of the poverty of the language of contemporary art in the face of large-scale co modifications of culture, which have merged the identity of the artist with the corporate logo of global capitalism? These questions shadow the return of collectivity in contemporary artistic practice and in so insistent a manner, across a broad geographic area that to ignore the consequences is to miss the vital power of dissonance that is part of its appeal to the contemporary thinkers and artists who propose collectivity as a course artistic work. Of course, we need not to be reminded that there is nothing novel about collectivity in art as such. It’s been a crucial strategy of the avant-garde throughout the 20th century. Therefore, a proper understanding of collectivity today would have to be traced through its affinities with past examples. This story belongs to the history of modernism proper.

The position of the artist working within collective and collaborative processes subtend earlier manifestations of this type of activity throughout the 20th century. Collectivity performs an operation of irruption and transformation on traditional mechanisms and activities of artistic production, which locates the sole figure of the individual artist at the centre of authorship. Under the historical conditions of modernist reification, collective or collaborative practices that is the making of an artwork by multiple authors across porous disciplinary lines generate a radical critique of artistic ontology qua the artist and as such also questions the enduring legacy of the artist as an autonomous, individual within modernist art. This concerns the question of the authenticity of the work of art and its link to a specific author. However, there is a level at which the immanence of this discourse is also evidenced in the critique of the author in postmodernism. On both levels, I would argue that the anxieties that circumscribe questions concerning the authenticity of either the work of art or the supremacy of the artist as author are symptomatic of a cyclical crisis in modernity about the status of art to its social context and the artist as more than an actor within the economic sphere. This crisis has been exceptionally visible since the last decade of the twentieth century. The political climate of the current global imperium adumbrates it further.

If we look back historically collectives tend to emerge during periods of crisis in moments of social upheaval and political uncertainty within society. Such crisis often forces reappraisals of conditions of production, re-evaluation of the nature of artistic work, and reconfiguration of the position of the artist in relation to economic, social, and political institutions. There are two types of collective formations and collaborative practices that are important for this discussion. The first type can be summarized as possessing a structured modus vivendi based on permanent, fixed groupings of practitioners working over a sustained period. In such collectives, authorship represents the expression of the group rather than that of the individual artist. The second type of collectives, tend to emphasize a flexible, non-permanent course of affiliation, privileging collaboration on project basis than on a permanent alliance. This type of collective formation can be designated as networked collectives. Such networks are far more prevalent today due to radical advances in communication technologies and globalisation. However, we shall trace the emergence of the artist as producer in times of crisis by first linking up with modernism. In collective work we witness how such work complicates modernism’s idealization of the artwork as the unique object of individual creativity. In collective work we also witness the simultaneous emporia of artwork and artist. This tends to lend collective work a social rather than artistic character.

Consequently, the collective imaginary has often been understood as essentially political in orientation with minimal artistic instrumentality. In other instances shared labour collaborative practice the collective conceptualisation of artistic work have been understood as the critique of the reification of art and the co modification of the artist. Though collaborative or collective work has long been accepted as normal in the kind of artistic production that requires ensemble work such as in music, in the context of visual art under which the individual artistic talent reigns such loss of singularity of the artist is much less the norm, particularly under the operative conditions of capitalism.

© Okwui Enwezor

Touhami Ennadre | Moira and Black Light

Touhami Ennadre: Moira

by Okwui Enwezor, Lauri Firstenberg

As early as 1978, critics have compared the striking works of French photo artist Touhami Ennadre to the intensity of Van Gogh, and others have since identified affinities with Caravaggio and the poetry of Rimbaud. In the words of author Tilman Spengler, Ennadre presents images that appear and disappear at the same time. Often insistent to the point of obsession, these works imitate Creation in their own unique fashion, posing the question of how light and shadow become form and figure in a dialogue of equals. Author François Aubral coined the term black light with reference to this aspect of Ennadre`s work. Moïra features an impressive selection of Ennadre`s beautifully modeled photographs, and presents for the first time his recent Danse series, shot on the New York City club scene.

Essays by Okwui Enwezor, Lauri Firstenberg and Nancy Spector.

Hardcover, 10.5 x 13.75 in./144 pgs / 110 duotone.

Touhami Ennadre: Black Light

by Francois Aubral

This work is a monograph on Touhami Ennadre, an artist whose visionary photographic depiction of life and death has made him the focus of attention in international photographic circles. His work, especially the Hands and Parisian Suburbs series, has become increasingly popular. Works by Ennadre were included in an exhibition at New York`s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1996, and his pictures are now to be found in major collections of contemporary photography throughout the world. By intense concentration on the subjects depicted, submerged in a background of deep black, Ennadre excludes superfluous narrative elements. He insists that he is not a photographer, and the unusual methods he uses certainly resemble those of a painter more than those of a conventional photographer. His works are often deeply disturbing and have a strong impact on the viewer. They take us aside into the shadows of our civilization and draw us closer and closer to the subject of birth and death - the extremes of human experience.

Fantasy Coffins of Ghana

I wonder if the US President Obama had a coffin fitting when visiting Accra, Ghana and more importantly what would he have chosen as the Leader of the Free World?

Even Ghana's director of tourism may have to admit that Accra has its work cut out competing with other tourist destinations in Africa. Yet just outside the capital, is the suburb of Teshi and it is here that tourists are coming to look at a relatively new tradition - the fantasy coffin makers.

In pictures: Fantasy coffins

Drive slowly down the main high street in Teshi, Eastern Accra, and you would probably glance at showrooms and wonder why anyone would want to exhibit a large red fish, or an oversized hammer.

It is as if you have arrived at some strange storage area for a local drama group or even film set.

But, further into town, you will see another couple of "film set" workshops, and another, and goodness, is that really an aeroplane?

On closer inspection each of these objects turns out to be a wooden casket highly crafted and lovingly finished to transport the newly deceased on their journey to the afterlife.

Isaac Adjetey Sowah's showroom in a suburb of Accra has some of the most colourful coffins to be found anywhere.

Isaac Adjetey Sowah is the manager of the family business his grandfather started. And at only 22 he has seen it all and he has made it all. Coffins crafted as hammers, fish, cars, mobile phones, hens, roosters, leopards, lions, canoes, cocoa beans and several elephants.

It seems there is nothing Isaac's company would not consider. Mercedes and Cadillacs are very popular he tells me.

'Dignity and status'

But if the designs are fanciful, the business of death is taken very seriously indeed. And the final journey on this earth has to be marked with as much dignity and status as can be mustered.

Isaac would like his own coffin to be shaped like a carpenter's plane
Isaac and his team of carpenters work with many different types of wood in the open-air workshop.

One employee is crafting a cocoa bean, another is chiselling the fine details of a complicated pineapple design.

Many of their clients want to bury loved ones in something that reflects their trade.

Even if that means being buried in a Coca-Cola bottle.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is a new tradition. It has only been around for about 50 years.

The story goes that in the first half of last century one Ata Owoo was well-known for making magnificent chairs to transport the village chief on poles or the shoulders of minions.

When Owoo had finished one particularly elaborate creation, an eagle, a neighbouring chief wanted one too, this time in the shape of a cocoa pod. A major crop in Ghana.

However, the chief next door died before the bean was finished and so it became his coffin.

Then in 1951, the grandmother of one of Owoo's apprentices died.

She had never been in an aeroplane, so he built her one for her funeral.

And a tradition was born.

And what about Isaac's own casket. What would he have?

He had obviously worked this out a long time ago and decided he had made far too many hammers. He was going to have a carpenter's plane.

Popular designs

When I asked Isaac about his most unusual commission his eyes light up and a big grin envelopes his face.

A Bible coffin, starting at around $400, might represent a year's salary for many of Isaac's clients

"Oh," he says, "An angel, a big white angel".

Now it seems he cannot wait to craft the archangel Gabriel himself.

But for those wanting something more conventional, there is always the Bible coffin which remains a popular design.

Think of a large box in the shape of a leather bound book with the front cover on hinges, and you get the idea.

It is not the most expensive either, although starting at around $400 that could be a year's salary for many of Isaac's clients.

It became a bit of a challenge to guess how each of these coffins actually opens.

To my untrained eye, I had no idea how you would get a body into an enormous snail that would not have looked out of place on the film set of "Dr Dolittle".

Isaac gently explained that the shell came off.

And I felt even more foolish when I had to ask who it was for. A snail seller, of course.

You can buy large fat specimens any day of the week in the market.

One of the most unusual designs was for an Obstetrician whose family felt a uterus coffin would be the ideal resting place for a man who dedicated his life to child birth.

And that enormous biro?

A journalist of course. I was beginning to get the hang of this. But even in death there are often disputes. One part of the family will come along and decide that the canoe another family member ordered, just is not right for uncle Jo. He should have a much larger boat to represent a lifetime as a fisherman, despite the fact that Isaac's team has lovingly crafted an oarsman to row him to eternity. Meanwhile, Uncle Jo lingers in a mortuary for a year or so while the two sides fight it out.