Thursday, 27 October 2011

Violence, loathing, beauty, pain: How Rembrandt influenced Francis Bacon

Self Portrait by Francis Bacon 1974


He brutally mutilated the old master's self-portraits – then endlessly echoed them. but just how influenced was Francis Bacon by Rembrandt? Charles Darwent explores a new exhibition that attempts to paint a clearer picture
By Charles Darwent
Sunday, 16 October 2011
In June 1962, the American photographer Irving Penn shot a series of portraits of Francis Bacon at the latter's studio in Reece Mews, London. One (previous page) sticks particularly in the mind. It is of Bacon standing in front of a wall which he has covered, typically, with pages torn from books and magazines. Peering down over the artist's shoulder is one of these, the crumpled image of an old man. It is Rembrandt, painted by himself, in the famous Self-Portrait with Beret now at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence.
Rembrandt's 'Self-Portrait with Beret' from the Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence
Self-Portrait with Beret
Us looking at Penn looking at Bacon looking at Rembrandt. Penn's portrait is full of questions, prime among them the one of who chose its mise-en-scène. Did Bacon ask to be photographed in front of a dead Old Master, or was it Penn who saw a connection between the two men, and if so of what kind? Bacon was 52 when Penn's picture was taken, although, with his cherub cheeks and boot-polish-blacked hair, he looks 20 years younger. Rembrandt was 51 when he painted the Aix self-portrait and seems 20 years older. Like Bacon, he had lived beyond his means; unlike Bacon, his luck had run out. In 1660, the year of the self-portrait, Rembrandt had been forced to sell his house and printing press and to go to work for his son, Titus. Etched into his face is the pauper's grave that would wait for him a decade later. Did Penn see, in Bacon's sybaritic life, a similar end? Or did Bacon choose to have Rembrandt look over his right shoulder – the angel's side – as a token of admiration, or self-admiration?
Nothing in Bacon's life or art is ever easy, his take on Rembrandt least of all. What we do know is that there was a take – that Bacon, a tireless gatherer of scraps, admired Rembrandt above all other artists. Again and again in his quarter-of-a-century of interviews with the critic David Sylvester, Bacon returns to the Dutchman, worrying away at him as if picking at a scab, or at Rembrandt's scabrous paint. It is hard to believe that so deep a relationship between two such great artists had never been the subject of an exhibition – Bacon has been paired off with everyone from Van Gogh to Eadweard Muybridge – but this is the case. Which makes Irrational Marks, the opening show of the new Ordovas gallery in London, which looks at the work of two men side-by-side, both welcome and revealing. 
Maybe acts of homage are always tinged with loathing; certainly, Bacon's seems that way. Rembrandt painted or etched nearly 100 self-portraits over 40 years. Many – the Mauritshuis gallery's Self-portrait with Gorget, say – show him as young and strong, high on the hog's back. Bacon's fascination, though, is with the man laid low, stripped bare. There are half-a-dozen of his torn-out pages in this show, all of them taken from Reece Mews and bearing reproductions of Rembrandt self-portraits post-1655, when the artist was in his fifties, widowed and broke. To the violence of the Dutchman's own life, Bacon has added another: the pages are creased and spattered with paint. The housekeeping at Reece Mews was known to be slovenly, but the treatment to which the pages have been subjected seems harsh even so, less a lack of care than an outright attack. In one plate, torn from Claude Roger Marx's monograph on Rembrandt, the old man's throat has apparently been cut. His upper lip has been gouged out.
It may, of course, have been a kind of empathy. If you saw the film Love is the Devil, you'll know Bacon's taste for the lash. Pain was beauty for him; pain was truth. In a story he told, often and in several variants, Bacon's fox-hunting father had had his 14-year-old son horsewhipped when he was caught being buggered by a stable-boy. The punishment had backfired: from then on, the artist-to-be added masochism to his repertoire of happily delinquent sexuality. To enjoy Rembrandt's pain was to pay him an accolade, to enrol him in a club: not for nothing did Bacon refer to the Dutchman's clotted brushwork as a "coagulation". But, as with his father's horsewhipping, to feel Rembrandt's pain was to turn the Oedipal tables.
If there is hate in Bacon's love of Rembrandt, then it may have something to do with their differing views of age. The master of Reece Mews once disingenuously remarked to David Sylvester that he painted self-portraits, although he "loathed [his] own face", because he hadn't "got anyone else to do". By absolute contrast, Rembrandt loves his own face, not because it is his but because it is a face.
In a sense, all of the Dutch Master's self-portraits are double portraits. They depict a man who is getting older, but they also show an artist who is growing more mature. Every vicissitude that life can throw at Rembrandt – each pouch and jowl, every newly acquired line – calls for an artistic answer. There is a blessed equity to his self-depiction. It takes experience to paint an experienced face: Rembrandt had to be 51 to paint himself at 51. Old age, suffering, become cartes de visite, advertisements of his skill. The Aix self-portrait is like a fugue in which one voice is worn down by time, the other triumphant over it.
Talking to Sylvester about the Aix image, Bacon praised Rembrandt's abstraction, his capacity to make the "irrational marks" from which this show takes its title. The Aix self-portrait, he says, is "almost completely anti-illustrational". That both is and is not true – Rembrandt, like any 17th-century painter, would have viewed the lack of resemblance as a failure – but it is certainly revealing about Bacon's own view of himself. The point of a double portrait is to understand both sitters by reference to the other. This exhibition of the two men's work does just that. Where Rembrandt's images of himself are revealed as inescapably optimistic, Bacon's are endlessly pessimistic.
Only when you see him next to Rembrandt do you realise that Bacon is all about self-effacement. In one study for a self-portrait, made in 1973 (above left), Bacon's own face is eclipsed by another, the face of a watch. You sense an 11th hour: the artist, now 64, is reduced to two forms, a double-chin and the skull-like socket of an eye. There is no redemption in his self-image, none of Rembrandt's saving virtuosity: there is only age, and time ticking away. With its grey brushwork and hazy surface, the watch-portrait feels like a picture torn from a newspaper or magazine. Its monochrome palette seems to echo the brown-on-brown self-portraits of the ageing Rembrandt, at least as shown in black-and-white reproduction. The watch-portrait is Rembrandt rubbed out and then rubbed out again, faded and re-faded. It is a self-portrait of Bacon as someone else, someone he wanted to be.
Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt is at Ordovas, 25 Savile Row, London W1 (020 7287 5013,, until 16 December
Masters of the art: Two very brief lives
Francis Bacon
The second of five children, Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 to a Boer War veteran and an heiressto a Sheffield steel business. The family moved frequently between Ireland and England in Bacon's youth. Bacon's father banished him in 1926 when he discovered the 17-year-old in his mother's underwear; on a meagre allowance, he drifted between London, Berlin and Paris, where he was inspired to art by a Picasso exhibition.
In the 1930s, he made tentative forays into painting, while working as an interior decorator and furniture designer. His breakthrough came in 1944 with the triptych 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion'.
In the 1950s and 1960s Bacon became an habitué of Soho drinking and gambling dens. In 1971 his then-lover George Dyer killed himself on the eve of a retrospective in Paris. Bacon spent the rest of his life with the altogether more stable John Edwards, who was named as the sole heir to Bacon's estate on the painter's death in 1992.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in 1606, the ninth child of a prosperous miller.
Within five years of opening his studio in Leiden in 1624, Rembrandt had been discovered by the Dutch court; he soon moved to Amsterdam, married well and bought a house in a fashionable quarter.
From then, despite his success as a painter, he was plagued by personal tragedy and money problems. Only his fourth child, Titus, born in 1641, survived beyond infancy, and his wife Saskia died in 1642. Rembrandt narrowly avoided bankruptcy in his early fifties (he had to sell his house a few years later).
After an unfortunate relationship with his ailing wife's nurse, he took up with a young maid, Hendrickje, who, with Titus, assisted in the final years of his career.
Rembrandt died in 1669, outliving his son by a year and Hendrickje by six.
Mike H

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Building an African Library Online

Modern African Writers


Hello Fellow Readers,

This is an introduction to the African Library. My name is Joe Pollitt and I would like to start to put together a series of published works found on the Internet by African Writers or about the issues surrounding Africa. The main source of information will be coming through the Amazon website with a brief editorial and information about the artist and their lives. Initially, I am starting off with a list of over 800 writers from Africa and this blog would like to explore as many as possible and maybe more. What could be more exciting is the development of artists and writers who self-publish from Blurb | and create a continually developing library with artists and writers who are keen to contribute to the educational development from all corners of Africa.

All the artists will be labelled in the appropriate African countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe - there is a small tag feature at the bottom of the posts. Click if interested in a specific subject or country as they will be labels for Books on African Artists, African Design, Diaspora, Tribal Art, African Music, Modern Art, African Fashion and Photography and more....

Here are over 800 African Writers 

A.M. Issa-Salwe
Ababa Haylemelekot
Abbakar Adam Ismail

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Lu Lei | The Sky's The Limit by Joe Pollitt

(Here is something rather off subject but an article I wrote about for a Chinese gallery - OtherGallery, Beijing) 

Since the beginning of this millennium, the world has been exposed to modern China through the eyes of a select few from the media arena. Resolute to infect and dilute the potency of the artistic dragons of China, the U.S and UK art worlds have purposefully created their own brand of Eastern promise by trying to create the fetishism akin to the Saatchi version of “Oriental Sensationalism.” In dong so, they have ostensibly set about with such extraordinary determination to undermine and align Chinese artists with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and the demon, Damien Hirst. Crushing any notion of true intelligence and strongly endorsing mediocrity and celebrity over raw acumen,  they are demanding and increasingly supporting, creating and promoting mindless Pokemon sex stars whilst constantly ordering posters of Red Flags, hammers and sickles along with More, More, Mao.  Desperately fearful that the active minds of intelligence in fresh China should dare to flourish and thrive, like young bamboo. The West encourage all artists to become ‘Pop or Hip-Hop’ from the US or YBA or Banksy with ‘Gimmicks of Urban Street Chic’ from the UK.

Thankfully, there is fruit amongst the thorns in the shape of Lu Lei. Unlike his counterparts such as Zhao Bo who mass produces cartoonish Congolese-Cheri Samba-style works of political satire or the disappointing legal graffiti efforts on canvas of Zhang Dali or the non-offensive angelic and delicate designs by Qing Qing whose robes appear of hemp and spring and summer flowers from the meadows.  As an intuitive fine artist, worthy of fervent support, Lu Lei has, inevitably, chosen a different path; a unique Global vision of clarity. His is a way of seeing further than the commercial campaigns and the obvious financial gains being offered up as treacle for the few and dished out to the masses – soon those decorated as important artists of ‘Now’ will be remembered as the major players of the Chinese artistic sell-out movement of the early 21st Century.
When thinking about modern Chinese art, what springs to mind, are the interviews with the young Bruce Lee back in the 1970s; so determined was he, to be seen as progressive, whilst Hollywood had other ideas. The very hint of having Bruce Lee as the leading man in Kung Fu was unthinkable. The role was given to David Carradine; a safe, trustworthy American actor whom the US movie public could fall in love with and still be regarded as respectable. Pinewood producers felt similarly in Britain, secretly electing, as they all too frequently do, that the British audience would feel better-off and more comfortable with Chinese characters like the mischievous, Cato Fong played by Burt Kwouk, rather than the more aggressive alpha males such as Sammo Hung, Russell Wong or Robin Shou. This year, Burt was awarded an OBE for his contribution to drama, for his portrayal of the Chinese houseboy in the Pink Panther films, but this negative, albeit mildly amusing role went a long way in denigrating the Chinese people and their culture in the minds of Western onlookers. This obvious abuse of the medium of cinema should have sent alarm-bells ringing throughout the Buddhist world but the seduction of all things broadcasted and televised has been all too tantalizing yet it comes as a surprise that the Great Wall of China can so easily be tarnished.
Lu Lei’s artistic practice promises to generate a sea-change with new works being created and previous works being mounted; this vigorous, intelligent and motivating exhibition titled is earmarked to be one of the greatest showcases ever seen in Modern China. In fact, the show could potentially create a new art dynasty in contemporary Chinese Art.  The true art revolution starts with the courageous wild swans that are willing to stick their necks on-the-line by producing provocative works and those prepared to champion that provocation. For those unfamiliar with this artist, Lu Lei and his works here is an extremely succinct resume: he was born in Jiangsu Province in 1972 and graduated in sculpture at the China Fine Art College in Beijing in 1998.
Square, 2005 by Lu Lei

Cleverly, Lu Lei has added the essential ingredient of intelligence into the mix. He has been amongst one of the few artists that are managing to push forward the ambitious notion and contemporary concept of global art. In doing so, he has somehow relaxed the grout away from the bricks from the Great Wall itself, revealing a trailblazing Chinese art in the making. His works begin in 2005, with a series of black and white images of 100 empty barrels of gasoline/petrol and within a selected few barrels are loudspeakers; other barrels have concave mirrors inside; this results in the spectators being left with a mild sense of wonderment and acute confusion as to whether or not, the barrels are full or empty. There are two flags, one on either side of the installation and they are black and white respectively. In many ways the work is a living statement, a therapeutic form of self-analysis or self-hypnosis, constructively analyzing the purpose and function of being built in the first place; contemplating the ultimate nature of art as viewed from an internal perspective. The work is ironically entitled, “Square” – In the same year and along the same lines Lu Lei constructed a glass house, with five speakers on the front wall and five on the back, amounting to ten in all. A thin isolated individual with his arm raised is clearly visible and behind him is a tiny square screen playing a video, the work is entitled: “The Big Details in the Key Moment”, 2005.

The surroundings are perfect. Deep inside the guts of a gallery; a time for reflection and rational meditation without the restrictions of dictatorial obligations, family duties or curious religious hand puppets, casting shadows of doubt where there are none. Artistic memory jogging and the eyewitness is immediately transported back to 1989 to the Tiananmen Massacre and that inconceivable picture of a single man, alone in front of the world and before him four petrifying tanks. One voice or heroic action can speak for a nation and on that particular day it was the Leader, Liu Xiaobo who shocked the visual world. The works clearly defend the rights of dreamers; rejoices in those who see themselves as individuals and shows China to be a country thinking out-aloud; stepping out from the majority; away from the group and ultimately standing up; bravely independent and often alone.
Alongside the installation Lu Lei has created a series of professional sketches and proficient watercolors that illustrates he is an impressively proficient draftsman. Working out sketches on a series of white and blue mathematical graph paper, he methodically constructs and develops his idea down onto the paper in a rather clinical fashion, as if he were an architect or structural engineer.  He also created images on thick watercolor-paper and effectively uses Indian ink displaying a beguiling technique and in one painting creates a fantastic image of the man in the glasshouse being bombarded with disorderly flapping bats and in another more academic and intellectual work he starts to play with the idea of Russian artist, Vladimir Tatlin and his ‘Monument to the 3rd International’.  Tatlin’s version came at a time of immense change in the Soviet Union and the interest then, was on the mechanics of all things; the nuts and bolts of arguments and discussions. The reason being was to discover the reasonable and the rational explanation to all things; the vision of the time was on the planning and the analysis; the architectural blueprints and the pure pleasure of working out the best solution for a worthwhile society, opposed to just ignorantly enjoying the end product only to take it for granted later. In many ways these positive, ideological and altruistic thought processes echoed the modernization of Soviet Russia; and the possibility of achieving authentic social change and ambitiously and maybe naively, searching for total equality.

In Lu Lei’s deconstructed version he adds a satellite and an aerial and then redressed or reconstructs the deconstructed version by wrapping the image up and adding a hammer and sickle to epitomize that the transparency so wished for at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, had failed and drastically changed. Sadly, Tatlin’s Monument and his dream of an unambiguous world had woken up and was now dressed and fully-clothed. These works really acknowledges that Lei has superlative dexterity and is proficient in numerous aspects of Art.
The artist continues with the effective theme of working in monochrome, “Clouds”, 2006 - tackles the issues of the ideological contrasts between the socially conscious, society within China and the Capitalist, and consumer greed of the West. This is simply represented in a series of clouds connected together by thin wire, symbolic of the importance of telecommunications, in a Post Internet Asia. In 2007, Lei begins to open up, but only slightly and introduces a single color, Red. In his installation, “Elements”, Lei, focusing on the organs of the body and veins in which they are fed and kept alive. The organs are made up of resistance wire and then painted red and placed on ceramic backs, in the shape of graveyard-headstones. A year later in 2008, Lei creates what many would consider his Masterpiece  – “Moments”. The work plays with so many different elements within art – geometry, architecture, sculpture, video-work, inventive carpentry, light and shadows. A blackboard is the material of choice; a material able to create true magic.

Moments, 2008 by Lu Lei

Let us start in the middle, where the meat of the work lies. The slanted table top is attached to the blackboard and seen as an extension of the blackboard. A perversion, this unwanted bastard of a blackboard, is the creation of the original. The artist blows life into the blackboard, giving the inanimate object a life-force able to create. He has extended the possibilities of what essentially a traditional blackboard has always been expected to do. Bending the functionalities and responsibilities of a regular Chinese blackboard; the artist has the audacity to allow the board to breed, creating an imaginative blackboard without restraint. A board that was left alone one evening as nobody was watching and started to create; creating a series of abominable atrocities. This anarchic structure hypothetically, has free will. A mind of its own and the ability to create monsters at will. Forming structures that defy definition – shapes that are virtually impossible to define and when seen, even by experts, are unable to either be named, or understood. The practicalities of these disobedient shapes seem abhorrence to those that dare to visually confront. These rebellious structures are forcing all to put into question the actual reason for their very existence? Formed out of the belly of the board is a distorted tabletop, with flat surfaces and challenging perspectives housing a small square hole nearing the end; spikes underneath, like a trapped black star, unable to breathe or shine; devoid of reason. The board is unfairly divided and poking out the corner on the larger side of the board or the majority share side, is a video playing but seen more as a Cyclops looking, spying on at all those that are viewing, singularly seeing. The majority stare and the onlookers ponder on what or who is watching who or whom? Flying out from the corner of the board is a shooting black star, invisible at night but visible in the day, when the lights are turned on. The dull-black-star casts playful shadows on the white-washed-walls. Giving new life to the board and the walls and poking from the side a seemingly huge architectural tumor has been growing, forming staircases and platforms with limited floor-space and high dark walls; walls without ceilings, walls without windows, walls without doors. Only the walls, the single staircase and the limited floors space exist; as if in an Escher-style dream in a three-dimensional reality the board has created a perfect malfunction. Shadows radiate fantasy silhouettes that virtually fall to the floor. This ingenious installation entitled, ‘Moments’, is simply the artist’s greatest work to date.

All in all Lu Lei’s work is a celebration of an artist who is beginning to display a true sense of artistic maturity. His installations, alongside his obvious expertise in draughtsmanship can be defined as precision artistry, which can only be compared with skilled archers on horseback, shooting arrows at targets, whilst side-saddling thoroughbred stallions. He confidently assembles his fluid ideas and develops and executes them perfectly in his artworks. The artist is able to broach an array of various complex disciplines: with a comprehensible understanding of architecture, mathematics, design, sculpture and geometry, which are the ideal qualities to look for when choosing an artist to move up into Chinese and international civic art and join the ranks of other international super artists such as Michelangelo, Picasso, Miro, Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra and Henry Moore. Civic or public art has often been used for political gains. The most extreme and widely argued demonstration of this continues to be the use of art as propaganda; especially within regimes coupled with instantaneous suppression of opposition. The approach to art seen in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's Cultural Revolution stands as a symbol of this old school oppression. It would be wonderful to see a Chinese Artist working alongside the best in the world and Lu Lei has all the right attributes and credentials to do so. It is vital that government and local leaders take it upon themselves to encourage a new way of seeing and a new wave of supporting their artists. In many countries around the world an unofficial ‘Artists Tax’ is levied onto all new builds and the construction company and owner set aside 1% of the overall budget to go towards the purchase of artworks from artists.  
China is so fortunate to have an artist such as Lu Lei who is clearly capable of creating and performing successfully on the national stage but more importantly, if given the opportunity, could show the country that he is more than adept to deliver and compete within the International art scene. His works create a myriad of ideas that shine like a sharp bright light, through glass prisms, generating new and glorious sounds and visuals, seldom published or accessible to those in the autocratic Far East.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Weaving the Threads of Livelihood

Berber Weaver Behind Loom

Date: 14 October 2011Time: 10:30 AM

Finishes: 10 December 2011Time: 5:00 PM
Venue: Brunei GalleryRoom: Brunei Gallery Exhibition Rooms
Type of Event: Exhibition

The Sirwa is situated at the junction of the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas mountain ranges in Morocco. The Berber weavers of the Sirwa are renowned for their wide range of textiles and their technical knowledge and artistry. In addition to embroidery and sprang (an ancient precursor of knitting), female Sirwa weavers master several weaving techniques: tapestry weaving, twinning, brocading and knotting, which they use individually or in combination. Since the 1980s weaving production has intensified, this activity occupying most of the households in the region and constituting a major livelihood option complementing subsistence agriculture.
The central piece of the exhibition will be a special 19th century cloak, the akhnif, (loaned by the British Museum) a garment unique to Morocco that has inspired the production of a new type of carpet in the 1990s, and variants since. In the exhibition, many of these richly coloured, densely embellished and painstakingly crafted carpets will be displayed. They demonstrate the dynamism and creativity of Sirwa weavers who exploit and continuously update their rich weaving tradition to produce a great variety of weavings for the international market. This will be the first exhibition dedicated to contemporary textiles production in Morocco.
Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to watch as the Sirwa weavers demonstrate their technical skills on equipment especially brought from Morocco and can even try their own hand at weaving. They will be given the opportunity to touch many items displayed in the exhibition, to handle tools (spindles, cards and beating combs) and textures (yarns and weaving samples) and to experience the carpets.
A one-day international conference on Moroccan textiles will take place in conjunction with the exhibition. The conference will explore Moroccan textiles in their historical and social context; contemporary Moroccan textile designers and artists will present their work and creations.
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Visionary Africa: Art at Work Exhibition

2010 and 2011 mark the 50th anniversary of the independence of 22 African countries.To commemorate this anniversary and to mark the occasion of the third EU-Africa Summit, the European Commission and the Palais des Beaux Arts (Centre for Fine Arts),in collaboration with the African Union, is launching a multi-disciplinary and itinerant cultural project: “Visionary Africa: Art at Work”. This initiative is the extension and the development in Africa of the “Visionary Africa” festival held in Brussels (Summer 2000).

African Installations
African Installations - 3D View

This project focuses on the importance of culture and creativity as development tools and is directly in line with the Brussels Declaration by Artists and Cultural Professionals. It includes an itinerant urban exhibition of contemporary African artistic practices, artists’ residencies and workshops. The exhibition will be previewed in conjunction with the European Union-Africa Summit in Syrte/Tripoli (Libya, November 29, 2010).

It will then begin to travel to different African capitals at the start of 2011, beginning with Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), followed by Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). It will feature some 30 reproductions of works of art created by contemporary African artists, taken from the works presented in the exhibitions of the “Visionary Africa” festival in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, which ran until September 26, 2010. The idea for this project was put forward during the international colloquium “Culture and Creativity as Vectors for Development”, organised by the European Commission in April 2009.

Culture at the heart of African-European dialogue

Since the end of the 1990s, the European Union has been progressively more committed to strengthening dialogue and building more specific and special relations with Africa.
The first EU-Africa Summit was held in Cairo in April 2000. It defined a framework of political and global dialogue and laid down an action plan in the areas of African integration in the global economy, democratisation, health development, education, the environment and security.
The second Summit took place in Lisbon in 2007. This Summit further strengthened the partnership and brought the EU-Africa dialogue to a higher political level. The Treaty of Lisbon signed at that Summit emphasised culture and creativity for the first time by according it a central role in all European policy fields ranging from regional policy to foreign affairs and development. Culture must therefore find a place “at the heart” of development policies. At Lisbon, the frequency of the Summits was also determined.

From now on, they will take place every three years. The next one will be held in Syrte/Tripoli, Libya, on November 29 2010. The theory was quickly put into practice. The European Commission has increased its efforts to show that culture is a factor of human development, social cohesion and employment.

It was thus thanks to the impetus provided by Louis Michel, the then European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, that in April 2009, the seminar on “Culture and Creativity as Vectors for Development” was organised. 

This brought together around 800 participants: politicians (of whom 46 were ministers of African countries), artists and civil society representatives from the different countries of the EU, but also from the 65 ACP countries (Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific). On that occasion, Louis Michel insisted on the importance of addressing a broad public, on culture is not “a plaything for the pretentious elite” but an integral part of development, “a sphere in which society explains its relationship with the world and plans its future …in a certain way, a mental cement of social cohesion.” In the conclusions to the seminar, stress was placed on the importance of launching an exhibition on African artistic heritage on the occasion of the third EU-Africa summit to be held in Syrte/Tripoli..

Commissioner Andris Piebalgs co-chaired a High-Level Round Table on Culture and Development during the United Nations Summit on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Culture is increasingly recognised as a fundamental dimension in building development and in constructive relations between people.

The European Union-Africa partnership has also identified cultural cooperation as one of the priority actions to consolidate this important dialogue between the two continents. The campaign, “African Cultural Renaissance”, launched by the African Union for the period 2010-2012 and supported by the European Commission, is one of these actions, and the itinerant exhibition of African artistic practices “Visionary Africa: Art at Work” forms part of this.

“Visionary Africa: Art at Work”, urban and itinerant project in Africa

The exhibition will be presented in three African cities in conjunction with important institutional and cultural events. It starts off in Syrte (Libya) in the form of preview on November 29 at the same time as the Europe-Africa Summit. It will then be staged, in a wooden pavilion designed by the architect David Adjaye, in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), headquarters of the African Union, from January 10-30, 2011, dates which coincide with the festival of Timkat.

The exhibition can be seen from February 19 to March 13, 2011, in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso and one of the focal points of celebration of African culture, with, notably, the pan-African cinema and television festival FESPACO (which for a number of years has been part-financed by the EU). The exhibition will spend three weeks in each city. A broad attendance is therefore expected. 

The aim of this new exhibition is to provide, through the work of African artists, a snapshot of the transformations that have occurred on the African continent during the last half century, as well as put its future development into perspective. The exhibition will be staged in a pavilion designed by David Adjaye and divided into three sections: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.
It will feature some thirty reproductions of works by contemporary African artists from different regions of the continent. Each section will retain its autonomy. At the same time, there will be a continuous interface and dialogue between the three “space/time” modules. Seen from this perspective, the exhibition dovetails perfectly with the philosophy of the “Visionary Africa” festival and represents its natural extension.

The fourth space in the pavilion will be dedicated to video projections of the living arts. Every evening, the public will be invited to share the performances of African artists (musicians, choreographers, film-makers, and actors) committed to and involved in African cultural development. These videos were filmed for the most part during the event “48 hours in Brussels”, which was also a part of the “Visionary Africa” festival.

It is from this perspective that in 2009 the European Commission launched this partnership with the Palais des Beaux Arts (Centre for Fine Arts) in Brussels, which consisted of emphasising and strengthening relations between the cultural centres and museums of Europe and Africa. This ambitious project began with the foundation of a “Visionary Africa” festival. Inaugurated on May 30, 2010, it ran until September 26. The festival will continue in itinerant form in major African capitals in the form of the exhibition of African art practices “Art at Work".

The festival was a vast platform for African culture, bringing together an eclectic programme adapted to all types of audience, uniting exhibitions, debates, concerts, film screenings, performances and shows. Two exhibitions dedicated to the African culture of yesterday and today constituted the high point of the “Visionary Africa” festival.

The ambition of “GEO-Graphics”, which was developed and designed by architect, David Adjaye, with the assistance of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, was to redraw the cultural map of Africa and instigate a visual and narrative dialogue with contemporary art. For its part, the exhibition “A Useful Dream. African Photography 1960-2010”, put together by Simon Njami, celebrated 50 years of African photography and presented some 200 photos taken by contemporary African artists (living or deceased). It also signalled the point of departure for drawing up a long-term vision of the relationship between African art and culture, and its development.

The reflections initiated in Brussels by “Visionary Africa” will thus be extended to the African continent thanks to the itinerant exhibition “Art at Work”. The third EU-Africa summit in Syrte/Tripoli will be the starting point for an essential extension of “Visionary Africa” in Africa. The moment chosen is opportune, for in 2010-2011, 22 African countries are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their independence, an independence which has been closely linked to profound changes in political, economic, social and cultural life. In addition, this it is also the moment when the African Union is rediscovering the importance of culture as a factor for development by launching the campaign “African Cultural Renaissance”.

The commissioners of the “Art at Work” project

1) David Adjaye Artistic Director of the “GEO-Graphics” exhibition
 Joint Commissioner of the “Art at Work” project and designer of the itinerant pavilion
Of Ghanaian origin, David Adjaye was born in 1966 in Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, where his father was Ambassador of Ghana. At the age of 14, he moved to London, where he still lives. In 1993, he completed a degree in architecture at the Royal College of Art. After work placements in the offices of architects David Chipperfield and Eduardo Souto de Moura, he founded his own offices, Adjaye Architects, in 1994. His rise was rapid. Professionals and specialists welcomed his vision and artistic sensitivity, his ingenious use of materials, and his talent for sculpting and emphasising light.

Versatile and the winner of several prestigious competitions, David Adjaye excelled in architectural projects, design exhibitions, temporary pavilions and private homes in Great Britain and the United States. Artists of global renown called on his talent. He worked with Dane Olafur Eliasson for the light installation “Your Black Horizon” at the Venice Bienniale in 2005.
In 2002, he designed the staging and lighting for Chris Ofili’s exhibition of paintings “The Upper Room”, now on display at the Tate Britain. According to David Adjaye, “architecture must make the world a better place.” The way it influences and shapes daily life is at the centre of his thinking and his work. He also attaches great importance to the public and cultural character of architecture. His design of arts centres and large public buildings, built recently in London, Oslo and Denver, bear witness to the interest he shows in the needs of the community as well as the integration of architecture in the existing local environment. Practising his profession extends into major broadcasting and communication work. David Adjaye regularly develops his theories on the BBC, in the “Dreamspaces” programmes. In June 2005, he presented the television programme “Building Africa: Architecture of a Continent”.

Aware that he is a role model for future generations of architects, he is involved in teaching, giving classes at the University of Princeton and at the Royal College of Art. Currently, David Adjaye leads an Anglo-American team in charge of the building of the Museum of Afro-American History and Culture in Washington, whose objective is to celebrate the contribution of Afro-Americans to American culture. It is scheduled to open in 2015. 

In parallel to his work as an architect, David Adjaye has for some years been researching urban mutation on the African continent. At the end of his travels in all the countries of the continent, some 53, he has gathered together an impressive collection of photographs reflecting the great diversity of the African continent and the dramatic speed of urban growth.
The display of these photographs was a high point of the “GEOGraphics” exhibition.

2) Simon Njami Commissioner of the exhibition “A Useful Dream”Joint Commissioner of the “Art at Work” exhibition

Born in 1962 in Lausanne (Switzerland) to Cameroonian parents, Simon Njami is an author, critic and exhibitions commissioner. After studying law and the arts, he began his professional career in Paris as a journalist, a writer, and then as a visual arts consultant at the Association française d’action artistique (AFAA - French Association of Artistic Initiatives). In 1991, with Jean-Loup Pivin and Pascal Martin Saint Léon he co-founded the excellent cultural journal Revue Noire (of which he is also editor-in-chief). This rapidly asserted itself as a reference work for contemporary African art.

In 1997, the three colleagues organised the “Suites africaines” (African Suites) exhibition in Paris. An enthusiastic public discovered the installations, photographs and sculptures of totally unknown artists. Its success was considerable.

The Revue Noire disappeared in 1999, but Simon Njami carried on his activities as an commissioner of exhibitions and has 20 to his name. In 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007, he was the general commissioner and artistic director of the African Festivals of Photography in Bamakp, the only international event dedicated to contemporary African photography and its diaspora.
In 2007, he designed the African “Check List Luanda Pop” pavilion at the 52nd International Art Bienniale in Venice. A prolific writer, Simon Njami’s works include, among others, Cercueil et Cie (Coffin and Co., Lieu Commun, 1985), Les enfants de la Cité (The Children of the City, Gallimard Jeunesse, 1987), Les Clandestins (The Stowaways, Gallimard Jeunesse, 1989), African Gigolo (Seghers, 1989), La Peur (Fear, Serpent à Plumes, 1990) and James Baldwin ou le devoir de la violence (James Baldwin or the Duty of Violence, Seghers, 1991).

He has also co-edited a number of works, including Anthologie de la photographie africaine (An Anthology of African Photography, 1999) and Anthologie de l’art africain au XXème siècle (An Anthology of 20th Century African Art, 2002). 

One of his principal struggles is to make contemporary African artists visible throughout the world and above all, on the African continent – a struggle that is slowly beginning to bear fruit. One example? Between 2005 and 2007, it proved possible to present his ambitious “Africa Remix” project, of which he was the exhibition curator, in Düsseldorf, London, Paris, Tokyo and also in Johannesburg. Plastic responses of African artists to the questions they have in common were at the heart of the exhibition and were articulated around three themes: history/identity, body/soul and town/earth. 

Given his impressive background, the choice of Simon Njami as the curator of the exhibition “A Useful Dream". African Photography 1960- 2010” was an obvious one. Simon Njami gives voice exclusively to artists of the African continent, living or deceased, some of whom have managed to make a name for themselves, and have become known worldwide.

It is enough to mention Mohammed Dib (who died in 2003), Cornélius Yao Augustt Azaglo (who died in 2000), Malick Sidibé, Sammy Baloji, Dorris Haron Kasco or Aïda Mulunech. In 200 superb images, most of them in black and white, these great photographers provided a panorama of the development of the African continent over the last 50 years.

David Adjaye’s Pavilion structure
The showcase for the “Art at Work” exhibition designed by David Adjaye is a pavilion which is at one and the same time elegant, spacious and ergonomic. The concept is in line with “low technology” and is characterised by its ability to be easily assembled and dismantled. It is a lightweight structure created from panels of wood and surmounted by a roof inspired by a pergola and broken up at regular intervals by wide openings which allow the light to flood in.
The pavilion will integrate perfectly with the African landscape and will function with natural light. A detachable canvas cover is, however, provided for in case of rain. To facilitate movement around the pavilion and fluidity, the pavilion has several entrances. Superbly proportioned, the volume is organised into four spaces.

Three of these will house the new “Art at Work” exhibition, bringing together 30 photographic reproductions from the “GEO-Graphics” exhibition (David Adjaye’s works), and the exhibition “A Useful Dream” (the photographs, selected by the co-organisers, David Adjaye and Simon Njami, will be unveiled at the press conference). 

The display will be organised around three spaces/moments in time (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow), which are separate, but yet linked by permanent dialogue. The decision to present reproductions of the photographs instead of the originals is a choice on the part of the organisers.
This formula fits better with the light structure of the pavilion and its ephemeral character. As there is no power supply, the exhibition will only be available to view during the day. In the evening, video projections created during the “48 Hours in Brussels” event will take over. This event, which took place at the time of the “Visionary Africa” festival, gave a voice to a whole range of African artists engaged in strengthening African civil society through the medium of art. Invited by the Palais des Beaux Arts in the summer of 2010, they were able to visit the Festival’s exhibitions.

In their performances, they provided living testimony of the plural identity of African culture in both the plastic and living arts. Among the artists were, for example, musicians, Pitcho Womba Konga, Rokia Traoré, Angélique Kidjo, Didier Awadi, Papa Wemba and Venancio Mbande, the film-makers Hawa Essuman and Raoul Peck, the choreographer Germaine Acogny, the actor Dieudonné Kabongo and the dancer Serge Aimé Coulibaly.

It will be excerpts of their concerts or shows in Brussels that the public of Tripoli/Syrte, Addis Ababa and Ouagadougou will be able to admire. The part of the programme bringing together the living arts is thus an extra opportunity for the “Visionary Africa” festival to be able to travel. So, the debate continues.

The aim of holding the workshops is to provide yet another occasion to pursue the debate initiated in Brussels. What are the main issues for contemporary art in Africa? How can art influence the development of African countries? During the “Visionary Africa” festival, this aspect of the debate was touched on in the Atlas Room. Images, texts and graphics provided a concrete illustration of the artistic practices and the cultural institutions of Africa before and during the colonial period, as well as after independence. On one wall, a timeline showed the principal documents of African cultural policy at a national and international level (UNESCO, African Union). On the opposite wall was displayed the richness of African culture throughout the centuries. In the two African cities hosting the “Art at Work” exhibition, visitors will be presented with a booklet containing the documents displayed in the Atlas Room. The challenge will be to continue the reflection on the ground. The moderators of the workshops, Simon Njami and David Adjaye, will reach out to people and will have the chance to talk to and debate with the stakeholders – people involved in culture – and to take stock of how the proposals and promises of the different institutions are being followed up and implemented. Each workshop will be an opportunity to gather new knowledge, which will be indispensable for subsequent reflection. It is intended that this project be developed in several African countries in such a way that it covers all areas of the continent. The climax will be the publication of a final and exhaustive document, which will be a precious tool for future work.

Artists’ residencies 
The goal of these is to support a vision of African artists connecting with others on their continent, and to support the creation of works of contemporary African art. A famous contemporary artist coming from another African country will be hosted in each of the participating African cities for a period of three weeks. They will leave behind the fruits of their labour and of their interpretation of the city during this period to enrich the artistic heritage of the city.

The concept:

1) Visionary Africa: a work in progress – by Simon Njami
The goal of this travelling exhibition is to convey, through the work of Africa’s artists, the transformations the Continent has undergone in the past fifty years, and show some of the perspectives which it has been imagined could apply for the next fifty years. In lockstep with the structure designed especially for this travelling project, the show is divided into three conceptual spaces: then, now and tomorrow. Although these are treated as autonomous entities, the exhibition will be constructed in such a way as to allow for constant dialogue between these three space/time capsules. The structure’s open and innovative design, and the contemporary artworks on view, represent the vision of tomorrow, where photography and video play a key role.
The then that planted the seeds for the emergence of this new era is for the most part illustrated by photography, a medium that was crucial in the formation of an independent African identity. Now is represented by David Adjaye’s photographic panorama of Africa’s capitals. The public enter the exhibition space through the now section, which gives onto the two separate but conceptually interconnected spaces. The opening now has a documentary character, and intentionally so: it provides the audience with the interpretive keys to the interplay of points reference, or arguments and counter-arguments, that flow through the show, and which weave Africa’s past, present, and future into an imaginary world.
However, these spaces will not be explicitly characterised as such; these titles exist only conceptually, like the backbones of internal circulation. 

2) Presentation of the structure – by David Adjaye
The structure is organised as a labyrinth with three gallery spaces and has been designed to house reproduced images of contemporary work and photography. It is conceived as a neglected structure in line with the public spaces in African capitals. Structurally it is a portal made of a standard timber frame, with the lower parts (which vary in height from space to space) covered in 18mm WPB plywood on both sides to mount/display the reproductions. The reproductions will be printed onto paper and mounted directly onto the walls. 
The upper part of the pavilion exposes the structure to provide light into the spaces. The pavilion is open to the sky; vertical timbers support the timber ceiling joists which span the width of each section – the direction of the joists vary from section to section. A 7.1m high tower rises in the centre of the structure. It can be used to promote the exhibition either by means of projections or posters. The floor will be raised 200mm from the ground by a series of concealed joists and battens; the finish will also be 18mm WPB plywood. 

Bozar Raka Singh, coordinator Visionary Africa: Art at
Nicola Setari, project director Visionary
Leen Daems, press officer Bozar European Commission
Giorgio Ficcarelli, DG DEV:
Christoph Pelzer, DG EuropeAid:

Press contact
Hélène van den Wildenberg – Cecoforma