Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Ibrahim El Salahi

One of the Sudan’s greatest cultural ambassadors, the majestic Ibrahim El-Salahi, is also one of the continent’s greatest contemporary artists, as Beverly Andrews discovered at a recent one-man show.
A visionary modernist
The Sudan has a rich history which dates back to antiquity where its fortunes were very much intertwined with that of ancient Egypt. The country was in ancient times the home of the great Nubian and Kush empires but much of the Sudan’s contemporary history has been mired in conflict. Two successive civil wars have plunged the region into armed chaos but with the peaceful succession of South Sudan there are now hopes that the country can once again be celebrated for its rich cultural life, and Ibrahim El-Salahi is at the forefront of this renaissance.

London’s prestigious Tate Modern is now playing host to a long overdue retrospective of this great artist’s work. This mammoth show chronicles his exhaustive career and in doing so also charts his turbulent personal life – a life that includes early acclaim as well as subsequent imprisonment. Salahi said in a recent interview: “When people ask me what I do and I say I paint, they ask, do you paint houses? I say no, but if I did I would have a lot more money. What I paint are ideas which come to me in my mind and seem to develop independently, ideas which I am always not aware of but that seem to exist somewhere in my subconscious.”

The concept of the subconscious is a powerful one and can be very much seen in El-Salahi’s work, work that is a wonderful fusion of traditional African, Islamic and European art forms. Both his paintings and his drawings on the surface initially appear to take the viewer on one single journey but after closer inspection, the images seem to take on a life of their own, a life filled with multiple meanings, the surface meaning and then the deeper subconscious one.

An example of this would be his painting dedicated to the late Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was the first democratically elected prime minister of what was then the Republic of Congo, now DRCongo. He helped win the Congo its independence from Belgium, but subsequently found his socialist government deposed in a military coup, a coup that was backed by the West. Lumumba himself was captured and tortured by the military government and then finally murdered by western assassins.

Many African commentators trace the Congo’s current problems to Lumumba’s overthrow and this is very much echoed in the painting. It depicts skeletal mourners carrying the corpse of their dead leader on their heads. It is as if his death drains away their own life force in the same way
Lumumba’s assassination propelled the country into a period of instability that it has yet to emerge from.

Some of El-Salahi’s paintings are simply labelled “Untitled”. El-Salahi states: “In many ways they are like children, you give them names and then they grow up and the names no longer suit them. I gave up naming them because to do that in some ways dictates what paintings should mean to people who see. The most important thing I feel is the meaning people bring to them, not one I want to impose.”

So much of El-Salahi’s work does seem to fuse the present with the past. It is of Africa now, with all its contradictions with Africa of antiquity. One painting called, “The last sound”, is of a African mask which seems to literally depict not only the death mask itself and its physical essence but also to be reaching for a more mystical meaning, an attempt to trace the very moment at which the soul actually departs from the body.
Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 17.14.33

It is both haunting and beautiful and contains an image that appears in many of El-Salahi’s other works, the crescent and the moon. “Another,” appears to be not so much a literal depiction of a tree but rather the female essence of all of creation. One of the most beautiful pieces in this wonderful retrospective is a collection of images simply called “Reborn sounds of childhood dreams II” in which there appear to be depictions of images from our dreams – the fragments that lurk in our subconscious and only emerge in the middle of the night.

Now at the age of 80, El-Salahi’s journey to his current status as one of Africa’s most renowned contemporary artists has been a long and torturous one. Born to an Islamic teacher in Sudan’s second city of Omdurman, his first commission was decorating writing slates at his father’s Qura’anic school. He went on to study art at Khartoum’s Goron Memorial College and subsequently won a scholarship to London’s Slade art school in 1954. He says of his experience in London that it was a place where he was able to discover Cezanne, Giotto and various other European artists.
On his return to the Sudan, however, he found resistance to his new artistic vision. He describes the experience in this way. “I organised an art exhibition in Khartoum of still lifes, portraits and nudes. People came to the show just for the soft drinks. After that no one came.”

So he started to look for something that would help the people there to connect to his work. In a recent interview he recalls: “I started to write small Arabic inscriptions in my paintings, almost like postage stamps and people started to come towards me. Then I began to break down the letters and a Pandora’s box opened. Animal forms, human forms and platforms began to emerge. That was when I really started working.”

El-Salahi then travelled to Nigeria and met Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and started to become aware of the cultural renaissance that was underway throughout Africa. He says of this time: “It was exciting, but also frustrating, because there was little response from the rest of the world or even Africa itself. Everything went quiet.”

El-Salahi subsequently fell out of favour with the Sudanese government and was imprisoned in appalling conditions: “There were 10 of us in a cell, sharing a bucket that was overflowing. The penalty for being caught with writing instruments was solitary confinement but I kept working, drawing on scraps I buried in the ground.” He simply states of this traumatic time that “I learned a great deal.”       

El-Salahi now lives in Oxford in a kind of self-imposed exile but his work still transports those who see it back to his homeland, even with the colours he uses – the ochres, browns, black and green are all very much the colours of the Sudanese soil.

The abiding impression one gets from seeing El-Salahi’s paintings is that of his ability to paint both spirit and form, to paint not only what he sees but mystically the very essence of what gives it life; be it a tree or the portrait of a person, he treats both with the same reverence and respect.
For so much of the last century contemporary African art has struggled to be accepted on the international stage but that struggle appears now to be coming to an end; with an increasing number of contemporary African artists now taking their rightful place. No one deserves this more than El-Salahi, who fought, at times, a solitary battle to have African art taken seriously. Seeing his breathtaking work on display at London’s Tate Modern you feel that his name most certainly can and should be mentioned in the same breath as many of the other European artistic giants of both the 20th and 21st centuries. He is truly a remarkable artist.


New African 1:54 Special – Newfound Visibility

Posted on 29.09.2013

The art dealer André Magnin has played a pivotal role in the dissemination of African contemporary art outside Africa. In 1989, he co-curated the global art exhibition Magiciens de la terre in Paris, after which he became director of the well-known Pigozzi Collection for 20 years. In 2009 he founded Magnin-A, his eponymous agency which represents a diverse array of artists including Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Romuald Hazoumè, Chéri Samba, Kura Shomali and Billie Zangewa. He explains to Olivier Coutau how the African art market has evolved from a situation of relative non-existence in the 1990s to a situation of newfound visibility.
Photo: Mart Engel
Photo: Mart Engel
Olivier Coutau: You first gravitated towards Africa while investigating the continent for the exhibition, Magiciens de la terre, which opened at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. How did the art world respond to the exhibition at the time?
André Magnin: Magiciens de la terre was innovative in the sense that, for the first time, artists from all over the world were shown on an equal footing. While asking many questions to art history, institutions, galleries and collectors, the exhibition exposed several African artists. But, at the time and in the following years, the market for African contemporary art was non-existent.
In the early 1990s, access to mobile phones or the internet was scarce. You had to go up to Lagos, Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, Maputo or Abidjan to discover the artists and their work. A situation that discouraged dealers and other art professionals.
Following Magiciens de la terre, the Jean Pigozzi Collection gave to a group of about forty African artists an international visibility. This was not a commercial en- deavor, but a non-conventional adventure aiming at challenging the cannons and broadening the field of art history through a number of collective and solo shows. It is only at the end of the 1990s that a market for African art started to be thinkable. Artists from the Pigozzi Collection began to sell, consequently their success created a momentum that encouraged a younger generation of African artists. I believe the collection played a vital role in this respect.
The above painting by Kura Shomali [Je tire le premier, 2011] is an example of an African artist who is going beyond visual traditions and appealing to a global audience
The above painting by Kura Shomali [Je tire le premier, 2011] is an example of an African artist who is going beyond visual traditions and appealing to a global audience
OC: In 1999, Sotheby’s auctioned works from the Pigozzi Collection. This was the first major auction sale dedicated to contemporary art from Africa. How was the event organised and what was the outcome?
AM: Sotheby’s was the first auction house to ask us for pieces from the Collection. It was an opportunity to contribute to the creation of a market and to raise the attention of collectors to an area they did not know. Twenty-eight artists were selected, including Romuald Hazoumè, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and Chéri Samba among others.
Estimates ranged from €800 to €9,000. Fifty-six lots out of fifty-seven were sold and, on the whole, the results were higher than the estimates. Some positive results, but prices remained reasonable and could not compare with Western art auctions. It was neither a success nor a failure. For Sotheby’s, the test was not conclusive. The African contemporary art market was still hesitant and the main Western private collectors were absent.
OC: Since 2008 and 2009, auction sales of contemporary art from Africa have been more frequent. Specialised African galleries have emerged, some of which participate in international art fairs. You yourself have started a commercial activity with your agency Magnin-A. How do you explain this current market trend?
AM: Yes, indeed, during the last few years, auctions dedicated to contemporary Afri- can art have proliferated. But, with some exceptions, outstanding works are rare and results for the lesser-known artists are weak.
Paintings like this by the Congolese artist Chéri Samba [Lettre de la CPI, 2013] are now selling for in excess of €100,000
Paintings like this by the Congolese artist Chéri Samba [Lettre de la CPI, 2013] are now selling for in excess of €100,000
In 2009, noticing with Jean Pigozzi the limited presence in international art fairs of artists living and working in Africa, I decided to devote all my time to the promotion of African artists in the international art mar- ket. Other galleries or agencies dedicated to African contemporary art were created in Europe; they have brought a new energy to the market in the UK, in Germany, in Belgium and in Paris.
In addition, many in Africa have started to become aware that investing in art matters. I am thinking of the many biennales, private foundations, auction houses, art centres and galleries that contribute to the emergence of a market and stimulate artistic creation. However, it appears that the only African galleries present in major art fairs are from South Africa, where institutions and collectors support creation.
OC: From your experience, who buys contemporary African art today?
AM: With the growing interest of biennales, fairs, and other Western institutions in contemporary art from Africa, the visibility of artists from the continent has never reached such a level. As a consequence of this proliferation, buyers are very diverse. Most of them are Westerners; they can be private persons who, without being collec- tors, couldn’t resist the drawings of artists like Bouabré. African artists have also been integrated into public and private collections internationally, such as the Tate Modern and the Smithsonian Museum, not to mention the Charles Saatchi collection, the Sindika Dokolo collection and other major collections.
Prominent African collectors are still too rare, but things are moving and some of them, like Alami Lazraq in Morocco or Gordon Schachat in South Africa, are thinking of creating private museums on the continent.
OC: Certain African artists have reached the one million euro mark at auction. On the other hand, most artists living and working on the continent are still very far away from it. How do you explain this disparity?
AM: Yes, some African artists have reached important prices, but they are still far from the market records of the Western, Chinese or Indian ‘stars’. There are also numerous well-established Western artists who never reach this level. African artists from the di- aspora benefit from the important network of their own countries, where there are of- ten serious markets. With the exception of Nigeria and South Africa, the art market in Africa Sub-Saharan is still in its infancy. But, some African artists, without reach- ing these records, still do very well in the international market. For example, works by the Congolese artist Chéri Samba, can sell for €50,000 to €100,000, or a big series by the Ivorian artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré can also reach a very high price.
OC: You have been visiting Africa for over 20 years. How has it changed as a continent and what kind of impact will this have on the future?
AM: With an economic growth of 5% a year, Africa is now a driving force. A new African middle class is emerging and eager to live and consume. In 2050, with 30% more inhabitants than China, Africa will be the biggest market in the world! I believe that the well-off African middle class will make a difference in the development of an African art market. When this sector of society begins to buy national artists, it will undoubtedly help to support the continent’s vast artistic production, reflecting that of China and India. I foresee a real market emerging from Africa’s rise, impacting on African artists’ international ratings.
I think African institutions can help the public to better know and understand con- temporary art. For example, the Foundation Zinsou in Cotonou has been a pioneer in carrying out a tremendous work to advocate cultural democratisation, while the Raw Material Company, in Dakar, aims also at reinforcing artistic creation and dissemina- tion. Major international initiatives such as London’s 1:54 contemporary African art fair, will show all the richness, diversity and dynamism of artistic production from the continent. In my view, the trend is deeply rooted. We can be optimistic in spite of all the difficulties.
André Magnin’s agency Magnin. A will be participating in 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, please see our exhibitors page for more information
(This feature was originally published in New African magazine’s special on contemporary African art in association with 1:54, available to buy from October, 2013)


White Mischief

Issue 7 November-December 1992

'Out of Africa'
The story begins one day in 1989 when an idiosyncratic and disillusioned European art collector visits an exhibition. The artists have unpronounceable names, they speak in languages unknown to the collector’s ears and they live in distant locations which he cannot find on his big plastic globe. It is like no exhibition he has ever seen before and he falls in love with it. Unable to buy what he sees, which already belongs to a big corporation, the collector engages the services of a young curator. He sets him the task of researching and acquiring new art from the most exotic places in the world. Gradually the collector’s dream comes true and before long the young man has returned with hundreds of works by artists from Africa. Delighted with the marvels he has brought home, the collector proudly displays his treasures to his friends. An exhibition is born…1
Out of Africa, the exhibition of eleven contemporary African artists which has been touring Spain, Holland and Mexico with a slightly different cast and title (Africa Now), has arrived at the Saatchi Collection in London. The exhibition, which marks a new move in Saatchi’s programme in showing a guest collection, is directly related to Magiciens de la Terre, the hotly-debated global art show which took place in Paris in 1989 and in many ways opened the doors of contemporary art to non-Western expressions of Modernism. André Magnin, who was responsible for ‘discovering’ the majority of African artists included in the notorious Magiciens exhibition, has spent the last three years trekking through the African bush in search of art which he feels embodies the present expression of the immemorial past. Africa, that much abused ‘reservoir of the esoteric’,2 couldn’t provide a better playground for the fantasies of a jaded collector and an adventure-hungry curator.
Unlike Magiciens de la Terre, the choice of artists in Out of Africa does not extend to Europe, America or Asia, although André Magnin and Jean Pigozzi, the collector to whom the works belong, intend eventually to cover other ‘Third World’ territories. The show has no discernable curatorial concept other than Africa now, which places it in a very vulnerable position. It is primarily the private collection of a rich enthusiast, and as such it has a highly personal flavour - possibly its only saving grace. When questioned about his selection criteria at the first showing in Las Palmas last year, Magnin showed slides of sunsets and landscapes he had photographed on his travels through Mozambique, Madagascar, Zaire and Nigeria. He spoke of personal encounters, of feeling empathy with the African artist’s working environment, finally revealing his decision to avoid ‘official’ artists - in other words artists who have received formal art training and are patronised locally to the point where their work reflects national identities.
Several artists I spoke to recently in West and East Africa are unhappy about the way their work is currently exhibited on the international circuit. Their criticisms are rarely directed towards details in the art itself, an unfortunate reflection of the huge isolation they experience working at different ends of the continent. What they question is the nostalgia inherent in the efforts of French curators and museum administrators, in particular, to search out the ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’, untutored African artist. The most problematic distinction to date rests on a predilection for self-taught artists who, as Jean Pigozzi writes in the catalogue that accompanies Out of Africa, ‘have the internal fire of creation’ and therefore do not need to ‘go to art school or visit the Louvre or the Whitney’.3 Primitivism now extends beyond the specific period associated with cubism and l’Art Negre and re-emerges in the 90s as a search for the neo-exotic: the authentic African artist still working in the isolation of the African bush and without influence from Europe. As Eddie Chambers put it bluntly in a recent seminar in London, the Black artist, ranging from the Haitian-American Jean-Michel Basquiat to the Namibian John Muafangejo, has to be illiterate, surrounded with an aura of ‘juju’, and ideally deceased, to fit the appropriate Western stereotype. Efiaimbelo, the carver from Madagascar, whose funeral posts were displayed in a mock burial ground in the Africa Now exhibition corresponds in large part to this projection. Other artists in Pigozzi’s Contemporary African Art Collection such as Cyprien Tokoudagba and John Fundi, whose work is directly related to voodoo and beliefs in the spirit world, provide ample source material for the white man’s perennial thirst.
The Zairian painters Moke, Chéri Samba and his brother Cheïkh Ledy were well established in their home country before the arrival of Magnin. Their genre of painting, with its combination of richly detailed scenarios and biting social commentary, is part of the visual history of urbanisation in post-independence Zaire. While it lends itself well to encapsulation by a Western art market eager for new authenticity, this work is less favoured amongst fellow African artists, many of whom view this style of painting as an extension of popular graphics and sign-writing. Moke paints large-scale cartoons of his surroundings in Kinshasa with its night crowd, drunk on Skol and Primus beer, giving in to corruption or mythologising the experiences of the Gulf War. The Self Portrait, 1990, so the story goes, was inspired by Magnin at a point when Moke’s imagination was momentarily stymied. But that rumour does not weaken the power of the tryptich to point a cynical finger at the imaginary African artist who, in the third painting, has apparently disappeared into Van Gogh’s chair and lost his true African identity (the fateful premise of the Pigozzi collection). These paintings stand out because unlike the contrived translation onto canvas of Cyprien Tokoudagba and Esther Mahlangu’s mural art, or the grotesque tourist figures of Ivoirian Emile Yebo Guebehi, the Zairois group, sometimes described as ‘artistes provocateurs’,4 operate deftly between assimilation and subversion.
The international situation surrounding contemporary African art is changing so rapidly that the issues relating to its presentation outside of Africa often blur a vision of the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of the artists themselves. The temptation is far greater to write about the conditions generated by an exhibition of African art, than it is to explore the art. The vocabulary of 20th century African art is largely unfamiliar terrain to a Western audience, and so to speak of ‘African art’ is still in many respects to refer to the West’s understanding of ‘traditional art’ from Africa. Increasingly the term is being recognised as a discursive construct not unlike ‘Orientalism’, implying an imaginary realm with very real political consequences, a field of knowledge deeply entwined with the histories of colonialism, anthropology, museums of ethnography and the lucrative trade in ‘tribal’ art. In the past, interpretations of ‘traditional’ African art have generally fallen into two modes: ethnographic contextualisation, whereby objects act as testimonies of culture and artists are seen to be operating more within a social community than as individual creators, and a purely aesthetic approach, oblivious to ‘deep description’, that contents itself with the formal and evocative dimensions of the foreign object. This impossibly reductionist set of alternatives continues to bedevil the presentation of historical art from Africa. Ethnographic museums in Europe and America have been debating the crisis for several years, yet still seem unwilling to involve African artists and historians directly in the negotiation of their own artistic past.
The sudden interest of European and American museums and private collectors in purchasing contemporary art from Africa, which in a period of recession is considerably cheaper than its Euro-American counterpart, has aggravated this situation. Dealers and curators are placed in the immediate position of having to find a more compatible means of framing the works and ultimately commodifying the new aesthetic which doesn’t always fit neatly into its ‘tribal’ antecedent. It is clear from the current curatorial dilemma which has characterised recent exhibitions, such as Susan Vogel’s Africa Explores, 1991,5 that too little faith is invested in the ability of the art to stand its own ground without intervention from the West. The artists’ own reflections on their work are given anecdotal significance and written art criticism from Africa is generally treated as non-existent. The intellectual dimension to African art, claims the Ghanaian art historian Kojo Fosu, is rarely or never understood.6
Faced with a vast continent of over forty countries extending from Egypt to South Africa, Sierra Leone to Mozambique, and an unfathomable diversity of visual artistic expression, the urge to reduce 20th century African art into manageable categories (‘urban art’, ‘international art’, ‘popular art’, ‘self-taught’) overpowers any effort to accommodate a sense of the artists’ own decision-making process. Any exhibition has to take into account the desires of the artists whose works are being shown, and this applies to African as much as it does to European artists, but somehow this obvious channel is only intermittently pursued. Without direct feedback, a blanket-term such as ‘African artist’ remains uncontested. Is the disenfranchisement of the African artist still part of the narrow procedures of anthropological research, or are we encountering here an inadvertently Post-Modernist ploy? To rejoice in the hypothetical death of the author is one thing, but this disassociative strategy, when transposed onto the subjects of centuries of colonial oppression loses all the sovereignty of its philosophical position.
The latest travesty of Magnin and Pigozzi, which favours the untampered inspiration of the self-taught artist against the academically-trained painter or sculptor, effectively cancels out a significant proportion of African artists, many of whom have travelled abroad and whose concerns incorporate current critical and art-conceptual questions. Art departments have existed in universities right across Africa since the early 40s and although several are still run along an anachronistic Beaux Arts model, many artists are keen to benefit from this additional perspective, if only to rebel against its strictures. Oil on canvas is the dominant medium in West Africa and yet a number of younger artists have succeeded in forging an independent position through a conscious and sometimes political reappraisal of local materials and pigments. Atta Kwami, an artist based at Kumasi’s University of Science and Technology in Ghana, compresses hand-made paper dyed with pigments into grid-like permutations. Apparently convention-bound, these ‘Tana paintings’ seem to float between rational knowledge and instinctive action. This floating is likened by Kwami to the act of breathing.
‘Vouhou Vouhou’ is another spirit or movement which emerged in 1986 in Cote d’Ivoire as an expression of pictorial research in which ‘materials of retrieval’ could be made to redefine a new specificity within the multifarious identity of the Ivoirian artist. Saturated by a diet of Rambo, Dynasty and the Surrealist and Freudian inclinations of their professors, N’Guessan Kra, Youssouf Bath, Theodore Koudougnon and Yacouba Touré wrote manifestos and began to paint on jute and stretched animal skins with earth, sand, local chalk and natural pigments. This wasn’t collage as their French art school teachers had taught them, but a case of sticking together the fragmented inheritance of 20th century African art. Although Magnin’s speculative eye has wandered into ‘Vouhou’ country, these artists represent the ‘official’ domain he is keen to avoid. Their material works contain too many reflections of the ‘intellectual morgue’ of the West, and for Magnin, art in Africa ‘has nothing to do with a progressive history, composed of problems that are successively posed and answered’.7 The annulment of an African ‘avant-garde’ is yet another example of the Pigozzi/Magnin procedure. Whether or not an ‘avant-garde’ exists in the European sense of the word is a crucial point which needs to be debated within the complexity of the African context. For, as Efua Sutherland, the respected Ghanaian writer and initiator of literacy programmes put it to me recently: art in Africa was designed to aggregate social wealth. To be anti-society in the sense of the ‘avant-garde’ is for Africa to repeat the West’s history…
Issa Samb, artist, critic and founder of the Laboratoire Agit Art which has existed in Dakar since the late 70s, is wary of the numerous officialdoms which smother present practice. Unlike most of the West African states, Senegal has nurtured its home brood and artists have benefited from the social and cultural philosophies of poet and statesman Leopold Senghor. Even so Samb, like his colleague Etale Sukuro in Nairobi, whose paintings are treated as seditious material by the Kenyan authorities, stands happily outside this warm nest. He has no desire to couch his work in a new heritage industry, nor is he seduced by the razzmatazz of international art world glamour. His concerns lie with the immediate problems of dispossession and displacement in Africa and the lack of status accorded to the Tuareg and other nomadic peoples. If the world is moving fast toward a near pathological obsession with ethnic and racial differentiations, then all the more reason, he feels, to shift the power invested in boundaries. Perhaps that is why Samb chooses to paint on perishable materials, tarpaulins sewn together with daubs of shellac, paint and tar and hung from wooden poles like the makeshift banners which help to shelter the homeless. A blackboard with a chalk text defying the destruction of the Xelcom forests in Senegal commemorates Labour Day, a wire sculpture is rendered indiscernable against a mound of dead leaves, and as Issa Samb treads over the surface of his paintings in his studio in the rue Jules Ferry, one can’t help wondering how much longer it will be before artists from Africa are given a direct line. It may be possible to relegate to historical circumstances the misconceptions produced by the primitivist painters and collectors of l’Art Negre at the beginning of the century, but it is seriously debatable whether today European and American academic and commercial interests should once again be allowed to ventriloquise the other’s desires and thereby frame the access to art produced in Africa today.
Out of Africa, with its unfortunate title evoking scenes of Meryl Streep running into the arms of Robert Redford, may be part of the largest collection of its kind in the world, and does include some great pieces, but ultimately represents the imaginary Africa of its collector, an exotic safari into a world he has never personally experienced and probably never will.
1. Scenario to Out of Africa based on Jean Pigozzi’s own words in the introduction to Africa Now, catalogue pp.13-14
2. Wole Soyinka, ‘Between Self and System’ in Art, Dialogue & Outrage - Essays on Literature and Culture, New Horn Press, Ibadan 1988, p.64
3. Jean Pigozzi in Africa Now p.14
4. Graeme Ewens in World Beat, September 1991, p.30
5. Centre for African Art and The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
6. see Kojo Fosu, Intellectual dimensions of Ghanaian visual art of the last decade, Paper presented at the National Festival of Arts and Culture, 25-27th August 1992, Kumasi College of Art, UST, Ghana
7. André Magnin in Africa Now, pp.17-21
Clémentine Deliss

frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

40 Twists - Exhibition Curator Sheila Black - Kampala 2013


Why does the artist do this? Cover herself in primitive the artist is in Uganda. So close to nature are the Bugandans and those found in the capital, Kampala. Have they all lost their way? Given up trying....leaving those running to be more like the Europeans well alone, and instead bathing in pools of mud like elephants in salt marshes. Look how the artist plays, like a child in a sandpit. See how happy she is being backward, primitive and honest. Watch her gleeful smiles that encourage the viewers to giggle, courting our attention with her native loveliness. Is the artist wanting to be exotic? I don't think so. Not for one moment as this is well orchestrated art, with an attention to the details. It is constructed with intent and full of positive meaning; some may say we are witnesses to a moment of deconstruction and a going backwards, desperately trying to understanding the past and all that has gone before. A returning to the earth and a break from all protocols, in order to reconstruct the way in which Modern Ugandan art is seen and appreciated. Firstly, at home with those inside the country finding affinities to the work, in order to export out to the wider world, with the approval of the Ugandans over and above all else. These works are the language of African artists and this work is bold, it is Afropunk that makes punk look so last-century. There is an edginess to the images. To the rawness of the ground walked upon by modern Ugandans, a place where all the tarmac has run off and left the country. Where roadworks begin and end too early. Nothing is finished, all is a work in progress.

What is this work about and why is of any significance? Let me try and communicate this as clearly as possible. This is the best show on earth. This is a landmark exhibition of black African art. It is so forward thinking it should be shown in years to come. Together, we are standing at the edge of an exciting and novel journey into Art. How shows should be constructed is under discussion and the theory so far, is that they should be created with tenderness, that gently guides the audience through the shows. Each show clearly expressing an overall thought-process of the artist and developing a sense of constructive joined-up thinking. The journey begins at the beginning and we are the observers of a new dawn coming from Guerilla Artists from Uganda. A wave of thinking that may well sweep you off your feet, like a wind sculpture - each show created by this group at @rtpunch Studio are playfully developed and this is intentional to give a sense of inclusion rather than exclusion. To wash away the past and welcome in the future. This sense of artistic generosity is highly infectious. The BA artists are fully aware that contemporary art is not commonplace in Ugandan society. It is yet to be fully appreciated or understood but this milestone exhibition breaks the mould and gives modern Uganda a sense of importance and value.

The background to this story begins with the arts and crafts on the streets of Kampala. The basket-weavers and the paper-twisters are those that are amongst the lowest class of Ugandan society, the ill-educated underclass, whose beautiful and talented works are often overlooked and ignored as trash. This is a best place for our journey to begin...

What is important to note is that this Exhibiton takes place in the @rtpunch Studios themselves in the capital, Kampala. The doors to Modern Ugandan Art have been flung wide-open to a fresh audience. A much younger, proactive group of individuals. The upwardly mobile in Uganda. The thinking classes of the country and those that want to empower themselves with an interest in the development of culture from within. This show was solely funded by the pioneer, Wasswa Donald, the artists that spearheaded the @rtpunch Studios over a decade ago. The group have been irritated by being at the mercy of external support and often denied access to funding. Incensed by the comments made by David Adjaye and Simon Njami last year, expressing their opinions that the country was visually not ready to be seen Internationally. The group was so outraged by these bizarre judgements by complete strangers that, that became the challenge: To create a series of shows worthy of export. The group have worked exceedingly hard to push their artistic ideas forward, especially in regards to the ways in which, they want to world to see them, their country and their works of Art. Previously, shows have been exhibited only to the elite, in the Country Clubs or at the European Institutions. These external aspects of Africa, although with good intent, have had a stranglehold over the intellectual Africans for generations. They have been the Patrons of African Culture and quietly cherry-picking acceptable artists to show.

This exhibition marks a sea-change in that thinking. It intelligently interacts with all aspects of Ugandan identity and proudly displays artworks, which reflect the tapestries-makers, paper-twisters and weaves, placing them all under a different light. Magnifying their importance and empathises these distinct elements that make up the National identity. This is a very important contemporary show, that defines the Nation in an open and expressive manner. It heralds in a modern innovative direction. A guide to an original cultural development of Africa and acts as a blueprint for other Nations to follow.

This is the first of it's kind and with the advancement in Social Networking and Social Media delivering important shows from the capitals of African Nations and also exposing to the wider world has never been easier.

Sheila is a "National Treasure" and this show should be regarded as a celebration of Cultural

Independence throughout the Continent. It would be a shame to break it up into pieces and have it ignored, silenced, if not censored by Collectors and art-lovers. This is a show of such integrity it should be shown international to encourage inspiration to artists within the Continent. "40 Twists" defines the role of the artist and outlines what is needed in shaping Africa's own cultural development. Hopefully, this show will encourage Museums that focus on Africa today, to take a much closer look in what is shaping up on the Continent itself. This beacon of an Exhibition, "40 Twists" by Sheila Black was housed in the art studios in Kampala and viewed by the world; it is arguably one of the best shows on earth.

Author: Joe Pollitt

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga at the October Gallery, London.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, Mũgogo – The Crossing, 2012. Recycled cans, stainless steel wire, galvanized steel wire and paper, 178 x 127 cm. Photo Lee Bennack.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, Folklorico III, 2010.
Stainless steel wire and fabric, 94 x 76 x 61 cm.
Photo Lee Bennack.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga, Magetha ma Mwere - The Small Harvest, 2010.Stainless steel wire, woven kiondo basket strips and texas mountain laurel tree seeds, 213 x 91 cm.
Photo Lee Bennack.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga:


October Gallery is pleased to present a new exhibition of works by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga. This will be her first solo exhibition in London.
Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga (b.1960), grew up among the Kikuyu people of Kenya. She first studied Art and Design at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, before continuing her studies at UCLA, USA. She now lives and works in San Antonio, Texas. Gakunga has displayed works in numerous exhibitions in the USA, France, Brazil and Poland.
The exhibited works are predominantly wall-hanging sculptures ingeniously created from tin cans, steel wire and oxidised sheet metal forms. While the techniques Gakunga uses are common to the fibre arts across many traditions, her chosen materials are not. Corroded sheet metal, rusted tin cans and stainless steel wire all follow the concept ofJua Kali, a Swahili expression literally meaning ‘under the hot sun’ that refers to the idea of chance effects created out of things which have been discarded. Here, nothing goes to waste and waste materials become the medium for a wholly new focus of attention. This perceptive approach to repurposing discarded objects is, today, a highly-developed stratagem often employed by contemporary African artists.
Galvanised sheet metal, known in Swahili as mabati, is ubiquitous in Kenya. Used mainly for roofing materials and walls, this sheet metal is particularly associated with theMabati Women Groups and their empowering community housing projects of the ‘60s. Gakunga observed the success of their efforts, the harvesting of water from the new roofs and the consequent ageing of the material itself. Mirroring these weathering effects in her own artistic process, she deliberately saturates rolls of sheet metal in water, a process that oxidises the submerged surfaces, occasionally adding dyes to create different colours and other more complex effects. Finally, Gakunga selects, cuts and links the resultant pieces to assemble her wall-hangings. These striking sculptures reflect, at one and the same time, both the mabati’s enduring functionality and its fragility; the delicate transformations etched in metal by the corrosive effects of water, chance and time emphasising an ethereal, transient beauty.

Another significant material found in these works is fibre or string. Gakunga’s grandmother was a major influence on her, as the traditional Kikuyu women would weave baskets from fibre extracted from the makongo plant. Gakunga continues to use string and ribbons as primary materials within her work, acknowledging the contemporary in her usage of fine grade metal wires used to sew and crochet her works into organic wholes. Creating pieces that mimic the swaying movements of dancers’ dresses and that exude a light, airy quality, Gakunga notes, ‘String is entwined in the life of a Kikuyu woman, from the moment she is born until she departs.’
This delicate body of work pays tribute to these succeeding generations of women. Gakunga’s choice of materials and the processes of stitching, crocheting and weaving proudly maintain traditions which are here transformed into the field of contemporary art. Using these various metaphors to acknowledge her heritage, Gakunga’s sculptures explore the connections between the past and the present, between tradition and modernity and between the older generations and their contemporary descendants. The effect is both playful and provocative. It is also quite positively transformative.

Guest Projects

Following the success of the Royal Opera House Africa Weekend curated by Yinka Shonibare MBE, Guest Projects has launched Guest Projects Africa.
Showcasing cutting edge African Art forms, Guest Projects Africa creates a platform for African artists of all disciplines including spoken word, dance, fashion, architecture, visual arts, and more.

Re-introducing Oshun
October 7-17 2013
Re-Introducing Oshun, is an interdisciplinary project using photography, film, prose and objects to re-discover black women’s bodies as sacred places of intimacy, sensuality and beauty.
Oshun is a West African Orisha from the Yoruba faith and culture whose role concerns, intimacy, beauty and diplomacy. We will be bringing this deity to life, through the approach of ‘visual rhetoric.’ The intention is for us to have the power, control and ownership to create our own representation.
We are a collective consisting of four female artists from the African Diaspora, led by -
Janine Francois, Creative Producer/Director
Stella Odunlami, Curator
Zainab Adamu, Photographer/Filmmaker
Belinda Zhawi, Writer and Griot. 

Skoto Gallery | New York

Oche Onodu (Couch), 2012, plastic bags, bottles, metal, cans, wood, yarn, 68"x27"x128"
Ifeoma Anyaeji
September 26th - November 2nd, 2013
Skoto Gallery is pleased to present Transmogrification, an exhibition of recent mixed media sculpture by the Nigerian-born artist Ifeoma Anyaeji. This will be her first solo show at the gallery. The artist will be present at the reception on Thursday, September 26th, 6-8pm.
Ifeoma Anyaeji’s recent sculpture employs a virtuosic ability to create elegant forms drawn from architecture and domestic furniture design through the reconstruction of found objects such as the ubiquitous plastic bags and bottles. She utilizes a process that is physically and conceptually steeped in memory, history and the passage of time to create work that radically put into question conventional notions of what sculpture is. Using hair plaiting technique known as Threading from her homeland, she threads and braids discarded plastic bags into plasto-yarns which she combines with strong compositional organization to create complex yet lyrical assemblages of everyday objects that reflect subtle understanding of context and awareness of the relationship between function and experimentation. There is an abiding urge in her work to highlight the relevance of social responsibility to the environment in today’s hyper-consumer society as she engages with the cyclical nature of production, accumulation and regeneration in the creative process, and as stated by the artist “My concept of material reuse through the transformation of an object’s physical state, is to echo the environmental implication of accumulation and the extensiveness of a politicized archeology of modernity’s consumptive system”..
By imbuing mundane materials, marks and processes with surprising significance and intricate design, her work is transformed into extraordinary visual poetry with textures of vibrations and pulsations that allow the viewer a freedom of imagination, interpretation and emotional response. Her use of obsessive repetition shows affinities with the concerns of African traditional textile weaving and hair braiding techniques, and seeks to resurrect gender-categorized craft and decorative art as viable means of artistic expression, as well as ts political and subversive potential. Included in this exhibition is Oche Onodu (Couch), 2012, a joyous mixed-media installation that meanders and infiltrates the architecture of spaces, as it implores us to question our everyday experiences in both a physical and mental sense. She inventively combines her materials to form bold abstract composition that evinces persistent experimentation and a mastery of technique that goes beyond accepted boundaries of the medium. Allusions and metaphors abound as she weaves together personal and collective memories with reflections on universal experiences that celebrates openness to the world and to diversity. Although its visual impact is greatest from far away, a closer look offers a rewarding experience and palpable sensations evocative of the expansive possibilities of life and art.
Ifeoma Anyaeji was born 1981 in Benin City, and hails from Anambra State in the south eastern part of Nigeria. She obtained an undergraduate degree, with honors from the University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria in 2005 before traveling to the US in 2010 as a Ford Foundation International Fellow where she obtained her MFA in 2012 at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University, St Louis, Missouri. She has participated in several solos and group exhibitions both at home and abroad, including ‘Reclamation’, University of Missouri, Columbia in 2012. She was the Washington University in St Louis Nominee for the 2012 International Sculpture Center Outstanding Student Achievement Award. Her work  is in several collections in Africa, Europe and the US. She currently teaches at the University of Benin, Nigeria.
Artist Profile
Ifeoma Ugonnwa Anyaeji is a Nigerian-based artist, born in 1981. While art was a great passion it wasn't her first choice of 'profession' as it didn't seem a sensible choice. Studying art at undergraduate level was still not a guarantee that she would end up becoming a full time art practitioner, because she already had a degree in another field. However, growing up in a society fueled by the dualities of excess and repression; a country in the grip of national schizophrenia from which it has seldom emerged and where art was yet to be accepted as a “decent” career, she decided to take art as a full career and explore her boundaries, as a female artist, beyond her undergraduate training.
Three years ago, she decided to pursue her academic studies. Her research interest in repurposing discarded plastic bags (pure water sachet) earned her the prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship award, and an opportunity to study for a Masters in Fine Arts degree program at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. This period of dislocation and unwitting wrench from the familiar gave her more confidence to explore other mediums, including her new found medium - plastic bags, which she had developed in Nigeria, and express truths which had laid recognized but unclaimed within her. As a woman, she had always wanted to sculpt but found traditional materials both strenuous and unwieldy. She transferred her crocheting skills, her experience of traditional hair plaiting techniques and passion about up-cycling to her new medium, and developed a form of sculpture she calls Plasto-art. Here she found she could manipulate these materials to create dynamic, and mobile sculptures which were also comparatively light, easy to move, assemble and dissemble. In her words, “ my sculptures are highly conceptual and in making forms which reference household furniture and architectural structures I draw from traditional crafts, techniques and processes particularly those which may seem out of fashion. I love to up-cycle ideas and materials, challenging the peculiarities of transforming these materials. There is a social-cultural meaning offered by my sculptures, not just aesthetics”.
With her new process of making, Ifeoma aims to re-define a gender-categorized craft into a new order of contemporary gender & race defying art. Through these sculptures she clearly expresses her disproval at a myriad number of issues including excessive accumulation of non-biodegradable domestic materials with little or no regards for the environment. While her sculptures are bold and assertive, in contrast, her paintings are delicate, gentle, fine works observing the fragility of humanity and beauty of the human race. These paintings, while they have organically metamorphosed to include found objects, remain supremely and unashamedly feminine.
Ifeoma has had several solos and group exhibitions both in Nigeria and international, including ‘Reclamation’ in University of Missouri in Columbia in 2012 and 'Here & Now' in New jersey in 2010. She currently teaches at the University of Benin, where she gained her first degree, in painting.
Artist Statement
My works are about up-cycling and material reuse, in review of our cultural attitude to the concept of product newness, value and expiration date, as well as social responsibility to the environment. In creating these works I reflect on the cultural prescription of value and value systems, particularly from my home country Nigeria. My concept of material reuse through the transformation of an object’s physical state, is to echo the environmental implication of accumulation and the extensiveness of a politicized archeology of modernity’s consumptive system. The discarded plastic bags and bottles, two common environmental pollutants, are the main media with which I visually express the narrative of a domestic object’s possible transition from the discarded to the aesthetic or functional. This I conceive by creating a complexity of sculptural forms that allow for multiple interpretations of the functionality of an object after it has been consumed. I envisage a multiplicity of uses while retaining the physical state of the discarded object. As an artist I am constantly intrigued by craft processes. Therefore, my work incorporates the processes of a communal hair plaiting technique from my home country, Nigeria, called Threading. Using this hair craft technique, otherwise termed “old fashioned”, I am able to extend the functionality of these discarded plastic bags and bottles beyond covers and packaging. I beautifully transmogrify their physical appearance by braiding the bags into Plasto-yarns, using these to create objects that reference architectural forms and domestic furniture. My repetitive process of Threading and choice of medium are
reminiscent of the domestic lifestyle and accumulative nature of the average consumer. The works, which sometimes are displayed as installations, are conceptual and appear organic; presenting non-biodegradable medium, like plastic (Polyethylene) bags and bottles, as otherwise.
Some thoughts on Ifeoma's Anyaeji's work:
"Working primarily with the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag, emblematic in its reference to both consumption and waste, Ifeoma Anyaeji’s weaves dense, sculptural tapestries that reclaim both material and process. Using a Nigerian hair braiding technique to coil the bags, they are bound together using artisan practices of basketry and textile weaving--low-tech, manual practices that are often communal in nature. Colors from the bags’ industry branding and marketing logos are bound and partitioned to create undulating patterns and waves of thick materiality. Dizzying in their congested space, at times the patterns read as aerial views of smog-filled manufacturing sites, the wrapped and coiled plastic milk jugs creating multiple smokestacks of varying heights, each embedded in a swirling landscape of commercial activity. The circular patterns then shift, simultaneously becoming ephemeral, dreamlike scapes of water, clouds, and natural formations. In this, the pieces point to both problem and solution, reflecting attitudes of both indignation and hope.
Cheryl Wassenaar, 2012
Associate Professor of Art,
Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Friday, 21 June 2013


New works by Serge from Accra, Ghana

Feature: Water wars and water woes
Water privatization is often portrayed as morally wrong but if we look beyond ideology and sentimentality this doesn't add up. Poor countries, where lack of water and sanitation kills nearly two million people a year, need to get water supplies right.

One billion people lack clean drinking water but only three percent of the world's water is privately managed, so the campaign against privatization conceals many public failures.

The prime example is the so-called Cochabamba Water Wars, when residents of this large Bolivian city took to the streets in 2000 to throw out the private water consortium when prices rose.

For activists, it has everything: World Bank involvement, higher prices, angry citizens and the happy ending where water is "returned to the people." But it was actually a story of political corruption and poor governance, with a tragic but largely ignored ending.

In 1997, the World Bank gave Bolivia US$20 million, on condition of privatizing SEMAPA, Cochabamba's heavily-indebted municipal water network. SEMAPA supplied only 60 percent of the population with water and only 50 percent with sewerage. While industries and the wealthy got preferential treatment, the poorest areas had bad water and sanitation and had to pay three to five times more for water from vendors. After a decade of underinvestment, the system was leaking about half its water.

In addition to privatizing SEMAPA, the World Bank wanted Bolivia to get Cochabamba's extra water from the existing Corani Dam. This would have cost US$70m and had to come from private funds.

But the Mayor of Cochabamba preferred creating a new reservoir, in the Misicuni Project, costing US$175m, needing about half from public subsidies.

While the World Bank said Corani was cheaper and quicker, other interests prevailed and the Misicuni Project went into the privatization contract. There was only one bid, from the Aguas del Tunari (AdT) consortium which, after difficult negotiations, got a 40-year contract in September 1999.

AdT's complicated new prices favored the poor but still raised prices for everyone, from about 10 percent for the poorest to more than 100 percent for others.

Protestors under the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life took to the streets and, following widespread protest and several deaths, the AdT contract was cancelled in April 2000 and handed back to SEMAPA.

To its detractors, this case embodies all that is wrong with privatisation. Cochabamba was indeed a failure but not for the reasons put forward by anti-privatization activists.

Firstly, the sharp increase in water prices was not just a rip-off. The company needed to cover the high costs of the Misicuni Project, repair derelict infrastructure and extend to new areas. In fact, many higher water bills were due to households using more water as a result of better service. AdT also had to charge the real cost of providing water.

Poor governance laid the foundations: SEMAPA had charged ridiculously low prices, falling US$35 million in debt, while municipal authorities failed to explain the changes to the public.

Dissent was already high before privatization. The eradication of coca plantations had forced many farmers to migrate to Cochabamba, adding to high unemployment.

In addition, the Water Services Law of 1999 posed a threat to long-established "irrigators," private well owners and water cooperatives. It would have given AdT control over any local ground water and made private trading illegal.

Then there were vested interests. Aguas del Tunari included four Bolivian companies, all involved with construction and engineering. Outwardly, it was the Mayor who opposed the Corani project but the pressure came from these politically-influential firms expecting lucrative contracts from the Misicuni Project.

What anti-privatization activists also avoid is Cochabamba´s water today. Around half the city's 600,000 inhabitants remain unconnected, while the rich still get preferential treatment and SEMAPA goes from one corruption scandal to another.

The lesson here is not about privatization: it is about corruption and vested interests.

Using Cochabamba as the poster-child of anti-privatization is counterproductive. It has discouraged private investors in regions which badly need technical assistance and investment to create essential services for the poorest.

Events like the tri-annual World Water Forum, held in Istanbul this month, seek real ideas for really helping the poor. Shamefully, this gathering of common sense is overshadowed by noisy activists who oppose private solutions to the world's water woes. Cochabamba shows we need more pragmatists and less rhetoric.

By David Bonnardeaux
David Bonnardeaux is a freelance consultant on rural development and natural resource management for the World Bank, USAID, CARE and others in many parts of the world. 

Source: David Bonnardeaux

Libya -- Oil, Water, Gold Are the Real Issues

Posted: 04/15/11 10:20 AM ET

The oil price has skyrocketed over the past few months. The finger has been pointed at the troubles in Libya and claims of supply disruptions have dominated the press. However, are these claims grounded in fact or are we watching yet another sentiment driven bubble? What are the issues we should be aware of and how should we best invest in the face of such turmoil?
Expectations are often more damaging than reality
Libya's contribution to global oil production is in stark contrast to the column inches it has been awarded in the press. As quoted by the National Journal, the country produces around 2% of the world's oil. OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) has claimed that they have managed to "accommodate most of the shortfall" and instead attribute the rise in the oil price to fears of a shortage rather than any genuine supply issues. Oil reached a 2.5 year high last Friday . This is against a flattish demand side dynamic. Paris-based International Energy Agency and the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration left fuel demand growth for this year unchanged and OPEC only raised their forecast by a relatively small amount (to 87.9m b/d from 87.8m b/d) .
EU Sanction: A further boost for the oil bulls
On Tuesday, the EU extended sanctions against Libya to include energy companies, freezing assets in an attempt to force leader Muammar Gaddafi to relinquish power. Phrased another way, by the German Foreign Minister, this is a "de facto embargo on oil and gas" . Approximately 85% of exports are for delivery to Europe and importers will now have the task of finding potentially more distant and/or expensive alternative sources.
The pent-up downside risk
Nevertheless, many are not paying attention to the downside risk to the oil price as we move forward. Libya has Africa's largest proven oil reserves but 75% of the country's petrol needs are met with imports because of limited refinery capacity . Any improvement on this front, if a regime change is eventually secured, could therefore significantly reduce imports and boost global supplies.
Is water the next oil?
In addition to oil reserves, one asset belonging to the Libyan government which is rarely mentioned is an ability to bring water to the desert. With the largest and most expensive irrigation project in history, the $33bn GMMR (Great Man-Made River) project, Libya is able to provide 70% of the population with water for drinking and irrigation . The United Nations estimates that by 2050 more than two billion people in 48 countries will lack sufficient water, making this an enviable asset indeed .
How can the US pay for the Libya intervention?
It is interesting to note, with all the claims being made that the intervention is oil motivated that, Libya has another form of 'liquidity'. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country's central bank has nearly 144 tonnes of gold in its vaults ...
How to best invest: Retain context
The tide is starting to turn, Goldman Sachs has called the top for commodities in the near-term and oil fell by 4.5% on Monday and Tuesday alone (Source Bloomberg) . With this amount of volatility, short term noise can sometimes overwhelm. For a long term investor, looking for steady and stable returns, an ability to cut through the sentiment (whilst acknowledging it's importance in driving returns in the shorter term) is valuable. Often many factors are at play and it will 'pay dividends' to be well-informed as they become wider known and priced in by the markets. Knowledge may be king but preparation will come up trumps.

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