“There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’
Whatever Gombrich might have intended by the opening sentence of his 1963, The Story of Art (and it is not the first time l have used it: see Picton 1994a, p l, for a selection of interpretive possibilities), it seems to insist that we get away from asking ‘ what is art?’ and look instead at art-makers and art-making. In that case it provides us with a way of confronting some of the problems that still seem to infest the study of art-making by Black and African people
However, it might also be as well to remember that in Africa not only are there very many different sorts of art-making, it has been going on for a very long time. In January this year The Guardian carried a news item headed: ‘the world’s first artwork found in Africa’ (Meek 2002), and described the discovery of red ochre crayons, some with engraved pattern, in a South African cave, in deposits dated to 77000 years ago. Then there are the fragments of painted rock found in deposits in a cave in Namibia some 26000 years ago (Phillips 1995, p 11, 187); and the record of making goes back more than two million years if we include the stone tools of Homo habilis in Ethiopia. Making art begins in Africa, and it seems to be the indispensable prerequisite for our thinking and talking. Perhaps that is why we so often get in a muddle talking about it.
Despite this very grand antiquity, however, there is that other fact that for Africa most of the art that we actually study dates from the period since about 1850. I know there are exceptions: Ethiopia, Edo, Bushoong; but unless we are archaeologists they are the exceptions that prove the rule; and1850 is a date that marks several crucial factors that cannot be put aside.
They include, particularly in West Africa:
- The transition from Atlantic slave trading to colonial rule (and we should not forget the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean trades);
- Resistance to that very same colonial rule, with
- The emergence of a local Black intellectual elite, trained at the best of Europe;
- The emergence of modern ethnicities, and
- Nation States;
- The persistence and development of traditions (ritual, material, aesthetic, social, etc) received from the past;
- The developments of novel forms of social practice;
- The worldwide distribution of photography, an African practice for more-or-less the same time as in Europe;
- Widespread conversion to Islam or Christianity; and
- All of this, and, doubtless, other factors also, comprising, variously, a diverse range of local Modernities
This is also the period in which:
- The agents of colonial rule fetishes ethnic difference making of it an instrument or both government and conflict
- Certain kinds of material artifacts are collected for the delectation of taxonomists and connoisseurs in Europe; and
- People are collected via European photography, anthropometry, etc;
- A view of Africa as timeless and primitive is invented, a view that feeds into the Ethnographic present mode of writing that characterises the anthropology of the colonial period, and which
- Has allowed a view of African difference and authenticity that has proved difficult to shake out of the study of art-making by Black and African people (as if, for example, ethnicity were something more than the emergence of an identity contingent upon circumstances that forced upon people the need for a new kind of self-definition).
Anthropology itself, of course, has long since moved on, and while the intellectual trajectories of anthropology and the history of art show interesting parallels, at least the latter has not had an Ethnographic present to contend with. The point is, then, that modernity, whether international or local, is the context for almost all of the art- making, art collecting, and art studying with which we are familiar.
When I first arrived in Nigeria
When I first arrived in Nigeria, in June 1961, a mere 22-year-old, it was supposed that I possessed some qualifications for the job l had been hired to do; which was to take over as Curator of the Nigerian Museum, Lagos (as it then was known) with its staff of some forty Nigerians. I possessed an undergraduate degree in an anthropology taught in the latter days of structural-functionalism, wherein I had learned about the social interconnectedness of things and I had absorbed what we would now call the paradigm of ethnicity as the defining criterion of distinctive social environments. Then I had worked with William Fagg in the British Museum department of ethnography for a few months, and his view of the ‘tribal’ nature of things in Africa had confirmed the paradigm of ethnicity. Before studying anthropology I had intended to take up zoology, with a fascination for dissection and taxonomy; and I can now see that this interest in interconnectedness and categorization fed into the anthropology I had learned. (Luckily, between university and the British Museum I had worked for several months as a clerk in my home-town local government offices; so that on arrival in Lagos l knew what a filing cabinet was and what it looked like when you opened it, and l knew something about office protocol; and in reality that was all probably of more use in my attempt to allow the museum to run itself than the anthropology and ethnography. (I should add that l now work within the discipline of the history of art.)
To arrive in Lagos in 1961 was about as fortunate an experience as one could ever have hoped for. There was the enthusiasm for an independent one Nigeria, the so-called ‘Zaria Rebels’ (Fosu1993, pp 56-70, Beier 1961; and see below) had begun to make their mark, Ben Enwonwu was ‘on seat’ as Federal Government Art Advisor (we were in the same ministry), Justus Akeredolu was in the same department as myself, Erhabor Emokpae was an active presence, supporting himself by a career in graphic design, Felix Idubor ran his own gallery, and Aina Onabolu was still active in many ways, as were people such as Kenneth Murray, Father Kevin Carroll, Ulli Beier and Paul mount. So all in all, it was patently obvious that art in Nigeria had not stopped with the material in the Nigerian Museum, Lagos or the British Museum, London. By 1961 things had moved on even from Ulli Beier’s Art in Nigeria 1960, not least because’ the greatest surprise of the exhibition [of contemporary art organized by the Nigerian Council for the Advancement of Art and Culture at the celebrations of Independence in 1960] was a group of young painters who are still students at Zaria…. Jimo Akolo,
Grillo, Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Simon Okeke, Demas Nwoko… the finest monument to Nigerian Independence we could have wished for'(Beier 1961, pp 31, 51). There was also the developing patronage of a broad range of artists by the Catholic Church, Onobrakpeya, for example, and not just the neo-traditionalists Bamidele and Fakeye; and during the 1960s Yusuf Grillo became head of the art dept at the Yaba College of Technology and Bruce Onobrakpeya the art master at St Gregory’s College, both in Lagos. Added to all the variety of the new developments, masquerade was, as it has continued to be, an active and resilient set of traditions. On Lagos lsland within a few years l had seen Gelede, Egungun and Adamu-Orisha; and it was manifestly clear that all these several traditions of visual and performance practice were current and contemporary, though some were, admittedly, of more recent inception than others. Moreover, Ulli Beier was active in bringing Black and African artists to Lagos, Ibadan and elsewhere in Nigeria, artists such as lbrahim El Salahi, Malangatana and Jacob Lawrence, exhibiting in the same places as Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Erhabor Emokpae and others. Lagos seemed then to have been transformed into an exciting centre of international Black and African visual culture.
Masquerade, hand-made textiles, royal and chiefly ceremonial, easel painting
Printmaking and a developing tradition of public sculpture were all modern: they were not merely extant, but were forms of active practice ‘just now’ the root meaning of ‘modern’ (Williams 1976); and each flourished in terms of that essential social process of ‘handing-on’ which is all that the word ‘tradition’ really means. It did not make any sense at all to divide this complex up into the broad temporal categories of “traditional” and “contemporary” (let alone “ tribal” and “ post-tribal”). For one thing, the older traditions were subject to and carried the traces of current adaptation: the material in the Nigerian and British Museums were but an earlier stage in the process; a type of textile as “traditional” as the resist-dyed adire, brought into Lagos from Abeokuta and lbadan, was manifestly a colonial-period development (picton 1992a, 1995a); while the newer traditions included such practices as masquerade and chiefly ceremonial among their subject matter. In any case, there was only one Lagos with its diverse inhabitants sometimes sharing in a common identity, sometimes manifesting a range of different identities. Whatever ethnicity was, sometimes it mattered and sometimes it did not; and sometimes it led to the tribalism that was the enemy of good government. Anyway it was by no means the fixed and essential property l had been led to imagine; and the process of categorisation, if such were needed, had to begin at a more particular level: this artist, that technique, this patron, that masked event, this kind of education, that tradition, etc, and each recognised for its own history.
It was only much later that l read Uche Okeke’s Natural Synthesis, his manifesto for a local modernism: ‘Young artists in a new nation, that is what we are… our new society calls for a synthesis of old and new…’ (For the most recently available published account see C. Deliss et al, 1995: Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, pp 208-209); but l experienced that enthusiasm, and while neither the artists nor the nation are quite as new as they were then, that call for synthesis still rings clear. Moreover, l continue to reckon that it was a stroke of genius on the part of Uche Okeke to be able to see within an indigenous tradition of visual practice something that could provide a basis for a local visual modernity. When on a visit to Nigeria in 1995, l asked Uche Okeke how something as deeply lgbo as uli could take on a wider significance, he replied: ‘ drawing is drawing’ (picton 1995b, also Ottenberg 1997). For modernity was never something introduced as if ready-made from Europe or the USA. It was and could only be the condition of things as they are at any given time and place, dependent upon that creative synthesis in which elements from further away become domesticated within a local framework of reference and practice, a process that is nothing new even when it is subsumed within the cliché of globalisation. ‘At no moment in history has the truth been clearer than it is today, that movement is the human condition’ (Oguibe in Hassan & Oguibe [eda], 2001,p50). Indeed, ever since Homo sapiens walked from South Africa to colonise the world, people have been on the move; but not only does it characterize us as a species, it has promoted the creative engagements between traditions that is the very stuff of any history of art.
The study of African art is vitiated by its dominant paradigms.
I refer, of course, to the social categorizations of ethnicity (already criticised in Vansina 1984, though he takes no account of 20th century and post-Independence developments), and to the temporal periodisation of the “tradition/contemporary” variety (see Picton 1992). The experience of Lagos provided for their effective deconstruction, or, at least, began the process; but how would this stand up to the experience of field research? There were two episodes relevant here. The first was ethnographic survey in north-eastern Yoruba leading to work on the sculptors of Opin. The second was the experience of Ebira masquerade; and this coincidentally introduced me to the subject of textiles, which has been an on-going subject of interest.
In the first of two papers concerned with Opin (1994a & b), I made the point that the intellectual work of understanding Yoruba began with tow Yoruba intellectuals, Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Samuel Johnson, both priests of the Church of England, and both formed by the experience of diaspora. Crowther had been enslaved, but liberated in Freetown, Sierra Leone, while Johnson was the son of parents who had been enslaved and again liberated in Freetown; and they, more than anyone else, were responsible for the emergence and definition of a modern Yoruba ethnic identity. However, when one turned to the sculpture habitually labeled as Yoruba, one had to concede that it was so only retrospectively. The word itself is derived from the Hausa name for the Oyo empire; and in going through District Officer’s reports on eastern Yoruba it was clear that even in the 1920s and 30s the word ‘Yoruba’ referred exclusively to the people of Oyo, not to Ekiti and Opin. In that case if we disallow that process of retrospective identification and consider instead work associated with the emergence of Yoruba identity, the canon shifts from masks and figure sculptures to Brazillian architecture (see also Laotan 1961, Visona et al, pp 267-268), Aina Onabolu, 1882-1963, the first easel painter of tropical Africa (Onabolu 1963), and all that follows from this including photography, printmaking, Yusuf Grillo, and Agbo Folarin and Noyo Okediji (see also Visona et al, p272-273; and l do not list Onobrakpeya here as he is not ‘Yoruba’ though a citizen of greater Lagos, and l shall come back to the question of his ethnicity below). When we do shift to the pre-modern tradition represented by the sculptors of Opin l was concerned with just how much we could establish by way of a securely identified corpus and its association with a genealogy of artists in three separate communities. This part of the discussion was continued in the second paper. I do now wonder about the ‘pre-modern’ designation, however, as Opin was incorporated by force of arms into the Islamic emirate of llorin in the 1850s (and for the iconographic implications thereof see Picton 1995d: there are still many interesting questions to be asked of this material). The presumption is that it was a tradition inherited from the past for which the only evidence is four sculptures said by local informants to pre-date llorin conquest; and all four were collected for the Lagos Museum. Then, in the 1950s the surviving and by then largely obsolete remnant of this tradition was transformed through the patronage of the Catholic Church into the now-popular Neo-Traditional movement. I refer briefly to this below. In any case, to which modernity/ism was it pre-? Oh well…
The question of how much do we really know was also addressed in the very different context of the art of Benin City; see picton 1997a. The problem here is that while we can derive satisfying explanations of the art through research in Benin City, the art was produced through several centuries prior to the destruction wrought by the 1897 punitive expedition. In 1914 a process of renewal began that has been extraordinarily successful, so successful indeed that it has closed down upon any independent view of the past. We have no way of knowing what relationship our explanations of the art now has with the intentions and interpretations at the time of its manufacture.)
When l moved to the Ebira-speaking region to the south-west of the Niger-Benue confluence, as l have written elsewhere (picton 1991), it seemed that the material culture of this area was comprised of several distinct elements of diverse origins, and that Ebira people were relative newcomers. Ebira women had inserted themselves into a weaving tradition that was or had once been common to the Yoruba-and Edo-speaking peoples, and some adjacent lgbo communities. Iron-smithing and wood carving had been mediated by a caste of Edo-speaking smiths, as Ebira people began to settle in their present region. Ebira men, on the other hand, had introduced very distinctive forms of masquerade that provided entertainment and promoted both gendered order (Picton 1988, 1997) and healing (1988) through performances that, at their core, were concerned with the re-embodiment of deceased male elders (1992, and see also picton & Mack 1989, pp 14, 68-73, 75); and these institutions had proved so attractive to surrounding peoples that they had all copied them, a fact that both reinforced and denied ethnic difference. In my research l endeavoured to gather the kind of data that would enable me to reconstruct that ideal of what it must once have been like; for the facts of change were obvious and they were not the same from one community to another. Moreover they were not restricted to the period of my research in the late 1960s but could in some cases perhaps be traced back through the previous fifty years or more. Some masked forms were proliferating, with an eclectic gathering in of diverse elements (Picton 1990a), while other practices were falling into disuse, especially at the ancestral core (Picton 1990b), but this was not necessarily always due to the impact of education, Islam and Christianity as there were also reasons within the tradition for the abandonment of particular practices.
It became clear that the proposition that there was an ideal to reconstruct was mere wishful thinking of an Ethnographic present kind. Within the Ebira region there was a calendar of events that integrated all the districts into a common annual cycle although the details of ritual and masked performances were not identical from one place to another, this allowing for different patterns of change. Masquerade could thus be seen instead as a series of related developmental sequences, with some elements in common (such as the use of a red cloth woven from unraveled hospital blankets) but with many idiosyncratic representations of the facts of change, including Islam (the mask that went to Mecca), modern technology (the road-building bulldozer), and the movies (John Wayne: at the time of my research, Ebira was still without electricity but they had once had a film show…). Masked performances provided a means of not only reiterating a sense of identity with a received tradition, but also, through documentation and critique, of appropriating change to that tradition. Thereby, the material and poetic cultures of masquerade were active in promoting a sense of local modernity defined by an identity with a mythic past, but which also included, variously, fluency in the Qur’an, an excellent modern educational system and the possibilities of achievement in the nation state and beyond as represented by the head of the Nigerian government service, Abdul Azeez Atta, and the local Catholic bishop, Alexius Makozi. This local modernity was clearly not a seamless garment, so to speak, but hybrid and multiple engagements between the local and the longer-distance. Ebire language (spoken, of course, by a great many ‘non-Ebira’), a sense of belonging to a particular place and lineage, the lgbo shopkeeper who could get you whatever you needed from Onitsha market within a few days, ‘John Wayne’ the popular masked character, and one’s school and mosque or church were all part of it; but whenever was modernity anywhere anytime other than something like that? (We should all by now have learned neither to perpetuate the fiction of “pure cultures” nor to fetishize modernity.)
In due course masked performances became so dangerously violent that, in 1988, they were prohibited by the police, to the great delight of the local Muslim fundamentalists. It is not difficult, of course, to understand Islamic moral antipathy to anything associated with ancestral re-embodiment, but it was those more ritualised elements that were falling into disuse in any case. The masked forms ritually of lesser status permitted a more individualised dramatic presentation, and these were flourishing and proliferating. In time masked performance would have probably become so far removed from the inheritance of ritual practice, with ancestral re-embodiment very much a thing of the past, that they could have been incorporated into Muslim and Christian celebrations as has sometimes happened elsewhere in West Africa.
When the time came to think about textiles, it became clear that yet again the usefulness of ethnicity was limited, and that the popular West African interest in textiles served in many cases to transcend any ties to immediate locality. Form and technology were often a better guide to understanding history, as I have already suggested for Ebira women’s weaving; and Yoruba adire could not have happened without access to certain elements of early colonial technology. Recent work by Doran Ross (Ross et al 1998) has shown the value of Asante textile patterns in current African-American social practices. The distribution of the wide-sleeved gown among ethnic Fulani, Hausa, Nupe, Yoruba and other peoples did not demand some kind of oxymoronic cultural border-crossing hypothesis. Rather it was related first to the success and long-running implications of the Islamic jihad of the early 19th century, and second to the debate about dress and identity among Sierra Leone repatriates in Lagos later in the same century. In any case, the manufacture of, and trade in particular textiles, in appropriate circumstances allow for the establishment of boundaries particular to those textiles. Then, of course, there are the so-called African-print fabrics that come out of the Dutch attempts to undercut Indonesian batik, textiles that not only utterly frustrate the dominant paradigms, but which, l have suggested, allowed for a modern representation of an inheritance of tradition, and the representation of local modernities, and subtle popular resistance to colonial rule (Picton 2001a & b, 1995a & c).
Modernity now cannot be the same as modernity then
Modernity now cannot be the same as modernity then, whenever it was. Around AD 1500 a copper-alloy caster in Benin City made a new form, a rectangular plaque, whereupon many plaques were commissioned for display on the wooden pillars of the courtyards of the royal palace; but neither the form nor the material used were indigenous. Though copper-alloy casting had a long history by then; the material used was the brass obtained from trade with the Portuguese whence, perhaps also came the essentially two-dimensional form (this raises interesting questions about a history of formal engagements between aspects of European and African visual representation culminating, of course, in the distinctive features of African photography, a subject l do not deal with here). At about the same time as the arrival of the Portuguese in Benin City, there was a Black trumpeter at the court of the English king Henry Vll: he appears in a scroll commemorating the celebration of the birth of a son to Catherine of Aragon and the future Henry Vlll in 1511 (Commission for Racial Equality 1996, p 1). Moreover, in Sierra Leone, Benin City and the kingdom of Kongo, artists were carving in ivory for the tourists of the day: the earliest documented examples of African art in Europe are two Kongo ivory trumpets in the collection of the Medici in Florence, mid-16th century (Bassani & Fagg 1988). Two centuries before, a Mediterranean brass-casting technology allowed for the transformation of the art of lfe; and about the same time, the first gold coins were minted in England of Malian gold. All these were modern in their day just as masquerade, hand-woven cloth, easel painting, photography and installation, and so on and so forth, are modern now.
It should also be clear that neither ‘Africa’ nor ‘Europe’ were entirely separate categories, entirely sealed off from each other. Each comprises, in human terms, sets of shared experiences; and sometimes these overlap. Of course, the transformations wrought by the Saharan, Indian Ocean and Atlantic slave trades, colonial government and resistance thereto, and all the developments in technology, education and communications through the past 150 years have been profound; but recent engagements between the local and the long-distant are also manifestations of processes of very considerable antiquity. The painted or engraved illustrations of north African horse-drawn chariots found across the Sahara in the second and first millennia BC, mark the western and central trade routes also known to Islamic traders and travelers, suggesting that for as long as there has been a Sahara people have been going back and forth across it. In that sense (I am not here concerned with economics but with the facts of people moving from one place to another for whatever reason), what is now called globalisation is nothing new. Moreover, as the ivories of circa 1500 suggest, artists making things for foreign consumption, or perhaps moving to work in foreign parts, is nothing new either; and there is evidence for textiles passing across the Sahara in both directions. The enforced removal of people to the Americas produced, in due course, an enrichment of art in the Americas and Europe; but it is also worth remembering the experience of another diaspora which was the basis from which resistance to colonial rule was initiated. The West African intellectuals who were responsible were often the children of those who had been enslaved and liberated in Freetown. Many had traveled to Europe for high-level educational purpose, and on their return they had the support of diasporic Africans from the Americas. This was also the context for the inception of photography, the earliest form of modern African visual practice (Revue Noire 1999), and of Africa- print fabric (Picton 2001a & b).
No one can deny that artists in Africa now have a hard time, and, while all artists will always tell you that, there can be little doubt that conditions throughout most parts of Africa are not as they should be. The institutional support through education, employment and patronage, both state and individual, that is to an extent available to artists in Nigeria, is all but absent in Kenya. These conditions may be variable but they are not static. Organizations such as the Nigeria-based Pan African Circle of Artists [PACA] are working with energy and enthusiasm to raise the public profile of artists. The Kuona Trust is actively creating opportunities for artists in Kenya (see Burnet in Picton, Loder & Court, 2002). The Triangle Workshop movement is working to create international artists networks in many countries in Africa (see Loder in Picton & Law 2000). Isolation is, of course, reinforced by the way in which the Kleptocracies of sub-Saharan Africa have made it impossible for libraries to keep up-to-date, promoting instead ‘the dearth of books, research and charismatic and committed scholarship occasioned y a progressive intellectual desertification…
‘Ikwuemesi in Ikwuemesi & Adewunmi 2001 p 5). This quote is taken from A Discursive Bazaar: writing on African art, culture and literature, published by PACA, which stands alongside a growing body of critical writing in journals such as Glendora and The Eye in Nigeria, and Gallery in Zimbabwe, in which artists are feeling their way. Then, as if the problems internal to the countries of Africa were not enough, artists have also been faced with the unacceptability of much of their work within the mindset of the primitivist aesthetic foisted upon Africa by European and American connoisseurs; and this attitude still hangs about like a rabid dog, snapping at the heels of a more truthful vision of the world as it is.
Much of this does not, of course, apply to South Africa, in spite of the politics of apartheid. Resistance politics provided the means to overcome the disparities of access to art education, and library resources, art publishing, and international contacts were maintained such that South African artists have had far greater international success than other African countries (Elliot 1990, Picton 19997b, Herreman 1999, Picton & Law 2000).
Some artists living and working in West Africa are manifestly successful nationally and internationally nevertheless
Some artists living and working in West Africa are manifestly successful nationally and internationally nevertheless, especially in Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria. The work of Nigerian printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya, 1932, and Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, b 1944, was selected for exhibition the 1990 Venice Biennale, its first representation of sub-Saharan Africa (see Stanislaus 1990b). By this date Onobrakpeya had long enjoyed a secure local and international patronage, maintaining himself and his studio entirely on the basis of sales (he no longer needed to be the art master at St. Gregory’s). In that sense, one could argue that he is probably one of the most successful West African artists of the latter half of the 20th century; and while his work has a consistent formal trajectory that addresses the condition of the nation, he has been none- the – less eclectic in drawing together Urhobo folk tales (Onobrapkpeya’s ethnic identity), Christian imagery and material culture, body art, textile design forms. It is, thus, all the more extraordinary that in a recent, visually magnificent and comprehensive survey of the field of African art (Visona, Poynor et al, 2000) he should be absent. The only explanation that I can think of is that having chosen to organize the book almost entirely on regional and ethnic terms, an unexplained rationale, and then having no entry for Urhobo, he remained unseen to its authors. El Anatsui, in contrast, is included, but in a chapter entitled ‘Akan Worlds,’ a location that makes little sense for the reasons that he is an ethnic Ewe, which is not Akan, and he continues to teach at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where for a time he worked with the aesthetic of uli initiated by Uche Okeke. These points are made, or at least hinted at, but the essential point is missed; which is that here is an individual trajectory that brings together differing forms, practices, ethnicities and identities internationally (see Ottenbery 1997, Picton et al 1998, Njami 2001), also including studying art and art education at the College of Art, Kumasis. For example, one of the works in Venice, Grandma’s Cloth, 1998 (see Stanislaus 1990b, p 128), was composed of fifteen long wooden panels put together in the manner of a narrow-strip textile, each scorched by fire, and with some additional color in manner that seemed to draw upon several design traditions, West and Central African; but it was neither a replica nor a document of the reality of these traces for it is as much about working methods common to modernity (see Houghton & Peri-Willis, in Picton 1998).
El Anatsui has in fact been successful internationally through the years since the mid 1970s exhibiting in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Demark, Sweden, USA, Cuba, Brazil, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Japan; and his work can be found in public collections in Nigeria, Ghana, U.S.A., Demark, Germany and Japan; yet he continues to live and work in Nigeria. Much the same could be said of Onobrakpeya, though the details will be different (Onobrakpeya 1985, 1988, 1992; and see Picton 1997b for experts from Onobrakpeya’s books).
Clearly, no one paradigm is sufficient for the full understanding of these artists: particular aspects require different kinds of explanation; and if this is true for these artists, why should it not be true for all the others whatever the medium and tradition? And if this is true post- 1850, why should it not be so pre-1850?
Another case in point is the Ghanaian painter and print maker, Atta Kwami, b 1956, who while continuing to work in the College of Art at the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, has since the mid- 1990s exhibited in Ghana, Ivory Coast,South Africa, Kenya, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. He too has works in collections internationally (including Britain, USA, Kenya; and he is also researching the wider environment of visual practice in Kumasi to which I shall refer below. Like Anatsui he is in ethnic terms Ewe, but he works in kumasi. His mother was an artist and art teacher, and perhaps more responsible than anyone else for his motivation to art; he was a student in Kumasi but later studied at the Royal College of Art, thereby replicating a principle of internationalism in education that is, if I dare use the word, “ traditional” in west Africa, at least since the 1850s.
Atta Kwami insists that his working aesthetic has been shaped by the rich visual culture of modern Ghana, and while his work is utterly particular to him, it does bear the traces of other people’s practices: textile design and mural painting in northern Ghana as well as the Kumasi shop fronts that frame the display of goods for sale within, shop fronts that also illustrate those very goods just in case you had not noticed, and the brightly colored roadside kiosks variously selling everything from lottery tickets to cold beer. His work is thereby about a sense of place, but only partially. It might seem like a series of small snapshots, or the long narrow view of a world as seen through a doorway not quite open; but there is always much more to it than it. It is rather like the blink of an eye or a sideways glance in which you suddenly notice something you had not noticed before. Atta kwami’s work is about visual environments that constitute a world that he carries with him wherever he goes, a ‘nowhere world’, as he calls it, yet one that allows particular places to be perhaps, of those sideways glances.
I mention El Anatsui and Atta Kwani because of their success through the past decade in learning to address an international art patronage system while continuing to work, and teach, in West Africa. However, artists such as they comprise a mere handful when compared to the very great numbers of artists in the region. Why is this? When the practice of the visual arts is as obviously successfully as it is throughout much of the continent of Africa, in spite of the problems, why are there so few who are as successful internationally as they are at home? What is the secret of successfully addressing home and international audiences? Is it possible for an artist to address different audiences, each with their expectations and preferences? And it does matter, for creative advances almost always depend upon those engagements with elsewhere to which I have already referred. The new generation of Russian artists who almost a century ago went to Paris to absorb the latest formal developments, returned home to apply what they had learned, while also drawing upon rural decorative arts, signage, and icon painting, and thereby to produce an art and a patronage that was indisputably both Russian and modern. There are clear parallels in the work of some of the artists I have mentioned so far; but are there lessons from this engagement that could still be learned? I suspect that there are but I cannot pretend to have the answers to all the questions, and I remain puzzled at the relative lack of success internationally of too many of these artists. Prejudice may be part of the answer sometimes, but I do not think it is the entire explanation. Economies that have been managed in such a manner as to prevent the support now taken for granted in Europe and America, also preventing international contact and exchange, must also be part of the reason. This is where, as noted above, the workshop movement pioneered by Robert Loder and Sir Anthony Caro continues to play a much-needed role, together with the funding available through the agencies such as the Ford Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund.
In the Venice Biennale of 1990, Onobrakpeya and Anatsui were shown with three sculptors from Zimbabwe: Tapfuma Gutsa, Nicholas Mukomberanwa and Henry Munyaradzi. All five had been shown in the pioneering Contemporary African Artists: Changing Traditions exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, earlier the same year, together with Yousouf Bath (Ivory Coast), Ablade Glover (Ghana), Rosemary Karuga (Kenya), and Souleymane keita (Senegal), a group drawn together by Grace Stanislaus on the basis of her research (Stanislaus 1990a). The Harlem/Venice show was, of course, followed by the Susan Vogel’s 19991 Africa Explores which was, in spite of its often critical reception, a magnificent and equally pioneering demonstration of the extraordinary diversity of current practice (for further discussion of these and other shows around a that time see Picton 1922b, 2002). The contrast between Harlem/Venice 1990 and Documental 11- platform 5 2002 (Enwezor 2002) is instructive, for it presents a clear measure of progress; and it is not just that about 14% of the work on show is from sub – Saharan Africa (Senegal, Benin Republic, Ivory Coast , Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo – Zaire, Uganda, South Africa), the work of fourteen individuals and two collective out of 115 exhibits that also includes North African and diasporic Black and Africa artists in addition. In Venice 1990 ‘Africa’ was presented in what seemed like an unfinished outhouse at the back of the Italian pavilion, whereas in Documenta no one is there as representing any constituency other than the international constituency of art; and Okwui Enwezor’s vision is, as we should expect, sufficiently well informed as to include William Kentridge among other Black and White South Africans (the latter a constituency denied entry to Visona et al).
We must also consider those internationally successful African artists who do not address a ‘home’ audience
We must also consider those internationally successful African artists who do not address a ‘home’ audience (and there are those who resist the category ‘Africa’). Yinka Shonibare, Lagosian, Yoruba, Nigerian, is a good case in point; for there can be no doubt of his success in Britain and Europe and the USA (Hynes 2001, Pcton 2001 a). In part, he attributes his success to his gallery, the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London (a point worth noting) but one should not overlook the quality of his work, developed in photography and in installation using African print fabric. Among other things, Shonibare reveals the hidden Black presence within Europe, while deconstructing the taken-for-granted ethnic and other stereotypes faced by Black and Africa people. On one occasion, when asked (in London) ‘where is Africa in your work’, he made it quite plain that his work is not about Africa. If he were working primarily to an audience in any West African city he would be obliged to find another way of working. Nevertheless, that Shonibare is African is among the resources to be drawn upon in his work, and so too are his Yoruba and Lagosian identities. In this regard there is a clear contrast with Chris Ofili, an artist of Igbo parentage who rejects any association with an ‘African’ identity, as indeed does El Anatsui. Neither artist wishes to be typecast, so to speak, and neither wishes to play with the idea of ‘African’ in the manner of Shonibare even as their work is about the worlds they inhabit. Ofili has, of course, been chosen to represent Britain at the next Venice Biennale, following in the footsteps of Anish kapoor, who represented Britain in 1990 (see Southampton Art Gallery etc 1998, Victoria Miro Gallery 2002).
Yinka Shonibare is African, yet his work is not about Africa, in the continental land-mass sense. Can he, therefore, in some sense stand for, represent, Africa? Moreover, his work falls roughly within the rubrics of what is sometimes called ‘conceptual art’; but who in tropical Africa is going to spend money on this kind of art? Everyone might like paintings, prints or photographs in their houses; but conceptual work, with its emphasis on installation: where on earth does one put it if and when you get it home? I am not about to launch into a philistine tirade; yet to display some of Shonibare’s work one might well have to double the size of one’s house! There are at least two problems here: the status of conceptual art, and the nature and relevance of the diasporas; and these issues are important not least because of “Authentic/Ex-Centric: conceptualism in contemporary African art” (Hassan & Olu Oguibe 2001), which accompanied the Venice Biennale exhibition Authentic/Ex-Centric: in and out of Africa and which was made possible with the support of the Prince Claus Fund.Hassan and Oguibe brought together work by two South Africans, Boshoff and Berni Searle; Maria Magdalena Campos – Pons, a Cuban artist now living in the USA; Godfried Donkor, Ghanaian living in London; Zineb Sedira, Algerian, brought up in Paris; and, of course, Yinka Shonibare. Except for the South Africans, each of these artists is in one way or another diasporic; although each is part of a latter –day diaspora, except for Campos-Pons whose ancestor were part of the diaspora of the slavery that brought them to Cuba. The many Diasporas also belong to Africa in a world in which we are increasingly aware of our interconnections. Moreover, as noted, the experience of diaspora was often essential to the process of defining modern ethnicity and to the inception of independence movements. Nevertheless, the more an artist responds to the conditions of the diaspora the less his/her work will respond to local interests. That does not make the work any less interesting, but its relevance to a local audience is inevitably diminished. Keeping in balance the needs of different audiences is no easy matter, so perhaps it is little wonder that so few artists do so. Nevertheless, it is how the work is about diasporic or continental concerns that it is of interest internationally. Does it matter in an increasingly globalised world that artists are taken to represent Africa when their work addresses problems faced by people of African descent living in Europe? I doubt it, provided we are reliably informed. It does matter that everyone knows in what manner an artist represents and is chosen to represent which kind of Africa.
The second issue at stake here is that of conceptual art
The second issue at stake here is that of conceptual art; and when one looks through Hassan & Oguibe 2001, one finds paintings by Donkor that would grace the wall of a rich patron’s home perhaps; and one might, if one could afford it, paper a room with the designs of Boshoff or Sedira or Shonibare. Much of the rest needs a gallery-type space for adequate viewing. Conceptual art is not necessarily best suited to providing the kind of artwork that you might keep at home, on the wall, in the garden, and so forth, and other than in South Africa, critical patronage in sub-Saharan Africa is not yet ready for much of this work; and anyway not every artist either wishes to or should be pushed into working in this kind of way; but the conceptual should not be condemned as an alien or Western’ intrusion.
The argument advanced by Hassan and Oguibe is intriguing. At first sight conceptualism appears as a development in Europe and America, but ‘attempts to designate a firm genealogy or lineage can only be futile…It is perhaps more helpful, therefore, to look instead at the different traits and characteristics… The first of these is self-reflexivity, by which the work of art is turned on itself and ultimately on the very notion of art…Another element…is the disdain for objectness as sine qua non,…art ceases to be defined merely along the predictable lines of the tangible…A third element or tendency in conceptual art is the pre-eminence of framing, whereby the placement of work of art and the consequent context become more important to its meaning and significance than its form …’ (Hassan and Oguibe 2001, 10 – 11). They continue (pp 14 – 15): ‘Yet, rarely has any discussion of conceptualism and conceptual art practices tried to map its terrain outside the West…Neither has there been any effort to explore possible sources or origins of conceptualism outside the West.’ They give two reasons in particular why this is worth looking into. The first is that ‘certain strategies adopted…performance art, installation, text-based art, use of the found object and the ephemeral, were already evident in non- Western artistic, philosophical and spiritual practices…Second was the formal evidence, namely that these cultures integrated real life objects in art…With the foregoing in mind, we can state that if any creative or critical strategy establishes a firm link between contemporary and classical African art, that strategy is conceptualism, with both emphasizing the pre-eminence of idea over form.’ An early manifestation of conceptualism was provided by the Crystalist Group which emerged in the Sudan in the early 1970s. In 1978 Muhammad Shaddad, Kamala Ishaq and Naila El Tayib issued The Crystalist Manifesto (see Deliss et al, 1995, p 242) in which the cosmos is described as ‘a project of a transparent crystal craftsmanship…’ (translated by Hassan in Deliss et al). moreover, ‘within these crystal cubes human beings are prisoners of an absurd destiny’ (Hassan and Oguibe 2001, 18).
Nevertheless, while their argument does illuminate certain changes in working practices, I have to admit that I am not happy with the classical/contemporary division, because art-historically it does not work, as I have already suggested. I would argue that much of this debate depends upon a European – American narrowing of just what art is, or rather just what can we include within the idea of “art” thus certain kinds of practice, having been excluded from “art” because that narrowing, now seem to be avant-grade only because they have been allowed back in. Ikem Okoye (1996) describes a representation of the Igbo deity Anyanwu of about 1910 that is composed of Schnapps bottles, an artifact that today we should happily refer to as installation; and I am sure that all of us in the course of ethnographic and art-historical research have come across comparable examples. Wandering about Enugu in May 2002 I found a shoe shop in which each individual shoe was displayed hanging from the roof on the lean-to shelter that was the shop. The display was certainly eye-catching. I also remember the first time I met Anako, an elder living in the village of Kuroko, and seeing in the dim light of his bedroom what seemed like a cloud of chicken feathers in the corner. Arising from it was a stool upon which was a large, almost spherical basket with poisoned arrow sticking into it. Anako, because of his age and descent status, was charged by his lineage with the care of Onogidi, ‘the Ogidi man’ (a non – Ebira community with whom Ebira people had been in the habit of feuding), a masquerade of considerable repute especially in healing.
Nevertheless, Hassan and Oguibe’s discussion still matters precisely for the manner in which it forces us to consider these things. Neither arguments, nor conceptualism, nor the African artists involved therein (diasporic or continental) can simply be dismissed. In the world as it is ‘just now’, there is a stategy of proven value in dealing with an ‘art world’ beyond Africa. It is worth noting, of course, the conceptualisms entailed in the work of El Anatsui and Atta Kwami; and in a review in a recent issue of the Zimbabwean journal, Gallery, of the Barcelona exhibition Africas :the artist and the city, we read about ‘a spectacular installation by Dilomprizulike from Nigeria, the Braggard and The Braggard’s Wife, spelled out the greed and moral decay…that lies at the heart of individuals in contemporary culture,’ (Pearce 2001, 6) Is conceptualism the only strategy, even in Africa? Should it be? I doubt, but really these are questions for artists not for me. Or is that anyway all art is conceptual somehow?
I have already argued that neither globalization, in the sense in which I have used it, or modernity (and for a brief note of the difference between this and modernism see Picton 200a, p 93, note 5) are in principle anything new, that communities in West Africa have forever updated their visual practices with a measure of eclecticism; that present engagements between local and long-distance elements in visual practice are the current manifestation of processes that can be traced back to antiquity; and that local agency is the key factor in these processes (Fardon 1995). In consequence whatever we mean by ‘international’, it is part of all this; and ‘international’ does not only have to mean Europe and USA: there are many possibilities within Africa if artists choose to create them, as already seen with Atta Kwami. Of course, there have been obvious economic and technical reasons why international events have in practice been staged in Europe and America but we all know it ought not to be like this; which is one reason among many why we should celebrate the Prince Claus Fund support for The Pan African Circle of Artists and the publications Authentic /Ex-Centric: in and out of Africa (Hassan & Oguibe 2001) and The Art of African Fashion (Hassan et al 1998), and in like manner the work of Robert Loder and the Triangle Arts movement, making it possible for artists to meet and work internationally. More of this is needed in Africa. It is after all how Chris Ofili discovered the elephant dung and the spotted patterns of rock art that have provided him with such profitable ‘trademark’. Atta Kwami now has work in the Kuona Trust collection in Nairobi (Picton, Loder & Court 2002, p 36). Moreover, the success of photography and film festivals in Mali and Burkina is further evidence that international events do not always have to take place in Europe or the USA. In 1999 the Kunsthalle, Bern, Switzerland, organized an exhibition entitled South Meets West in which countries in West and Southern African was shown first in Accra and then in Bern. The Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, 1995, was followed in 1996 by a critical discussion of its merits and achievements; and the conclusion of this discussion was twofold: that people should be enabled to see more of what was going on now in Africa, and that African artists should be included in international exhibitions. Indeed, the recognition by Europe and the USA that a debt that is still to be paid for its relative prosperity is long overdue, but it is beginning to happen in these and other ways as noted in regard to Documenta11.
I have referred to a “Western” narrowing of the idea of art
I have referred to a “Western” narrowing of the idea of art, a narrowing that has been to some extent exploded by the conceptual movement. I reject the view that a “Western concept of art” can be contrasted with an African concept, not least because there is no such thing, historically, as either a ‘Western’ or an ‘African’ concept: there are lots of ideas/concepts of art in Europe, Africa, and everywhere else for that matter, and I suspect that there are more art theories in Africa than the “Western” mind has ever imagined. In any case, ideas about art are all too often contingent upon an example, the very idea of art for art’s sake became popular in Europe in specific circumstances of wealth creation, industrial development and so forth; and art achieves a certain social purpose by denying that it had any! The contrast between art that is for art’s sake and art that is ‘functional’ simply does not work: all art has an element of formal and practical autonomy, and in that sense it is art for art’s sake, but at the same time all art has social value.
The important points to hang on to are more-or-less obvious: artists are makers, all making entails an art of some kind. The word merely derives form the Latin for ‘skill’, and the exercise of and an interest in the skill in making is universal. The practice of art inevitably entails an ‘art world’, in the sense of a complex of institutions concerned with education and training, patronage and display, and of course the art-making itself; and embedded into this one can expect to find a critical discourse, but this is not always so, and it is in any case always the most elusive of the components of an art world (eg. See Cold 1982, ch 5). Artists may be makers, but they are thus not self-made (Wolff 1981), although the relationships between maker, teacher, patron and so forth, were always complex; and several art world are likely to co-exit within any given time and place.
As an example of the co-existence of ‘art worlds’, I should like to refer briefly to the city of Kumasi, the capital, as everyone knows, of the Asante nation since its foundation circa AD1700, and now situated in modern Ghana. I realize that everything I describe about Kumasi could of course be paralleled in most African cities, especially those associated with major pre-colonial states; except that in Kumasi these things seem to subsist with a particular intensity, and one realizes that here is a city that is on no one’s global periphery. It is itself a centre of global culture and as any city of this kind (London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Lagos, Paris…) the global mix is site specific, so to speak: cultural globalization does not lead to cultural homogenization. Kumasi is its own centre, and any centre attracts peripheral novelty, as we shall see.
The royal palace was once situated where the modern commercial quarter now exists. It was destroyed during colonial battles and another palace subsequently built in another part of the city. Royal and chiefly ceremonial thrives, as indeed one should expect of any major city, town and village: the examples are many and various. In Asante the requirements of this ceremonial entail the services of weavers and other cloth-makers, smiths working in brass and gold, woodcarvers, Umbrella makers, and so forth; and each of these arts may also work for an external patronage (i.e. tourists and others) even as they continue to work for the institutions of royal and chiefly display. Indeed, to least among the achievements of President Nkrumah was to popularize local and indigenous dress traditions thereby ensuring the continued florescence of textile arts, as one can also easily see at Saturday funerals and Sunday church services. Each of these arts thus has its location of making, its apprenticeship system of education and training, its patronage and its contexts of display; but they are not frozen in some imaginary time-warp. There is the accumulation of new imagery, the incorporation of local design forms into the material culture of christainity, and a more open recruitment to the practice of these arts: on a visit to Krokrofrom with Atta Kwami in 1999 I met a Nigerian apprentice brass-caster, and in Bonwire women have entered the weaving system and African –American popular demand (Ross 1988).
Nevertheless, taken together, the institutions of Asante nobility constitute an active and thriving Kumasi ‘art world’, but it is not the only one, for Atta Kwami has documented some 89 painting studios scattered through the city; and here I am glad of the opportunity to credit this on-going research of Atta Kwami. Each is autonomous with its master, his assistants and apprentices now including women and men. Their work includes a wide range of commercial output: motor-vehicle number plates and decorative painting, shop fronts and signage, roadside kiosks, posters and banners, and so forth. Their work also includes what Kwame Akoto, the master of the Almighty God Artworks, call ‘creativity art’, i.e. pictures created for reasons of their subject matter and independently of a commercial or signage context. These can be moralizing, biblical, biographic, topical depictions of local practices, portraits, and so forth. Their work is sometimes hyper-realistic, sometimes naïve, sometimes blatant in its imagery and sometimes comic; and it often includes lettering. Kwame Akoto is familiar with the work of Botticelli, William Blake, Rene Magrite and the lurid illustrations of modern Christian –Pentecost literature. Atta Kwami has also found that a European patron has supplied Akoto with the illustrated catalogue of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Kwame Akoto also uses photographs as sources of pictorial composition.
These artists are manifestly successful with both local and international clients. (It was artists of this kind, especially from Kinshasa, who were accorded a kind of neo-primitivist notoriety in the 1989 Paris exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre, which propagated the idea of the self-taught visionary as the acceptable face of a modern African art. This was, of course, entirely silly not least because these artists are trained by a rigorous programme of exercises within an apprenticeship system: ‘auto-didacts’ they are not. Yet their work cannot be dismissed for reasons of that notoriety: they are successful in maintaining a local patronage, and provided this is not entirely subverted by an international patronage, who cares that they also sell paintings in France, the Netherlands, the international patronage, who cares that they also sell paintings in France, the Netherlands, the USA…As with the arts of nobility, here too is an institutional framework that provides for training, making, patronage and display; but when one considers the subject matter of these artists, given the representation of the ritual and ceremonial institutions of Asante in their paintings, it is clear that the city painting studios and the arts of nobility are not hermetically sealed off from each other. The latter provides documentary subject matter for the former, and both are contemporary in the only real sense of that word: i.e. they are of the same time.
Another ‘art world’ in Kumasi, contemporary with the others, is provided by the College of Art in the University of Science and Technology. Amongst its distinguished teachers was the painter Ablade Glover, b 1934, who, in retirement, runs the Artists’ Alliance Gallery outside Accra. Ato Delaquis, b 1945, by now the senior member of its faculty, is also a painter whose work has developed along the lines of a local social realism, with the urban environment as its subject matter. Atta Kwami also teaches there and was once one of Delaquis’ students. He too in his particular way, as already noted, draws upon the local visual environment. Among the sculptors were E.K.A. Azzii-Akator, whose work can be seen on almost every roundabout in central Kumasi, commenmorating events in Asante history, and, of course, El Anatsui, (For discussion of these and others see Fosu 1993, pp 184 – 220).
As with the institutions of nobility and the city sign painters, the University College of Art comprises a distinctive set of intuitions of training, display and patronage; and yet the college artist and the city painters are drawing upon overlapping fields of visual interest, while some city painters are said to have been trained at the university (and as in all these discussions there is that Kaleidescopic narrative of identity-and-difference). Moreover, there are yet other ‘art worlds’ in Kumasi, especially the photographers; and quite apart from the dress requirements of an elite nobility, there are the quite separate concerns of commonplace dress and high-style fashion, and other, if more diffuse, ‘art worlds’ are provided by market and road-side traders. As one walks and looks around Kumasi, one sees the way the sellers of oranges, motor-vehicle tyres, and all manner of goods, carefully arrange their wares to create a display that is worth looking at.
In terms of a tradition of practice, i.e., a handing-on of working methods and so forth, there is no doubt that the arts of nobility underpin much else that happens in Kumasi. They provide, as noted, subject matter and they comprises the oldest of these contemporary art worlds; but myth and history should not be allowed to obscure the modernity and contemporarily of any tradition. The College of Art is as much as tradition as any other ‘art world’, for here too ideas-and-practices are ‘handed on’ (otherwise what is the point of it?). it was first established at Achimota in the late 1920s, thus well pre-dating the inception of local signage (again part of he current research by Atta Kwami), and only moved to Kumasi in the 1950s. All these art worlds exist in virtue of particular traditions of visual practice; and all are contemporary. One can sometimes date the inception of particular traditions and elements thereof (e.g. the use of African-print fabric, see Picton 195a, 2001b) and this is an essential part of the work of the art historian; but to separate one part of this complex of traditions, placing it within a “traditional” category that excludes everything else, is to fall prey to the essentialised and bogus authentification of neo-colonialism.
This, then, is not merely a dispute about categories, but the proposition that a history of art is better served by looking at what really happens, at what real people do, rather than depending upon clichés and stereotypes imposed ready-made from without. The categories we use provide for the interpretation of what we see; and if we can discern the constitution of particular institutional artists and traditions of practice, and so forth, we are more likely to allow the categories we need to emerge from the subjects of our study.
If the “West” has promoted a narrowing of the idea of art, so too it has promoted a narrowing of the idea and role of the artist
If the “West” has promoted a narrowing of the idea of art, so too it has promoted a narrowing of the idea and role of the artist; whereas it will be clear from the examples given that I take a broader view. In any case, the more one surveys the relevant literature about art and artists, whether in Africa or elsewhere, the more it becomes clear that there can never be any one way in which an artist is placed within his/her social environment; and there is certainly no uniquely African idea of the artist. Every possible form of status can be located somewhere or other: the artist as socially unacceptable deviant, as a maker of things, as entrepreneur, as an established figure of significance beyond his status as a maker of things, as entrepreneur, as an established figure of middle rank within a hierarchy of offices, as a figure of high social standing; and there are people who take up art as a means of healing. One can demonstrate the variability of esteem through time and between different kinds of skill; and more often than not one finds, as in Opin, that artistry is a social necessity, while the artist has no particular status: if a man was appointed to a lineage title he had to stop carving. I have referred to the problems faced by artists; and yet, is there any objective reason why a painter or sculptor should, as a matter of principle, expect any esteem greater than a motor mechanic? Of course, there are always the individuals who stand out, whether because of their service to a patron or to their local community, or some other interest group, or because they somehow catch the mood of the moment, or even perhaps because of a widespread judgment that they are especially good at what they do. Otherwise artists can expect little as of right and they have to live with this unless or until they can demonstrate their particular value to their given community.
I have referred to the critical discourse embedded within particular ‘art worlds’ a discourse that is not always easy to locate; and indeed in Africa there are circumstances within older traditions in which choices between artists seemed to have been made in the absence of critical judgement; or rather, a critical judgement was indeed made, but we have no idea how the choice was arrived at. There is certainly room for more thinking, more research and more critical writing. Most artists are also teachers, so they are used to talking about art: perhaps they should write more about art in general as indeed is beginning to happen. It will then become clear that the processes of evaluation and choice are some of the things that need to be written about. More attention to the accurate description of practice and the assessment of intention is needed in all the circumstances of visual practice. This too is no easy matter, but critical discourse begins here; and too much of what has been written is caught up in inadequate theories of expression and meaning.
In spite of everything, famines, plagues, civil wars and kleptocratic governments, the arts in Africa present a record of positive achievement and success although I am not so insensitive as to think that everything is as it should be really. Nevertheless, artists are as necessary as healers, social scientists and historians in what The Pan African Circle of Artists May 2002 pre-conference brochure referred to as the need to ‘rehumanise’ the social world. Indeed so; and whatever the conditions of a given place or region, art-markers, teachers and patrons can build upon that record and give a lead in taking responsibility for this process while also providing a resource for the future. Bruce Onobrakpeya in his commentary on his 1972 plastograph Bathers at a Stream writes that ‘Body marking is a corner stone in African art’ (1992, p.139). But for the project of Natural Synthesis, there are many people for whom this tradition would have remained unknown. However, an obsolescent tradition was not merely subject matter for an artist within a newer tradition of practice, it points us to a more profound truth about art in Africa, a truth that leads one to suggest that reflexivity, the idea of art addressing art, is not so ‘modern’ ether. For body marking was and is not merely an art, or, to be more precise, a series of arts; for when one looks at the traditions of sculpture for which Africa is justly famous, the human body was never shown completely naked, but rather as already socialized through those other and prior arts.
In 1997 I worked with Robert Loder on an exhibition of prints, drawings and sculpture from South Africa and Nigeria, ‘the twin giants of Africa’ (Pearce 2001, 4), an exhibition that, of course, included work by Bruce Onobrakpeya and his former studio assistant, Tayo Quaye (Picton 1997b). Onobrakpeya had taken to printmaking as a means of producing a less expensive work of art to encourage local patronage in the context of an art that would respond to a developing sense of national identity in an independent Nigeria. In contrast, in South Africa the apartheid system denied art education to Black South Africans; but this was challenged by projects such as the Swedish Lutheran Rorke’s Drift project (Rankin 1997). Printmaking, in particular the linocut, was encouraged because it was a less expensive and thus more accessible medium: it was something you could do on the township kitchen table at night even if people were asleep on the floor underneath. Whatever the subject matter of the work in hand the very fact of art making was a consequence and a contestation of apartheid. Perhaps the best – known student of the Rorke’s Drift project was the Namibian, John Muagangejo, a devout Anglican, and much of his work shows this, contrast here between Nigeria and South Africa, two quite different contexts and explanations for the on – going popularity of this medium, was a significant realization; but the work of many of these artists raised another important question.
The sculpture in the show was dominated by the monumental work of Jackson Hlungwani, who had also represented South Africa in the 1993 Venice Biennale (Revue Noire 1993). He is a former migrant worker, and the founder of his own Christian Church and his sculpture is concerned with the building of his New Jerusalem. Although the details of his life have acquired near-mythic status, it seems that he took to sculpture as a means of personal healing, following upon affliction and visionary experiences; and I have later written ‘although one might think Jackson draws upon the sculptural traditions of the northern Transvaal, his vision surely transcends locality and ethnicity as it transcends sectarian bickering and …who would contest a vision of the forgiveness as brotherhood’ (Picton 2000b, p299). I would emphasize, in retrospect, that it is here the art-making that transcends: I was not trying to somehow preach on Jackson Hlungwani’s behalf, not least because he can do that for himself, and I am certainly surplus to his requirements. What I wanted to do was to get inside an intention to make art that has also been informed by very personal visionary experiences that for him are Biblical and Christian. I would also make the point that his Christianity is, however, not somehow co-incidental to his work but is at the very centre of it, a realization that is uncomfortable for the most part in a “Western” intellectual environment.
The same would be true of the Kumasi painter, Kwame, Akoto, master of the Almighty God Art Works. He had been, he told me, an inveterate womanizer until he met the woman he was later to marry, who took him to charismatic healing whereupon he vomited out the poisons with which he had been afflicted by St. Anthony. For it had been the spirit of St. Anthony that had made him a womanizer. When I questioned him about the relationship between this St. Anthony and the Saint of the Christian calendar (and I presume here that it is the Franciscan friar born in Lisbon that we are concerned with, not the much earlier African saint of the Egyptian desert) he told me that when a holy person finished his life in this world his identity can be taken over by an evil spirit. Subsequently I noted that he learned to identify the St. Anthony that afflicted him with Mammy Wata! (At this point, I have no idea who put that idea into his head, though ideas about water spirits are commonplace). Once again, one cannot dismiss his christainity: it is central to his understanding of his own life experiences.
In the show I have most recently worked with Robert Loder there are paintings from Uganda in the 1980s by Josephine Alacu and Godfrey Banadda that bring the experience of military repression together with an imagery that comes in part from local folktales and in part form the Biblical narratives of redemption (Kyeyune in Picton, Loder, and Court 2002, 43-48; see also pp 71-72, 79). Earlier in this paper I referred to the patronage in Nigeria of the Catholic Church. The iniator of this move to Nigerianise the material culture of Christianity was, of course, Kevin Carroll (Carroll 1967). He began by employing sculptors, bead embroiderers and so forth, leading in due course to the continuing popularity of Neo-Traditional Yoruba Sculpture, a movement long since free of its initial association with the Catholic Church. However, Carroll was no narrow – minded “traditionalist” but chose to work with artists who would promote a Catholic material culture that looked forward within the terms of the modern national state that had emerged in 1960. One of those who, at an early but crucial stage in his career, was the beneficiary of Catholic patronage was Bruce Onobrakpeya (not as far as I know Catholic, but Carroll was not concerned about the religion of his artist) who produced illustrations for a new Yoruba-language religious education, painted the Stations of the Cross in St. Pauls, Ebute Meta, furnishings for Episcopal private chapels and so forth.
In recent years, there has been a good deal of research into Islamic art in sub-Saharan Africa (most of the references will be found in Picton 1995c) whereas Christianity, other than in Ethiopia, has been so far overlooked. I suspect that this is in part because Islam is easier to comprehend with a mindset that privileges (an invented) “traditionality”, and in part because “Western” academics have largely put religion aside, and for the most part that means Christianity. Both religions, of course, have been responsible for iconoclastic assaults upon local tradition; but in neither case is that the entire story. In the rehumanization of the modern world through art, Christianity certainly does not provide the only source of imagery and hopefulness; but it is one of the available options and its positive effects are there to be seen as part of a modern, literate African world, in art as in other areas of social traditions presumed to pre-date the two world religions; and they are not the only two, for Accra has the Hindu Temple of West Africa on its outskirts.
In this paper I have for the most part attended to arts that have been categorized as modern or “contemporary”. This is not because there is no longer anything worth doing in regard to the arts that are “traditional”- that would be an assumption of great foolishness. Rather, the modern world is not a complete rupture with the past: the history of art has always been a story of loss and gain; and there are often interconnections between different forms and developmental trajectories. Moreover, the modernity of the present time and its recent history throws key taken – for – granted assumptions about art in Africa into disarray. Even the usefulness of ethnicity cannot be taken for granted. As I suggested much earlier the process of understanding has to begin at a more particular level: this artist, that technique, this patron, that masked event, this kind of education, that tradition, etc, and each recognized for its own history; and if there is a second point, it would be that together we have to look at it all.
Postscript: The Picasso Bar, Kumasi.
Picasso is a grand irrelevance to art in Africa. The formal experiments leading to that picture of Avignon prostitutes began before he had seen any African sculpture, while the positioning of the figures therein derive from the dirty postcards of his day (see Baldassari 1997). Indeed, those European pictures of semi-naked Malian women were in marked contrast to the ways African people chose to have themselves photographed by their own photographers (e.g. see Oguibe 1996, 2001, Diawara 2000). So why end with ‘Picasso’? On a Sunday afternoon in June 1995 I had been to the weaving town of Bonwire; and returning to Kumasi, as I got out of the bus, there it was on the other side of the street: the Picasso Bar. What was that name doing there? I began to take photographs: the sign had Mickey Mice running along the lettering. A tall, slender, and very black man came out: ‘have you taken permission? I replied: ‘no! sorry; who do I take permission from?’ ‘Me’ he said, and we agreed upon a bottle of beer by way of apology. When I was done I asked: ‘please, can I know your name? He said ‘Elvis Presley!. He was not the owner of the bar but the painter of its sign. His workshop was close by; and Elvis Presley, more usually known as Nana Elvis the King of Kings, is one of the 89 sign-painting studio masters that I refered to earlier. (Nana is a word in Twi, the language of the Asante and related people; an affectionate term of address that is used of both revered authority – the king of the Asante nation is always addressed as nana – and a favored child,) Nana Elvis in Kumasi is as irrelevant to popular USA culture as the Picasso Bar is to European modernism; so why the Picasso Bar? In June 1995 it was late and I had to move on. Four years later I returned to find it repainted in red and gold, the Mickey Mice had gone, and anyway it was closed for a meeting. Atta Kwami has since followed up my curiosity and reports that is proprietor (who now lives in Brooklyn) came across the name and chose it for near – mythic stature in the history of European art-modernism; which is, of course, what this paper has not been about.
I must record my very thanks to Robert Loder, who has provided me with the opportunities to work with an write about art that I should never otherwise have had, and to Atta Kwami with whom, through the last few years I have had a long-running series of conversation about art. Indeed, there are times when I am not sure if an idea was his or mine or whether we both came to it at the same time. Whether Robert and Atta agree with everything I have written here is another matter, of course: I take full responsibility for the views set out here. I am also grateful to Yoshimi Kanazaw, a former BA student at SOAS who was prepared to spend the summer of 1999 in Kumasi assisting Atta Kwami with his survey of the painting studios. For the earlier work in Nigeria I am grateful to many people and institutions, especially Professor Ekpo Eyo, Bishop Alexius Makozi, the late Alhaji Sanni Omolori, Ohinoyi of Ebira, the late Father Kevin Carroll, and the late Andrew Ogumbe, my field assistant.
An earlier vision of this paper was presented at The Pan African Circle of Artists conference in Enugu, Nigeria, May 2002, and I am thus grateful to Krydz Ikwuemesi for his encouragement and support of the Prince Clause Fund.
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