This is African Art? Now You Confuse Me dele jegede Indiana State University, Terre Haute

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This is African Art? Now You Confuse Me
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Indiana State University, Terre Haute.

To the lay public, African art is synonymous with wood sculpture. For some, it invokes this eerie feeling that transports the mind to a liminal province and floods the imagination with images of fantastic, even phantasmagoric, masks that are adorned with unfamiliar appurtenances. Didn’t somebody say that the masks are used in connection with their “tribal” ceremonies? For others, African art is exemplified by sculptures or “fetishes” immersed in an accumulation of indeterminate liquid substances. Sometimes the sculptures are adorned with additional “exotic” items, or festooned in colorful materials such as beads, shells, appliqué, raffia, and feathers. African art, for this group, is the art that exists in Africa.

Tautological or even simplistic as this may sound to the trained ear, it probably captures the welter of experiences, and the cascade of emotions—excitement, shock, fascination, love, and bewilderment—that many feel upon first making contact with African art. Our appreciation of African art grows only when we have an understanding of the context within which the art is produced. While we may be fascinated by the unusualness of the figures, such appreciation remains superficial in the absence of a basic understanding of the culture(s) that sustain their production and use. This exhibition must therefore be seen within an educational context. It attempts to build bridges through which cultures can be accessed; through which art becomes the enabling agent that informs, confronts, challenges, and catalyzes change in the viewer.
The diversity of what we call African art is indeed bewildering. Emphatically, it must be said that African art does not consist only of masks and sculptures in the round. It is not “tribal,” and neither is it comprised of “fetishes” that recall “exotic” practices. African art is total art. It is music, dance, theater, poetry, performance, and visual art rolled into one. Although we are content to view objects displayed in museum cases, it must be understood that in several instances, the objects were not made for the mantelpiece or the coffee table. They were not made to be hung on the wall for visitors to gawk at or admire. Where they are meant to be seen, audience participation may become an essential aspect, as during public festivals when masquerades are on parade and are active in performance. But instances abound where the objects are kept away from the uninitiated gaze and it is taboo for certain people to lay their eyes on them. At most other times when the objects are not in use, they are kept in shrines—personal, familial, or community—where they are supplicated and offered libation. Regardless of how well displayed these objects are, and in spite of every effort that a curator may make in presenting African art objects, we must bear in mind that every piece is but an abbreviated part of an original whole. Without the panoply of ceremonies or the aura of the environment in which they would normally function, most of these objects have lost much of the power to titillate maximum sensory enjoyment.
An essential aspect of these pieces pertains to their spiritual connection. Before they metamorphosed into art objects in our museums, many artworks originated in cultural contexts that placed primacy on their spiritual efficacy. It can be said that an object is considered “beautiful” to the extent that it is successful in achieving its spiritual purpose. A bateba carving made by the Lobi of Burkina Faso is highly valued because it is not representative of an idea; it is the idea personified. Once consecrated, the bateba becomes the mediator between the living and the dead. It casts a protective armor around its clients, shielding them from potential harm from witches, sorcerers, and those otherworldly essences who might be inclined to wreak havoc on the innocent, intimidate the defenseless, and make life miserable for the unprotected. In the Federal Democratic Republic of the Congo, an nkisi serves as the spiritual firewall—a dependable force—that, once activated by an nganga who is a versatile spiritualist, launches a series of attacks on evil perpetrators, social deviants, adulterers, and thieves who deny society the pleasure of enjoying the fruits of their labor. For this purpose, an nkisi is often armed to the teeth, literally. Its abdominal cavity contains powerful medicines that spur it to action. Its beauty consists in its hideousness: in the piles of medicines in which it is ensconced in its uncompromising posture, and in they forest of blades that are driven into its body as a testament to its efficacy.
One last piece that exemplifies the spiritual connection of African art is the opon Ifa (Ifa divination tray) or the Yoruba of Nigeria. This tray is used by a priest, or babalawo, in assisting a client to find spiritual solution to his or her problems. The tray functions as a screen for picking up, recording, and translating a client’s aura. Ifa operates at numerous levels: philosophical, symbolic, diagnostic, prescriptive, curative/preventive. The connection between the secular and the spiritual domains is Esu, the fierce, assertive, and mesmerizing messenger god, whose face is customarily inscribed on the rim of divination trays. If you are deceptive, Esu will beat you to it and multiply your misery tenfold. But remain loyal and faithful, you will reap bountiful favors from him. Esu is the liaison that ensures that all sacrifices prescribed by the babalawo are accepted by the gods. He is the commander of the crossroads, the one who delights in having his bath in punishing the defiant, using their blood for ablution.
This brief introduction is probably sufficient to convey the point that Africa art is substantially different from what you know as art in your own community in, say, Knoxville, Tennessee, Boise, Idaho, or Terre Haute, Indiana. However, this is but one side of the coin. The second side, which constitutes a continuum, is generally referred to as contemporary art. You may be inclined to ask what the difference between the two is. You may even wonder whether there is any difference between contemporary African art and contemporary art elsewhere. The short answer to these enquiries is that there is no difference, conceptually, between contemporary African art and contemporary art in the Western world. Contemporary art everywhere, for that matter, is energized by the concept of immediacy. The art explores the richness of media, probes a range of approaches, and fiercely asserts the creative independence of the individual artist. It is no less so in Africa. The distinctive difference comes in the way that style and content or subject matter inflect the finished work. And that, in itself, cannot be divorced from the society and the culture in which the art is produced.
The break from the tradition of creating art that is tied to life cycles marks the beginning of contemporary art in Africa. The dichotomy between these two strands of art can be traced to the introduction of Western education in Africa. That, of course, is as simplified as we can make it. For, in actuality, the continent of Africa has been in a flux arising from the myriad of influences that it has been exposed to. Ali Mazrui calls this the triple heritage. Western culture and Islamic mores fuse with traditional African systems of thought to produce a vibrant, pulsating kaleidoscope. As two major world religions—Islam and Christianity—made inroads into the heart of Africa, they fostered changes that have had tremendous reverberations in all spheres of life: social, educational, political, and cultural. The mode of artistic production in the arts mirrored the changes that occurred in the social fabric. For example, the apprenticeship method through which artists honed their skills gave way with the introduction of formal education. Christianity emphasized the secularity of the arts, in contradistinction to traditional art, which is intertwined with traditional religious practices. In Africa, the advent of Christianity also witnessed a series of orchestrated attacks on the arts, in the belief that they sustained paganism.
With conversion to Christianity and Islam, patronage of traditional art grew weaker. Correspondingly, interest in Western art began to grow. The third decade of the twentieth century witnessed the formalization of Western art at the college level in sub-Saharan Africa. In Ghana, Uganda, Federal Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, art colleges sprang up with curricular that were modeled after those of elite European art schools. Initial reaction to the new art was mixed. Curiosity soon gave way to skepticism, arising from the notion that a degree in the visual arts was “softer” than, say, a degree in law, medicine, and engineering. This did little to dampen the enthusiasm of art students, many of whom soon traveled to various European cities where they continued their study and, in some cases, stayed and practiced.
Today, there are hundreds of departments of art in African countries, with homegrown curricular. Concomitantly, contemporary African artists have emerged with distinctive identities, and with themes and subject matters that plumb the depth of ancient myths or celebrate indigenous modernities. In the 1960s, there arose a second flank, which de-intellectualized the creative process. Known as experimental school, the objective of the protagonists of this school was to cut through all the fetish of the typical Western art curriculum and produce artists with minimum fuss and at little cost. The workshop that best exemplifies this approach was the Mbari Mbayo, or as it is more popularly known, Osogbo School, named after a city in southwestern Nigeria. In 1962, Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger began the first in a series of yearly art workshops that were meant for the underprivileged, the indigent, and the under-educated. Two of the prominent artists to emerge from the third experimental workshop that took place in Osogbo in August 1964 were Jimoh Buraimoh and Twins Seven Seven.1
Before he opted for the workshop, Jimoh Buraimoh was an electrician on the theater group of Duro Ladipo, a key actor in the creative effervescence that erupted in Osogbo in the 1960s. Like many of those who came to prominence through the experimental workshops in Osogbo, Jimoh Buraimoh never envisioned himself as a visual artist. Through experimentation, he evolved a style that has now become his professional trademark. His beaded art is unique because it appropriates the Yoruba ideal of dignity and vividness, which are manifested in Yoruba beaded crowns that are worn exclusively by Yoruba kings, who are called Oba. Taiwo Olaniyi, who is known more popularly as Twins Seven Seven, is unquestionably the artist that epitomizes the spirit of Osogbo. Because he is the only surviving son out of seven pairs of twins, he symbolizes the spirit of abiku—mysterious children who are born to die; children who torture their mothers by dying at will, and willing themselves to be born by the same woman in an endless cycle.
Why is this important? The idea that he is an unusual personage defines his work. His self-assuredness and flamboyance, his versatility in dance, music, and the visual arts, a personality that is gregarious and compelling—all of these are an extension of his art. His work reveals a compulsive aversion to empty spaces. Be they prints, relief panels, paintings, or black and white drawings, Seven Seven’s work is permeated by a desire to fill every available space. Eyo Masquerades mythologizes the most colorful festival in the city of Lagos. As with most of Seven Seven’s work, it is an ideographic piece that makes tangential allusion to Eyo, the masquerades that enchant the people of Lagos Island with their contemporary hauteur. The key characteristics that Seven Seven highlights here are the akete (hats), opambata (long bats), and ago, the voluminous white gowns in which Eyo masquerades are always clad. The masquerades exist in a different world, as anyone who is familiar with the city of Lagos will readily attest. Rather than frame them within a stifling cosmopolitan ambience, the masquerades are located in a world of thatched roofs and rounded huts, all squashed up within an imaginary jungle. This work draws on the creative strength of the artist and capitalizes on a penchant for creating his own world, populating it with his own people who exist according to his creative whims and fancies.
In a different but real world, a world that, for a terribly long period, was polarized by gross abuse, intolerance, and racial bigotry, there lived another artist who, through his art, confronted the mindless acrimony that plagued his world. In South Africa, Ezrom Legae’s heroic attempt at purging himself of the bitterness that apartheid wrought on his soul gave his art an enchanting power. Rather than vent his spleen on the perpetrators of apartheid, Legae imbued his work with such empathy and verve that they seem to palpitate with energy. His series of small, pen and ink drawings complement his bronze sculptures of decapitated or contorted animals in a way that seems to be celebratory and cautionary: the end of apartheid deserved to be commemorated, but nothing should be done to mitigate the episode, to rationalize or resuscitate it in any form. Legae’s art melds sensitivity with courage. Employing tortured animals and burned flesh as metaphor for the stench that apartheid produced, Legae used his work to confront the system. Among the body of work that he created in 1996 are S. A. ’96 Dog Fight—Dog Eat Dog (pen and ink on paper), and The Dying Beast (cast bronze). These pieces amplify the essence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed the dismantling of apartheid in 1994. Although Legae died in 1999 at the age of 61, the fundamental issues that he addressed himself to continue to animate South African art today.
As the beginning of the twentieth century, African artists in their respective countries came under a barrage of attacks that were initiated primarily by European missionaries who associated African art with traditional African religious systems, which they perceived as heathenish and intolerable. At the end of that same century, a remarkable turn-around had occurred. African artists living in Europe and the United States began to exert their creative influence on Western art. In 1974, the Ethiopian artist, Skunder Boghossian moved to Washington, D.C. and began a creative odyssey that has left a strong impact on generations of contemporary African artists. In England, there was Uzo Egonu who moved to that country in 1945 and practiced there as an artist until his death in 1998. Towards the end of that century, it was no longer fashionable to feign ignorance about contemporary African art because of the impact that a new generation of Europe-based African artists continued to make. In their work, these artists promote hybridity and eclecticism. Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili, both of them London-based artists of Nigerian parentage continue to enjoy international acclaim on account of their ability to rupture conservative notions about art in general, and African art in particular. Ofili’s 1996 painting of The Holy Virgin Mary, for example, stirred international furor because of the use of elephant dung and pornographic elements.
It is into this mix that we bring Magdalene Odundo, the Kenya-born artist who, since 1971, has made London her base. By the time she moved to London, Magdalene had had a rich grounding in her native Abaluya culture, in addition to a trip to India and tutelage in a convent school. This exposure to disparate cultural streams would eventually constitute the bedrock of her art as a ceramic artist. Drawing from ancient Maya, Western antiquity, Chinese and African sources, Odundo’s vessels become a celebration of world cultures. In 1974, she traveled to Nigeria and Kenya, where she apprenticed herself to local potters and perfected her skills in hand-building and firing techniques. The pristine elegance that her minimalist vessels radiate testify to Odundo’s ability to judiciously adopt and adapt, to synthesize and impose order on her sources.
It is this ability to respond to changes in concepts and structure that characterizes contemporary African art. Rather than succumb to notions of art that are imposed by others and produce works that fit preconceived formula, African artists continue to expresses their individuality, time, and space. In doing so, they contribute to the blurring of boundaries and demolish stereotypical hierarchies. This exhibition highlights linkages and subtleties in African art. Artists are cultural scribes who, in their work, mirror our current stations at the same time that they predict the future.


In Yoruba cosmology, existence is regarded as enigmatic. The Yoruba acknowledge the inevitability of change and the significance of human agency in influencing the trend of events and the course that this change takes. It is this ability to relativize themselves—to adopt, adapt, and synthesize—that is responsible for the vitality of African arts. “Aye nyi, a n to o,” (literally, “the world turns, we follow”) underlines a philosophical construct, shared by many African cultures, which privileges creative individuals as pace setters in a world where change is embraced as a necessary tonic for rejuvenation and creativity. That is why the Yoruba concept of “logba logba” (literally, “temporal manipulators”) resonate among many African cultures where creativity is measured in muted, trendy paces that reveal flashes of the future without subverting the past.

In the first paragraph, close the inverted comas on “fetishes.”
“….For others, African art is exemplified by sculptures or “fetishes” immersed….”
In the paragraph that begins with “An essential aspect of these pieces….” Change “their” to “its” in the following sentence:
“In the Federal Democratic Republic of the Congo, an nkisi serves as the spiritual firewall—a dependable force—that, once activated by an nganga who is a versatile spiritualist, launches a series of attacks on evil perpetrators, social deviants, adulterers, and thieves who deny society the pleasure of enjoying the fruits of their its labor.”
Still in this same paragraph, insert comas as shown:

“Its beauty consists in its hideousness: in the piles of medicines in which it is ensconced, in its uncompromising posture, and in the forest of blades that are driven into its body as a testament to its efficacy.”

On the paragraph featuring Ali Mazrui’s embedded (1986) citation, make the following changes:
“Ali Mazrui in his 1986 television series calls this the triple heritage. (1986).
On the footnote to your own essay, write the names in full:
Aime Césaire, and Léopold Sédar Senghor
Thanks, Bill.
dele jegede

November 12, 2002

1 Other artists who emerged from the Osogbo workshop included Jacob Afolabi, Rufus Ogundele, Muraina Oyelami, and Adebisi Fabunmi. For an authoritative account of the Mbari Mbayo Club of Osogbo, and the series of workshops that elevated the city to cultural prominence, see Ulli Beier, Contemporary Art in Africa. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968.

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