Works by artists from South of the Sahara are being exhibited at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, one of three exhibitions of African art. The building, a folly Frank Gehry has indulged in his advancing years, reportedly cost just under 900 million dollars, while less than a decade earlier his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao cost a comparatively scant $100 million.
The works are part of a collection that curator André Magnin has put together on behalf of Jean Pigozzi, an art collector and heir to the Simca automobile brand. Pigozzi owns yachts and islands and admits, quite unabashedly, he has never set foot on the African continent and doesn’t plan to. Despite this rather paradoxical setup, the art — vibrant, expressive, masterly — silences any misgivings about the contradictions between art market and free expression, about the morality of exiling these works from their native audience, about the appropriateness of an “African Art” label and, finally, about the subjectivity of a Western critic’s review.
Beyond the hype and issues of ethics are individuals who, like artists everywhere in the world, make creative choices, express their preoccupations, and react to cultural influences. Seni Awa Camara, John Goba and Frédéric Bruly Bouabré have a close relationship to local tradition. All three refer to divine revelation as the trigger to their artistic career or as the inspiration for their work.
Seni Awa Camara
Seni Awa Camara was trained by her mother as a potter to make utilitarian objects. She soon started making sculptures out of clay. While her art appears quite “African” to the Western viewer, it does not closely abide by the traditions of her native Senegal. Her figures, with their benevolent expressions, belong to a universal legacy, similar to the archaic kouros from Greece or the Indian Buddha sculptures from the Gupta period. The humans she portrays are giving: they care for small creatures which they carry off the ground and hold close for love and safety. A soothing impression of sweetness similarly lifts from the symmetrical figures, whether couples or motherly figures. These figures, however, are also cause for worry whether it is feasible for one person to feed so many mouths, as one might worry whether plundered Africa can sustain its own population, let alone corporate and conglomerate avarice.
John Goba’s painted wood figures have a naive, narrative quality that calls to mind popular art from Asia and South America. From Sierra Leone, he is said to have started his artistic career by making masks within the tradition of the Bondo Society, a powerful women’s initiation organization. Unlike the art of his Mende people, which is highly sophisticated and abstract, the work he has become known for is quite different: bright primary colors, large eyes, body parts clearly defined. This style is close to the Odelay carnival tradition, which is male, and tends to run wild in cities such as Freetown where Goba moved from his tribal area. The porcupine spikes, his sculptures’ signature feature, protect the figures with their sparkling constellations. The effect is at once gay and fierce, in the inspired tradition of Carnival.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s drawings seem naive at first glance, with their crooked compositions and simple use of media. A closer look reveals skilled black and white shadings as well as a creative control of composition, as in the portraits of Aristote and Booker T. Washington. Personnages célèbres (1986) is a catalogue of politicians, activists and thinkers that are mostly related to Africa, whether Africans or African Americans, or politicians such as John F. Kennedy who acted on behalf of African Americans. The goal is didactic, but the commentaries are more personal in that they express a relationship to the subject. “John Kennedy le plus humanistes (sic) des présidents des Etats-Unis d’Amérique de notre temps moderne à mon coeur qui l’a élu!! (John Kennedy the most humanistic of presidents of the United States of America from our modern times which my heart has elected” and more poignantly: “Wynnie (sic) Mandela contemplant la photo de jeune âge de son mari Nelson Mandela, après sa libération” (Wynnie (sic) Mandela contemplating a youth photo of her husband Nelson Mandela after his liberation).
In Musée du Visage Africain (1996), he documents the faces of Africans and their tattoos and markings. The style of Bouabré’s drawings might not be particularly unique, but the scope of his intent is remarkable. The images are numbered, dated. He has work to do. He wants to record. He wants to systematically transmit. Each main image occupies the middle, surrounded by a penciled frame and a commentary in scholarly French that reads like a revelation: “La libre circulation mondiale après la maîtrise des mers (The free circulation around the world following the control of the seas),” which here describes a tattoo that is represented on a face; this same inscription stands alone in a different drawing. It is a singular idea that reads like an encyclopedia of African culture.
J.D. Okhai Ojeikhere
In a similar vein, J.D. Okhai Ojeikhere committed to making a detailed, faithful inventory of Nigerian hairstyles with his photographic work, Untitled (1952-1956). While the photographs look scientific, clinical even, they nonetheless express respect for each woman as an individual. There is not just one set pattern, as can be the case for traditional costume. Each style instead reveals the creativity, the choices of each individual, and a desire to be beautiful, to seduce — including the photographer, perhaps, despite his claim to objectivity.
While hairstyle and tattoos are a cultural language most Africans are fluent in, Western audiences comfortably identify masks as a form of African art. Romuald Hazoumè, an artist from Bénin, fashions them from recycled materials. His simple and bluntly expressive shapes, as well as the combination of traditional art and political intent, have found favor in the West. Hazoumè, who shows extensively and has garnered many prestigious awards, states in the exhibition’s video interview, “My way of communicating with Western audiences is to explain what it is like to be African today. The West sends its plastic trash to Africa where it is recycled into oil cans, which in turn litter our streets.” He becomes more emotional when he comments on his Cargo (2006), a scooter carrying a precariously lethal load of oil cans. “In Bénin,” he says, “people cross the border on scooter to traffic oil cans that constantly risk exploding. They know they might die, but feeding their family comes first. My art is inspired by these people living perpetually in danger.
The artists Bodys Isek Kingeles and Rigobert Nimi, from Congo, and Abu Bakarr Mansaray, from Sierra Leone, look to modern technology for an escape from African reality. Kingeles creates utopian futuristic cities, Nimi crafts spaceships and Mansaray draws robots and aircrafts. While these artists have their eyes turned to the West and its all-powerful technology, their work is firmly grounded in Africa. Kingeles’ utopian Congolese capital Kinsasha (1997) has a ritual function: it provides the blueprint for a better future for the troubled city, whether it appeals to the Gods or Political Powers or the perpetual, spectral audience-in-wait. In New Manhattan [Manhattan City 3021] (2002), Kingeles reimagines the skyscraping city in the tradition of other colorful futuristic cities, but gloriously restores the twin towers, making them more joyous, more human-friendly than the fallen originals, and in doing so symbolically and scenically heals the wounded metropolis. Interestingly, Kingeles used to make what he called “maisonnettes,” which are individual fantastic buildings, until curator André Magnin told him to turn them into cities.
Rigobert Nimi, who fervently watched the show Once Upon a Time in Space when he was in his 20s, was making miniature reproductions of trains and planes which André Magnin would buy from him. He remained happily in that mode until the curator told him it was time to start making his own original works. Station Vampire (2013) represents a spaceship in the tradition of the TV series, but with his own wry commentary: a naked army of brown identical slaves waits for orders, while the commanders of the ship have the attributes of the mosquito, with wings and long predatory proboscis.
Abu Bakarr Mansaray was making robotic pieces for himself and his friends. He was invited to show in an exhibition at the local German Embassy where he got exposure that lead Magnin to him. The curator recommended he abandon the work-intensive sculptures to make drawings instead. And, indeed, the large-scale designs of flying machines are exhilarating, with eye-confounding details such as mystical equations and tridimensional renderings. A closer look at Beyond Creation [A Great African Technique] (2001) details the architecture of an ominously martial machine, but whether its role is to attack or to defend will depend on who controls the technology, a telling ambiguity perhaps reflecting Mansaray’s own experience as one who had to flee his country’s brutal civil war. One of The African Black Magic. The Witch Plane (2008), a more somber work, represents a zombie of a witch with its dead skull and jaws dripping with blood. The upper part shows the spectacular machine at work with flaming jets, while the lower half reveals its sterile interiors: empty, heartless. No soul sits in the pilot seat.
If dark, mechanistic horror can be read in Mansarray’s work, Chéri Samba’s paintings explode in an opposite dimension with humor, drama, color. His work commands attention even at a distance. The influence of sign painting and comic strips is evident in the simple shapes, the humorous narratives, the inclusion of text boxes with quirky, lovingly simplistic ideas such as “La couleur est partout. Je trouve que la couleur, c’est la vie.” (Color is everywhere. To me, color is life.)
Samba nearly always stages himself, casting himself in different characters — sometimes as corrupt politician, sometimes as self-involved pop star. And an art world celebrity he certainly is, with disarming humor and a keen sense of irony. While his paintings are irrefutably fun, the message is often prominent and unflinching and aimed at spheres either political or moral. He says: “I knew I would make enemies, but this is all I know to do. I paint what is taboo. The message I want to express, to pass to people is important. It’s popular art, spontaneous art, it’s for the people.” His skillful combination of styles, his stunning compositions, his command of paintbrush, all mark him as a modern master.
African themes can also be identified in Barthélémy Toguo’s elegant watercolors. While the artist works in a wide range of media, installations, performances and sculptures, the series of watercolors, Baptism (1999), are in the venerable traditions of Western artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly or Francisco Clemente. Fragments of human figures, limbs looking like ex voto, detached heads are painted in red, the color of blood, of fire, of purification. Understated, they express intimations of suffering, healing, emotional bonding. Red lines come down into the mouths of three heads, though whether the flow feeds them or is fed by them is unclear. Another head, masculine, is linked by a similar mouth-line to a feminine head, drawing a spiral or labyrinth: communication, here, does not come easy. Liquid, volatile, hardly there, the works themselves are a spiritual act and are of divine inspiration.
The watercolor is poured on the sheet on impulse, without the possibility of correcting the work. What guides Toguo’s hand? Originally from Cameroon, he studied in France and has spent most of his life outside Africa: “As members of the African diaspora, we have a duty to our continent. I want to be free. And I want to allow my people to dream, to give them hope.” As Westerners, we might find debatable whether “African art” is a meaningful and acceptable label. Curators are not in the habit of organizing exhibitions entitled “European art” or “Asian art.” But the artists themselves claim their identity as Africans, therefore validating this classification. Their duty is toward their people, whether by recording or bringing attention to political issues or providing hope and humor to a continent devastated by global economic predation and postcolonial strife. These artists, spokespeople all, have much to say and are saying it with singular talent and skill. Africa is where it’s at, whispers of an “African Spring” running through the media. The world of art, with its fairs and exhibits and retrospectives, is getting ready to see a new area of the globe steal the show, just as North America did in the mid 20th Century, or South America for literature.
Photos courtesy of Arabella Hutter von Arx.
Arabella Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.