Notes from Africa
The art world as we know it has a rather tenuous footing in Africa. Western concepts were introduced, for better or worse, by colonials who often brought ambivalent attitudes toward African culture. Art was either destroyed by overzealous missionaries or systematically removed for European and American collections. Few of Africa’s artists work for an individual form of expression, though this concept is developing with increasing contact with Western culture. Most associate with other artists in cooperatives such as Makonde, the sculptors’ guild in Tanzania. Artists working in a cooperative or guild are not out of step with the craftsman, whose signature is that of the tribe, not the individual. A few artists attend art schools in Europe or America, often submerging their African heritage and adopting a “School of Paris” or “New York School” veneer. On their return, they, like artists who remained at home, are hindered by the lack of patronage and the lack of supplies.
If the artist in Africa is faced with frustration, so is the visitor interested in seeing art in a limited time. During July and August, 1973, I traveled to Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal with unscheduled stops in Uganda and Mali. I visited printmaking workshops, galleries, museums, studios, universities, and libraries to get a sense of the arts in Africa.
I arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, after a nerve-wrenching flight across Central Africa through a violent thunderstorm. Made a note never to fly in the rainy season. I was briefly alarmed by heavily armed guards at the Lagos transit lounge. Made note never to be in transit at Lagos. Confusing drive to the hotel over roads lit by headlights, shop candles, kerosene lamps. Flickering light struck gold threads in the women’s igele . . . drums, moving masses, fleeting shadows. I soon learned the streets had no lights, telephones had no connections, time no measure. Made many notes and a few conclusions.
Nigeria is the country initiating pioneer work in the arts, by excavation of artifacts at such sites as Owo and Ife and by vigorous encouragement of the contemporary arts. The International Black Arts Festival is scheduled for Lagos in 1975.
The Nigerian Museum is situated near Victoria Island on the outskirts of Lagos, a monumentally sprawling city. Admission is free seven days a week, ten hours a day. Nigerians from all walks of life visit; tourists are scarce, due to elaborate visa requirements. The museum houses 20,000 objects, well preserved and informatively installed. The staff of fifty is Nigerian except for the deputy director, Brian Stafford, who is British. Ironically, the museum’s membership consists largely of European expatriates living in Nigeria, but the staff deals specifically with Nigerian concerns, collecting from Nigerian villages, generating interest and respect for the culturally indigenous.
A small network of museums existed prior to the founding of the Lagos museum in 1957. The first museum opened in Esie in 1945, followed by Jos in 1952, Ife in 1954, Orion in 1958, Kano in 1960, Owo in 1963, and Benin in 1973. These museums are usually centrally located near a marketplace and, as in Lagos, free seven days a week. Today the museum in Jos also serves as a training center for African museum professionals, a project initiated by UNESCO.
Nigerian museums are chiefly concerned with preserving traditional Nigerian art, but the Lagos museum has a small contemporary collection that will be exhibited at the completion of their expansion program, which they hope will be ready for the festival in 1975. The director, Dr. Ekpo Eyo, plans to expand collections to include works from other African countries. He also hopes to encourage Black Americans interested in Nigerian cultures to work at the museum. Other galleries in Lagos include Gallery Labac, sponsored by the Nigerian Arts Council, and Goethe House, set up by the German government. But the gallery most influential in the development of contemporary art in Nigeria is the Mbari Mbayo Club in Oshogbo.
Oshogbo is two hundred miles north of Lagos—two hundred miles of traffic, eight hours by car in the rainy season. The original Mbari Mbayo Club (“I saw and I was happy”) was founded in 1960-61 in Ibadan by such writers as Wole Soyinka, an Ibo presently in exile in England. Initial activities centered on publishing and the theater, but an interest in the visual arts soon evolved. In 1961, Duro Ladipọ, a Nigerian playwright, opened an extension of the Mbari Bayo Club in Oshogbo, where major workshop activities were to take place. The goal of the workshop was to encourage local talent, and anyone who wished to attend was welcome. Printmaking tools were provided, and carving wood or linoleum block—a form of sculpture-into-print—was readily accepted. Etching was introduced. Tools for lithography provided too elaborate for easy import. Several talents developed in printmaking, particularly Hezbon Owiti, a Kenyan, and Nigerian artists Bruce Onobrakpeya, Jacob Afolabi, and Twins Seven Seven. Owiti’s linoleum cuts reflect the pastoral culture of Kenya, portraying animals in rhythmic black and white. Twins Seven Seven’s work combines personal experience and Nigerian mythology and folklore. He has set up his own workshop in Oshogbo based on Mbari Mbayo tenets. The Mbari Mbayo Club is now a cooperative gallery where artists can and do sell work to the public.
The University of Ife organized print workshops in 1964-65 and in the summer of 1973. I was fortunately able to visit a workshop in progress. Worktables were set up in a barn near the marketplace, and a portable etching press was brought in. The workshop directors, Bruce Onabrakpeya and the Dutch artist Ru von Russen, who taught Onabrakpeya etching in 1964, worked along with eight artists. Each drew on paper or plate, cut wood of linoleum blocks, or experimented with monoprints. Occasionally, local children would wander in to check on the strange silence.
Nigerian artists have also been trained abroad as well as at the Yaba Technical College near Lagos or the Ahmodu Bello University Art School in the state of Zaria. But the most vital work seems to come out of the workshops. The self-taught artist is more successful in synthesizing the new techniques with the myths and rituals of the real and spirit world so important to African life.
I was acutely aware of the pervasive European entrenchment in Kenya, exaggerated by the herds of tourists flocking to see Kenya’s natural wonders. More lenient visa requirements than other African countries no doubt add additional incentive. Money is available for art, but there is a tug-of-war for work between the expatriate Europeans and Americans and the Kenyan citizens, between East Indians and the various tribes, Kikuyu, Masai, and Luo. Group exhibitions are difficult because artists from different tribes often refuse to show together. Most large commissions for works of art in public buildings and hotels go to European and American expatriates, which adds to the tension. Still, considering the complications, Kenya has a multifaceted gallery system including commercial galleries, cooperative galleries, and tourist traps.
Gallery Watatu in Nairobi is more European-American than African in its organization. Its three directors are European-American expatriates, as are artists the gallery represents, though work by Hezbon Owiti and Bruce Onabrakpeya is also shown. About half the works I saw were prints. The Tryon Gallery is strictly for European artists and caters to safari enthusiasts, but the Paa Ya Paa (“The Antelope Rises”) incorporates Mbari Mbayo concepts with emphasis on the individual artist. Paa Ya Paa is the only African-run gallery in Nairobi, with an extension, Kibo Gallery in Moshi, Tanzania. It is set up as a nonprofit organization, offering free studio facilities to East African artists. Musicians and writers are also welcome to share work and ideas in open forums. Through workshops, Paa Ya Paa is making the arts a viable means of self-support for the African artist. Prices are set within the means of the average person. The workshops are small, with only four or five participants who study for one year. Director Elimo Nyan believes the villages are the source of original and spontaneous material, and half the workshop year is spent in a rural setting. Areas of study include printmaking, woodcarving, painting, dance, music, and photography. The workshop is supported through the sale of work as well as donations from foundations. Workshop students receive a percentage from sales. The best examples of work are saved for traveling exhibitions or kept for a permanent collection.
Nairobi’s National Museum is totally uninvolved in contemporary art, concerning itself with archeological and ethnographical research. The director, Richard Leakey, does not foresee involvement in the future. Unlike the Nigerian Museum in Lagos, it is only open 8 1/2 hours a day, seven days a week, with low entrance fees for taxpayers and higher fees for nontaxpayers.
The National Museum in Ghana is directed by Richard Nunoo and unlike the Nigerian Museum displays art from all parts of Africa, including Egypt. Although the museum is in the midst of a building program, a gallery is set aside for contemporary art, and space is allocated for traveling exhibitions. Unfortunately, the present building is vulnerable to climatic change. Many of the works on paper on exhibition were badly foxed and damaged by extremes in humidity and temperature.
Ghana’s artists are primarily interested in interchange between the arts through cultural centers. One major center is in Accra and another three hundred miles north of Accra in Kumasi. Both centers house areas for performances, concerts, contemporary exhibitions, and workshops demonstrating local crafts. Kumasi’s Cultural Center includes the Ashanti Library and the Prempeh II Jubilee Museum devoted to Ashanti culture. Old and contemporary exist side by side, celebrated in regional and national festivals. The University of Science and Technology art school is located in Kumasi. Many artists have other professions to finance their work as artists. Kobina Bucknor and Oku Ampofo are doctors who were members of the Akwapim Six, an artist group founded in the late 1940s. Both now serve on the Ghana Arts Council, which attempts to mobilize its various divisions in the arts: painters and sculptors, craftsmen and weavers, dancers, theater artists, and patrons. Printmaking is not a major form of expression, being completely overshadowed by an extremely strong tradition in sculpture. Even Bucknor speaks of his paintings as in the “sculptural idiom.”
Ivory Coast and Senegal.
I was more or less prepared for the lack of encouragement contemporary artists receive in the former French colonies. I was not prepared for the rudeness with which former French colonials treat Africans, as well as visitors. I heard stories of the French punishing Africans for speaking their tribal languages and stories of French art instructors telling African pupils to draw street scenes of Paris. Each colonial power confronted African culture in different ways. The British tended to ignore rather than mold the African. The French clearly suffered from a Midas complex, needing to turn everything French.
The Ivory Coast and Senegal are in a difficult period of transition, partly because of deeply embedded French economic interests and the physical presence of the French with their arrogance and deprecation of all that is African. The National Museum in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, is in a suspended state of tension as the French staff is gradually being replaced by Africans. The permanent collection is practically riveted down, objects often being painted over when pedestals are refurbished. Although the exhibition space is crammed with superb work from many areas of Africa, there is a lack of freshness or innovative exhibition techniques. An attempt to establish branch museums failed.
Contemporary artists have few opportunities to exhibit work. Abidjan has no galleries except at the Hotel Ivoire. Senegal has no gallery system, but the government funds a contemporary art museum, the Musée Dynamique, in Dakar near the art school. On exhibition were works by Derama Diop, Cherif Thiam, Diatta Seck, and Oumai Diablo Kata. The government is highly criticized by citizens who feel the museum is a case of misplaced priorities in a country badly hit by drought.
The IFAN Museum in Dakar, funded by the French government, houses traditional African art. An artisan village between the Musée Dynamique and the art school provides a place for craftsmen to make and sell their work. But filmmaking seems the most vital area for the Senegalese artist and has survived discouragement of the contemporary arts in Senegal through encouragement abroad.
One final note: talent is abundant in Africa, and in a period of conflict and transition, printmaking can serve as an important catalyst in its development, linking old methods and new. Printmaking does not require an enormous studio or in every case a press. If materials are cut off by customs or currency restrictions, natural materials like wood suffice. Print workshops located within the community can create an atmosphere conducive to African patronage and encouragement of the arts. Eventually, the portability of prints can be a means for us all to be more familiar with the work of African artists.
Excerpted from The Print Collector’s Newsletter 5, no. 1 (March–April 1974): 8–9.