Monday, December 1, 2008

Help: Artists Groups in Africa since 1980

I am working on a book project and need information on important contemporary artists' groups established anywhere on the African continent since 1980. The group(s) need not be currently active. Anyone with useful information should contact me by end of December. I will appreciate any help!
Please send info to

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pentecostal Christianity, infanticide and Child abuse in Nigeria

Abandoned and abused children in a shelter (all photos courtesy of The Guardian, London)

In Nigeria (especially in Akwa-Ibom State) families now routinely abuse, maim, banish and kill their blood children on the grounds that these innocent souls are "WITCHES." And, according to reliable reports, we are not talking about rare incidents but what amounts to an epidemic, a descent to new barbarism sponsored by new-age Christianity.

In recent decades, the mixture of material poverty made worse by the depredations of the political leadership and predatory dogmas of new-age Christian pastors, have led to a tremendous altering of cultures and societies in Nigeria and many parts of Africa. Built around a theology of fear, these fundamentalist Christian churches (much like their medieval counterparts in Europe) earn their relevance by spreading the fear of infernal forces--the scope of which is determined by the Church elite--as the basis of religious and social life. I daresay that not even that racist tribe of European Missionaries of yore, for whom my postcolonial self feels no charity, have done as much damage in the social life of communities in Southern Nigeria. You only need to see the physical abuse of old men and women declared "pagan" inhibitors of communal progress by their kin; or burning and looting of cultural heritage sites and art forms, and general onslaught against anybody or group perceived to be promoting "paganism," which often refers to anything related with indigenous social and cultural practices.

Etido (9) with nail driven into his skull, now brain-damaged

Udo (12) victim of machete attacks by his own community

What makes these developments so dangerous is the apparent complicity of the political leadership in these matters, especially in cases where there ought to be criminal prosecutions. Like in these infanticides and gross child abuse, for instance. Frequently, children are doused with acid, impaled with nails, slashed with knives, buried alive, or poisoned because a so-called Christian pastor diagnosed them as "witches"! In one pathetic if not diabolical instance, a popular "prophetess" made a film, in which she declared the symptoms of a Child-witch: high fever and late-night crying, which as any parent knows is the same symptom for virtually every childhood illness. And this coming from a mother of three children! Can someone tell me why these so-called pastors, including one who declared on camera to have killed more than 100 "witches," should not be prosecuted for mass murder. While the children-killer's action may not be as spectacular as Jonestown, it is no less serious, and should be investigated. At best he would be found a liar (which should serve his congregation well); at worst he may found to be one of the world's worst child killers (which should be a blight on humanity).

Gerry (8) with petrol burns inflicted by father

Given the mandate bestowed on Akwa-Ibom state and Nigerian federal governments, to guaranty life and safety of each and every citizen of the land, including and especially the most vulnerable, I cannot understand why scores of parents, and their conniving pastors have not yet been prosecuted for abusing the human rights of these innocent children. If Nigeria cannot acknowledge and aggressively move against these terrible crimes, pressure must be applied from outside to put a stop to this madness. It is not enough to pass Child Rights Act, as the Nigerian government did some years ago, when child murderers, torturers and abusers regale in their crimes in their churches, in documentaries and public programs.

If the government and civil society organizations in Nigeria cannot save these children from the tyranny of new-age Christianity, and if the Christian Association of Nigeria (the umbrella Christian organization) does not take the initiative to bring the perpetrators of these growing crimes against our children to justice, or actively work against the socio-religious and economic basis of these crimes, they cannot claim any moral justification for the existence of both Church and State.

A society that sacrifices its children to religious faith, is a damned, cursed society.

Monday, November 24, 2008

David Hammon's "Six Projects in Alexandria"

Left: David Hammons, Elephant Chair, 2008; Right: Pink Tree, 2008 (photo:

David Hammons' Six Sites in Alexandria, a new series of site specific work in the Egyptian city of Alexandria opened two days ago, making it--I believe--the third project this master conceptual artist has created in the African continent since the past couple of years, most of it as a result of his productive relationship with my dear friend Salah Hassan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Art History at Cornell University. Hammons was one of the three artists (with Magdalena Campos-Pons and Pamela Z)Hassan showed in 3X3: Diaspora, Memory and Place, the US official participation at the 2004 Dakar Biennale. And he also has collaborated with the Zoma Art Center in Addis Ababa.
Six Sites in Alexandria, is as compelling and radical as any of his signal works. Where in Dakar he conducted raffle draws during the Biennale, the prize being rams--the invaluable sacrificial animal for the Muslim Eid festival, in Alexandria, he disappointed his hosts at the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum who had hoped he would produce some work in the gallery. Which makes you want to suspect that the Forum never got the memo about Hammons' work, or about the full implications of what it means for the artist to be one of the most radical conceptual artists of the past several decades. As it turned out, his work consisted of "things" he encountered in the streets of Alexandria: A chair chained to a post became "Elephant Chair" and an enigmatic tree with blooming spherical foliage and intensely green trunk turned into "Pink Tree," and an electronic shop with unruly, raucous noise morphed into a "Sound Installation", and so forth.
With these new series of work, and the twenty pages of "spirit writings" Hammons published in Hassan and Finley's new book (Diaspora, Memory Place, 2008), one appreciates all the more the profundity of that first statement in what one might call the 25 commandments of Conceptual Art, Sol Lewitt's 1969 "Sentences on Conceptual Art": "Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ms. Okere and the Nigerian Navy

Recently, a young woman Uzoma Okere was severely beaten and stripped naked in the streets of Lagos by junior officers (ratings) traveling with Rear Admiral Arogundade, the officer in charge of the Lagos Garrison. Why? Because she, apparently, did not clear her car from the traffic to allow the military royalty right of way. What is astonishing is the attempt by the Navy to cover up this event, by inventing their own rather stupid, ridiculous and pathetic narrative all intended to exculpate the Rear Admiral's mad dogs for a crime against Ms. Okere's humanity. We are now told that she was the aggressor--having, according to the Navy, forcibly retrieved the WHIP with which one of the ratings menaced her while she was inside her car. Moreover, we are told that Ms Okere's father, himself a retired colonel in the Nigerian Army and currently the Sergent-at-Arms in the House of Representatives, begged the Rear Admiral for forgiveness on behalf of his daughter. The bullshit from the Navy goes on.

This barbaric, shameful event would have been another reason to cry for my country Nigeria for its continuing failure to protect its own citizens in the so-called democratic dispensation we have had with us for almost a decade. The Navy has yet to explain what its men were doing with Whips in an otherwise normal Lagos street. Did they not get the memo about the end of military dictatorship in Nigeria?

But I am hopeful that Ms. Okere's public humiliation will become a signal event marking the refusal of Nigerian civil society to allow remnants of the culture of military dictatorship to fester. I am encouraged by the response of Ms. Okere herself, her father, the Lagos State Government, and various Women's and Civil Society organizations across the country to Ms. Okere's encounter with Naval bestiality. As I understand it, Ms. Okere has rightly refused to let the matter go away, unlike countless other victims of military voilence in the past. Her case must help inaugurate a reversal of the culture of civilian traumatization by the military in Nigeria. Thankfully, her father has exposed the lie in the Navy's crappy story; not only did he not apologize to Rear Admiral, the retired colonel also declared Arogundade unfit to be a ranking naval officer, as he bears full responsibility for the action of the ratings attached to him. For once, it seems, Mr. Okere's concern for his daughter's safety and defense of her integrity against the lies and intimidation of the Navy has trumped the pernicious esprit de corps responsible system corruption within the military.

But I must thank the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, for declaring the state's condemnation of the violence visited on Ms. Okere. By providing the victimized woman full legal support, the governor and the state have taken a firm stand against military exceptionalism. But what about President Yar'Adua who promised the nation that he will defend the rule of law? Why has he not dissociated his government from this terrible, criminal action by the navy against a citizen? The least he could do is to advice the navy to dismiss Rear Admiral Arogundade from the military services. In the meantime, the court case now instituted against the Rear Admiral and his ratings by Ms. Okere must be allowed to take its full course. Nigerians must say with one voice: NEVER AGAIN!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008



Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nonsense as Art History

Earlier today, I came across an interview in the "Arts" section of The Guardian Online(Lagos, 10/25/2008) that is symptomatic of the malaise in contemporary arts journalism in Nigeria and the abuse of the history of art in Nigeria by commentators who had better be doing something else. In this interview with the Guardian journalist, Bridget Onochie, the artist/pastor/ public relations officer Rev. Adedapo Tayo had quite a few things to say about his multidisciplinary career. But the part that caught my attention was his comment on "The Art school and schools of art"

"It is high time people knew that the school of art is a department in an institution having art or creative art as a curriculum. It could be art department in any tertiary institution but art school is a different thing entirely; example is the Osogbo Art School, where Oliver Bier came into Nigeria and discovered some people, grouped them together, gave them some inductions and exposed them to art. Subsequently, a school of thought came, and that is the art school. As Fakaye would say, he never belonged to the art school of Oliver Bier because he already existed as an artist before Oliver Bier came to Nigeria. So, the school of art is different, an academic institution where formal training is giving to students to discover their potentials but art school is a pattern of art and its good example is Osogbo Art School."

I am not quite sure why The Guardian thought that this sort of nonsensical statement about the so-called difference between "art school" and "school of art" deserved the honor of its pages. But I find it embarrassing to read stuff like this in this respected newspaper. Why did the journalist not follow up with, "could you please tell me what the heck you are talking about"? More important did this artist actually speak about an "Oliver Bier", when he clearly was referring to Ulli Beier, the co-founder (with Duro Ladipo) of Mbari Mbayo Club, Osogbo? Even if one blamed the printer's devil for the spelling "Bier," or "Fakaye," how "Ulli" morphed into "Oliver" thrice in this passage is incomprehensible. Imagine a student relying on this passage as a credible source (after all it is published in The Guardian!) on the history of Osogbo art, you get why I am miffed at, and cannot give a pass on, stuff like this.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Design Without End: Essential Art of African Textiles" at The Met

Display Cloth from Gambia, Early 19th century (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Ceremonial Gown from the Cameroon Grasslands, 19th-20th centuries
(Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Earlier this month, a small but superbly organized exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."Design Without End: Essential Art of African Textiles" organized by in-house curator, Alisa LaGamma demonstrates the richness of African textile art. Although exhibitions of this sort are anything but rare and the scholarship on the subject has been robust (and here I think of the work of John Picton, Joan Eicher and others), LaGamma's is unprecedented--at least as far as I know--in its focus on really old, many from dating from the 19th century, textiles from the British Museum and the Met's collections. Because they are fragile and prone to fading in normal lighting, the fabrics on show in "Design Without End" are normally kept away from view. So for connoisseurs and scholars of African textiles, this is a rare treat. A treasure. I could not help but wonder how these fabrics managed to survive in such great conditions before they entered the museum.

Hausa Protective Shirt, 19th century (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Among the most captivating things on show is the Hausa protective shirt whose entire surface is covered with texts, signs, symbols. The meticulous attention the calligrapher has paid to the task of penning the passages in Arabic, while motivated by a ritual imperative, is impressive, the visual effect almost hallucinatory. This kind of power shirt--different from the more prevalent examples in which ritual packets often containing Quranic or other sacred Islamic passages as well as ritually potent objects are sewn onto shirts/gowns--conveys so powerfully the metaphysical power of the written word: "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God"... and yes the Word is Power!

Grace Ndiritu, Nightingale, 2003 (video piece)(Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

However, I thought that the inclusion of the work of contemporary African artists in the show was not particularly nuanced. The movement from the superb 19th and early 20th-century fabrics and dresses to recent works by few, well-chosen, contemporary African artists felt too jarring, even with the rather didactic placement of an Anatsui "metal cloth" in proximity with a 19th-century Akan kente cloth. The complex historical, discursive and social space in between them is significantly left unfilled in this show. Also I could not help but wonder why there were no examples of the ubiquitous yet visually compelling printed wax fabrics the tradition of which goes back to the 19th century; especially given that these textiles are the sources for the work of Yinka Shonibare and to a lesser extent Sokari Douglas Camp who are included in the show; and Grace Kwami (the mother of Atta Kwami who is in the show) as we learned in the son's panel presentation was herself a designer of printed wax fabrics. In any case, I cannot help but mention that Grace Ndiritu's video piece "Nightingale" is one of the key moments in the show. A fiercely poetic work in which the artist performs, in close up, a bewildering range of sartorial identities through a frenzied yet deft manipulation of a red, patterned shawl accompanied by Baba Maal's music, Ndiritu captures the essence of design without end.

The lecture and panel discussion organized as part of the opening on October 4 turned out to be as successful as the exhibition, judging by the list of participating panelists and audience. Among the highlights were the presentations by Mammadou Diouf and Zoe Strother (of Columbia University) in the panel of scholars, and by the artist Nike Okundaye (whose influence on contemporary adire textile art cannot be overstated) and fashion designer Duro Olowu who presented his new haute couture collection.

Yes, this is a nugget of an exhibition. Which is one more reason for LaGamma's reputation as a fine curator.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Things Fall Apart @ 50 Conference at SOAS

Chinua Achebe and Simon Gikandi (Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu)

Conference audience at the Brunei Theatre, SOAS
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Alain Ricard (Left); Graham Furniss (2nd Left); Margaret Busby (2nd Right); Abdulrazak Gurnah (Right)
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

I have been decompressing after attending the "Things Fall Apart @ 50" conference at SOAS, University of London Oct. 10-11. It turned out to be one of those rare events you feel infinitely grateful to have witnessed, especially if African literature means anything to you. Apart from seeing Achebe again this year (he was in Princeton in the spring for a reading and public conversation with Anthony Appiah), it was a treasure listening to Keith Sambrook who founded the African Writers Series; James Currey (former editor of AWS and founder of James Currey Publishers), and Henry Chakava (the MD of Heinemann Educational Books, East Africa) and Margaret Busby CBE (co-founder of Allison and Busby Ltd). Of the people who could not make the trip, Aig Higo (the founder of Heinemann Educational Books) and Chinweizu were the most significant. Yet, the organizer of the conference Lyn Innes of University of Kent deserves every praise I could summon for putting together a hitchfree, extremely well-attended, and most rewarding conference.
The presentations were for the most part superb, but it was clear that the two highlights of the two-day event were first the conversation between Achebe and Simon Gikandi of Princeton University (Ahem, my esteemed senior colleague!); Watching and listening to Achebe speak or respond to questions always feels like being in the presence of an oracle. His soft yet infinitely weighty voice, and his deliberate manner of speech makes you want to hold on to every word he utters. You leave such sessions wondering how come men like Achebe and Mandela manage to carry so much moral authority, even when they make a joke! The conclusion of the interview with Achebe reading section of Things Fall Apart summed up the whole event. Gikandi asked him to read the section (I suspect it is Achebe's favorite), where Okonkwo's maternal uncle taught him a lesson, in the presence of his maternal kindred, on the value and significance of motherhood, in the early years of his exile. But what the novel does not include is Achebe's rendering in Igbo of the wrenchingly sorrowful song Okonkwo's uncle invoked; a song performed at the funeral of a woman:

"For whom is it well; for whom is it well?
There is no one for whom it is well"

Udechukwu's presentation just before the interview was equally compelling. Seeking to show that Achebe's idea of the "novelist as a teacher" draws from a long tradition of Igbo minstrelsy, Udechukwu demonstrated his own amazing schooling in the art of song. When he finished performing a sung poem in Igbo that he had written for Achebe, the auditorium went quiet, then burst into applause. Did the audience have questions for him (and I; ok, both of us were in a plenary session. My paper was titled: "The Politics of Form: Uche Okeke's Illustrations for Achebe's Things Fall Apart")? No. They just simply called for an encore! Such was the beauty of Udechukwu's act. And then to have the afternoon, and the conference, conclude with the Gikandi and Achebe's conversation-that-ended-with-a-dirge? A state of grace.

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Adele King, Joao Cosme, Michel Naumann in the "Reconsidering Things Fall Apart" panel
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Elleke Boehmer, writer and literary scholar
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writer
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

One more thing, there were so many old friends including Ike Achebe, Ike Okonta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ike Anya--co-travelers from that small town of seven hills in Eastern Nigeria: Nsukka. The conference thus felt like a homecoming for the Nsukka clan. And for this, I thank Professor Lyn Innes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


The artist Iba Ndiaye has passed on. It is impossible to overstate the significance of his work as a modern African and contemporary artist. One of the two (the other being Papa Ibra Taal) giants to come out of Senegal in the post-WWII period, Ndiaye took his place in history as a young artist who, having trained in Paris and associated with the School of Paris, was invited by the prophet of Negritude and first President of Senegal Leopold Senghor to serve as a founding director of the newly established Ecole des Arts' fine arts section. His subtle yet firm critique of the sort of aesthetic Africanism Senghor desired of his new school would mark him as an artist whose commitment to the artistic enterprise trumped any facile, problematically articulated ideological mission for the postcolonial African artist. In this he reminds me of the Ethiopian artist, Gebre Kristos Desta, whose identification with a modernist vision unhitched from national cultural specificity is equally legendary. Given the political climate of the 1960s—the fervor of nationalism and the waning embers of various Africanisms—Ndiaye's insistence on the right of the artist to determine the scope and tenor of his relationship with identity politics was as remarkable as it testified to his artistic and personal integrity.
But also, Ndiaye was a terrific painter, a master of the gestural, expressive-poetic brush and restrained palette in the tradition of the Spaniard, Francesco Goya. His powerful analysis of subjects as ordinary as sheep ready for slaughter, or Jazz musicians, or the arid Sahel landscape, leaves you totally in awe of his stunning ability to evoke metaphysical states by sheer manipulation of paint and recognizable, if altered, forms.
It is compelling to feel a sense of loss—and my heart goes his family at this time—with Ndiaye’s transition. Yet, his achievement as an artist transcended his mortality; he indeed earned his right to join the ancestors, having been eminently successful in his sojourn here. For this, I celebrate his life, his work, his memory. May his journey be smooth, and may his art live long!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

UNESCO and Obasanjo's Library

For more than a year now, news have been circulating about the effort to establish a UNESCO-backed "Institute for African Culture and International Understanding" (IACIU) along with its sister "Center for Black Culture and International Understanding" (CBCIU). The first is to be hosted by the Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, while the second will be sited in Osogbo, the capital city of Osun state. Ordinarily, I would sing praises to both the Nigerian government and UNESCO for pushing this project to the fore of what no doubt is a competitive process. After all, the possibilities of two well-funded, staffed, and maintained sites for research, study, documentation and exchange on matters relating to Black/African culture and international understanding (whatever the latter means) is a good thing, especially given the decrepit state of existing institutions of learning and research in post-oil boom Nigeria. With the proposed institutions in place, I can imagine scholars from all corners of the planet flying into Nigeria to participate in the programs of the UNESCO-funded center and institute, and there is no overstating the positive impact this sort of intellectual traffic can have on the work of scholars in Nigeria who never get the chance to travel overseas to fellowship with their colleagues "out there."

Moreover, the prospects of the CBCIU whose signal role will be as repository of the Archives of Ulli and Georgina Beier--two individuals who arguably were unsurpassed in their influence on mid-20th century African culture, literature and art--is tremendous no less because the Beier's archive, which I have seen, is unprecedented. It fulfills the Beiers' longstanding wish to return these holdings to Nigeria from where most of the material came, rather than have it lodged in overseas institutions with limited access to Nigerian and African scholars. And it is not a bad idea to have a first rate archive with proper facilities in Nigeria; that would be a rare change in the scheme of things.

But, I am totally opposed to the coupling of these two proposed, very much needed UNESCO initiatives to the sordid, ridiculous affair otherwise called Obasanjo Presidential Library. To begin with, Obasanjo scandalously established the so-called library while in office, and as countless reports have indicated, much of the funds raised for the white elephant were either purloined from the state coffers or coerced from private individuals and organizations beholden to that regime. Thus, it is fairly clear that this "library" is nothing more than a monument to the corruption of Obasanjo's regime.

Second, it is an insult to link any respectable institution with a cultural mandate to the name of Obasanjo who, as president, displayed unusual contempt for the arts. Who does not remember his admonition to arts and humanities students in Nigerian universities to go do something more worthwhile with their lives, ostensibly because he failed to see how their future careers in these fields could contribute anything positive to Nigeria's progress?

Third, why should UNESCO want to establish this IACIU in a "LIBRARY" rather than in an institution with a wider mandate, such as a university? Moreover, why tag this international project to something dedicated to the controversial work and memory of an individual? Especially given that this individual (OBJ) is definitely not MLK or Mandela!

As it is, the Nigerian and Osun State governments have shown unflinching support for the UNESCO initiative, and the question is why the federal government could not upgrade one of the existing institutions, such as the Center for Black Arts and Cultures (CBAAC) and then combine its mandate with that of the proposed IACIU. Don't tell me that the Nigerian government could not build an adequate structure to host the combined institutions! Or, if the business of merging the two institutions is too bureaucratically complicated, then I cannot imagine how difficult it would have been for the state--through its Ministry of Culture--to establish the IACIU/CBCIU as a parastatal, in the league of the National Gallery of Art, the CBAAC, etc.

The bottomline is this. Much as I can see the gains of having two UNESCO-sponsored institutions on African/Black arts and cultures in Nigeria, the greater concern is that both the IACIU and CBCIU increasingly look like trojans, in other words alluring propositions meant to validate a terribly unfortunate, corrupt endeavor called the Obasanjo's Library. For that reason, I am completely opposed to the UNESCO initiative. And, if it is a question of Obasanjo library or no UNESCO support, then to hell with both! Quite simply if this project goes ahead with Obasanjo Library at its center, it will be clear that the United Nations organization has made an unfortunate judgment in the matter of Obasanjo’s legacy in Nigeria. By establishing the IACIU in the library UNESCO tells us that it has judged the owner of the library worthy of this kind of honor. From the way that that government conducted itself—-whether we think of the official mass killings in Odi and Zaki Biam, the impunity with which the regime defied the laws of the land, and most unforgettably the disdain for democratic processes and institutions that led to the massively rigged elections of 2007—-it is a wrong position.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Frightening Beauty of Drama



One of these two is an interview with a possible president of the free world, the other a spoof of that interview. commentary is superfluous. And that is frightening.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nnenna Okore at The October Gallery

The October Gallery (London), that indefatigable gallery long committed to the work of African and "black" artists, will host the first solo exhibition in England of the rising Nigerian artist, Nnenna Okore. Okore, assuredly making her mark as a sculptor of tremendous promise, uses fragile, ordinary materials--newspapers, magazines, sticks, clay, etc--to make work of considerable visual and conceptual power. A former student of El Anatsui at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Okore reminds me, in her ability to manipulate fragile media to create sometimes diaphanous but insistently poetic work, of the Cuban post-minimalist and conceptual artist Ana Mendieta who, like Okore was an MFA graduate of the University of Iowa.

I recommend this show.

Breytenbach and Iweala event

Uzodinma Iweala, at Princeton University, Sept. 24, 2008. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

This past Wednesday, I attended a rare event here at Princeton; one of those days that, if you kept a diary, you begin by marking the date with an asterisk: a joint reading session by two remarkable writers, Breyten Breytenbach and Uzodinma Iweala.

Uzodinma Iweala reading, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Uzodinma Iweala, the 23-year old Nigerian author of the brow-raising first novel, Beasts of No Nation, and currently a medical student at Columbia University, invented a writing style that is as poetic--particularly when you listened to him read from the novel, the cadence modulated by the inventive remaking of verbs and nouns into present participles--as the narrative is horrific. He read the passage in which the boy soldier experienced his first killing orgy. The beauty of fiction, in the hands of Iweala, is that it could present this story of sickeningly degraded childhood in a way that still made the boy soldier a sympathetic figure.

Of course during the Q/A, someone wanted to know more about the language of the novel. Did he invent it? Was he reflecting the way of speaking of this fictional West African boy? By way of response he stated that his was a conscious refracting of pidgin english to satisfy his own literary aesthetic, but also to come close to the inventiveness of the pidgin language spoken in West Africa, emphasizing that his effort follows on the tradition mined by writers such as Amos Tutuola, Ken Saro-Wiwa (who wrote in naturalistic pidgin), and others.

Breyten Breytenbach, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

The day before this event, I had been watching the 1978 documentary film "Afrikaner Experience: Politics of Exclusion, (in prep for my course on Art, Apartheid and South Africa) and therein was a discussion of Breyten Breytenbach as the foremost Afrikaner Poet, tried and jailed for 7 years after he "betrayed" his Afrikaner identity by marrying a Vietnamese wife (a crime under the law) and committed high treason by campaigning against the Apartheid regime while in exile. It makes you wonder why some South African artists never got the memo, considering that his older compatriot, Ernest Mancoba married the Dutch artist Sonja Ferlov and wanted to return to South African with her. Apparently in a more generous mood in its early years, the Apartheid regime persuaded the Mancobas to not come to South Africa. And they never did.

Breyten Breytenbach reading, Sept. 24, 2008 at Princeton University. Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Anyways, having watched the Afrikaner Experience the previous day, seeing the now 69-year old Breytenbach, gentle with a killing smile perpetually flickering across his face, you realize that such men as he have an incredible reserve of humanity that differentiates them from the crowd. For how else to understand the quiet decorous presence he shares with another former "terrorist" and compatriot Nelson Mandela? He read from his Windcatcher and the brand new All One Horse, which is illustrated with his own watercolors. I tried to count how many times the word "love" occurred in the poems; I could not, lost in the aura of a remarkable man, artist, and writer.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The National Gallery of Art (Abuja) and Art Fairs

Earlier today, I got news of an Art Off The Main: African, Caribbean and Latin American Art Fair taking place during the first week of October. As usual, I thought this was news worthy, as I did not know such a fair existed (pardon my ignorance!). I checked the website. It is always exciting to see any effort to represent, or rather to present, work from Africa and the Caribbean (and Latin America) in sites where they have greater chances of attracting attention of the "art world." I am not sure who will see this art fair, but from the list of participating galleries and artists, which includes none of the major galleries invested in the work of artists from these regions, one could almost predict that the fair crowd will be, in the context of Chelsea as the center of contemporary art in NY, a "marginal" art crowd.

Actually, there is perhaps nothing wrong with this. Because that's how things are. And perhaps I would not be concerned with who is or not participating in this fair, if I did not see the National Gallery of Art (Nigeria) listed among the galleries. I am sure there must have been some reasoning behind the decision of that institution to be associated with this event, but I do not think it advisable. To begin with, this is not the type of forum the NGA should be officially identified with, not so much because it is wrong to support fairs for African, Caribbean and Latin American artists, but because as a national institution, I would think it should set its sights higher. I am sure many would wonder if the listing of Nigeria's National Gallery as a participating gallery is mistaken, given that no other peer institution from the relevant regions are involved, not even the important Chelsea galleries that normally include artists from Africa and the Caribbean. So it is either the NGA has seen a great potential in the event and thus hopes to invest in its future with its support, or it underestimates (and thus undermines) its own symbolic capital.

Maybe I am surprised by the NGA's participation in the Art Off The Main, because I don't quite recall its official presence at the Johannesburg Art Fair this year. If, as I believe, the NGA seeks to insert contemporary Nigerian artists' work into the international critical and commercial networks, it seems to me that being in Johannesburg, where several of the serious galleries focusing on or having sustained interest in the work of African artists (including October Gallery, Michael Stevenson, Jack Shainman, Goodman Gallery, Galerie Peter Herrmann, Perry Rubinstein Gallery, Townhouse Gallery, etc) would have been the right thing to do. So, if the NGA really wants to promote the work of Nigerian artists overseas (I commend it for sponsoring a Nigerian contingent to the Dakar Biennial), it ought to make a smarter choice about how to invest its limited resources. There is no doubt in my mind that participating in the Johannnesburg Art Fair would have been much more useful for the NGA and the artists; it is a much more respectable site to pitch a tent bearing the name of Nigeria's National Gallery.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chimamanda Wins "Genius" Award!

Earlier today, the MacArthur Foundation announced its much anticipated annual Fellows Award, otherwise known as the MacArthur "Genius" Award, and the Nigerian writer, and author of Half of A Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Adichie made the list! Following on the heels of the Ethiopian artist, Julie Mehretu who won the award in 2005, Chimamanda's award speaks to the accomplishments of a generation of African artists who have continued to break new grounds and to insinuate their work into the consciousness of our world. Chimamanda's terrific gift for storytelling, and her stunning ability to broach through elegant fiction difficult, complex historical material, marks her out as a major force in the world of letters. The MacArthur is not the first major acknowledgment of Chimamanda's genius, and it won't be the last!

Here's the MacArthur's citation:

Chimamanda Adichie is a young writer who illuminates the complexities of human experience in works inspired by events in her native Nigeria. Adichie explores the intersection of the personal and the public by placing the intimate details of the lives of her characters within the larger social and political forces in contemporary Nigeria. Dividing her time over the last decade between the United States and Nigeria, she is widely appreciated for her stark yet balanced depiction of events in the post-colonial era. In her most recent novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Adichie unflinchingly portrays the horror and destruction of the civil war following the establishment of the Republic of Biafra. Using multiple narrative voices, a precise movement back and forth in time, and prose that is at once witty and empathetic, she immerses the reader in the psyches of her characters, whose loyalties to each other and their ideals are tested as their world gradually falls apart. In humanizing the Biafran tragedy, Adichie’s novel has enriched conversation about the war within Nigeria while also offering insight into the circumstances that lead to ethnic conflict. A writer of great promise, Adichie’s powerful rendering of the Nigerian experience is enlightening audiences both in her homeland and around the world.

Chimamanda Adichie received a B.A. (2001) from Eastern Connecticut State University, an M.A. (2003) from Johns Hopkins University, and an M.A. (2008) from Yale University. Her additional works include the novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) and short stories that have appeared in such publications as the New Yorker, Granta, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


The British Art Historian Michael Baxandall died month. Easily one of the most influential art historians of the past 100 years, Baxandall's rigorous examination of sculptures and paintings, as well as textual and contextual sources to reveal what he termed the "period eye," but also his original work on art and perception remain among the groundwork of art history of the European Renaissance. Here is one scholar who has given a tremendous account of his time here. Adieu, Mr. Baxandall.

Nigerian President missing?

The Nigerian President, Umaru Yar'Adua, is missing. According to media reports, he was supposed to have gone for the lesser Hajj in Saudi Arabia 3 weeks ago. Since then, no one has seen him. And those who have dissemble. He is reported to have been hospitalized overseas, because of his longstanding kidney disease, yet his spokesmen denied the illness, announcing, as if to assure an anxious nation that, "he will return soon". If this is their own stupid idea of comedic suspense, it is not funny. Now, there are reports that he was flown back to Abuja yesterday or so, still no one has seen him. What the heck is going on in our democracy? Do not Nigerian citizens have the right to know where their elected leader is? what he is up to? Is he in good health? If not, is he still able to function as the leader of a nation of 140 million, restive citizens? The way the government in Abuja is handling this matter, you'd think the elections of 1999 never took place. If I had money, I would pay a huge reward to anyone who can show irrefutable proof of Yar'Adua's whereabouts. It will be money well spent.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The ARESUVA event in Abuja

I was looking forward to attending the events of the inaugural ARESUVA (African Regional Summit on the Visual Arts) taking place in Abuja, Sept. 7-13 under the auspices of the National Gallery of Art, Abuja. Unfortunately, I cannot make it; certain things don't change when it comes to organizing stuff, from the Nigerian end. Nevertheless, I am curious about ARESUVA. Joe Musa, the Director of the NGA is the force behind the project, which I understand will include an exhibition of work by artists from many African countries, and several discussion panels on various aspects of contemporary art in Nigeria and Africa. The program, for an event organized by a Nigerian institution, is quite ambitious and I hope the organizers meet some of their expectations.
But I cannot help but call them out for what I see as clear case of sloppiness. In the list of invited artists, Sane Wadu from Kenya is listed under Cameroon; Odili Odita who was born in Nigeria and resident in the US, is listed as a South African artist; and the list has "two" artists from the Congo (DRC): one is "Isek Bodys" and the other is "Kingelez." In addition to many glaring misspellings of artists' names, someone ought to take a look at the ARESUVA website. It just does not speak well of everyone associated with the project.
Yet, ARESUVA is a bold effort especially in an environment that, since FESTAC 77, has shown a pathetic lack of ambition and vision in sphere of contemporary art. Joe Musa seems poised to shake up things, but all things considered, it is not going to be easy...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Senator John McCain's portrait

I could not but share this with anyone with the least interest in this season's US presidential elections. I have neither seen nor read a better unvarnished portrait of Mr. John McCain, whose "Straight Talk Express" clearly has gone off the road, badly damaged, and dire need of recycling, for the sake of the planet.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

On the Ben Enwonwu Foundation magazine

A couple of days ago, I received an e-copy of the maiden edition of The Awakening, a cultural and lifestyle magazine published by The Enwonwu Foundation and edited by Oliver Enwonwu the founder and Board Member of the Foundation.

Without doubt, Mr. Enwonwu has done a tremendous amount of work in consolidating, through the Foundation, the legacy of Ben Enwonwu--a foremost modern Nigerian artist whose work as Federal Art Adviser and flamboyant spokesman of modern Nigerian and African art during the colonial period is legendary (one cannot forget his essay, "Problems of the African Artist" from the 1950s and "Into the Abstract Jungle" from the early 60s). Unlike any other foundation in Nigeria named for or established by our important artists, the BEF seems properly constituted and, yes, active in the pursuit of its mandate. I understand that the Foundation was at the Johannesburg Art Fair this past February and bought all available Enwonwu works. Now this might seem normal, which it is, but it is unprecedented in the annals of Nigerian art, and I wish the Foundation the very best of luck in its programs, which includes a high profile annual lecture series. My hope is that with time, it would embark on a proper cataloging of Enwonwu’s oeuvre scattered on the face of the planet. Although the artist’s work was often unremarkable, he did produce several ambitious, really inspired paintings in the later part of his career, and some occasional powerful sculptures earlier. But in combination with the significant place he occupies in the history of Nigerian art, a well curated retrospective with a matching respectable catalogue remains elusive and terribly overdue, as is a scholarly monograph. This must be the BEF's biggest challenge.

Back to the maiden edition of The Awakening. I wished it had a bit more meat in it. Apart from the biography of Enwonwu, which goes through already covered terrain, the magazine is short on substance. You expect the inaugural edition of a magazine to come with a punch, to make you want to cc the edition to everyone you know, everyone yearning for new material on the artist or on contemporary art and culture. But I am willing to give the editor and the Foundation the benefit of doubt. I await subsequent editions, with qualitative writing and images. These are hard to come by in publications from the homeland.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Announcement: Enwezor's 7th Gwangju Biennale


Abdoulaye Konate / Fotou Kande Senghor

The 7th Gwangju Biennale takes place from September 5 to November 9 in the city of Gwangju, South Korea. It is curated by the artistic director Okwui Enwezor and the co-curators Hyunjin Kim and Ranjit Hoskote.

Under the title Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, the 7th Gwangju Biennale is a report on the distribution system of artistic and cultural forms and a reflection on the intermediary gap between artists, producers, practitioners, and audiences. Consisting of 127 artists from 36 countries, Annual Report is developed around three principal components: first, On the Road is a report on 36 recent exhibitions that have occurred or have been exhibited elsewhere between 2007 and 2008; Position Papers is a platform dedicated to curatorial proposals and experiments in exhibition practices by curators working in Southeast Asia, North Africa, South Korea, and the United States (Patrick D. Flores, Jang Un Kim, Abdellah Karroum, Sung-Hyen Park, and Claire Tancons); finally, Insertions presents a series of new and independent projects, either commissioned specifically for the biennale or invited as proposals into the exhibition framework.

All three elements of the Biennale bring together a range of activities produced across the span of nearly eighteen months. The exhibition will serve as hosting site, incorporating into its sequence of galleries and sites a series of activities ranging from performances, readings, film screenings, music, dance, theater, to quite a few very unique examples of contemporary exhibition-making. Using the notion of the space of encounter, the biennale hopes to explore models of cultural exchange, setting up a soft, porous line between context and practice, form and medium, artist and system, institution and locality.

Some of the highlights of the program include Fassbinder's restored movie Berlin Alexanderplatz which will be shown for the first time in Asia in its entirety, running for more than 13 hours, in Gwangju Cinema; Gordon Matta-Clark's full-scale retrospective You are the Measure, which also travels to Asia for the first time; the street procession project Spring curated by Claire Tancons including samba drummers in the streets of Gwangju; the premier of the Johannesburg-based composer Joachim Schonfeldt's new sculpture and composition; Hasaan Khan's presenting an evening of continuous mixture of older and newer music works; and the launch of RADIO APARTMENT 22 by Abdellah Karroum ( ).

Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of the 7th Gwangju Biennale has pointed out that: "2008 marks the year in which no less than ten biennials and triennials are set to open in September in the Asia-Pacific region alone. Anchored by the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the convergence of these events and the various national and regional agendas – cultural, economic, political – that define them, exemplify both the magnitude of the changes taking place in Asia, but also the scale and ambition within which they are occurring. Such scale and ambition, and the confidence with which they are pursued have led to the idea of this moment possibly being the Asian century."

The exhibition and the accompanying programs also reflect Gwangju Biennale's global commitment to various forms of cultural production. The Global Institute, held in collaboration with the Korean National University of Arts, Seoul; Chonnam National University, Gwangju; the San Francisco Art Institute; and the Royal College of Art, London, consists of the programs Open Studio and Arenas and Systems, organized into a series of workshops and clinics beginning in mid-August. Also, a series of plenary sessions based in Seoul and Beijing, China, collectively entitled Formations of Global Society and Domains of Public Culture will be held this fall, formulated around three broad themes: civil society as a form of coalition building; civil society as a platform of the global multitude; and civil society in relation to nihilism. Furthermore, a symposium and an associated two day seminar entitled The Politics of Spectacle and the Global Exhibition will run o ver a period of four days, from September 24 to September 27, in response to changes shaping the distribution of global culture.

The 7th Gwangju Biennale will take place in different venues of the city of Gwangju, including the Biennale Hall, the Gwangju Museum of Art, the Uijae Museum of Korean Art, the Cinema Gwangju, and the Daein Traditional Market.

For detailed information on the biennale and the programs please visit the website:

For press information please contact:

Jin-Kyung Jeong
PR & Business Department, The Gwangju Biennale Foundation
Biennale 2-gil Buk-gu Gwangju, South Korea
Tel +82 62 608 4264 / Fax +82 62 608 4269

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New paintings by Penny Siopis

Penny Siopis, Monument, 2007 (Courtesy: Penny Siopis)

Penny Siopis has always been my favorite painter, and this is not just because of her monumental, iconic paintings of the 1980s that showed her mastery of illusionistic ordering of her pictorial space, as well as a subtly powerful critique of history and its conscription by the Apartheid regime. In the intervening years (which includes a short period of time we shared adjoining studios in London, in 1995), she has made work that spanned photography, installation, and film. But she has always remained, primarily, a painter's painter. And I am not just talking about the kind of painter who simply overwhelms you with her supremely crafted work.

Penny Siopis, Fever, 2007 (Courtesy: Penny Siopis)

None of what I have said quite prepares you for an encounter with the new work she showed at Michael Stevenson last year. I will try discuss these works in some depth later, but I cannot but think that she has painted some of the most hauntingly beautiful pictures I have seen in a very long time. To see how the plenitude of forms in the mid 80s work has given way to these gripping expanses of space in which disturbing dramas involving one or just few figures, you get the sense that this is a painter that has come to full maturity. The pleasure you get savoring the incredibly rich surfaces of the paintings is constantly checked by this sense of "what the heck is happening; what is going to happen" as you are ineluctably drawn into the arid expanses of space, into the bloody drips and stained whites, and into the dark eyes of the ghostly figures trapped in ether, mired in red pools, or sequestered in surgery or medical exam rooms, or loveless beds...

Penny Siopis, Love, 2007 (Courtesy: Penny Siopis)

Oh, I said I will return to these images later, as soon as time permits!

Monday, July 28, 2008

7th Shanghai Bienniale's Narrow vision

The 7th Shanghai Bienniale, which opens on September 9, has just announced its artists' list, and the best way to describe it is shameful. Usually, I don't quarrel with such things, but I could not but notice in the list (31 Chinese; 30 international) the screaming absence of any artists from the whole of Africa, and the middle east (except Israel), and Australia. Perhaps the team of curators, consisting of 3 Chinese and 2 Europeans, never got the memo: in this day and age, it is simply dumb and utterly parochial to organize a bienniale that claims an international stature and ignore two and half continents. Do the curators think they could use their show to advance the argument for China's imaginary movement into the G8? Not that there is anything wrong with that. But at least they ought to have made that clear. It is even more annoying that with a theme called "Translocalmotion," they failed to see that geopolitical movement of whatever kind, however imagined, is also happening, perhaps with more consequential rigor in the parts of the world they so resolutely ignored, and that some of the more important work by contemporary artists invested in these questions are being made by African and Middle Eastern artists. So I really don't get it. Shanghai should learn from other nearby biennials, particularly the more respected Gwangju which has consistently produced truly international biennials since its founding.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Salah Hassan earns a named chair at Cornell!

Photo: Frédéric Desmesure

Recently, Cornell University announced the elevation of my good friend Salah Hassan to a named chair: Goldwin Smith Professor. This endowed chair for an African Scholar in an Ivy League university is quite significant. It acknowledges the pioneering work Salah has done in the field of history of contemporary African art. He has played a major role--through graduate teaching, curatorial work, and editorship of our journal Nka, as well as through encouragement of younger scholars and artists, and support of initiatives inside Africa and overseas--in turning a field that barely had a name in the mid 1990s into one of the more exciting branches of Art History today.
It is fitting that along with his endowed chair, he has also established the Institute of Comparative Modernities at Cornell. I will comment on programming at the Institute in the near future. In the meantime, let me just say: congratulations, Salah!

Friday, July 4, 2008

3rd Festival of Negro Arts?

I understand there are plans to organize the 3rd Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar late next year. Indications are that the current Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, is spearheading the project. Of course this will, as had the two previous iterations of the festival, provide occasion for amazing events reflecting the rich and diverse cultures of Africa and its Diaspora, as well as intellectual debates on the past, present and future of African peoples, societies and states. But, questions abound. Why does President Wade want to organize this event at this time? What political imperatives? What is the basis for the 3rd Festival? And by the way, does the adjective “Negre” or “Negro” still make sense at the beginning of the 21st century?

Without question, Wade is no Senghor. Which is to say that while Senghor was a major poet, intellectual, and philosopher who helped laid the grounds for one of the most influential political/cultural ideas of the 20th century, Wade has no claim to such profile, which means that where it made sense for Senghor to organize the 1966 Festival to advance his Negritudist ideas, one is at a loss as to what would be the compelling intellectual or philosophical basis for the Third Festival. Even the 1977 Festival in Lagos had the raison d’etre (even though this was not in the official documents!) of celebrating Nigeria’s oil wealth, which is why we remember only its stupendous display rather than its promotion of any particular idea of and about Africanness or blackness. Today’s economic outlook, suggests that Wade’s Senegal cannot even afford to organize a Nigeria-style festival. So the hard question then is: which tradition can Wade seriously and meaningfully revisit? Senghor’s or Obasanjo’s? It is impossible to replicate or improve on either.

Already, there are intense rumors about the politics of the Third Festival and the Dakar Biennale. It appears that the Festival has been conceived as an alternative to the Biennale the origin of which predated the Wade presidency. I am hoping though that there is no truth in this rumor, and that the promoters of the Festival do not imagine that it can be a substitute for the Biennale. The reason is simple. There is no way Senegal or any other country can afford, but also it does not make sense, to organize a recurrent Festival. Except if it decides to develop a watered down, modular, version, which in any case would be a tragedy, a travesty of the work of Senghor.

OK, if President Wade is convinced that his government must organize the Third Festival, there is only one way that it can work; actually two ways. First is to dispense with the “Negre” thing and go for something less so passé. Second, is to not pretend that he has the intellectual heft and background to be the rallying force behind any program that intends to connect with the work of Senghor as a cultural theorist and philosopher. Which means that President Wade will need to pull back a bit and, in addition to providing fiscal and structural resources, convene a committee of reputable scholars and public intellectuals from Senegal and other parts of the continent and the Diaspora to rethink the idea and program that would—through a festival of arts and culture—be relevant to ideas, issues and questions facing the continent and its peoples within and outside.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mandela no more a Terrorist! Hurrah!

So, finally, the US government, through a new bill written by President Bush, has taken Nelson Mandela (and other members of the ANC) off its terror watch list. Thank God, we must now be safer, although I imagine that Dick Chenney doesn't still think it is a good idea. If anything, this sordid reality of US international politics--in taking a whole of 18 years since the "unbanning" of the ANC in South Africa, and 14 years after the Party won legitimate, popular elections in South Africa, to remove it from the so-called terror list--must teach us to be dubious of the US government's (and its allies') characterization of any individual or group as "terrorist." They were wrong about ANC and Mandela, and should apologize to South Africa because America was on the wrong side of history on the matter of South African decolonization and independence. Just removing Mandela's name from the stupid list is not enough.

The Shame called Mugabe

I imagine that many African leaders, by which I mean those who have legitimate claim to leadership of their countries, feel caught up with the question of how to respond to the tragedy that has unfolded in Zimbabwe, where another old man, completely deluded, senile and devious has decided that nothing but death (which hopefully will come sooner rather than later) separates them from the fate of this country and citizenry. Especially given the complicated history of Zimbabwe's colonial history and that old man's role in ending it. But the time is now for South Africa and Nigeria (along with other already vocal members of the SADC) to take a clear position on Zimbabwe. It is not enough anymore to be doing the so-called background diplomacy, because it does not seem to be working. In a different context, one would be sympathetic to the idea that African leaders don't want to be seen as siding with the West on Zimbabwe. Not with the hundreds, perhaps much more, that have been reportedly killed just to keep Mugabe in power, despite the clear statement made by the citizens in the first round of elections earlier this year: that they are tired of Mugabe's regime and would rather try something else after 28 increasingly tragic years of misrule. Of course, the failure of the Zimbabwean economy under Mugabe may have been orchestrated by international forces who in their vindictive mindset seek to punish that government for waking up late in the day (as a means to hang on to power I must add) to return to the vexed question of redistribution of nation's resources. But, perhaps what ought to be the issue--which the Zimbabweans themselves seemed to have made obvious through the results of the elections earlier in the year--is that it is time to try a different tactic and strategy, one that is not so confused with outworn anticolonialist rhetoric and rancid nationalism.

The silence of some influential African leaders now gives the impression that it is only the West that apparently has problems with later Mugabe and his regime. No, the man has expired as a useful actor in the realm of Zimbabwean and African political practice. While he was a hero of Zimbabwe's independence, he is now an anti-hero, a villain, a slough of his former self who, for his own sake but especially for the people of Zimbabwe, ought not be allowed to stay on in power. With the way he has completely overturned the wishes of the Zimbabwean people through sheer violence and official intimidation, he does not deserve the courtesy of silence, or even of quiet diplomacy. Nor does the argument for a "Zimbabwean solution" to the menace suffice, simply because Mugabe has emasculated civil society, stifled opposition, and reduced the masses to such poverty and hunger that all they now answer to is stipendiary politics of which the state has total control.

African leaders must show true leadership and concern for the fate of Africa and Africans by declaring publicly their position on the rape of Zimbabwe by a man who you would have thought (well, that is if you for once forgot that he is reenacting a kind of politics, the self-installation of rulers-for-life, many countries in Africa have had to endure since the 1960s with grave consequences) would give his life to see that he left Zimbabwe a prosperous, stable country, to show the former colonial masters that he indeed was right to have waged a revolutionary war of independence. He must be called out, by African political leadership, not just by Desmund Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Benin Court and Ritual Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago

The blockbuster show, Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, organized last year by the Museum für Völkerkunde—Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna will make its final stop at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago beginning July 10. This exhibition, the most comprehensive collection of Benin arts ever, including the finest examples of the court and ritual arts from the Kingdom of Benin, is a must-see for anyone interested in the subject. It is my hope that the Chicago version of the exhibition will be as well installed as the inaugural show in Vienna last year. But as with traveling exhibitions--particularly those coming to the US from elsewhere--there will be quite a few substitutions, due to restrictions from lenders who often are leery of possible litigations, shipping costs, or just due to bizarre, outright stupid legalese by the US customs. Already, I understand that the FESTAC mask, the copy of the so-called Queen Idia mask Nigeria had commissioned in the 1970s after they failed to convince Britain to loan the original piece from the British Museum, is not likely to make it to Chicago. In fact I understand that this mask is presently stranded in some shipping warehouse, having been refused entry by the US customs. And the problem? Well, it turns out that because the Queen Idia copy was carved in the 1970s after the ban on elephant ivory imports into the US, which makes the mask a contraband! So, baring any creativity around this law, this magnificent copy will not make it to Chicago, which of course raises an even more pertinent question: so if the copy is ensnagged by the law because of its recent manufacture, why not bring the original from the British Museum? That would be even better for the show! Perhaps the Metropolitan Museum, NY might lend its own less impressive, original, Idia mask, but it won't be the same as either the BM's or even the Nigerian copy.

Barbara Plankensteiner, the curator of the Benin exhibition, promises to write about the fate of the Nigerian Queen Idia mask and its curious trip to the US. Let's await her story for all the details. In the meantime, whatever will be included in the smaller Chicago show from Europe and Nigeria, and from American collections should still be a sumptuous feast for Benin scholars, connoisseurs, and dilettantes. I regret though that nothing will be heard on this side of the Atlantic about the passionate plea made by the Oba of Benin during the opening of the show in Vienna for meaningful, good faith discussion about the possibility of loaning some of the works in European collections to the Palace as a compromise solution to the thorny, complex question of ownership of the bronzes most of which were looted by British soldiers (of fortune!) in 1897 during the so-called Punitive Expedition. In his Vienna speech, the Oba made it clear that though the Palace is the rightful owner of the objects, it recognizes the irreversible(?) history of their removal and incorporation into national, public and private collections in the West, and is not calling for their permanent return to Benin (possibly because there are so many national and international legislations and political imperatives that make such talk all but academic. At least for the moment!). Alas, because of the immense economic and symbolic value attached to these materials as objects d'art, but also because of enduring anxiety of loss people feel when they claim ownership of something that came into their holdings as a result of their ancestors' sordid actions, the Oba's proposal will never reach the ears or assail the political consciences of the Western "owners" of the Benin treasures.