A SMALL HISTORY OF ART FOR SOCIAL CHANGE SINCE 1945 CLAUDIA MESCH

ART AND POLITICS

A SMALL HISTORY OF ART FOR SOCIAL CHANGE SINCE 1945

CLAUDIA MESCH

I.B. TAU RIS

 

 

post-colonial identity and the civil-rights movement

While India’s independence from British control in 1947 preceded it, the decolonization of African countries in the years follow­ ing the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester marked the ideological rejection of modern imperialist colonialism, and the beginning of what has been called the post-colonial era of the later twentieth century. Enormous cultural change also contributed to independence movements in Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zaire (now Congo), among other countries. As Chika Okeke has stated, the story of the emergence of the multiple modern­ isms of the African continent hinges upon the fact that “modern artistic subjectivity is limited to political independence Art by modern artists in each of these countries, both before and since independence, certainly has a complex relation to African social and political developments, but the agency that is necessary for African artists to take up and rework Western notions of mod­ ernism was only achieved with the rejection of the ideology of colonialism. This made it possible for African artists to construct an autonomous notion of African identity. I will, then, argue that African modern art must generally be understood as engaging with politics.

As this chapter lays out, modern art pursued by African artists in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Benin collec­ tively rejected Western, colonialist notions of “primitivism.” Even in its beginnings in the notion of “Negritude” (discussed later in

 

 

this chapter), modern African art sought to “mak[e] Africanness (whatever that may entail) part of the repertory of modern art.”2 It must, however, be noted that the very idea of “Africanness” is a problem, since it is a highly complex notion that has to do with the diverse cultures that make up the African continent— the Maghreb, West Africa, Northern Africa, sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps the single unifying characteristic of African modern art is its anti-colonialism, and its resulting quest to rethink the African subject. One indication and example of this cultural diversity is the fact that South Africa alone has 11 official languages. The African diaspora, another dimension of post-colonial African culture and identity and a very concrete result of the development of the slave trade by colonialist nation states, further contributes to the stag­ gering diversity of culture and identity that can be understood as “African.” Colonialism not only enslaved Africans but set into motion the enormous displacement, or a diaspora, of Africans to the “new world,” which included the Caribbean, the US, and elsewhere. This chapter also examines significant art that emerged around the US civil-rights movement in the 1960s and since, and that had as its subject both an emphatic rejection of institution­ alized racism and a reformulation of African American identity. I recognize, however, that the African diaspora and its cultures must be traced in the art history of many nations. The chapter concludes with a consideration of several important African and pro-civil-rights artists working within the contemporary art world.

Decolonization in Africa; Independence; Resistance Art under Apartheid

African visual art foreshadowed the new ideology of post­ colonialism: the work of several artists from the continent antici­ pated the cultural and political changes of the African era of independence. Ernest Mancoba (born 1904) and Gerard Sekoto (bom 1913), two important pre-independence South African paint­ ers, both began to merge visual modernism with forms unique to

 

 

African culture, either in painted scenes from everyday life in the black townships of South Africa (Sekoto) or, in Mancoba’s case, in referencing the rich traditions of African textiles in abstract compositions. Like Sekoto, Mancoba was largely self-taught while he still lived in his native South Africa, where he finished a degree at the Catholic teacher’s college in Pietersburg (now Polokwane). In order to obtain proper artistic training in a period before the founding of modern African art schools that were open to black Africans, Mancoba received a grant or award to attend the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. This is despite the fact that Mancoba was fairly successful with commissions for his sculptural work by the 1930s. Sekoto chose to go into exile in France. Therefore both of these painters had to be exiled from Africa in order to be trained as modern artists. Significantly, both artists died in France: Sekoto in 1993, and Mancoba in 2002.

During his years in Paris in the 1940s, Mancoba came to know several other painters who like him worked in an expressionistic, gestural, and highly colorful style. With them he founded, in 1948, the artists’ group CoBrA, an acronym that was famously derived from only the European members’ home cities—Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—since Mancoba’s home town of Boksburg outside Johannesburg seems to be missing from it, as was that of another group member, Jean-Michel Atlan, an Algerian artist. It is perhaps the case that CoBrA’s interest in Mancoba’s paintings had to do with their general enthusiasm for outsider art as their preferred route to authenticity in postwar art. Mancoba’s Composition (1940, Figure 2.1) pursues a kind of decorative abstraction that does not adhere to the strict geometric forms of De Stijl, for example, and possibly refers to the bright patterning of African textiles.

In participating in CoBrA exhibitions Mancoba shared, at least for a time, the group’s insistence that art of the postwar period continue its connection to revolutionary socialist goals, including the enlightenment of the population. Surely Mancoba also hoped for such radical social change in South Africa. As he continued to work in France, finally also as a French citizen, his engagement with decolonization in South Africa was at best indirect. However,

 

 

2.1 Ernest Mancoba, Composition (1940), oil on canvas. 59 x 50 cm

his work has yet to be fully understood in its rejection of European postwar painters’ notions about the “primitivism’’ of African art, and in establishing an African modern and abstract painting in Europe? Mancoba’s art, then, initiated what Okwui Enwezor has called the “African systemization, deployment, and usage of modern forms, values, and structures.”4

 

 

During Mancoba and Sekoto’s exile the pursuit of independence gained momentum as a result of other intellectual developments relating to black African identity beyond colonialist strictures and specifically, from the developing philosophy of Negritude, an African humanism that rejected European philosophical and cultural models of the universality of the European subject, and of subjectivity itself. Negritude was theorized in Paris by the exiled Caribbean writers Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas and the Senegalese poet and statesman Leopold Sedar Senghor beginning in 1934, all of whom shared African ethnicity; Cesaire is credited with first using the term, in his poem “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (1938).5 In part, Negritude had to do with the construction and celebration of an African subject who rejected colonialism and assimilation to white culture, and who looked to African culture for new notions of black or Negro identity. Arguably Negritude, which was theorized in French, also took up Alain Locke’s ideas about African culture and consciousness as they were presented in his writings on the Harlem Renaissance writers and artists of the 1920s in his book The New Negro (1925). The emergence of the independence leaders in Africa of the 1950s and 1960s was one outcome of this new philosophical construction of an African subject. Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and, perhaps most famously, Patrice Lumumba of Zaire, were elected national presidents in the wake of independence from European control. As I discussed in Chapter 1, Lumumba was imprisoned and executed shortly after he took office. He became the primary and tragic icon of the first wave of African independence through Tshibumba Kanda Matulu’s 1973-4 painting series History of Zaire (Figure 1.5) and more recently, a painting completed in 2000 by the Belgian Luc Tuymans (Zaire was a Belgian colony). Sadly, Tshibumba himself went missing sometime after leaving Lubumbashi in the early 1980s.

Looking beyond the icon of the fallen independence leader, some African artists took up the ideas of Negritude in reconfiguring visual modernism to deal with their own local, indigenous cultures. With the slow establishment of African art schools that were open to black African students in Ghana, Sudan, Uganda, and Nigeria,

 

 

African artists no longer had to be exiled to Europe in order to study modern art Another system of art education, the workshop, was established by European expatriates like Dili and Georgina Beier in Nigeria, but workshops were founded in other countries as well, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki, who took the pseudonym Twins Seven Seven, trained in the Beier workshop in Osogbo, Nigeria in the early 1960s. Seven Seven’s art focuses on the sacred figures and iconography of Yoruba culture, and possibly his own personal mythology, presented in compositionally dense drawings, paintings, and batiks. His pseudonym points to a general Nigerian interest in numerology. It is a reference both to the fact that he was said to be the only surviving child of his parents’ seven sets of twins, and to the number two, which also has significance within Yoruba belief.6 His drawing The Goddess of Eternity (1984) is characteristic of his compositions in its web of ornament and figure that fills the entire picture plane. The nine heads of the figure possibly reference the Yoruba goddess Oya, who is known as the “Queen of the Nine,” after the nine tributaries of the Niger River. Seven Seven furthermore surrounds her in a swirl of fish and sea life; she grasps some of these animals in her hands. It seems certain that Seven Seven worked in a rich environment of artistic discovery in Osogbo with expatriate artists like Beier and Susanne Wenger, who likewise were drawn to the sacred aspects of Yoruba culture and were likely influenced by Seven Seven’s art.

The noted Ethiopian artist Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian trained in London and Paris in the late 1950s before he returned briefly to Addis Ababa to teach. In 1969 he took a position at Howard University in Washington DC, where he taught until his death in 2003. He was first recognized as an artist of note in 1954 when he won a prize for his work during the jubilee celebrations for the Emperor Haile Selassie. In an interview Boghossian noted that during his time in Europe he was impressed by paintings by Paul Klee, Wifredo Lam, and particularly Roberto Matta. This statement, along with what can be argued to be the dream-image iconography in some of his paintings, has led commentators to conclude that Boghossian was something of a surrealist, while

 

 

others strongly deny any connection to that movement. An early painting with collage, Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964, Figure 2.2), suggests that Boghossian had multiple sources for his forms and techniques of painting. The bird and owl forms that he positions before a star-filled sky in this work recall the animal and plant forms in Lam’s paintings, or Max Ernst’s pres­ entations of his bird-man alter ego Loplop. Boghossian’s use of collage might also reference the medium used by the surrealist painter. At the same time Boghossian evokes the tight texture and subtle palette of Coptic mosaics of north-east Africa and of the neighboring Middle East, as some have claimed for his painting more generally.7 It is thought that other Boghossian paintings, particularly The End of the Beginning (1972-3), make reference to

2.2 Alexander “Stunder” Boghossian, Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964)

 

 

a specifically Ethiopian landscape and cityscape in flux that also touched upon the political changes and instability of the country around 1974 and the Ethiopian Revolution. It must be noted that surrealism had, by the 1940s, established a network of world artists stretching well beyond Western Europe, and involved figures of the African diaspora such as Lam, and Egyptian modernists such as the anti-fascist group Art and Freedom, organized in 1939 by Georges Henein, which held exhibitions in Cairo beginning that same year.8 There was, then, a legacy of African artists who in advocating independence from occupying and colonizing powers had also discovered the forms of surrealism. This movement, an avant-garde that engaged with ideas of social change, was relevant to their own artistic work and, more generally, to the cultural and political struggle against the inequities of colonialism. Within his hybrid compositions that drew from both African and surrealist traditions, Boghossian was clearly also aware of these intercon­ necting legacies.

South African modern art similarly addressed the localized system of apartheid—an Afrikaans word for segregation—in place there from 1948 to 1994, which assured that a white minority would remain in control of the State and its institutions. South African artists, black and white, mounted resistance to this system and ideology, as did cultural institutions: the Amadlozi Group, for instance, founded by Cecil Skotnes, Sydney Kumalo, and the gallerist Egon Guenther, had as a major goal the exploration of African identity by both white and black artists through the forms of modern art. Amadlozi came out of a community art center or workshop, the Polly Street Art Centre in Johannesburg, of the type that remained the only option for black South Africans to receive art training in the 1940s and 1950s.

Gavin Jantjes attended art school in his native Cape Town. He has worked across many different mediums but is perhaps best known for his print portfolios. His series A South African Colouring Book of 1974-5 (Figure 2.3) consists of collages of text and image that directly address the results and ideology of apartheid. A con­ ceptual artist, Jantjes appropriates documentary photographs as a foundation for his work in this series, turning them into a moral

 

 

Gavin Jantjes. Classify this Coloured (from the series A South African Colouring 2.3 Book, 1974-5)

 

 

statement against the injustice of institutionalized racism. In sev­ eral prints Jantjes presents journalistic photographs of the i960 Sharpeville township massacre, in which 69 unarmed apartheid protesters were killed by police and a further 185 were injured; in one print Jantjes uses text and diagrams to point to black police­ men who participated in this brutal repression. Other prints in the series play on the word “colour,” with the phrases “the true colour of the state”; “colour these people dead”; and “colour these blacks white.” The last phrase, already intimated in one of Jantjes’ other Sharpeville prints, is juxtaposed with photographic-negative images of activities of daily life, a wedding and a beauty pageant, and a quote from Frantz Fanon, the first psychoanalyst to access the self-loathing of the colonized subject:

Having judged, condemned, abandoned his cultural forms, his language, his food habits, his sexual behaviour, his way of sitting down, of resting, of laughing, of enjoying himself, the oppressed flings himself upon the imposed culture with the desperation of a drowning man.

Jantjes then points to how tire colonized black African has inter­ nalized the racist value systems of colonialism, and has come to reject black culture in favor of that of the colonizer. By means of the multicolored bars he includes in the corner of each print in the series, Jantjes also points to apartheid as a racial, or color­ coding, system, whereby some lives are categorized as more valuable than others. One print features Jantjes’ own identity card, stamped with the word “classified” with a text below it regarding the i960 Population Registration Act’s requirement that South Africans be categorized as either “colored,” “native,” or “white.” As Jantjes’ inserted autobiographical text in the print points out, the language of these identification cards gives rise to the same lack of self-esteem in the colonized that Fanon had described a decade earlier. The print remains one of the most powerful self-portraits of an African artist subjected to the oppression of apartheid.

 

 

Art of the Civil-Rights Movement and its Legacies

The African diaspora, a product of the slave trade and a central consequence of colonialist expansion during the early modern period, can especially be tracked across the countries of the so- called “new world” of the Americas and the Caribbean. The visual art and philosophy that grew around the US civil-rights move­ ment arguably also connected with the main ideology behind independence in Africa, namely pan-Africanism and the notion of Negritude. The latter, as I have already stated, had its roots in the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, as it was articulated by Alain Locke’s notion of the “new Negro.” It appears that early steps toward desegregation in public education as well as in public transport in the US—the 1954 court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas, and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-6—led to an at times violent backlash by parts of the white population, particularly in the south of the US where most of the early protests against segregation were staged. African American protesters generally followed the Gandhian strategy of protest through non-violence and civil disobedience to the State, a view shared by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most important leader of the US civil-rights movement.

Mary Schmidt Campbell has tracked the early interaction between visual artists and civil-rights protest in the Spiral group, and particularly in the work of its most famous member, Romare Bearden. Formed in 1963 by the African American painters Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruffin New York, Spiral would ultimately have 14 members. Two of these, Bearden and Lewis, were known for their large-scale abstract works. The group began to read and discuss Senghor on Negritude as a philosophical position, surely a response to events of that year, such as King’s historic “I have a dream” speech, delivered in Washington DC on August 28, 1963. Campbell recounts that the three artists thought one strategy of solidarity with the growing civil-rights movement would be to create collective works, with Bearden suggesting

 

 

that they might work collaboratively with the additive process of collage.10 He was apparently the only member who carried through with this idea, which transformed the rest of his oeuvre. Bearden turned to photomontage in his 1964 work Conjur Woman (Figure 2.4), part of his Projections series, a title that points to his

2.4 Roman; Bearden. Conjur Woman (1964)

 

 

artistic process, since the artist had his original small-sale collage photographically enlarged and mounted for exhibition. As he completed more photomontages the series was shown in 1964 under the subtitle The Prevalence of Ritual. In this and other works Bearden took up the theme of his own childhood in the south (North Carolina) that he evokes through the figure of the “conjur woman,” a kind of local mystic in the black community whom Bearden shows surrounded by flora and fauna, beckoning to the viewer. In manipulating the photographic fragment in his projec­ tions, Bearden also exploited the mnemonic associations of the photographic image. As a medium it could bring together his own personal memories with those of an entire generation of African Americans who similarly migrated north, and whose past in the south could be called up or “conjured” as a collective or cultural memory. Bearden then strives to represent the shared nature of African American experience as one united in a common spiritual­ ity and with a strong sense of community. In Bearden’s projections this representation of black community and spirituality takes on further power and significance through the medium of painting.

The artist Charles Wilbert White, best known for his skill as a draftsman and his work in graphic art, used his artwork to cel­ ebrate positive images of prominent African Americans through­ out American history, such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Paul Robeson. White also mounted a critique of slavery in the US and some of its legacies, including the widespread practice of lynching that had continued into the twentieth century. White was an activist for socialism, a connection other black American intellectuals such as the novelist Richard Wright had also made. White appears to have discovered the links between socialism and the struggle against racism around 1947, during the years that he studied at the Taller de Grafica Popular in Mexico, where he came into contact with engaged socialist Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and supporters such as Elizabeth Catlett. (White was married at one time to Catlett, who became a Mexican citizen and remained in Mexico throughout her life.) White trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and became active in projects by the Works Progress Administration (WPA),

 

 

the US government agency set up as part of the New Deal that was dedicated to public-works projects, and the public murals it commissioned. This surely heightened his attraction to Mexican modernism and its tradition of public-mural painting. Another indicator of White’s ties to socialism, and also his involvement and exploitation in the Cold War culture war, is the monograph and autobiography Charles White, Ein Kiinstler Amerikas (Charles White: An American Artist) published by the East German pub­ lisher VEB Verlag der Kunst in Dresden in 1955. White received accolades from the Akademie der Kunste in East Berlin where he lectured, as well as from other Soviet Bloc countries. It has been noted that in addition to the racism White struggled against, he was also subjected to the blacklisting and other repression exerted on the US Left by McCarthyism.’’

White returned to the US, where he lived and taught in both New York City and Los Angeles during the 1950s. In California he was able to show his work at Benjamin Horowitz’s Heritage Gallery, one that promoted and exhibited both white and black artists. Throughout his career White took on the most difficult subjects for work that consistently sought to revise and clarify American history. This is most evident in artworks such as his 1947 drawing Freeport, which addressed the horrendous practice of the lynching of African Americans, sometimes veterans, by white mobs and the Ku Klux Klan. Like Bearden, White sought to underscore the historical references and mnemonic functions of his art. He did so by often using sepia-toned charcoals in his drawings and prints. This formalist invocation of memory is especially pronounced in White’s Wanted Poster series of 1970 (Figure 2.5). On one level White uses these prints in order to point to the very medium itself as having played an historical role in perpetuating the injustice of slavery. In these prints White references the history of other prints or posters used before the civil war to announce slave auctions or to give notice of missing or runaway slaves, for example. One print features carefully ren­ dered likenesses of two young people, one male and one female, framed by the dates “1619” and “19??.” These sensitive portraits point not only to the continuity of prejudice and racism, but also

 

 

2.5 Charles WiIbert White, Wanted Poster (1970)

to the inherent humanity of those individuals in history who were, because of the institution of slavery, tragically deprived of their own individuality and dignity. White inserts the letter “X” at the composition’s lower vertical axis, a reference to Malcolm X’s pow­ erful statement in rejecting his own surname, an action that had to do with another dehumanizing legacy of slavery: the practice of the renaming of slaves with the slave-owner’s name and the resulting erasure of identity of African Americans. Again White uses his art to redress the injustice of history toward Africans and those of African descent.

The very difficult relation of African Americans to their own his­ tory of exploitation and persecution in the US, and to their identities as US citizens, was a major theme of African American art during the 1960s, the most active years of the civil-rights movement. By the mid 1960s unrest relating to how best to achieve the goals of the movement had spread, and more violent demonstrations and riots took place in the inner-city neighborhoods where American prosperity was not frequently felt, in Watts (Los Angeles) in 1965,

 

 

and in Newark and Detroit in 1967. It is no coincidence that the American flag became an element in many critical artworks that sought to address the African American community’s fraught rela­ tion to American history itself. Faith Ringgold’s exploration of the flag as symbol of American identity is perhaps most infamous, but it should be noted that other artists, including the white artist and Fluxus impresario George Maciunas, also depicted the American flag very critically during the same years in order to make an anti­ war statement. Ringgold’s painting Tlte Flag is Bleeding (1967) used the Stars and Stripes as a backdrop to point not only to the violence that inequality based on race would continue to evoke, but also to the fact that the inequality of women was another social concern that united women of all races with the struggle for black equality. Ringgold herself had suffered discrimination because of her gender: one might surmise that she was denied membership in the Spiral group for of this reason. Her Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969) speaks perhaps most directly about the racial vio­ lence that underlies American history and identity. In it Ringgold manipulates the stripes of the national symbol—which had been planted on the lunar surface by the Apollo 11 crew—so that they spell out the hateful word “nigger,” which was commonly used to categorize and dehumanize African Americans. The painting was part of the exhibition she helped to organize around the theme of the American flag, the People’s Flag Show at Judson Church in New York City of 1970. As a result of that exhibition, and also her painting, Ringgold became one of the “Judson Three,” along with Jean Toche and Jon Hendricks, who were arrested for “desecrating the flag.”’- Ringgold’s painting of 1969 is also perhaps her most prescient, since the derogatory term she uses to render the stripes of the US flag has become a flashpoint for black musicians and artists of the rap and hip-hop era, who now regularly appropriate and thereby defuse and channel it away from its racist use.

Charles White’s student David Hammons is perhaps best known for his large-scale assemblage sculptures, such as the exaggeratedly high basketball backboards of Higher Goals (1986), first installed in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, New York. But like his mentor Hammons explored the medium of graphic art to

 

 

address the injustices suffered by African Americans in the US and used his work to move the black community from the margins to the center as a worthy subject of contemporary American art In his “body prints” of 1973-4, created in Los Angeles, Hammons pressed or applied his greased body to paper, leaving an impres­ sion behind that he would then dust with charcoal or other pig­ ments. Hammons consistently introduced an indexical mark of the African American body as an element and material that was central to his art.13 His 1970 print Injustice Cose (Figure 2.6) makes reference to the arrest of the activist Bobby Seale for con­ spiracy during the repressive Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968; Seale became one of the defendants known as the “Chicago Eight.” Because of his vociferousness during his trial, the presiding judge ordered that Seale be bound and gagged. Hammons frames the body print with the edges of an American flag, thereby relating the national symbol to a vivid icon of the lack of free speech for some citizens of color. In many other assemblage works Hammons has included human hair as a material that similarly references the ethnic body of African Americans, who remain the primary subject of, and arguably the contributing material, for his art.

Glenn Ligon is an African American artist who builds upon this legacy of critical art produced in response to the civil-rights movement A particular focus of his work is language; Ligon makes use of the textual strategies of conceptual art in order to foreground how language itself perpetuates certain social inequalities relating to race in everyday life. Like many of his other works, Ligon’s etch­ ing White (1995, Figure 2.7) is in grisaille; it presents a sentence fragment of black letters. Cropped on each side, Ligon renders the words less legible since he has marked the background with dark drips and stains, causing the letters to blend into some of these dark areas. As viewers we do not know if the phrase is taken from any well-known source. From the words that can be discerned in their entirety in the frame of the print—“of course,” “marked,” “not impose,” “hands,” “about white,” “father is not”—a speaker is implied, as is a possibly racially charged subject of discussion. It is also suggested that the sentence fragment does not intimate

 

 

2.6 David Mammons, injustice Case (1970), mixed media with body print.

 

 

2.7 Glenn Ligon, White #1 (1995)

 

 

any issue of race, and that if the viewer makes this connection, the content of what is being “said” in the composition is neither verifiable nor certain. Ligon’s language-based composition points to the imprecision of meaning that arises in language, and the difficulty of true communication taking place through it. The impossibility of communication may become even greater when those speaking do so across the gulf of racial difference. Ligon continues Ringgold’s earlier exploration of the intersection of racism and language in American art.

Global Post-Colonialist Art: Creating New Languages

Where Ligon as an African American artist is interested in language as an unreliable medium impacted by the issue of race, Frederic Bruly Bouabre sees art as a forum for his archival projects and studies that focus on visual and spoken language systems. One such project is Bouabre’s mapping of the entire Bete language as a system, a quasi-anthropological and linguistic project from 1990-1 titled Alphabet Bete. Bouabre brings with him a utopian belief in art and language as systems that further human knowledge and that thereby grant some unity to the great diversity of human culture. Bouabre, who was bom in and works in Ivory Coast, also belongs to the Bete people. He devised a long series of 449 pictograms— small-scale drawings roughly the size of an index card tha t combine an image with letters or monosyllabic word fragments—represent­ ing the Bete language.14 Taken together the drawings constitute an icon-based archive, or linguistic database. Bouabre has also worked on other drawing series that further carry out his ambi­ tion to organize and categorize images and texts: the small-scale drawings of Knowledge of the World, a series begun in 1970 and continuing into the 1990s, gather words, statements, truisms, and images that Bouabre distinguishes for their importance. One drawing in the series, a grid with each square containing stylized eyes and mouth, is framed by the text, “Toutes les races du monde ont

 

 

droit a la liberte de la parole” (“All races of the world have the right to freedom of speech”). Another series, Les Grandes Figures from 1987-8 (Figure 2.8), features drawings of public figures including Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev, Pope John Paul II, Senghor, and Nelson Mandela, each with a text that identifies them by name and title. Bouabre carefully dates many of the drawings, an action that underscores the diaristic quality of the series. Since he presents these elements as key components of his own knowledge system, in some sense his drawing/archives can be seen as extended self- portraits. The series maps his own relation to the images and people of the world. This relation also comprises his own subjectivity and worldview. In this artwork Bouabre presents himself as a subject most subtly, as well as with great modesty.

Like Bouabre, other contemporary African and African-diaspora artists fashion their art around material culture that they have care­ fully collected and assembled. They critically address the history of colonialism and conquest through these collections and materials as a type of evidence. As an artist of African descent Yinka Shonibare is interested in making “African art,” but he points to the fact that

2.8 Frederic Bruly Bouabre, The Great Historical Figures of Our Time (Les Grandes Figures historiques de notre temps, 1987-8)

 

 

African ethnicity can never be seen as a pure or stable notion but one that is always constructed and multiple. Shonibare, a British artist who was raised in Nigeria, is best known for his elaborate installations that hint at mostly European figures of the golden age of colonialism, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These figures are clad in so-called Dutch wax-print textiles, the bright, pat­ terned cloth that many identify as a marker of Africanness, but that has in actuality been manufactured in the Netherlands and exported to Africa for years. One of Shonibare’s installations, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002, Figure 2.9), depicts multiple figures in eighteenth-century garb such as bustles and greatcoats beneath a suspended carriage; this makes reference to the fete galante, or elegant outdoor gathering, a European painting genre and repeated subject matter of eighteenth-century art Shonibare’s figures are headless but carefully attired in Dutch wax-print textiles. The figures appear to be engaged in sex acts that suggest sodomy, among other things. Shonibare brings the contradictions and irony inherent to a material object, an African/Dutch textile, to his quasi-tableau vivant scene of European cultural history. One lesson we can take from Shonibare is that African and European cultures were already tighdy entwined at the start of the early modern period, and at the begin­ ning of colonization. Another message carried in the material object of the Dutch wax print, and that Shonibare stages in his installation, is the moral vacuum and general depravity of a European “civiliza­ tion” whose ideology would give rise to the profound injustices of colonialism in Africa. Of course, both Europe and Africa continue to struggle with the effect of this racist legacy.

The Benin artist Georges Adeagbo is also an artist-archivist who works with found objects to further knowledge of the past. He groups these objects into large installations that have also been called assemblages. His installation at the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Explorer and Explorers Facing the History of Exploration…! The World Theatre (2002, Figure 2.10), characteristically assem­ bled a number of objects that point self-reflexively not only to the work’s European site of exhibition, but also to the artist’s location in Cotonou, Benin’s capital. The work furthermore foregrounds the displacement that results from the transporting of his work

 

 

2.9 Yinka Shonibare, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002)

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2.10 Georges Adeagbo, Explorer and Explorers Facing the History of Exploration…’ The World Theatre (L’Explorateur et ies explorateurs devant “histone de l’exploration..! Le Theatre du monde, 2002)

 

 

to the exhibition. Adeagbo makes the relocation of his installation another dimension of exploration, and one that might be seen to reverse the earlier travels of imperialistic “exploration” of the underdeveloped world by the West.

Adeagbo undertook research trips to Kassel a year before his installation was to take place. During that time he collected various books, objects, and ephemera, and copied a number of images and texts from the Documenta archive. Adeagbo gave many of these images in photocopy form to local signboard painters in Cotonou who reproduced them according to their preferences for composition and size. The paintings included images of a founder of Documenta, Arnold Bode, and the artists James Lee Byars and Joseph Beuys. The artist also hired local sculptors to carve four matching wood totems, which Adeagbo finally placed at the center of his installation, surrounding a canoe that he had found on a stretch of beach near his home. These wooden objects then formed a core or base around which Adeagbo placed the painted copies and other ephemera of his collection, on the curved walls of the gallery—he stipulated that the space must have an “apse”-like structure to encourage the circular movement of visitors within the space. The core objects at the center of the installation there­ fore corresponded to a notion of home, or “African” objects: the explored, the results of Adeagbo’s research and collecting in the US and Europe, was displayed on the walls. He also collected other objects and ephemera in Benin and elsewhere that addressed the history of Africa or cultural history more generally.1’

Like Shonibare’s art, Adeagbo’s Explorer and Explorers Facing the History of Exploration constructs a material-culture history that relates and juxtaposes Western and African pop and high culture. In this history, Benin is at the center, and the West and Africa share the margins, in the great ocean of information and imagery that swirls about both of these world cultures. Historian and artist, Adeagbo uses art to present a history of a Western cultural site that is articulated from his position as an African, envisioned and represented from Africa. Adeagbo initiates a view of world history that is to be continued in the future: it is also a picture of the future subjects of that history.

 

  • post-colonial identity and the civil-rights movement
  • Decolonization in Africa; Independence; Resistance Art under Apartheid
  • Art of the Civil-Rights Movement and its Legacies
  • Global Post-Colonialist Art: Creating New Languages

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