My encounter with kąrî’kạchä seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching projectwhen I entered the KNUST undergraduate Fine Art (Painting) programme in 2005 subtly affirmed a yearning I always had but could neither articulate nor assert before that time.  seid’ou’s inclusive approach to teaching dissented from the official KNUST art curriculum which relied imperiously on established styles and formats of the Euro-American modernist canon that ended with Abstract Expressionism. Over the years, as we struggled with the rigour of his critiques in the drawing and painting classes, I was affected by the depth and range of historical, philosophical, and practical (everyday) references being used and suggested by seid’ou to each student regarding their work. This was a class of over 60 students. It aroused my interest in meta-theoretical questions and propelled a search for more than what the canvas alone could offer. This is where I retrieved my interest in writing as artistic medium. 

seid’ou was the only lecturer in the College of Art then who utilized such an egalitarian approach to teaching. He commits himself to engaging each student from the point of their own interest and not, as is the norm in most art schools, to enforce a priori standards of what a student ought to produce for a lecturer. In the final year, when seid’ou taught us more courses, the emphasis on independent work became more ingrained. He opened us up to coming to terms with the responsibilities associated with the choice of practicing art. This is when I can say I had begun to enjoy the Painting programme I had majored in. My attraction to painting was more with it as a concept— as a vanishing interlocutor to ideas about form, colour, representation, aesthetics, politics, etc— and less as idiom. My proclivities were nurtured, stimulated, challenged and extended all at the same time when seid’ou became my undergraduate thesis supervisor. By this time, although I was unprepared for it then, the transformation of my life in art had started and I had begun to feel more alive to the radical openness of the concept of art while in school. I had begun a process of coming to terms with seid’ou’s anti-formula that “art is anything that is radically new”.

My final year work was an interrogation of the notion of painting itself in the disguise of a collaborative and site-specific installation project. I worked with Nana Essah (who was an architecture student at the time) and Eric Chigbey (a colleague in the Sculpture Programme) for a project titled Untitled… I Can’t Draw (2009). The work doubled as a mute reaction to one of my teachers who nearly failed me in his course once because he interpreted my ambivalent attitude to painting in his class as a rejection of all that was sacred in art. (He was one of the first three students in 1964 whose class initiated the KNUST BA Art degree programme). I was probably as untalented a painting student as he thought I was. The project was my opportunity to create an ambiguous structure that could inter-relate painting, sculpture, installation and architecture and had been inspired by Charles Sauvat’s formalist metal sculptures. (Sauvat was a French artist-collaborator of mine at the time.) Sited in the courtyard of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on campus, the work took about 5 days to construct. During this time, passersby would offer to participate in the construction process. It was my first attempt at a site-oriented and relational art project.

After a six year hiatus— of leaving school and promiscuously involving myself in a myriad of corporate and cultural events in Accra i.e., working briefly at a bank and in customer service at a telecommunications service provider in Ghana; organizing spoken word poetry events and workshops at Nubuke Foundation and elsewhere around the country while being mentored by the poet Yibor Kojo Yibor (a.k.a Sir Black); volunteering with Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana (FCA) to coordinate their library, discursive and screening sessions (through this my friendships with Ato Annan, Adwoa Amoah, Kelvin Haizel, and Bernard Akoi-Jackson congealed into what became the EXIT FRAME Collective); collaborating with photographer and stylist Francis Kokoroko and Daniel Quist to initiate the monthly art talk series dubbed ‘@thestudioaccra’; setting up Resolve Pictures, a commercial film production company with my long-time friend and colleague, the cinematographer Nana G. Asante; participating in Bisi Silva’s Ásíkó Art School program in Dakar, Senegal; among others— I returned to the KNUST Department of Painting & Sculpture to do my M.F.A in 2015. By this time I had consecrated the desire to practice art and the experimental structure of the seid’ou-inspired course programme for both undergraduate and graduate levels appealed to my direction. I majored curating during this time and have internalized this ethos of political indifference in my own practice as I navigate making art through curatorial and extra roles.

 

***Author’s note: Portions of this text have been used in a co-authored essay in the forthcoming joint publication between blaxTARLINES KUMASI and the African Arts Journal in its Summer 2020 edition. 

Note:

 

  1. When seid’ou joined the faculty in the KNUST college of Art in 2003 he introduced many pedagogic strategies and initiatives including Interactive Series which was “a seminar programme in Kumasi to host contemporary artists and art professionals for talks, workshops, exhibitions, overviews and critique sessions. [Jelly Bouwhuis] and Kerstin [Winking] were among the contributors. There were also amiable guests like Godfried Donkor, Agyeman Ossei, Kofi Setordji, Odile Tevie (Nubuke Foundation), Adwoa Amoah (Foundation for Contemporary Art), Elvira Dyangani Ose (Tate Modern), Pauline Burmann (Thami Mnyele), Rochelle Feinstein (Yale) and Nana Ofori-Atta Ayim (Ano Consult) and recently, Bisi Silva (CCA Lagos). Initially, “Interactive Series” was intended to complement and give substance and sustenance to my teaching and to broaden the perspectives of students and interested staff on the scope of contemporary art. Besides, I converted my Drawing Class into a curatorial project of guerrilla exhibitions on campus and in the city. Campus and city came alive with site-specific exhibitions, their critiques and overviews each year“. See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou & Jelle Bouwhuis, in Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking (eds.), Silent parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis, 2014, Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, pp.116.

 

Dr. Sionne Neely’s recent statement confirming the “violence, terror, intimidation and coercion” she has endured for a decade from Mantse Aryeequaye, her former romantic and business partner, has, to say the very least, polarised the art scene in Ghana. But this scission is merely artificial since what it has successfully done is to expose the cracks in the liberal consensus upon which much of political activism in Ghana is based. Our human rights activists are dogmatic about the rhetoric of ‘choice as freedom’ without recognizing that true freedom is much more of a ‘commitment to struggle’, and as such fail to be relevant when a decisive moment of political action presents itself. Naturally there are those in support of Aryeequaye on the one hand and those who are critical of him, on the other. There are also those who generally claim to be friends of both Dr. Neely and Aryeequaye who are therefore unable to take a position on the matter. Some of these ‘friends’ have advocated a third-way with the possibility to dialogue things out between them.

The liberal caucus seem to be debating which way forward even in the face of such explicit accusations made against a man who is purported to have taken the woman he was with for granted and violated her in many ways. Others have stated that they cannot commit to opposing one or the other simply because nobody else was present to witness the abuse and that there is no way of verifying Dr. Neely’s allegations. Without wanting to admit it these same people, by uttering such empty words, do not see that they have already chosen a side on the matter. If the victim is my friend and I claim that I cannot intervene in a matter that she herself has publicly proclaimed then what I am silently saying is that she is possibly being dishonest. There is no way of taking a neutral position in a situation of this kind. And to take a position does not necessarily mean one blindly begins to lay blame on the accused but to diligently pursue the matter through appropriate channels. One can have every form of love in this world for Aryeequaye and/or Dr. Neely and still do this. 

Even though this is not an explicit case of sexual assault I would like to make analogy to some things that can be learned from the #MeToo movement. In essence #MeToo (and other related movements since 2017 which have addressed matters of the kind under discussion) stands to undermine such non-committal spirit with an ethical imperative of seeking justice. For me the true revolutionary potential of #MeToo lies in the deeper issues of reflexively implicating one’s self while addressing general human tendencies. There are three ways I can summarize the power of a claim to #MeToo: 1. #MeToo in the emancipatory sense we have come to know: invoked as an urgent announcement by a survivor declaring their victimhood themselves (meaning they are unspoken for) and by that rallying a universal call for justice on the basis of objective truth not only for its subject but for all potential others. 2. #MeToo in the sense of literally implicating ourselves (i.e. every single human being) as possessing tendencies towards such abusive and exploitative behaviour at any given moment if self-discipline is not exercised (here is a famous example) and 3. #MeToo in another literal sense meaning any of us can potentially be victimized at any given moment through this patriarchal engine of oppression already set in motion. In a word, #MeToo offers us a complex inclusive and self-critical framework through which to create egalitarian spaces in the direction of justice1. But a dynamic chain of events could also create slippages and cause these same principles— particularly point 3— to fail in themselves while being re-routed as new weapons of subjugation. The point would be to void them of any uniformity in expression. In this light we can then say that the condition of victimhood, however emancipatory, can also produce its opposite.

Evidently Mantse Aryeequaye’s own vainglorious response is an example of such excesses. After being silent for more than a year on the issue Aryeequaye has also appeared with a statement of his own claiming to be a victim of a “false accusation campaign”. He has drawn the lines of antagonism and has proceeded to contradict those people asking him to speak ‘his truth’ all this while. He has side-stepped their expectations to claim that his version cannot sit side-by-side Dr. Neely’s but effectively overrides hers. Is there not cause for concern when Dr. Neely claims in her article titled “Speaking My Truth” that “for more than 3 hours I was held hostage in our shared flat, physically and emotionally tortured and coerced into audio-recording false statements while my life was being threatened with two weapons” and Aryeequaye gives his counter-claim by also stating that “[t]he apartment units we shared had other occupants; it also has 24-hour security. About 100 meters west of where we lived is a Police Station. Sionne also worked for a women’s rights organisation for a significant part of our relationship and it is absolutely preposterous to think that she endured this kind of torture while organising against it with her ‘sisters in arms’”? The perverse nature of all this is that Aryeequaye and Dr. Neely are both appealing to our sense of justice by claiming to be victims of something the other has done. One could take either Dr. Neely’s side or Aryeequaye’s, but never both in the name of friendship (although one could also take neither side amounting to a critical position with healthy skepticism of both in order to deal with the contradiction). In short, they both cannot be telling the truth on the question of abuse if they give us opposite answers to the same question. Given such parameters the only other possible scenario is that they are both lying to us. 

The question I have already heard from many people and continue to encounter is “why are external parties so interested in this matter?” “Is it any of your concern?” The answer is simple. It is of course not directly my concern because it did not happen to me. But the consequences of this moment go beyond these two individuals for the following reasons: if they are both manipulating the public by scandalizing each other in this way then it is dirty and deeply unfortunate. If one of them is lying against the other it bears consequences on the institution they have both created as well as the interns and many others they have and are continuing to mentor. If one of them is speaking the truth, and was indeed “terrorized” or is being defamed maliciously, then that goes beyond just the private space of two people into the realms of legality. And the cultural ramifications would be that if everything Dr. Neely has told us in her statement of this megaloman is true then he is not fit to be at the helm of running an institution they created together which still acts as a source of ideological nourishment for advancing a politics proclaiming to be creating safe spaces for women especially. So we see that it is not a simple matter for just two people to deal with now that it has taken this dimension. One could argue that the general public is at this point being drawn into the matter even as both of them have resorted to using social networks to defend themselves. And so even though it is true that “it is not your [my] concern” (as my Ghanaian people say) it has become all of ours in an indirect way. Truth, as acknowledged by of them, is what is at stake here.

If there is any evidence against Aryeequaye it needs to be brought out now. If not, then we need to leave the man alone regardless of whatever feelings any of us may have towards him. Because if indeed Aryeequaye did do these things and his accusers have evidence against him, then the fact that he is able to boldly taunt them in this way is, at the very least, laughable. 

Now to briefly clarify some non-truths in Aryeequaye’s statement. It is a horrible travesty that Aryeequaye is able to downplay Dr. Neely’s role in establishing ACCRA[Dot]ALT and ‘Chale Wote’ altogether. To seek to reduce her to a mere “domestic partner” (this is how a statement released by ACCRA[Dot]Alt on 9th September, 2019— which has since been deleted from the Internet— referred to her) and eliding her from the story. The bullish tone in his statement will not alter the fact that ‘Chale Wote’ is not his personal property as he would like us to believe. And to undermine the many silent workforces who have laboured out of love for the festival to be able to construct a hopeful response to the desperate political-economic circumstances at the time makes Aryeequaye’s intentions and insecurities self-evident. Let us not forget that ‘Chale Wote’ was conceived and created not too long after the global economic crises of 2007/8. It could not have been done by a single person. Siting this arts festival outdoors in Jamestown was a political gesture in itself to, among other things, respond to the phenomenon of ‘poverty industries’ around the globe where poor people are the only ones who do not benefit materially from their condition. And it is sad that one can get so preoccupied with their self-importance that they cannot see when they are shooting themselves in the foot. Aryeequaye has gone on record to express what he thinks to be anti-capitalist views; the ironic twist is that he has failed to understand the radically subversive nature of capital. One only needs to pay attention to the things highlighted about the festival to know where both his and ACCRA[Dot]Alt’s priorities now rest. And it has shifted from its original focus: no longer aligned nor concerned with the primary actors, consumers, spectators and producers of the festival— i.e. the residents of Jamestown.

***

 

Note:

1. Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement has already made this point that “[t]his is a movement about the one in four girls and the one in six boys who are sexually assaulted every year and carry those wounds into adulthood. It’s about the 84 percent of trans women who will be sexually assaulted this year and the indigenous women who are three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group. Or people with disabilities, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused. It’s about the 60 percent of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18, and the thousands and thousands of low-wage workers who are being sexually harassed right now on jobs that they can’t afford to quit”. See Tarana Burke’s TedWomen presentation in 2018 titled “Me Too is a movement, not a moment” here https://www.ted.com/talks/tarana_burke_me_too_is_a_movement_not_a_moment.  

**The following is an abridged version of the text to be published in the Galle Winston Kofi Dawson: In Pursuit of Something ‘Beautiful’… perhaps (15th March – 16th August, 2019) exhibition catalog as part of Dawson’s ongoing solo exhibition at Savanna Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Tamale, Ghana. 

 

Galle Winston Kofi Dawson was born in the Gold Coast on 8th November 1940 in Takoradi. He is one of thirteen children born to Mrs. Evelyn Esi Dawson and Mr. Wilberforce David Kwami Dawson. In 1956, when Dawson was 16 years old, he enrolled in Mawuli High School in Ho. He was in the same class with Prosper Tawiah and a year behind S. K Amenuke at Mawuli1. Dawson had initially entered Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), then Kumasi College of Technology (KCT)2, in 1960 for a diploma in Civil Engineering. He abandoned this direction in 1962 and joined the teacher-training Diploma in Fine Art (DFA) class.

Portrait of G.W.K Dawson, photo courtesy SCCA Tamale

Portrait of G.W.K Dawson, photo courtesy SCCA Tamale

When the KNUST BA Art Degree begun in 1964 Dawson’s class was the first to transition from DFA into the new degree programme. He was one of three students, with old time classmate Prosper Tawiah and Stanislaus Abaka. E.K.J Tetteh joined them from the Slade School of Fine Art after completing his National Diploma in Design (NDD)— the UK equivalent of the DFA on which the latter was modelled3.

As a young student, Dawson had been mentored by the Ghanaian painter and graphic artist Amon Kotei who worked at the Government Printing Office after his studies at the London College of Printing and Graphic Art in 1952. Kotei combined early modernist influences (a post-Impressionist style and Fauvist palette) to depict subject matter from his cultural environment in his figurative and landscape paintings. Kotei is also famously known for his work as designer of the Ghanaian National Coat of Arms during the transition from Gold Coast Colony to Independent state Ghana.

The conversion from Diploma to Degree in Ghanaian art education was contemporaneous with the UK educational curriculum. A year after he had completed his BA Art Degree, in 1967, Dawson was interested to see for himself what was going on in the European art world at the time. And so he was recommended for an 8-month Technical Award granted by the British Council to visit the Slade School of Fine Art in London. The recommendation came from John Avis— British artist and teacher who succeeded notable South African poet, painter, sculptor and academic Selby Mvusi as principal lecturer of the painting programme at KNUST in 1964.

While at The Slade, Dawson learned the basics of painting on canvas— sizing, priming with Rabbit-skin glue, using toluene as solvent, etc—in addition to the hardboard painting he had practiced at KNUST. He actively participated in drawing, painting and screen printing sessions— techniques he will return to more often throughout his life. With regard to drawing and painting he especially focused on anatomy, perspective, and live painting. Here he encountered British artist Euan Uglow, a peer of Avis’s. Uglow was one of several prominent artists who would visit and have interactive sessions with students at The Slade. On Sir William Coldstream’s request Dawson stayed four more months in the U.K until he returned in 1968. As a consequence of Coldstream’s mentorship Dawson became learned in the former’s realist idiom of painting. But Coldstream’s influence was to extend beyond individuals such as Avis and Dawson.

Exhibition view of Dawson’s solo exhibition (retrospective) ‘Galle Winston Kofi Dawson: In Search of Something ‘Beautiful’… perhaps’ (16th March – 15th August, 2019) curated by Bernard Akoi-Jackson at the Savanna Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Tamale, Ghana. Photo courtesy SCCA Tamale.

Exhibition view of Dawson’s solo exhibition (retrospective) ‘Galle Winston Kofi Dawson: In Search of Something ‘Beautiful’… perhaps’ (16th March – 15th August, 2019) curated by Bernard Akoi-Jackson at the Savanna Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Tamale, Ghana. Photo by Abdul Haqq Mahama.

Sir William Coldstream attended the Slade School of Fine Art from 1926 to 1929 and was himself mentored by the influential British avant-garde art teacher Henry Tonks4. He was a founding member, in 1938, along with Victor Pasmore and Claude Rogers, of the Euston Road Group of British male artists who were, in the early twentieth century, resisting French avant-garde waves in Europe by adopting a post-impressionist style of painting traditional subjects in a realist manner based on observation; emphasizing social realism and rule of thumb measurement for drawing as well as painting of the human body and still life objects. They belonged to the community of socialist-inclined artists in London who were politically motivated about their work in response to Fascism, global economic depression, and optimism after the Mexican and Russian revolutions. This circle preferred naturalistic painting as a way of making art more accessible to non-specialists and members of the public. The aesthetic prescriptions of this school confined drawing and painting to pictorialist formats that juggled single narrative subject matter from portraiture, landscape, genre painting and still-life. The group dissolved in the war years between 1939 to 1945 with Pasmore, Coldstream and Rogers moving on to become art teachers at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts5. Avis and Uglow had been Coldstream’s protégés, first at Camberwell then at The Slade (where Coldstream moved to when he was appointed Professor of Fine Art in 1947).

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.50.33 PMBetween 1960 and 1970 the National Advisory Council on Art Education (NACAE) — the body set up “to advise the Secretary of State on all aspects of art education in establishments of further education in England and Wales”6— chaired by Coldstream, released four reports detailing educational and examination reforms. Following the release of the First Report in 1960 (coinciding with Dawson’s Freshman year at KCT), the Diploma in Art and Design (Dip. AD) programme was established as a degree equivalent qualification to the NDD; consequently, old Polytechnic Colleges in England and Wales were given University status and allowed to run degree and postgraduate courses. Euro-Western art history (to be taught by art historians) and the Bauhaus-inspired Foundation Programmes were also recommended in the Report.

And so it happened that four years after the release of the First NACAE/Coldstream Report, when the BA Art Degree programme had been instituted at KNUST— with John Avis as the new head lecturer responsible for designing the BA Art (Painting) syllabus under the supervision of Professor Ernest Victor Asihene, Dean of the KNUST College of Art, in collaboration with other Goldsmiths alumni and Ghanaian faculty — the Slade curriculum was adopted and implemented in KNUST7. This meant that a verficationist tradition of painting, embalmed in early Modernist ethos, was to be inaugurated and consequently privileged, for instance, over any form of abstraction, symbolism or fantasy at KNUST in those early years. The Coldstream-inspired curriculum would hence constitute the hegemony in art teaching at KNUST.

Even though Avis left Ghana in 1967 (three years after his posting and a year after the counter-revolutionary coup d’état that toppled Kwame Nkrumah’s regime initiating Ghana’s Second Republic), the legacy of the European tradition he had bequeathed to the College of Art endured unchallenged until the late twentieth century years when growing nationalist movements in the former colonies of Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America conditioned conscious efforts of decolonizing curricula across board. For KNUST it came with post-Independence restructuring including the introduction of Selby Mvusi as one of the first black faculty (after painter Professor E.V Asihene’s appointment as Dean in 1960) to teach in the Fine Art Department in 1962. Coincidentally, this is the same year the Department of Art became a College. Mvusi, during his undergraduate years at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, aligned with the radical nationalist African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and other student political groups. Fort Hare was the only university open to Black, Indian and Colored South Africans as well as students from other Anglophone African colonial-administered countries during Apartheid. Mvusi left KNUST two years later to teach at the Fine Arts Department of the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1965 until his death in 1967.

Amongst prominent African Modernists affiliated with the College of Art in KNUST are Nigerian modernists Uche Okeke, Ben Enwonwu, Solomon Irein Wangboje and Demas Nwokwo. Okeke is a founding member of the Zaria Art Society (later known as the Zaria Art Rebels), in the late 1950s, along with Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwokwo and other students during their undergraduate years at the Zaria College of Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) in northern Nigeria who were consciously contesting the “Eurocentrism” of an NDD-based curriculum”. Okeke implemented his ideology of “Natural Synthesis”8 in the course program at the Fine Arts Department of the University of Nigeria (Nsukka) and initiated postgraduate courses after he joined the faculty in the ‘70s. As Head of Department he introduced new courses and research into Igbo Uli art traditions and graphic systems. Enwonwu, Wangboje and Nwokwo became external assessors and moderators of the KNUST College of Art from the ‘70s into the ‘80s.

During this so-called “Africanization” period, the KNUST art curriculum was reformed in terms of subject matter but the authority of traditional European pictorial genres and formats9 endured as official art. By the neoliberal political economic turn in world affairs in the ‘80s into the ‘90s, early modernist pictorial styles and romanticised African subject matter10 had become the dominant academy aesthetic until 2003 . . .

 

REFERENCES

Danquah, J.B. 1957. The Historical Significance of the Bond of 1844. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana. 3(1). 3-29. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41405698.

Oguibe O. 2004.  The Culture Game. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, London.

seid’ou, k. 2006. Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme: A Philosophical inquiry and its contextual relevance in Ghanaian Culture [Unpublished PhD Thesis]. Kumasi: KNUST.

seid’ou k. 2014a. Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work: A Genealogical History. Global Advanced Research Journal of History. Political Science and International Relations ISSN: 2315-506X Vol. 3(1) pp. 008-016.

seid’ou k. 2014b. Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College; G. A. Stevens, H. V. Meyerowitz and Colonial False Dichotomies. CASS Journal of Art and Humanities, 3 (1), 1-28.

seid’ou k. et al. 2015. Silent Ruptures, Emergent Art of the KNUST College of Art. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 5. No. 10: October 2015.

Stevens G. A. (1930). The Future of African Art. With Special Reference to Problems Arising in Gold Coast Colony. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 3(2), 150-160. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1155795.

 

Notes:

  1. Both of whom later became prominent lecturers at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST.
  2. KCT was established in 1951 but the first students arrived there a year later. It became KNUST in 1961.
  3. The NDD curriculum in metropolitan Britain formulated courses based on “Talent”, “Métier” (craft) and “Imitation”. Zaria College of Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) and KCT were examples of Colonial Colleges of Arts, Science and Technology (COCAST) in the 1950s. Their curricular were based on the NDD with subjects defined according to “European academy craft” such as modeling, life painting, still life, and landscape. See seid’ou et al (2015), p. 133 and p. 136 [note i]. For a deeper analysis of art education since pre-independence Ghana see seid’ou, (2006).
  4. Henry Tonks was a British surgeon and artist who significantly influenced a generation of British artists at The Slade School of Fine Art. In 1892, when Frederick Brown was appointed Slade Professor in succession to Alphonse Legros, he invited Tonks to become his assistant. Tonks became Professor at The Slade from 1918 to 1930. There he taught David Bomberg, Wyndham Lewis, Spencer Gore, G. A Stevens and William Coldstream. He was one of the first British artists influenced by French Impressionists.
  5. Currently a constituent college of the University of Arts London (UAL), it is known as Camberwell College of Arts.
  6. Op. cit. seid’ou, 2006, p. 142.
  7. See ibid. for sei’dou’s analysis of “analogous practices and concepts” in the Kumasi College of Art with the NACAE reports of 1960, 1962, 1964 and the Report of the joint committee with the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design (NCDAD) in 1970, also known as the Second Coldstream Report.   
  8. Olu Oguibe, in reference to the Zaria Art Society manifesto authored by Uche Okeke, notes that “natural synthesis” permitted Nigerian artists “to research and incorporate into their work formal and symbolic elements from within their indigenous art traditions while retaining whatever is useful from the Western tradition. This was very much in line with the search for a new cultural identity in the immediate postcolony and would eventually form the ideological and formal bases of modern Nigerian art from the 1960s onward”. See Oguibe (2004), p. 184. Also go to note 25 to see how homologous Natural Synthesis is to the ideas of the nativist colonial art master G. A. Stevens.
  9. See Department of Painting & Sculpture, KNUST. About Us. Retrieved on 16th July 2017 from https://painting.knust.edu.gh/about.
  10. Op. cit., seid’ou et al, 2015, p.134.

Upon visiting Elia Nurvista’s Früchtlinge (2019) solo exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, one is confronted with a theatre of images where autonomous digital, virtual and biological technologies interact with each other. This ensemble of images, producing both complementary and contradictory symbolic relations between independent objects—six digital prints, an installation of three dough sculptures set on a low-standing table supplemented with fresh fruits and flour and a video animation installed with sound—, carries aesthetic consequences. The role of the audience is not necessarily to validate the works but to join and possibly contribute to their multi-dimensional and multi-sensorial system.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

The digital pictures are printed and mounted on walls, which is to say that they exist on a planar support. Flat objects tend to highlight what is on their surfaces. In this case there are pictorial illusions of three-dimensional still lifes and landscapes set on two-dimensional surfaces. The eye is goaded on to perceive distance, depth, volume and mass; all of which are merely optical. The eye is also beckoned to contemplate a picture that is contrived to exist solely within the boundaries of the rectangular shape of the support in a particular position in space and can only be seen from an angle that is exclusively frontal. The video animation gives virtual form to the ensemble with moving pictures projected onto an opaque surface. The materiality of this image, as opposed to one mediated by a screen, for example, makes it such that any opaque object that enters the region of the streams of light rays, beaming from a source projector, temporarily alters the image form: it could be a fly or a human being breaking the flow of images by becoming immersed in it. Employing this display method also allows for the possibility of liberating flatness and frontality from pictorialist limitations and transforming them into qualities that are enhanced when combined with the aural form. The installation of objects displays unprocessed foods including pineapples, pomegranates, grapes, oranges as well as wheat flour on a table centred in the exhibition space with some components placed directly onto the floor.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo by author.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

There are similarities and tensions between the effects of how the still and moving pictures mounted on various faces of the walls in the exhibition and the installation of perishable and processed food objects interact, augment and even undermine one another. In a sense, the wall-mounted prints—digitally manipulated pictures remixing 17th century Vanitas still life paintings and other genre scenes—come into conversation with a video animation with sound and the real food objects in the installation, thus conflating the digital, biological and virtual. Whereas the stills operate on a fictional logic of montaging (where new meanings are produced between already-existing images through juxtaposition or other methods of sequencing, evidenced in Nurvista’s DJing of content mined from the internet) and offer artistic experiences accessible only to the eye, the video allows the spectator to encounter virtual worlds by employing both optical and aural images. Even though both still and moving images lead viewers into a frontal position by totalising what is before them, the degree to which this is achieved is more inflexible with the still pictures than it is with the video projection; hence complicating the distance between the form itself and the spectator.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019),

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo by author.

It is important to reflect on this distance (also used as an artistic technique in the exhibition) because it regulates the confrontational encounter between the flat works and their audiences. For the digital prints, the illusion of space is extrinsic to the viewers’ temporal contingencies, commanding only the ‘disembodied eye’. The video animation organises its mode of experience by engaging the body in such a way that it can see, hear and move about in front of the moving image and still be able to come to terms with the work. The experience is made somewhat relative to one’s position in relation to the work, unlike what happens with the printed stills. If the stills display worlds alienating the viewer from realtime, the video animation smuggles a consciousness into the order of things with a body that is aware of itself (and here we cannot evade the question of time and how its literal and conceptual dimensions impact the nexus of relations constituted within the entire exhibition).

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

The installation of food objects comes in to obliterate any semblance of a transcendent or ‘over there’ time as it already situates elements directly on the floor. In addition to the possibility of audiences literally picking up any of the fruits—whether to eat or simply to touch and feel—, the work is infused with a kind of readiness or immediacy in terms of experiencing it in the here and now. Literal time becomes the element that activates unpredictable contingencies through perishability. The consumables in the exhibition space produce smells which intensify as they decay. This natural biological event, on its own, also has the potential of inviting other non-human organisms into the experience. In this sense the work can be said to elicit a kind of interactivity and participation that is not exclusive to the human spectator but is one that involves and can be activated by a multiplicity of agents.

In sum, Nurvista’s world of image objects in Früchtlinge seems to thrive as much on coherence as it does on oppositional relations: permanence exists vis-à-vis the ephemeral, transcendence (eternal time) with the profane (or secular time). Its logical framework permits inelastic alienation and proceeds to radically abolish it elsewhere within the constellation through participation. The organising principle of inclusion in the exhibition, even at the risk of unpredictability, attempts to open up the ambit of visuality in order to complicate what/how we see, hear, feel, taste, smell and to involve and implicate even more.

… (2019)

*The exhibition run at Künstlerhaus Bethanien from 17th January to 10th February 2019.
*A version of this text is soon to be published in the exhibition catalog.

www.elianurvista.com

 

*The essay below summarizes the central arguments discussed in a lecture with artist Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson on 25th January, 2019, at the daadgalerie (studio) in Berlin, Germany.

 

On Universality and Curating in the Void

How does one assert the right to exist and to participate in political and social life in a communitarian space designed to circularly reinforce their material, cultural and intellectual inferiority to others? What if the subject(s) in question does not simply desire inclusivity or uniformity with the ‘bigger picture’ (of which they are already constitutive, albeit exteriorized through dispossession) but are enunciating the conviction to pursue a will independent of that oracle of inequality? Put in another way, how can they break free from the hierarchized structure of difference through which they have been subjectivized? I am here concerned not with the subject who has resigned to taking their situation for granted and who wishes to delegate this task of announcing to a proxy, but with the one who, by force of will, acts in rejection of the conditions to which he or she has been condemned by the contingency of historical events. In such a dynamic, the hopeless situation— the one of absolute despair from which one can always prove their incompetence or paralysis— paradoxically offers new hope; an opportunity to alter the terms of relations in the hegemonic system. With nothing more to lose, they may resort to the declaration of an opinion sufficient in its assumption; the equality of all peoples. This axiom congeals the emancipatory conviction upon which they act. The intelligence required in this pursuit— the ability to summon ‘attention’ and to conduct ‘re­search’ undergirded by the ethics of “learning, repeating, imitating, translating, taking apart, [and] putting back together”1 — is the “natural method”2 to be put to use. 

At such a time when we are threatened by cultural (identitarian differences related to ethnicity, race, sexuality, language, etc), environmental (anthropocene), technological (metadata, privacy, mass surveillance) and geopolitical threats every step of the way, equality, as a political idea, is still crucial if not central to everyday life. In lieu of the foregoing let us now direct our attention to art. 

Art is a site of secularity; that is to say a worldview within which the temporal immediacy of the ‘here and now’ finds true meaning in multiplicity. That art is and must remain a secular space attests to its universality. But the fact that something can be generalized does not necessarily authenticate its efficacy3. The verification of the truth claim of art’s secularness can only be achieved through practice, and one needs only emancipate themselves with this thought by granting the caveat that the definition of the freedoms inherited from this condition must be forged on a radical commitment to the void— that is, the substance of multiplicity that does not privilege any center.  If we consider art (in this sense, the singularity that simultaneously emanates from multiplicity) as a language while insisting on the ethics of the ‘natural method’, we are presented with an arbitrary means of communication, an ‘improvisation’, of which any person is potentially capable, independent of what is determined in the mainstream of artistic practice and its market-validation trends. Each one would be, so to speak, free to paraphrase, equivocate, and approximate to be able to formulate understanding. And each expression would be meaningful in its own right.

Orderly Disorderly (2017), exhibition view, organized by blaxTARLINES KUMASI at the Museum of Science and Technology in Accra, Ghana. Photo by Elolo Bosoka.

For an institutionalized example of a community founded on this ‘ex-centered’ egalitarianism (and the one from which my own practice sources fervour) let us consider blaxTARLINES KUMASI. blaxTARLINES is the experimental contemporary art incubator responsible for demystifying artistic practice from the straitjacket of classical and pre-1960s European modernism in the College of Art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana. Inspired by artist-poet-scholar kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching project4 —whose political ambition is to “transform art from the status of commodity to gift”5— a collective of tutors initiated a “silent revolution”6 at the Kumasi School. In this paradigm, art is “de-substantialized and emerges from a void: a state of indifference that is not pre-emptively prejudicial to any particular medium, content, skill, material, trend or process”7. This is to say that blaxTARLINES posits the universality of art as a condition through which to argue for the practice of equality— of intelligences, of things; animate, inanimate, human-centered, post-human, natural, artificial, and so forth. To understand what it is that injects this gesture with revolutionary verve I will briefly sketch out the armature on which Ghana’s history of modernism is modelled. 

At the dawn of the millennium the College of Art at KNUST— presumably the oldest existing art department in sub-Saharan Africa— having ossified much of the utilitarian lifeblood of late Victorian era British education, had yet to update its curriculum to engage real-time developments in global contemporary art. Born in the art department of the Prince of Wales College (later known as Achimota College), in the antebellum period in colonial Gold Coast, the School had yet to transcend the prescriptive ‘Manual Training’ rationale of educational systems earlier introduced through mercantile and protestant missionaries (Basel, Bremen and Scottish) kept in place by colonialists in British West Africa. This retinal and totalistic worldview of art education was impervious to heuristic thought and constricted its learner to a literalist ‘Hand and Eye’8 ethos of art making. Hand and Eye Training became the ‘proto-art curriculum’ proposed by the British colonial government in its 1887 Educational Code. It would later be put into effect as a specialist teacher training programme in Gold Coast training colleges from 1909. The course was generally intended for the instruction of children, not for professional or independent fine art practice. The theory of “Hand and Eye” was based on 19th century “child-centered educational schemes” such as those initiated by Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and his German protégé Friedrich W. A. Fröbel employing principles of “gridded lines, divided squares and angles, [the] child’s innocent eye and self expression”9 with the prerogative to manually train one’s limbs, in strict coordination with the eye, to acquire habitual technical or contour drawing skills unaided by any drawing tools10. The instrumentalist ambitions of this educational approach in Britain (incongrously adapted for its non-industrialized colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia), as well as in United States of America, emphasized the remunerative value of courses like calligraphy,  penmanship, cartography, illustration, handiwork, etc., which were targeted at workingclass children to satisfy the growing labour demands of industry and commerce at the time11.

Although changes to the 1887 Educational Code had been made by the early 1900s12 (reforms upbraided in that period by the first art master of Achimota College, nativist G. A. Stevens, as “very casual, slight and off-hand” lacking any “proper [sic] relation between the academic art subjects of the schools and the indigenous village arts and crafts”13) and also in post-colonial KNUST when the B.A. Degree Programme was implemented, followed by the Africanization of art curricular in the 1980s14, this rote-learning tradition has survived in pre-degree and degree programmes mediated through primitivist, Regionalist and Social Realist styles significantly contributing to the proliferation of the “touristy Afrokitsch” aesthetic in Ghanaian art schools and commercial galleries. It is a tradition that formally privileges the beaux arts canon while romanticizing indigenous subject matter in content15. This example is a microcosm of what was typical in the general artistic landscape in Ghana. 

The present syllabus of the Kumasi School, however, is experimental in approach, inclusive, and does not preemptively censor nor privilege any artistic interest or discipline. Expanding to accommodate extra-pictorial experiences such as relational, context- and site-oriented practices, local artisanship, performance, curating, text, post-humanist media, lens-based media, among others, students (BFA/MFA/PhD) are strategically trained to develop a “self-conscious art practice” as well as sensitivity to the nuances of international artistic, market and exhibition trends while not disregarding their immediate socio-political context; in other words, to be dispositionally indifferent to the sources of information and experiences that could equip them with the skills and tools needed for their work. seid’ou’s emancipatory teaching method has, for the past fifteen years, trained student artists to transcend stultifying dualities such as artist-curator, theory-practice, painting-sculpture, teacher-student, and so forth by inspiring an independent attitude to the practice that requires one’s willingness to develop projects from “bolts and nuts to high theory”16 given the hopeless circumstances in which they find themselves17. A filial kinship consequently emerges where students and lecturers work together collectively and are engaged in peer-to-peer learning at variance with the tabula rasa logic of pedagogy. By converting one of his classes into a curatorial project, seid’ou has triggered an unprecedented maelstrom of about 50 artist-curated exhibitions each academic year since he joined the KNUST Faculty of Art in 200318. The exhibition form is itself perceived as manipulable. 

Building on this legacy, blaxTARLINES is vitalized by the desire to invent models of artistic and curatorial practices, based on the injunctive position of political subjectivation (where one elects and speaks for oneself by the active process of universalization described above), that would suitably amplify particularities of its artistic milieu. The pioneering trilogy of large-scale end-of-year exhibitions since 2015— namely The Gown must go to Town (2015), Cornfields in Accra (2016) and Orderly Disorderly (2017)— have inspired a new wave of exhibition-making practices in Ghana. Among some of the curatorial strategies invented to articulate these “anagrams of emancipated futures”19 are intergenerational participation, collective curating, accessibility programming (audio recordings, translation of exhibition materials into braille and local languages, etc.), exhibition-as-experimental-site, exhibition-as-archipelago, and the introduction of the concept of the Unknown Artist (which emphasizes the notion of the exhibition as a site of immanent contradictions). 

It goes without saying that if the ontological basis on which we formulate a conception of art is radically altered (summarized in the formula of its transformation from “commodity to gift”, bearing in mind that the class dimension of this opposition subverts the operational logic of capital accumulation at play in commodification —where exchange value (money) considerations take precedence over use value concerns through the chain processes of production, distribution, exchange and consumption— with the ‘gift’ which, in this opposition, situates art in the commons and massifies through its activation of use values) there would be consequences for the nexus of relations between the siting of art, theory, spectatorship, authorship, and of course, curating. I have already claimed that the universal does not have a privileged center20. If anything could potentially be art, it follows that anybody could potentially become an artist. If the elements from which we create and instigate artistic experiences are derived from everyday life, anyone could then become an interlocutor, audience or collaborator if they find whatever intervention interesting enough to engage — it could be a child, adult, persons with physical and/or intellectual disabilities, and so on. Curatorial work, then, must duly respond to this multiplicity.

Contemporary art — which can be loosely categorized as the epoch after postmodernism correlative to the age of financial globalization—has, since its inception, and at least in principle, kept the promise of democratizing art towards multiplicity alive (something implied in post-colonialism and multiculturalism, and institutionalized in the large-scale international exhibition formats (biennials, triennials, quinquennials) that have emerged since the mid-to-late 20th century). This potentiality has however been tamed by the reactionary tendencies of finance capital. As I see it, the truly emancipatory possibility the void offers today, contralateral to the “politics of accumulation by dispossession”21 natural to the capitalist “free market” (which is synonymous to art-as-commodity), lies in the willful or political indifference it affords — something similar to a toddler’s relationship to objects/things in the world but determined by the two-pronged conditions of freedom and responsibility on its terms of equality. It is possible, as demonstrated in the blaxTARLINES example, to exult in the immanent force the void conditions even in a world dogmatically committed to partisanship.

 

— (2019)

Watch full lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8L65WqQo7M&t=4s

 

Notes:

1 Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, 2007, trans. Kristin Ross, Stanford University Press, California, p. 54, 68.
2 For Rancière “the natural method of the human mind [is] that of all people who look for their path themselves” based on the universal principle of the equality of intelligence. Ibid. p. 105
3 I make this point to say that not every universal category observes equality as the supreme ethic. Capital[ism] and colonialism (its cognate) could, for example, be said to possess ideals that aspire to processes of universalisation, but of the desolate kind that contrives everything to monopoly rule. 
4 See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, 2006, Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme: A Philosophical Inquiry and Its Contextual Relevance in Ghanaian Culture [Unpublished PhD Thesis]. Kumasi: KNUST. 
5 See Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens (eds.), Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO? kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in Conversation (interview held in 2016).
6 See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, et al., Silent Ruptures: Emergent Art of the Kumasi College of Art, 2015, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 5, No. 10; October, USA, ISSN 2220-8488 (Print), 2221-0989 (Online), Center for Promoting Ideas, USA, http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_5_No_10_October_2015/14.pdf, accessed on 16/09/2018.
7 Orderly Disorderly (2017) curatorial statement, organized by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, retrieved from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2017-2/od-curatorial/, accessed on 15/12/2018 
8 “In European and American literature, “Hand and Eye” is a commonwealth of craft-based programmes variously referred to as Slojd, Husflid (Scandinavian), Travail Manuel (French), Manual Training (English), Arbeitsunterricht, Gewerbeschule or Handfertigkeitsunterricht (German).” See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work: A Genealogical History, 2014, Global Advanced Research Journal of History, Political Science and International Relations ISSN: 2315-506X Vol. 3(1) pp. 008-016, January, Available online http://garj.org/garjhpsir/index.htm, p. 010-011. Accessed on 16/09/2018.
9 Ibid. pp. 014
10 It was also consistent with Enlightenment modernist binaries such as the opposition of Liberal education to technical or “practical” education (of which the latter was privileged de facto in Gold Coast education), fortified in the colonial anthropological dualism of “African (privimitive) culture – European (civilized) culture”. seid’ou critically treats the unsuccessful attempt to “syncretize” these dualisms at Achimota College in the Gold Coast via influential colonial art masters who attempted to challenge the authority of the Hand and Eye curriculum such as G. A. Stevens and H. V. Meyerowitz in op. cit. seid’ou “Theoretical Foundations” (2006), p. 115-130.
11 “In its 19th century dogmatic form, governments invested “hand and eye skill” in the mechanical, manual and ornamental arts with overt instrumental and remunerative value in socio-economic and educational policy. This was especially intended to aid the growth of industry and manufacture and, in the bourgeois formulation of working class aspirations, to churn out bread-winners who could keep the pot boiling.” Op. cit. seid’ou, “Hand and Eye Work” (2014), p. 011.
12 seid’ou observes that “the central objective to shift education from “bookish” to “vocational” has been a perennial one in Gold Coast and Ghanaian education history. We find it in all major education reports and reforms in the 20th century, among them the Education Rules of 1909 which established Hand and Eye training, Committee of Educationalists’ Report, 1920, and the 1987 Education Reforms for pre-tertiary education in Ghana, and its affirmation in the later Educational Reforms Review Committee Report (1994). We observe that true to the objectives of the 1987 Education Reforms, the equivalents to the fine arts in the Report, namely, Picture making and Sculpture, are listed among vocational subjects and apparently obscuring their Liberal (cultural) dispositions.” Op. cit. seid’ou, “Theoretical Foundations” (2006), p. 19.
13 G. A. Stevens, 1930,  The Future of African Art. With Special Reference to Problems Arising in Gold Coast Colony. Africa. J. the Int. Afr. Instit., 3 (2): 150-160.
14 “In the first decade of E. V. Asihene’s tenure, Goldsmith’s College continued to be the central source of external examiners. Some notable external examiners from Goldsmith’s are Arnold Keefe, the famous painter Dorothy Mead, […] Adrian Ryan, A. Hogkinson, Michael Macleod and Robert Brazil. In the early 1970s, Nigerian external examiners such as Demas Nwoko, Ben Enwonwu, S. I. Wangboje16 and Uche Okeke began to join European examiners and in the mid-1970s, succeeded them. In the 1980s retired lecturers of the School of Art and Craft, KCT and the Painting Section of the College of Art, respectively such as Mawere Opoku (R. T. Ackam, Personal Communication 22nd November, 2005) and E. Owusu-Dartey became external examiners, succeeding the Nigerians”. Op. cit. seid’ou, “Theoretical Foundations” (2006) p. 236.
15 The Department of Painting and Sculpture states on its website that “[w]ith an increasing focus on Africanist narrative realism in painting and official statuary in sculpture, the authority of European traditional and early Modernist media, genres and formats remained unchallenged. The [KNUST College of Art] curriculum’s range of painting genres still remained within the bounds of still life, landscape and pictorial composition with the stylistic dominance of geodesic (freshman) cubism, the so-called Tek Style which undergirds most murals on campus”. See Department of Painting & Sculpture, KNUST. About Us. Retrieved from https://painting.knust.edu.gh/about. Accessed on 17/07/2017
16 An aphorism used by seid’ou himself. 
17 Which is the severe lack of state, private or other such institutional or infrastructural support for contemporary art practice. But seid’ou also emphasizes the collectivist disposition of blaxTARLINES by issuing the rejoinder that the aspirations of this project must also “be distinguished from the romantic Juche idea of “self-reliance” which is usually deployed to describe initiatives of the cultural other.” See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou & Jelle Bouwhuis, in Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking (eds.), Silent parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis”, 2014, Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, pp.116
18 “I converted my Drawing Class into a curatorial project of guerrilla exhibitions on campus and in the city. Campus and city came alive with site-specific exhibitions, their critiques and overviews each year”. See ibid. Also see op. cit. seid’ou, et al, “Silent Ruptures” (2015). 
19 See Silence Between the Lines (2015) curatorial statement. Exhibition organized by blaxTARLINES KUMASI in Kumasi. Retrieved from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2015-2/curatorial-projects/silence-between-the-lines-anagrams-of-emancipated-futures/curatorial-statement/. Accessed on 15/12/2018.
20 For Alain Badiou, “all true universality is devoid of a center”. See Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 2006, trans. Ray Brassier, Stanford University Press, California, pp. 19.
21 I borrow this term as used by David Harvey.

“[T]he emancipation of the African continent is the emancipation of man.” — Kwame Nkrumah (1964)1

“A master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom. When we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we “always-already” wanted without knowing it).” — Slavoj Zizek (2018)

“Fiction interests me in that it is more real than reality; it’s an enhanced reality.”— Simon Njami (2018)

 

I became interested in this undertaking upon reading an exchange triggered by an article written by Enos Nyamor about KAB18 to which Simon Njami, its curator, responded. I propose to analyze their arguments in relation to the curatorial direction of the biennale summarized in its official mascot which appropriates a section of Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio; A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (1854-1855). Indeed, the title of the biennale seems to have been derived from Courbet’s painting. That Courbet was able to summarize contemporaneous social, political, and intellectual happenings of his time in his realist tableau while preserving open-ended interpretations through symbolism offers a lot to extrapolate in relation to the biennale. The painting, seminal for its time, combined religious painting, still life, genre painting, landscape and portraiture within its composition in an era when the hierarchy of subject matter was orthodoxy. Courbet’s “real allegory”, what could be read as a contradiction in terms, as the metaphor for KAB18’s curatorial impetus sets the tone for what could have been a conceptually nuanced biennale.  

Kampala Art Biennale 2018 official poster. Source: http://kampalabiennale.org

The biennale mascot remixes Courbet’s painting by subjecting it to new operations: zooming and cropping into the right half of the painting, thereby shifting the hitherto centralized quartet of figures — the seated artist finishing a painting, the model standing behind him, the child in tattered clothes whose countenance is upon the painter, and the playful cat — to the left of the new poster, superposed with text bearing the title of the biennale. Behind the artist and the half-naked model, the heads of the seven “Master” artists — Myriam Mihindou, Aida Muluneh, Bili Bidjocka, Godfried Donkor, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Radenko Milak and Abdoulaye Konate — have been digitally manipulated onto existing figures within the painting. What necessitates this superposition? What does it add to or take from Njami’s libretto? How does this montage account for time in its realist, allegorical and virtual senses? What does Courbet and his artistic idiom or tradition have to say to us today? Does the biennale take socio-political events in today’s Uganda into account?

To acquire a better perspective into the latter question we must first study the premise for KAB18 itself. What did the organizers want from the biennale? For this third edition the central question explicitly asked by the organizing team was “[h]ow can we build KAB’s sustainability and interest our [Ugandan] government in the future to support Art through the Biennale?”. On this basis, Simon Njami “proposed the presence of contemporary art masters in Kampala and the transmission of knowledge”. This “naturally made him [Njami] the Librettist of KAB18”. What character or form would this knowledge transmission take? It was intended to “naturally” flow from “one generation of artists to the next”—a unidirectional trajectory of older artists teaching younger ones. The biennale also sought to go against the grain of “the common format of major biennales which historically show and promote the best of their time, as a platform where professionals and the market can come and choose the next big artist”. In this spirit KAB18 chose “a format [which] vehicles our continent’s original values of sharing and transferring knowledge” [emphasis mine] thus, arriving at a “master/apprentice [sic] format to allow for the transmission of artistic skill from international contemporary art masters to young Ugandan, East African and African artists. This is especially crucial as it evokes the traditional African transfer of knowledge from the experienced to the future generation” [emphasis mine]. Why is this event necessary? So that economic support can be bolstered for “Art” (referred to as “cultural capital”) from 1) the state, and 2) from “public and private sponsorship” because “[a]rt is an important contributor to social cohesion and nation-building through the promotion of intercultural dialogue, understanding and collaboration.”

The “cultural essentialism” employed to articulate why the “master/apprentice” approach is necessary masks another significant issue at play: that dependence on state and private capital potentially depoliticizes biennales into functioning as prosthetic limbs in service of the status quo. It cannot, so to speak, bite the hand that feeds it.  This is also one of the reasons why international tourism is a big feature of the large scale exhibition format today. In such a case, the aims of the event are contrived to suit nationalist directives stipulated by the respective cultural ministry as well as other “hidden hands”, if not wholly determined by them. 

Simon Njami, in the concept statement, expands the introductory thesis of the biennale to trace analogous histories between African and European traditions of apprenticeship. There he makes it clear that the “master/apprentice” system is not exclusive to Africa. In this tradition “[s]ome of these apprentices” Njami writes, “ later became masters and kept the tradition alive”. And this was to involve technical, spiritual and philosophical forms of engagement. The political reason stated is to wrest the African artist from “[m]odern practices, notably in Europe, [which] have turned the artist into a solitarian Genius who creates masterpieces in the silence of his studio.” To boot, Njami writes “Africa was [sic] not a preserve by this trend. It seems to us of the utmost importance for Africa to reinvent new ways of addressing art, in a more endogenous manner” [emphasis mine]. Again, the temptation to use an ethnocentric justification for the insularity that is determined not simply by cultural but economic categories as well. Furthermore, Njami states that “Africa is still [sic] a space where the community plays a critical role. It is, through this third edition of the Kampala biennale, our aim to revitalise ancient practices that are more than needed in our contemporary world. Practices that would bring back notions like transmission and togetherness”. In a word, nostalgia. We know that time and history are both contingent concepts, that something can happen today to change the past, and so on. So if, indeed, such “ancient practices” are relevant today, their intersubjective and political relations would need to be rethought.

Furthermore, on whose terms would this “transmission and togetherness” be achieved? Ultimately, this determination will be on the curator’s terms because it is he who nominates the “master” artists. The ubermaster, who is the curator, is now the expert whom, in symbolic terms, becomes the luminary. The librettist — that is to say, the owner of the master book— is the “author and finisher” of the book that is the biennale. The unidirectional logic of the “experienced” artists transferring what they know to the “future generation” is preserved. On such stipulations, the condition upon which an “apprentice” can become a “master” is conformity— to learn what the “master” already knows, not what they may be independently interested in. Harmony, nay, uniformity, is the supreme ethos of Njami’s community of togetherness and determines how one can be part of it. By implication, nothing that would jeopardize the internal stability of this exchange will be tolerated, not even one’s own individual freedom. Also, there is nothing that the “master” can learn from the “apprentice”, for the former is considered the apogee of artistic development. Hence, there is good reason to suspect a hidden authority in Njami’s project, and it is precisely because of this that I think it is completely empty of any emancipatory potential for us today. This specific project, KAB18, is therefore conceptually sterile of any innovative approaches to “reinvent[ing] new ways of addressing art” in the 21st century, as Njami himself puts it. For this reason we must transcend its conclusions, urgently. There seems to have been a missed opportunity to problematize the traditional “master/apprentice” stultification with KAB18 given all the possibilities it had opened up initially by its own paradoxical starting point, apropos Courbet, to really probe and initiate something new even if it takes traditional form. 

Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist, oil on canvas, 361 x 598 cm (Musée d’Orsay). Source https://flic.kr/p/21XZj16

When I read Enos Nyamor’s polemical essay on KAB18 it seemed the writer came into the exercise already knowing what Simon Njami ought to have done— that is, what the curator should have said (or otherwise), where to have sited the studios, etc. He begins by claiming that the “the idea of “The Studio”, the title of the biennale” is “itself a Eurocentric concept”. Nyamor does not tell us why, or even how, he arrived at this conclusion. We must simply take his word for it. In any case Njami had anticipated such responses when he drew analogous relationships between African and European traditions of apprenticeship. Nyamor then proceeds to conflate the potency of a curatorial direction, strategy or concept with one’s ethnic or national background. This is where the danger is for me. Nascent generations of “Afrocentric” ideologues are wont to commit the same atrocities they identify as problematic of the so-called Big Other in the name of identity politics. Njami’s national identity or where he is based does not necessarily make him “an outsider” (Nyamor uses those exact words) or bar him from making profound work in Africa or anywhere else for that matter. Did Okwui Enwezor need to be Italian or German in any way to have curated the 56th Venice Biennale and Documenta11 respectively? Can the “outsider” not offer a legitimate perspective? Must every identitarian particularity close itself out to those which exist beyond its peripheries? Njami responds aptly: “Being an outsider –which I really enjoy – provides me with the necessary distance we need in order to understand processes. That necessary critical distance enables us to grasp a bigger picture and to escape the easy game of ethnocentrism.” The biennale format, historically speaking,—since the second edition of bienal de la Habana, in 1986— thrives on expansion of geographic, conceptual and cultural cognates of participation. Nyamor’s uncritical position banally leads to populism. He accuses Njami of being a reactionary but is no less one himself.

But he raises a vital concern in his critique of the biennale which should be considered:  that “[i]n the context of the volatile political, economic, and social conditions in Kampala today, the show seems detached from such realities, from the dilemmas faced by young Ugandans, which include not only the need for education and mentorship but also the need for economic opportunities. Incredibly, over 700 students graduate annually from fine arts schools across Uganda”. Implying that most are left unemployed. Since the 1980s economies of African countries have been opened up to the ‘free market’ system and have since been strong-armed by Structural Adjustment Policies under neoliberal capitalism— the postmodernist era of economic globalization where privatization of state/national assets, deregulation, devaluation of currencies, financialization, etc, thrive— which accelerates the creation of ‘poverty industries’ such as the one Nyamor has identified in Kampala. Biennales, as large-scale transnational exhibitions, have already internalized such market-oriented modalities of capital accumulation (for many are already in debt). So Nyamor is right to infer that the biennale becomes complicit in the ongoing class struggle in Uganda by taking a reactionary position on the fiction Uganda currently calls its democracy. The fact of the matter is that capital needs increasing numbers of employable people to be unemployed so as to effectively exploit labor to ensure more profit. 

Nyamor makes another interesting observation that “[a]ll the works [in the biennale] are credited to the master” artists. The irreversible stultification embedded in the relational dynamics of the two (which is left unproblematized in the biennale) will always privilege the “master”. And so an outworking, in the first instance, would be that the works (objects/experiences) produced will be attributed to the “master” artists, and secondly the organizational ensemble will be credited to the “master” curator. There is no way around this even if there had been a team of co-curators unless this position is itself challenged. In his defense Njami claims that “the masters acted as mentors, big brothers, uncles”. But, for me, the real question is, could they have acted as sons or perhaps, daughters? Given the paradoxical backdrop of Courbet’s “real fable” upon which KAB18 conceptually feeds, it could have been possible. My point becomes even more clearer with a compelling example from Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a.k.a H. E. Bobi Wine— the dissident musician, critical of the Museveni regime, who was elected as representative of Kyadondo East Constituency in central Uganda in a 2017 by-election — who lyricizes a response in Uganda Zukuka where he sings: “Can we [the youth] ourselves find solutions since our leaders don’t seem to care for the next generation but instead care for the next general election?”. He goes on to make an inspired assertion proclaiming “[w]e are the leaders of the future, and the future is today”. This statement absolutely undermines the entirety of Njami’s libretto. Wine has effectively destabilized Njami’s teleological framework, rooted in nostalgia, by sublating the future, past and present into a singular moment; the “today”. He is saying that “if we are the leaders of the future, then our time is now. And since you have stopped caring about us, we are the ones who will have to teach you what you may already know but have probably forgotten.” Bobi Wine represents the generation in Uganda who have only known one president. 

Njami’s curatorial horizon for KAB18 does not take the “stopped caring about us” into account. He takes it for granted that all older generations still care for the younger. Even more, he proceeds, necessarily, from the assumption that the “future generation”, generally speaking, needs this kind of mentorship (that is why he is attempting to “revitalise [such] ancient practices that are more than needed in our contemporary world”). But what if either one, master or apprentice, wills against it? Here, Bobi wine teaches Njami that there can be an exception. In a swift moment of political subjectivation, Wine unravels and inverts the roles: this time dispelling the illusion of consensus by coming to terms with inherent antagonisms. The lines are drawn, one must make a choice either to act for what they believe in or not. This is when true politics begins: the subject elects her/himself and legitimates it by basing their actions on a truth that is addressed to all of humanity. Wine’s politics is consistent with the axiom of universal equality: not just of ability but also of intelligences, for the young too can teach the old. Wine corroborates the universal ethic in Nkrumah’s imperative quoted in the epigraph. Hence if we desire the emancipation of the African, as the example, it is truly for all of humanity that this is necessary. The moment the particular-universal negotiation is severed to focus exclusively on the particular difference-in-and-of-itself, it becomes impotent for any progressive cause and will perpetuate the status quo if/when it acquires power. 

In conclusion, I propose to take Njami on; to take him at his word when he made the radical pronouncement in his response to Nyamor that “[b]eing an outsider, I don’t look at where the tools I am using come from as long as they serve my purposes.” This form of indifference is a necessary disposition for the African subject today, given the trauma of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. It is as explicit to Nkrumah’s theory of the African Personality as it is vital to Bobi Wine’s activism. Nostalgia is luxury we cannot afford. It would therefore seem that, in this instance, Njami is not radical enough to follow through the conclusions of his own proposition. 

One common legacy of colonialism is the proliferation of the myth that opposes reason to emotion ironically summed up in the formula posited by Léopold Sédar Senghor — prominent Senegalese poet and politician of the Négritude movement— as “L’émotion est nègre et la raison hellène.” (Emotion is Negro and reason Greek)”2. Kwame Nkrumah, leading Pan-Africanist theorist and politician (who passionately contested this dictum), helps us in this direction with the dialectical materialist ideology he termed philosophical consciencism. It is “the map [sic] in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which will enable African society to digest the Western and the Islamic and the Euro-Christian elements in Africa, and develop them in such a way that they fit into the African personality. The African personality is itself defined by the cluster of humanist principles which underlie the traditional African society. Philo­sophical consciencism is that philosophical standpoint which, taking its start from the present content of the African conscience, indicates the way in which progress is forged out of the conflict in that conscience3 [emphasis mine]. The African Personality, according to Nkrumah, is neither given, nor rooted in nostalgia. It must immanently emerge through “conflict” and tension in such a way that if the past is to be returned to or invoked, it would have to participate in the conditions of the contemporary moment. It cannot remain the same.

Hence, in an unlikely stroke of affairs, Njami and Nyamor both find themselves tangentially allied with each other on opposing sides of a one-ended stick: Njami preserves a depoliticized status quo founded on nostalgia while Nyamor is yet to come to terms with the emancipatory potential of the African identity as a “vanishing mediator” for egalitarian politics. They both have, as Njami put it, “one or two useful things” to un-learn.  

– (2018).

 

Notes:

  1. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology of Decolonization, pp. 78, https://libyadiary.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/consciencism-philosophy-and-the-ideology-for-decolonization.pdf
  2. As quoted by Cheikh Anta Diop in The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, 1974, trans. Mercer Cook, Lawrence Hill & Company, New York, Westport, pp. 25.
  3. Op. Cit. Kwame Nkrumah. pp. 79.