**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.
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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. 

 

“We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don’t completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.”
—Takashi Murakami1

 

In the spirit of responding to the question of what art is – or, better still, what art could be, unique to one’s social, political and historical perspective– Asafo Black collective opened the ‘Vibes’ (2018) contemporary art exhibition at the National Theater of Ghana.

On this speculative journey, the collective — a group of six Generation Z artists namely Denyse Gawu Mensah, Larry Bonćhaka, Scrapa, Samuel Baah Kortey (Mantse Kristo), Nuna Adisenu-Doe and Jeffrey Otoo— merge influences from global pop and consumer culture, virtual reality, and bio-fiction to create works which include paintings, installations, video and graffiti. ‘Vibes’ continues the series of guerilla exhibitions Asafo Black has been organizing between Kumasi and Accra after Holy Grail, The Show and Why So Serious (all in 2018). The collective relies on the recreational and convivial atmosphere natural to party culture to create situations for audiences to participate in. They typically explore a variety of elements in visual culture related to fashion, art, music, comics, literature, film and fantasy to create work.

‘Vibes’ could generally be thought of as an aura, spirit or mood that brings people together, if only for the moment. During this moment (or series of moments) experiences may be shared and ideas exchanged. We could also celebrate each other and create spaces in which hierarchies in socio-economic life are suspended so as to be able to relate to each other more freely. In this sense, ‘Vibes’ could be read as a potential call for mobilization.

The collective’s interventions extend from art to curating. They have previously staged exhibitions in hostel rooms and derelict fuel stations beckoning publics from all walks of life and demographic groups. Asafo Black describe their aesthetic approach for this exhibition as deploying “objects, installations, paintings, texts, postproduction techniques, graffiti, GIFs, etc embedded in humor, wit, and sometimes obscenities, as decoy for what could turn into political engagement between producers and audiences.” Their initiatives are nurtured by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art institution based at the Department of Painting and Sculpture in the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).

blaxTARLINES’s ethos is inspired by kąrî’kachä seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teachingwhich compels artists to take responsibility for what they create and put out into the world. Practitioners of this disposition are politically sensitive to what they produce so that they are not taking questions such as what they do, how they do it, where, when or why it is done, for granted. This is particularly relevant if we consider that what we produce is influenced by the histories we inherit even as it consequently participates in the global network of ideas, forms and market systems.

Asafo Black assert this responsibility by embodying what they regard as the new spirit “instigated by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, which testifies to the universality of art – that art can be anything, is everywhere and is potentially available as a means of expression and avenue of experience to anyone”.  This is evidenced by Gawu’s “scorpio eyes” – a meta-fiction digital composition on screen montaging various worlds which touch our own; Bonćhaka’s inflated balloons and army of plastic vintage dolls some of which are torturously scorched to mutilate parts of their exanimate bodies; Scrapa’s painting on wooden board influenced by graffiti and Hip-Hop culture; Kortey’s drawings on plywood with animal blood sourced from abattoirs as well as single-channel video installation elucidating his process; Adisenu-Doe’s transparent-sticker idiom which appropriates texts and slogans commonly associated with mass transportation and storefront culture in Ghana sited on the glass balustrades within the foyer of The National theatre; and Otoo’s repertory of still life objects (wooden display cases) and acrylic paintings on canvas evoking display strategies of wrist watch merchants in urban centers. His paintings also make allusions to memento mori symbolism through ornate use of birds and flowers.

The foyer of the National Theater hosted this refreshing constellation of objects, experiences and ideas. Audiences were engaged by flat paintings or drawings to be seen frontally, there were objects they could walkaround (the installation of screens and wooden cases mounted on plinths), there were also inflated balloons which could be touched, kicked and punched around in the exhibition space by adults and children alike. Music fills the room to complement the festive vibe.

‘Vibes’ is happening two years after Ibrahim Mahama’s Malam Dodoo National Theater 1992-2016 installation of sown jute sacks animated the exterior façade of the National Theater (an area of 11,000 square meters), and comes to add to the ever-growing verve of artistic interventions which affirm the axiom that art is for everyone, sited in unconventional spaces in Ghana. Asafo Black contributes significantly to this radically new spirit.

— (2018)

 

Notes:

  1. https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2018/murakami-abloh-technicolor-2/
  2. For further reading on seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching and blaxTARLINES KUMASI, see (i) http://garj.org/full-articles/gold-coast-hand-and-eye-work-a-genealogical-history.pdf?view=inline, (ii) http://www.ijhssnet.com/jou…/Vol_5_No_10_October_2015/14.pdf, (iii) 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, (iv) seid’ou, k. (2014). Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College; G. A. Stevens, H. V. Meyerowitz and Colonial False Dichotomies. CASS Journal of Art and Humanities.

 

*A previous version of this article has been published here.

*The following was given as a presentation at the ‘African Modernism: Architecture of Independence’ symposium on the panel “Exchange. Exchanger. Before, After and Hence”. Ibrahim Mahama confronts Max Gerlach, Drew, Fry and Owusu-AddoAn essay will be published forthcoming. 

 

For this symposium I propose to interpret Ibrahim Mahama’s politically engaged practice in terms of contradictions in the way it responds to the global neoliberal catastrophes at hand— migration crises, privatization, precarious work and so on. I prefer the dialectical method which proves more dynamic in dealing with immanent contradictions. Through this lens, we can come to terms with oppositions without having to cast one aside or wish the other away. In this context it then becomes imperative that as Mahama confronts the bigger issues affecting the masses of humanity he must also question his own assumptions and potential complicity in this system of economic disempowerment as it relates to his internal processes of acquisition and negotiation of/for objects, materials and labor (especially as he works with Kayayei1, “shoe-shine” boys, truck drivers, students, refugees, and so forth who are already vulnerable to many forms of exploitation).

An example of dialectical tension in Mahama’s practice can be cited when he smuggles commodification back into art by causing alienation of the everyday materials he nominates from the labour class that rely on its use value and when he, at the same time, attempts to universalize the principle of freedom of movement for non-European people. For example, when Mahama participated in the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, he had intended to travel with five of his workers/collaborators to assist in producing and mounting his walk-through installation at the Arsenale. All five of them were denied visas by the Italian Embassy. However, the overused jute sacks, which have now acquired the status of commodity through circulation in the art market, had already been shipped from Accra to Venice with minor problems. The reason these workers were denied entry into that part of Europe is because the embassy was certain they would not return to Ghana, their home country, given their condition as economically precarious workers. 

The rising tide of Right-wing xenophobic/racist populism around the world, but particularly in Europe with the threat of African and Arab refugees knocking on its doors, renders it as though the Italian Embassy recognizes the urgency to thwart Mahama’s attempt to globalize “Free Movement” — one of the founding principles of the European Union (EU) that recognizes and preserves the principal right of EU nationals to move and work in member countries— by extending it to citizens of other parts of the world, and how dare he! In fact, to paraphrase the European Commission (EC), the freedom to move to another EU country to work without a permit is, more or less, an exclusive right reserved for EU nationals.2 

Slavoj Žižek points out that “[t]he actualization of this freedom [that ‘everyone has the right to settle in any other part of the world, and the country they move in to has to provide for them’] presupposes nothing less than a radical socio-economic revolution”3. Why? Because, as in Mahama’s gesture, it intends to proffer an obverse reality rooted in equality and universality which overturns the “commodity fetishism” most of the world has been absorbed in since industrial capitalism took shape in the 19th century— that is, in the way we prioritize commodities over people.

We see by the foregoing that those whose labour produce the commodities Mahama’s practice relies on are those who are themselves restricted from moving across those same borders the product of their labor has transcended. This is a contradiction of corporate capitalism. Now, in the same example, an internal contradiction to Mahama’s practice is revealed: that Mahama, in the name of art, causes alienation of the everyday objects he nominates from the labour force which produce it — whether they are old jute sacks, sewing machines, wooden ‘shoe-maker’ boxes, etc. This way, the materials, when they become art, reinforce the class antagonisms which keep the poor and rich as they are. This is owed to the fact that after production, the works are fetishized as they participate in the art market (the capitalist market system) and circulated within elitist galleries around the world. It is this alienation which makes it nearly impossible for the labourers to become co-authors or co-producers, except in a symbolic sense, as far as ownership and spectatorship of the work is concerned. A gulf is created between the space they inhabit as producers and the elitist places of spectatorship. The magnificent tapestries may travel the world but the bodies of its labourers tend to be left behind. 

But if Mahama’s nominalist gesture portends to alienation, his efforts to globalize free movement undermines it— that is, attempts to mitigate the distance reinforced by alienation. Mahama’s insistence on making these invisible labourers seen became more productive two years after the visa denial incident when he participated in documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2017. During this time the artist was able to get two of his workers to travel to Kassel to produce his installation and also to become spectators of the prestigious quinquennial. This is something that would have otherwise not happened had it not been for the artist’s stubborn approach to confronting these new forms of apartheid.

I perceive these tensions as necessarily bound to Mahama’s processes of negotiation and objectification through art. Through them the artist forges a compelling reality. Before we morally deride his work as predatory, we must understand that, as an artist, he is intervening in a political economic system which prioritizes profit as its supreme ethic and which is indifferent to morality. Consequently, he must also adopt a strategy that can speak to the system from deep within its bowels. As Mahama shows his work in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and elsewhere, he is simultaneously bringing attention to the multiplicity of ways labourers/workers are exploited and the complicit role art tends to play in this condition. The way I see it, the artist has adopted a positive posture to coming to terms with the inconsistencies inherent in the status quo and has consciously appropriated these processes into his work. This has become his ethical method. His aesthetic approach, therefore, could be said to be taking advantage of the contradictions of capitalism to reveal its problems to us by implicating himself. What is to be done is therefore an open question to all of us.

— (2018)

Notes:

  1. Typically, Kayayei are women who have migrated from the Northern region of Ghana to Accra, the capital city, who carry goods for shoppers in open markets in Accra. Those who move outside the markets work as domestic cleaners who go around cleaning people’s homes with the aim to do any house chore permissible— some wash and babysit, others fetch water for households without running water and so on. The excesses of such workers flooding into the capital city annually means that value for their services keeps plummeting. Owed to their precarious conditions of work and desperate accommodation situations (some sleep on sidewalks, in front of shops, in wooden kiosks, overcrowded rooms, under trees, etc), they are left vulnerable to a wide range of factors including landlords who extort rent, shoppers who merely pay them meagre sums for their services, rapists, robbers, reckless drivers, rainfall, social prejudices and on and on. According to Citi News, they earn between nothing to about GHC 30.00 (approx. $5 or $6) per day with no health benefits. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=jPTUcapcu58. 
  2. See http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=470&langId=en
  3. See Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, 2016, Penguin Random House, UK, pp. 83, e-pub (iBooks).