A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Africa Comes to Madrid With Documenta
Enter the "Comunidad de Madrid", the spanish capital.
It is a metropolis of about five million inhabitants as well as a city that is proud of never sleeping.
One cannot help but feel the gripping presence of African Art within private and public centres and institutions of the city
This Day (Lagos) OPINION Posted to the web July 26, 2004
There were eulogies of Africa, of its artistic excellence and force that has continued for centuries to inform men and women of the continent and beyond.
By Wilfred Ukpon found at: http://allafrica.com/stories/200407260970.html
In the first quarter of the 15th century, Spain was among the first European countries to explore the coasts of Africa during the epoch of the great expeditions. Though the main interest was commerce, specifically slave-trade and rare commodities such as ivory and spices, lots of art and craft works thus found their way to many curiosity cabinets back home. Such cabinets became mini centres of exotic attractions to those who remained at home while the proud owners had little or less information on the meanings or functions of those object.
Two centuries later, as more expeditions were carried out more objects were confiscated and spirited away to Europe. Private collections initially housed in curiosity cabinets became features of public shows under the rubric of exotic and primitive art. Such term as primitive art had crude, unsophisticated and derogatory connotations and was derived from the Darwinian evolution theory.
This legacy was used by anthropologist of that time who saw their Contemporary Europe as the apex of social evolution and greatness, consequently the rest of the world as dark, backward and indeed primitive. Sadly, African art was shrouded by a world of euro-centric assumptions, bias, misconceptions and gross interpretations. These lingered for centuries until the second half of the l9th century when the evolution theory permeated new scientific approach in the understanding of material culture.
A new look at African art became imperative. Yet, less substantial and relative information on this new area of inquiry posed critical questions as European anthropologists became increasingly interested in the Art of Africa. Superficial responses to hypotheses and theories became self-critical, challenging and eventually abandoned as new ones emerged.
This increasing interest however encouraged an out-pouring of documentation and writings on African art. But even this was sadly characterised by superficial enthusiasm than an extensive insight. What emerged became a rather subjective view, which failed to lead to a deeper and possible understanding of African art. For to attain this, some information on the artist and the society was necessary.
There was nevertheless major progress in the 20th century. This was as European anthropologists, art historians and ethnographers took multidisciplinary approach in collecting data and studying African art as an element of social culture. With the excavations of numerous sites in Africa, with extensive field studies of African society, artists as well as works, a comprehensive survey was under way.
As new discoveries were brought back to Europe and classified relatively and absolutely, the uninformed notions of African art from the 12th to 14th century proved beyond centuries of Euro-centric assumptions and demonstrated vigour and aesthetic brilliance in form. European museum and antiquities took remarkable steps at collecting African art. This was as it was seen as a highly-developed and extremely sophisticated artform that needed further documentation and presentation. Not to mention the aesthetic impact, the art of Africa has had upon the development of 20th century western art. European artists including Picasso, Derain, Braque, Modigliani and Matisse were greatly affected by their first encounter with African art. Thus 20th century modern art was revolutionised.
It is evident, today, that one of the greatest contributions Africa has brought to the cultural heritage of the world is its richly-varied art . From music, dance, fashion, to plastic arts, classical elements of African art has continue since the 15th century to inform the popular culture of the world. Africans have crossed the ocean to the West by force and by free-will. Their art and culture consequently also crossed the ocean with them to intermingle with European traditions.
Yet, the African tradition has been quite impressive. This is not only on account of its refinement and empowerment, but also on account of its momentum and conviction. Its spiral effects around the world moved beyond the boundaries of class, status and broke the shackles of political oppression in the West. While some old African traditions still remain intact, some have been adapted and reinvented over time and space.
Currently, African artists have embraced the Western culture and technologies and drowned into the cosmopolitan ideology of the 20th and 21st century art. This developmental process has been documented and presented in Western art institutions over the past one hundred years. Yet, African art today, still remains elitist in its acceptance here in the West, though obviously, not always in its origin.
In the vanguard of this new awareness, Madrid's prestigious cultural institution such as the Cultural Centre of Conde Duque showed a monumental exhibition entitled Mother Africa. This exhibition explored maternal concept in traditional African sculptures and highlighted the role of a woman in the African society. The other show at the Conde Duque was the impressive exhibition entitled Jewels from the Niger.
On the other hand, private institutions like the Castellana Art Gallery and Gallery Art and Ritual were in parallel streams as significant shows also on traditional and contemporary art were brought to the general public. The Castellana Art Gallery initiated Tribal and Contemporary Art, an exhibition combining the anthology of Ancient and Contemporary African Art. Here, the first platform held 65 pieces dating from the 13th century to 21st century, from large sculptures, textiles, masks to miniature objects from diverse regions of the continent. The second platform showed major works of African artists including El Anatsui, Hennes Harrs, Kofi Agorsor, Ekong Ekefrey, Ben Osaghae, Sam Ovraiti and Wilfred Ukpong. These are contemporary artist from Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, based both at home and in Diaspora. Tribal and Contemporary Art was aimed at throwing more light into the abyss of the current debate on how ancient tradition has informed Contemporary art and Western art.
Two conferences, which held concurrently with the exhibitions, were aimed at helping the public in understanding some major points in this area of enquiry. The curator of Tribal and Contemporary Art, Professor J.P. Merino talked on the artistic centres and styles in Africa. Dr Merino has spent over 10 years in Nigeria and has travelled extensively in Africa. Gallery Art and Ritual curator Professor Pablo Alvaraz de Toledo shaded light on primitivism in Western contemporary art. The most prominent ancient sculptures featured in these exhibitions were forms from the Yoruba-speaking areas of the continent. This came as no surprise since Yoruba is the most popular ethnic group in Africa and by historical extension the predominant African tribe in the Americas, spanning across Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, United States and in today's Britain. The artistic traditions of their ancestors, who were swept across the ocean by the tidal waves of slave trade, has today remained a living testament.
Also in the exhibitions, were varied arrays of pieces from Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Central Congo and South-eastern Nigeria. The latter consisted essentially of the art and traditions of South-eastern Nigeria among the Igbo, Efik, Ibibio and Ejegham, which have evidently intermingled with Spanish traditions in Cuba and in the United States. Through the obnoxious slave-trade, men and women from the notorious ancient slaving port of Calabar were carried to the sugar-growing Matanzas province in Cuba. Today, their descendents are still practising some secret rites and vital traditions with reinventions in the Hispanic regions of the United States as well as in such urban centres as New York and Florida.
At Madrid Cultural Centre of Conde Duque, eminent Africanist, Professor Robert Farris Thompson of Yale University, New Haven enlightened the audience on his theme Cantos Calabari. Here Thompson invoked the spiritual and civilising impact of Calabari in Cuba. The term Calabari refers to men and women from the Calabar slaving area of South-eastern Nigeria who arrived as slaves in Cuban sugar plantation in the 15th century. There were of course other guest speakers and Africanists at the cultural centre. There was Professor Ivor Millar of the University of Chicago, who traced the elements of African visual languages in modem graffiti of the western metropolis. There was also Professor Daniel Dawson of the University of New York, who elaborated the spiritual significance of woman in Congo cosmology and visionary world. Spanish Professor Roselio Martinez Fure of the Institute of Superior Art took an aesthetic journey around the three dimensions of the concept of Motherhood in Africa was yet another amongst others. In the aspect of picture presentations, montage of short films and documentaries in DVD and VHS format were presented also at the Cultural Centre of Conde Duque. Recent films such as A Light for Africa, Asylum, The sky in Her Eyes, The Never Never Water, Zimbabwe Countdown, People from Melilla, Voices Across the Fence and more were presented from Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa and the United States, all in a panoply of illuminating reality and myth about Africa and its people.
Today, just like in the beginning of the last century, Africa has revealed to the world an astonishing variety and expressive power of art from a continent that is home to more distinct cultures than any other in the World. Yet, the beginning of this century still veils more revelations about the art and people of a continent that has again witnessed significant change and movement through time and space.
Against this backdrop, Documenta Madrid 04 has revealed to us again an assemblage of authoritative discourses and cultural visions of Africa poised with vitality and that same enduring spirit that has been spiralling across the oceans since the Middle Ages. At this point, we can boldly say that Africa has moved decisively beyond the boundaries of tribes and ethnicity, stepping into a whole new world of Universalism, interacting with men and women and finally establishing a new force in the global domain. Here then is another documenta of Africa in the West, a significant documenta of the power of Art.
Wilfred Ukpong is a Europe-based Nigerian artist.
Copyright © 2004 This Day. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).
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