HAVING TRAVELLED FAR
NOVEMBER 9-DECEMBER 21, 2013
Having Travelled Far is next in a series of well-received and ambitious exhibitions organized by Omenka Gallery this year to contribute to Lagos’ increasing status as a major cultural destination by showcasing some of the biggest names in contemporary African art, who though living and working outside the continent, remain true to their roots in their work. This initiative is supported further by the Omenka’s increased yearly participation in international art fairs around the world, including the FNB Joburg Art Fair and recently, 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London. The exhibition runs from November 10 to December 21, 2013.
Only recently, Call and Response, an exhibition of black-and-white photography by iconic South African photographer Cedric Nunn opened to rave reviews at the gallery. This was followed in October by Networks and Voids: Modern Interpretations of Nigerian Hairstyles and Headdresses, which featured drawings, photography and prints by the celebrated photographer ‘Okhai Ojeikere and a leading contemporary American artist based in Johannesburg, Gary Stephens.
Having Travelled Far thus builds upon these successes and aims to stimulate the Lagos exhibition circuit, while encouraging cross-fertilisation of ideas between African artists who define their practices on the continent and those in diaspora.
This exhibition, held in collaboration with German-based gallery, ARTCO, features 5 well-known contemporary African artists, all of whom have been based in Germany for many years; Owusu –Ankomah (b. 1956), Godfried Donkor (b. 1964), Manuela Sambo (b. 1964), EL Loko (b. 1950), and Ransome Stanley (b. 1953); who bears the singular distinction of being born in the diaspora. The geographical location of the artists may be informed by Germany’s pivotal role as a vigorous space for the promotion of contemporary African art with reputable magazines and publications like Savvy, major exhibitions like Documenta and galleries promoting art from the continent including Peter Herrmann and ARTCO, which represents over 20 leading contemporary artists from Africa.
The majority of the 33 works featured in this show are paintings. This may be an indication that most African artists continue to embrace painting as their principal medium in contrast to many contemporary artists in other parts of the world. This situation is accentuated by the fact that all of the artists included in this show have studied, travelled and exhibited extensively across Europe, while gaining exposure to more contemporary forms of artistic expression prevalent in the West.
The beginnings of an easel painting tradition in Africa may be arguably be traced to Nigerian modernist artist, Aina Onabolu (1882 – 1963) whose early portraits appeared around 1903. However, historian Olu Oguibe has observed that earlier modernists existed in the Magreb and Egypt, while strains of modernism were discernable in the art of white South Africans. Since then, changes in patronage, training; formal or the workshop, the commodification of art, national consciousness and the effects of globalization have brought about the birth of new genres and propelled African art onto a world stage.
Today, many contemporary artists, like the early pioneers in the colonial period, have left Africa for Europe or the United States to pursue their careers and be part of an international discourse. Celebrated Ethiopian artist, Skunder Boghossian, himself resident in North America for many years before his death in 2003, observed that once the innate cultural shock is overcome, the artist begins to show the combined experiences of both worlds in his works. Art historian Kojo Fosu offers a slightly differing view: “How much the experiences affect his work depends on the level at which the artist is willing to allow his energies to absorb the new experiences.”
Both positions are significant when one considers the work of the artists selected for the show, whose varying inter-continental experiences are clearly discernable. Among the five artists presented, only Godfried Donkor focuses entirely on mixed-media collages. Here, his collages combine symbols of the 18th-century slave trade with images of Trinidadian girls placed on a background fashioned from the pages of newspapers like the Financial Times – a metaphor for the commercialization of people, a theme that runs through his oeuvre. His work, Gaming Room at Devonshire House is a subtle variation of slave trade. Here, the male figure is seen to be sparring with a white man. This particular activity can be traced to the plantation owners who often exploited the able-bodied slaves for entertainment.
In his well-known series, People of Utopia, the figures are depicted as saints and are seen arising in a ‘carnival–like’ procession from cross-sections of old sailing ships, cleverly employed by the artist to symbolize the transporting of slaves from West Africa to the New World.
Ransome Stanley does not stray far from his peer in his use of collage and in reflecting on colonial clichés of exoticism and images of Africa rooted in Western concepts of rusticness and innocence. In his collages and oils presented here, he creates planar pictorial spaces whose stark narrative painting style he then disrupts by contrasting it with something two-dimensional.
Regarding his work, Stanley asserts: “In my paintings there is no reason to recount a linear plot; rather I utilize the design experience to create complex spaces. I move across the border between two worlds playing with different forms of conscious perception. The media for me is an archive, from which I select and create through the staging of various image planes and revaluations of thinking contexts. I am concerned with discontinuity of space and time.”
Manuela Sambo is well known for her depictions of nude female portraits and figures. Her works, Nadine and Rosa Lilie employ stylistic elements of the body painting traditions from her home country, Angola. Sambo’s recent work adopts this strategy as well as integrates European elements dating back to the medieval ages. Here, the bodies of her figures are decorated with ornamental pieces borrowed from historical paintings and successfully balanced with the shapes of eyes and mouths painted to bear semblance to Africans.
Similarly, Onwusu – Ankomah’s figures are naked, bold, and powerful but differ from Sambo’s figures by a covering of complex symbols in a manner that renders them almost invisible. Owusu – Ankomah is influenced by the philosophy of his Akan-speaking people of Ghana, reflected in his frequent use of the adinkra symbols each representing a particular proverb in his Microcron series in the show.
Another artist that employs the use of symbols is EL Loko, who successfully develops a unique visual language through the use of his own personal pictorial alphabet. Each alphabet embraces ornamental colour blends, figurations, primaeval symbols and cryptic signs to constitute a homogenous whole. EL Loko’s Cosmic Alphabet 47 is a result of an intensive preoccupation with the traditions of his native Togo and with the worlds of his own intellect, including European Christianity.
In all, the works are strongly individual. Collectively, we experience first-hand the complex and shared relationships between the arts of Africa and Europe. I hope that Nigerian audiences will approach their work with openness to a different worldview, one rooted in an ancient and distinctive cultural heritage, yet shared by exposure to an interest in the artistic expression of other regions of Africa and the world.
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High-resolution images and more information on the artists are available on request.