#RememberingBisiSilva: From Here To Eternity – Bisi Silva

(In this essay, Bisi Silva, who passed away one year ago, introduces the Modern & Contemporary Art Pavilion of the African Cultural and Design Festival which she curated. May her soul rest in peace.)

How does one begin to present the modern and contemporary art of the continent if not by considering the temporal and spatial impossibilities of such an act before then attempting to do the impossible?

Consequently, the mini projects presented within the modern and contemporary pavilion of the African Cultural and Design Festival will consist of several fluid but intersecting artistic dialogues.  

More than one hundred years ago the portrait of the Lagosian socialite Mrs. Spencer Savage was completed in 1906. Considered in Nigerian Art History as the first known portrait painting in oil it marked the point of distinct rupture from other representational forms – especially sculptural.

Whilst the pioneering artist Aina Onabolu was inspired by western representational mode of painting, a year later a Western artist was being influenced by the classical arts of Africa. In 1907, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed the oil painting “Demoiselles d’Avignon” a pivotal work in the History of Modern Western Art. Separated by space but joined in time, these landmark singular events were to affect both regions considerably.

The symbiosis and co-mingling of Time and Space in the modern and contemporary pavilion is presented through a dynamic, vibrant and multifaceted programme including the unprecedented presentation of some of Nigeria’s earliest modern artists, a presentation of contemporary artists from Nigerian as well as other West African countries, the itinerant 1950s style traditional studio project by Malian photographer Fatoumata Diabate, and the first virtual reality exhibition in Nigeria. We pay tribute to the late Nigerian painter Ben Osaghae, and launch the maiden edition of The Gallery of Small Things.

From Here to Eternity begins in the first half of the twentieth century with rarely seen works by three of Nigeria’s fathers of modern art Aina Onabolu, Akinola Lasekan and Ben Enwonwu (whose centenary birthday anniversary is celebrated this year ) as well as Eke Okaybulu.  They are followed by a unique and stellar mid-century line up of works by some of the earliest women artists, practicing in a diversity of media including painting by Theresa Luck Akinwale, bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Olowu, Ladi Kwali in ceramics and the prolific artist, art administrator and art-preneur, Afi Ekong. The contribution of these pioneering women artists including Clara Etso Ugbodaga Ngu and Colette Omogbai to the development of art and the art sector, locally, have yet to be the subject of in-depth research or given the visibility accorded their male counterparts, until recently.

Whilst photography has been well integrated into the mainstream of visual arts internationally, this is a fairly recent phenomenon across the continent. For more than two decades the stunning Headgear and Hairstyle series by master photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere have received critical acclaim internationally. With a diverse body of photographic work spanning sixty years, from the early 1950s until his death in 2014, Ojeikere amassed a substantial archive of images that captures the self-actualisation of a young nation through portraiture, body adornment and architecture amongst others.

As we move from the colonial period through the works of the elders, those artists who signalled the independence period of exuberance and possibilities include Ojeikere but also a young group of artists that became known as the ‘Zaria Rebels’ who attended the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in the early 1960s. Made up of artists such as Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke they were to push the boundaries – contextually and aesthetically – of visual arts to form a synthesis of the African subject matter and western material and methods. 

Uche Okeke would go on to found the modern Uli movement which has been practiced by several generations of artists from the University of Nigeria Nsukka.

In other countries, across the continent, pioneering artists such as Valente Malangatana from Mozambique and Ludovic Fadairo of the Republic of Benin were documenting sweeping transformations in their respective countries.  

The inclusion of artists from across the continent is emphasized within the contemporary section where works by younger artists are pushing the material possibilities as well as articulating the daily realities of their lives whether it is through recycling of quotidian materials, making social commentary, or performing the everyday. Through the works of Ghana’s Dorothy Amenuke, Morrocco’s Safaa Erraus, Uganda’s Ian Mwesiga, Mozambique’s Vasco Manhica, Rwanda’s Crista Uwase, and Burkina Faso’s Adjaratou Ouedraogo a plethora of styles, media and themes that engage memory, identity, gender, tradition and displacement are depicted.

The presentation of Malian photographers Oumou Diarra and Fatoumata Diabate highlight the ways in which studio photography of the 1950s and 1960s is being articulated today.  Diarra uses Bazin (brocade) backdrop to make social commentary about materialism highlighting the extent women go to procure the 5 star material including incurring debt. Fatoumata Diabate inspired by her famous predecessors, Seydou Keita and especially Malick Sidibe appropriates the format of the studios from the 50s and 60s in Bamako to recreate, performatively, the preparation necessary in order to have that nostalgia imbued picture in her Studio de la Rue (Street studio)

 As the host country for the IFI Congress, Nigeria is provided the opportunity to show an international audience the depth and diversity of its arts and culture.  Through solo booth presentations this section provides a platform for Nigerian artists to widen the visibility of their work but more importantly to provide a space that allows them to interact directly with interested parties.

Over ten carefully selected solo exhibitions will be showcasing well known and established artists such as Bona Ezendu, Uchay Joel Chima, Tobenna Okwuosa, as well as emerging artists like Logor Olumuyiwa and Nengi Omuku, Adeola Olagunju and Zemaye Okediji. 

There will be, in addition, a tribute exhibition in memory of Ben Osaghae, the critically acclaimed artist who over the past three decades created paintings and drawings that have become an important visual archive of the trials and contradictions of the post-colonial experience. 

In addition to well-known artistic media – painting, sculpture, photography we are conscious of the wide ranging and innovative developments across contemporary arts and the way that technology and art increasingly intersects.  With New Dimension:Virtual Reality the works by four artists, Kenyans Ng’endo Mukii and Jim ChuChu, Senegalese Selly Raby Kane and Ghanaian Jonathan Dotse, offer a view of the vibrant, diverse and ever-changing cultural landscape of contemporary Africa.

The section will see the launch of the maiden edition of The Gallery of Small Things . The conceptual and curatorial premise behind the gallery is to create and encourage intimacy in an artworld saturated with large works that require that we move back in order to experience them. With the GoST we argue for you to move forward, move closer to the works in order to engage them. Taking its cue from the presentation of art exhibitions at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century especially when one thinks of “les salon independents ” or the summer shows of the Royal Academy of Art we hope to recreate the mosaic display model by presenting about 40 – 60 works that measure no more than 2o X 20 inchesfrom Nigeria, across Africa and the Diaspora. In so doing the idea of ‘small things’ is to go contrary to the status quo of large works and create a space of intimacy and hopefully of slowing down too.

The Modern and Contemporary Section is a kaleidoscopic presentation of artistic and curatorial practice that emanates out of the local but is in dialogue with and part of a vibrant, interconnected and dynamic international art sector.

Through the important displays of the African Cultural and Design Festival we hope to position Nigeria and the African continent as an important cultural destination of the Future.

This article appeared originally in This is Africa – Traditional. Design. Modern & Contemporary.

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