Sunday, February 03, 2013

African Reading and Art

"Group Photo 1987," wood sculpture by El Anatsui
King Peggy,  recently featured on CNN, leads a village in Ghana
El Anatsui is a multi-media artist from Ghana, who lives in Nigeria. An exhibit of his works titled "When I Last Wrote to You about Africa" at our local art museum includes wooden sculptures, large wall hangings made from the foil caps of whiskey bottles and other found objects, paintings, ceramic sculptures, prints, and installations in various media. Many of the works relate to life in African cities and towns familiar to the artist.

Some of Anatsui's works are representational and some are more abstract; I found all of them beautiful and fascinating. One large work, "Akua's Surviving Children" (which I didn't get an image of) was made from driftwood, and represented the slaves who had left the country. I also enjoyed the wood sculptures of people titled "Group Photo 1987."

The vivid and modern interpretations of life in Ghana and Nigeria, represented in a completely modern and (I think) western European artistic mode, connected in my mind to two things I have read in the past week.

For one thing,  CNN ran a feature on a woman who lives in Washington, D.C., and works as a secretary, but who was chosen by the town Otuam, a fishing village on the coast of her native country Ghana, to be their king. In Otuam, "king" is the traditional title for the ruler, man or woman. The photos and videos with this story showed King Peggy in her vivid robes of office and  crown. In fact, she explained, she owned several crowns!

King Peggy's 7000 people are quite poor, and she has raised money to bring them clean water and an ambulance, and seems to be engaged in other ways of raising their standard of living. They seem to adore her (I hope CNN is telling the truth) and they carry her on a palanquin with a huge umbrella. "In the last few years, she's helped poor families pay school fees for their children and brought computers to classrooms. With the help of other Americans she's also provided Otuam with its first ambulance, as well as access to clean, running water. Her next priority, she says, is to bring state-of-the-art toilets to Otuam."

Amos Tutuola's folk-like tale The Palm-Wine Drinkard has long been one of my favorite African stories. By coincidence, last week I also read a new Kindle edition of some shorter tales that he wrote, "Don't Pay Bad for Bad." The stories take place in Yoruba villages in Nigeria, and are told, according to a preface by Tutuola's son, in an English very much influenced by the idioms of the Yoruba language. His son points out that over his life, Tutuola was both admired and criticized for his fusion of African and English themes and idioms, and that in his later works (which I haven't read) he tried to make his language more conventional.

Village market places, village kings, and relationships among the villagers are central to these stories. Some of them are fables with a moral, like the title story "Don't Pay Bad for Bad," in which a jealous woman tricks another woman, who plots for years to pay her back -- but her revenge is so cruel that she simply gives it up. Famine stalks one village, but an individual finds supernatural beings who will help him on promise of secrecy; of course the secret is discovered by a trickster who is up to no good. The need for food and fear of hunger are very important in these tales, which connects them in my mind to the depictions of market themes in Anatsui.

El Anatsui wall hanging made from bottle caps,
which reminded me of a work by Klimt
I think the artist Anatsui is much more in control of the level of his work, and of his choices to connect to both European (or American) and African visual idioms. Materials like shiny whiskey bottle caps and depictions of slave themes obviously intentionally show the multiple connections in modern village and town life. The artist's creation of beauty from other people's trash speaks to me of a variety of ideas about modern life and village or town life, as well as about the marketplace in a wider sense. Here's an article titled "Art from Bottle Tops" that describes his methods and shows closeups of how he uses them.

Hundreds of metal boxes made by tinkers.
Title "Open(ing) Market"
One large installation of little metal boxes titled "Open(ing) Market" suggests how a market might indicate both local and wide-ranging commerce and connections. Composed of hundreds of brightly-colored little boxes and one or two large ones, and displayed on a wide stretch of the floor, it's quite impressive. Closer up, the boxes are painted with various designs; according to the documentation the metal work was done by local tinkers. Inside each box is a label from a can or package of commodity food like Starkist Tuna. I thought about many markets. An open-air market of an African village far from everywhere, a modern supermarket, or the abstract "market" in which  global trade and commerce take place.
El Anatsui exhibit:
on the floor, a ceramic sculpture
on the far wall, wooden plates carved by artisans and decorated by the artist

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