Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Angaza Africa: African Art Now by Chris Spring

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Angaza Afrika: African Art Now by Chris Spring

Angaza Afrika: African Art Now explores contemporary visual culture across the African continent. Perhaps the most forceful message revealed by this survey is the mind-boggling variety of contemporary work currently in production. The book’s Swahili title Angaza Afrika, translates as “shed light on Africa”. Through the documentation of sixty diverse artists working today it illuminates a breadth of interests’ currently driving contemporary practice. The conclusion provided is that visual culture on the African continent is about many things, defined and guided by many values and communicated through many different means. As Taslim Martin explains, “I am very interested in what people imagine constitutes African art; whether the art itself should visually be apparent as produced by an African or coming from Africa. I’ve asked many people, educators and artists in Africa and in Britain, and there’s a real confusion; it’s not clear at all, and I think it’s interesting to have debate….”

The use of recycled materials, or what the press release terms “rejected materials from all aspects of modern life”, is an approached shared by a number of included artists. The Nigerian Dilomprizulike, known as “The Junkman from Afrika” was educated at the University of Nigeria and the University of Dundee, Scotland. His groups of figures are hauntingly powerful representations of identities all too often seen, because of the ravages of poverty, to be disposable. Spring explains that Dilomprizulike is “preoccupied with the explosive growth of African cities in the post-colonial period… [and] is acutely aware of the rampant consumerism, environmental degeneration, religious fundamentalism and moral decline that have led to ‘the alienated situation of the African in his own society’.”

Romuald Hazoumé (Republic of Benin) is another artist working with recycled materials, not because of subscription to a trendy green agenda, but simply because of their tremendous potential to communicate. Referring to his work as a “kind of modern day archaeology”, Hazoumé’s La Bouche du Roi 1997-2005 is comprised of 304 petrol cans configured to represent the individuals on a slave ship. The work is named after the location on coast of Benin where slaves were shipped west and disturbingly confirms the treatment of human life (just like oil) as commodity and natural resource. Another powerfully didactic recycling project can be found in the Swords to Ploughshares scheme initiated in Mozambique in 1995. Here recycled weapons become the materials of haunting, and some remarkable examples even humorous, sculptures. Hilário Nhatugueja explains of the project, “We artists want to turn the situation around, change the story. Changing these instruments of death into hope, life and prosperity, the tree symbolizes a future, symbolizes hope.”

Politics informs the content of some of the work covered in this book, but it would be unfair to say that it is the only message on the agenda. A critical dialogue with the cannon of European Art History is apparent in the work of Hussan Musa of Sudan/France in L’art du déminage (The Art of Mine Clearance) from 2004, which references Jean François Millet’s The Gleanors, but with bandaged hands and another occupation in mind; South African Johannes Phokela who reworks the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters. Examples of second-generation work from Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture “tradition” also reveal the complexities of visual practice in Africa today. The work of Dominic Benhura and Tapfuma Gusta, for example, show an increasing maturity and complexity within an “invented” tradition that has taken root in Zimbabwe only since the 1950’s. Elsewhere connections to contemporary art and craft from around the world are apparent: Samuel Fosso (Cameroon/Central African Republic) exudes the chameleon-like ability of Cindy Sherman in his self-portraits that play with the postcolonial notion of mimicry; the vibrant canvases of Atta Kwami from Ghana are reminiscent of the abstract beauty found in the Gees Bend Quilts.

Reflecting the history of cultural exchange and migration the continent has experienced, artists who do not reside in Africa such as Manuel Mendive a Cuban artist with parents of Yoruba ancestry and the Jamaican artist Petrona Morrison are also included – a gesture that speaks to the history of trade and occupation that has shaped the cultures of the African continent. Organised in alphabetical order, we find artists now enjoying international recognition such as Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare and El Anatusi alongside those who will be unfamiliar to readers from outside Africa. While it is very likely that many other emerging artists did not make the final cut for this particular book, Angaza Afrika provides us with a much needed introduction to artistic practice on the African continent today. We can only hope that it is the first of many more such publications to come.

Surface Design Journal (spring 2009: 68)