The Scrawny Igbo Kid Who Changed The Art World

The Scrawny Igbo Kid Who Changed The Art WorldIt was him. He'd entered from a side door close to where I stood at the back of the darkened Arena of the Central pavilion. Brawny, average height, bespoke suited with a rakish bandana for a necktie, he stood alone. Nobody had recognized him. Not yet. All eyes in the packed starchitect David Adjaye's superbly remodeled red Arena were fixed on two performers on stage, a man and a woman. The man was reading from Marx's Das Kapital and the woman, lissome, danced sinuously to the words. Cool.
I sidled up to "the man" and deployed my Stanley-meets-Livingstone gambit: "Mr Enwezor, I presume?" A smile lit uphis broad face as he offered me his hand, in a firm grip. "How are you?" he said. "Just great, Mr Enwezor. I get to meet you at last. Can I take a picture of you?" I asked. "Sure, go ahead." I barely had time for a single shot when the lights came back on at the end of the performance and a scrum formed around – Okwui, Okwui, Okwui! Everyone wanted a piece of him. No way was I going to get my impromptu interview now. I edged away, to go find Wangechi Mutu, next on my list of the movers & shakers I needed to buttonhole. Somewhere in the Giardini maze the Kenyan-born enchantress had a fabulous installation.

Art Basel - Part Three Heft of the Satellites

Sven EisenhoutIf you can't get into the Big Tent, erect your own, so it seems with the international art business. The dramatic rise of art fairs as a principal medium for adding premium to contemporary artworks and enhancing the marketability of artists has a downside: the major fairs are overwhelmed, unable to cope with the demand for exhibition space. Art Basel in Basel, top dog in the international calendar, is said to receive 1,000 applications each year while, by policy and in number of booths available, it can add a handful new entrants at best. The answer? Satellites.
These are smaller fairs that orbit the mother ships, in Basel, Miami, Hong Kong, London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Toronto, Beijing and Johannesburg. Basel has three well established satellites, Liste, Scope and Volta, recognized by Art Basel to the point that they are listed in the official programme and VIP limos and minivans shuttle people from the Messeplatz to the different venues. In fact, the satellites are prime targets for many of the mega collectors, eager to discover fresh talent at bargain prices. The satellites act as midwives to newborns, some of whom will grow into an Attia, Dumas, Shonibare or Katarikawe.

Other "unofficial" satellites come up around Basel, for a year or two and then flicker out. This, sadly, was the fate of Focus which promoted African artists and was located at the edge of the old city. It survived three editions. Perhaps, the time wasn't right. Given the sea change now, with African contemporary art riding high everywhere, Focus might want to give it another try. Sublime lady, curator Christine Ayene, could you and your Swiss friends get together and relight the Focus lamp? You'd need to find a better venue though. Go buttonhole Marc Spiegler, Art Basel supremo, for support! And go see Sam Keller too, at the Beyeler. He knows how to pull the right strings in his city.


Postscript Venice: Kenya & The Pavilion That Wasn’t

Winners Venice Biennale 2015Not more than 60 of the world's 196 countries are invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. It's an independent, private affair and the organizers invite or select those applicants they consider having met their criteria. And yet La Biennale has grown in importance in the course of its 120 years, so much that a country that has never had a pavilion in Venice is like never making the grade to send athletes to the Olympics, or never having a shot at one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council.

Some might snigger, come on, it's just art. Wrong. Art has become the most universal language of our time, around which profound conversations about – everything - take place. Countries most clued in and those playing catch up are investing in art structures and artistic development with the same zeal they invest in the economy, social systems and political structures. Ergo, the Gulf States. And China. The more public face of art, some say the "unsavory" face, has grown into a multi-billion dollar business annually, from not more than $200 million a decade or so ago.

The Importance of Being Venice

Chiharu Shiota 50 000 Keys in the HandFor the thousands of visitors who flock to the labyrinthine canals and alleys of the Venetian archipelago every second year, the International Art Exhibition of Venice is the touchstone in a world groaning under the weight of biennales. Launched in 1895 to celebrate the marriage of Italy's King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy, the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale (May 9 - November 22) is considered by many as the best in modern memory.

Much credit goes to Paolo Baratta, the Biennale's patrician president and his board, for having had the conviction to name the Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor for the hugely coveted curator slot. The chemistry, of mutual respect and admiration palpable between the two, has formed the basis for a spectacular biennale this year.

When Enwezor, who is the director of Munich's Haus der Kunst, announced the biennale's theme of All the World's Futures and with the proviso that the essence should be "a parliament of forms" to look into the "current disquiet of our times," he ruffled more than a few feathers. It was "highfalutin and pretentious" – and horrors of horrors, Karl Marx's Das Kapital would be read in marathon at the Central Arena as a performance art!

Nonetheless, the 136 artists from 56 countries lucky to be anointed with a space in the Giardini or Arsenale venues responded with gusto. So did organizers of the 44 semi-official "collateral events" of galleries, foundations and governments that showcase in palazzos, hotels, churches, convents and monasteries. Equally, most of the national pavilions rose to the occasion, helping Enwezor orchestrate "a multi-part chorus which rings out as the most cohesive, authoritative, arresting, urgent biennale for decades" - Jackie Wullschlager of the Financial Times, put it. Seven of the national pavilions are African, the highest number ever: Angola, Egypt, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Eighty-eight of the 136 artists are appearing for the first time – it's never has been like this before.


Afromodernism - Case of Kenya

Jak Katarikawe-Hear the ancestors speakThe Kenyan art scene is diverse and prolific, with an amalgam of genres, steeped in the traditional, modern and avant garde; from canvas, leather, batik, twine, clay, marble, granite to scrap metal works to photography. Lately, some artists are venturing into installation and performance art, a natural progression, for, traditional Africa is replete in similar expressions, emanating from rooted communal religio-divinity practices.

The relatively more expansive and varied feel of modern art in Kenya vis à vis other East African countries is because Kenya has a more extensive modern infrastructure. Incubative art centres such as the Go Down, Kuona Trust and a restructured National Museum, not discounting art & design courses at a couple of the national universities, provide a range of creative support to artists; seminars, tutorials, studio space, exhibitions, art retreats and residencies. Every year several Kenyans depart for international residencies, mainly in Europe and North America. The professionalism and synergies they bring home are immediately felt in their work.

The vibrancy of art in Kenya also rests on three generations of professional artists, from octogenarian icons to teenagers with incredible chutzpa. Museum commissioners and serious collectors are spoilt for choice in the monumental stone and granite sculptures of Elkana Ong'esa, Gerard Motondi and Samuel Wanjau. They are spoiled for choice in the earthy toned landscapes and murals of Camille Wekesa, the luscious nudes of Anne Mwiti, the spirit-medium romance of Richard Onyango, the social commentary and urban visions of Peterson Kamwithi and Samuel Githi, the naughty pop art of Michael Soi, Bertiers, Leonard Ngure and Joseph Cartoon, etc.

African Aestethics Go Global - Case of Tanzania

George Lilanga-EtchingThe concept of art for art sake is alien to the African. Since time immemorial, African artistic expressions have responded to a purpose, a use; as a component in spiritual divination for healing, fecundity, celebration of birth, mourning of death, ancestral appeasement or simply, for beautifying the community. There are national, regional and sub-regional particularities in the renditions of these realities – just as there were staggering number of types and styles in our ancient art, as found in the plastic legacies of ancient Asante, Baule, Chokwe, Fang, Makonde or Yoruba.
Are most Africans natural born artists – the result of their vibrant cultural environment steeped in artistic expressions, be it in music, language, drawings or sculpting? African artists create art from images of what they have lived or dreamt about, with the triggers being ceremonies and rites of passage between birth and death. It's heartwarming that contemporary African art is receiving the international attention it deserves. Finally.

Contemporary art in East Africa, which dates from the 1950s and 1960s, has distinct regional characteristics. Key influencers on East African modernism, or Afro-modernism in general, include the ethnicity and culture of the artist, type of informal or formal education the artist received and what may be the target market/collectors; is the art to be sold to expatriates or is commissioned by the national museum?

Afromodernism - Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda

Rajabu CHIWAYA-Gold Spotted LeopardIf East Africa is a place where a thousand artists bloom, the scene in Uganda is truly exceptional. Tell me, where else in Africa, or in the world, can one find a more marked environment of academic excellence in visual art? A place where working artists brandish Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate degrees?

Key to this uncommon country affair is the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial & Fine Art founded in 1937 at the Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. Margaret Trowell, expatriate alumnus of the London Slade School of Art, landed on the shores of Lake Victoria and launched an academic vision of modern art and industry in the colonial territory then billed as the Pearl of Africa. She helped shape an uncommon artistic culture in East African academe that resonates today.

Visual art as industry in the region is largely of paint work, batik and sculpture, with some beginnings in conceptual or performance art. Trowell was driven by her belief in Picasso's dictum that all children are born artist and that the challenge was how not to educate them out of it but to allow them to remain artistic as they grow. While western academic instruction tended to dampen, if not destroy, innate creativity, Trowell sought to reconcile modern technical strictures with the African's natural bent to produce great art that comes from deep within, inspired by and grounded in their spiritual or cultural ethos, she maintained.

Art as Big Money While Missing the Boat

Charles Sekano-Honky Tonk Woman 1984-Afromodernism-acrylic on paperToday, art, especially contemporary art, brings together a vast community of savvy artists, dealers, curators, galleries, museums and auction houses in a multi-billion dollar marketplace where everyone gains, enormously. Except, Africa and Africans, who are, sadly, locked out of this burgeoning business.

Art Basel, the world's biggest art fair, held every June in the Swiss industrial city of Basel, is a case in point. For five action packed days last month the three hanger-size halls at Messeplatz on the banks of the sleepy Rhine, throbbed with feverish activity as the who-and-who of global art cut deals over an array of eye popping, heart thumping goodies. There were fine samples from the usual suspects: Picasso, Chagall, Modigliani, Klimt, Warhol, Bacon, Pollock, Jasper Johns, Calder, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein,...

There were offerings from the latter day gang: Koons, Hockney, Saint Phalle, Freud, Kapoor, Kentridge and the tragic Haitian prodigy, Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose just after hitting the big time. There were mirthful splashes from post-Mao Chinese warriors, including the irrepressible Yue Minjun. There were the modern day Samurais Araki and Murakami.

What is Art (Just an Exercise)

Wanyu Brush MadonnaJust like economists and the economy, you get four art cognoscenti in a room and pose that sort of question and there will be four different views – passionately held.

Evaluating art, aesthetically, valuewise, whatever, is one of the most fraught of human endeavours; as warped as it comes in individual taste. I've come across paeans such as art is the life of forms. Art is the conscious expression of our subconscious emotions. Art is the plastic result of subjective sensations. Art is the aesthetic expression of our inner and outer being. Halloo!
The fantabulous Swiss-Russian painter Serge Diakonoff said the job of an artist is to produce "beautiful" works and to "primarily feel and express their universe and, through that, everybody's world."

Was this why the occasionally brilliant most times awful British artist Lucian Freud, after devoting much of his career painting soulless portraits and awful nudes, could disparage Picasso and also describe da Vinci's Mona Lisa as "awful"? This is an artist who gave the world the infamous Jerry Hall nude study. Heavily pregnant and enduring months of laborious sitting for Mr Freud, the statuesque Texan beauty was reborn as a hot water-scalded tadpole. No wonder Ms Hall was said to have put her Freud painting up for auction later.

The Brightest Black

DAMn issue 26 articleI couldn't help pasting a big grin onto my face when I came across at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport the 26th edition of DAMn, the arty quarterly on contemporary culture published by Brussels DAMnation outfit. I had to grab a copy, even at 14 Euros tax free, quite steep for a medium-sized semi-glossy.

Rarely does one come across an European quality magazine that had an arresting African image for a front cover. Unless it was of the National Geographic or an anthropologic publication. In which case, the cover would invariably be of the Gorillas in the Mist kind, or rebels brandishing AK-47s, or a troupe of prancing Maasai with a Kilimanjaro backdrop.

The DAMn cover was classy and modern-flash, framing a handsome Tanzanian youth, whose cool-cat mien bored straight into you; a self-confident gaze uncommon in settings of this kind.

The last time I came across such edifying magazine cover in the West was many moons ago when the Red Herring showcased Ayisi Makatiani, the male half of the two young Kenyans who founded African Online dot com. And also when Forbes magazine featured a beaming Patrice Motsepe, the corporate titan and then richest black South African.

The Dead Can’t Defend Themselves, Can They?

Adama Diawara and Ruth SchafnerrRuth Schaffner, the wiry passionaria of post-war art and an expatriate notable of the East African art scene, has endured many criticisms since March 15, 1996 when her Good Maker gave her a 6-foot-deep residence in Nairobi's Langata cemetery. The dead can't defend themselves, can they? So I am going to try a bit in the old lady's defense. It might help stop her turning in her grave.

Latest among darts aimed at the departed Schaffner was Frank Whalley's "At last, EA art is coming of age" (The East African, Dec 13-19, 2010). Whalley wrote: "The happy splashy sort of painting promoted by the late Ruth Schaffner at the Watatu Gallery in Nairobi is being overtaken by work that is both technically and intellectually rigorous ... Schaffner favoured an unschooled approach ... and a naivety presumed to appeal to the European vision of what African painting should be..."

It's getting tiresome, isn't it? For years now a sundry of commentators have trotted out this view of the old lady ad nauseam. It'd be sad if it was true, but the fact is, it ain't. Casting my mind back, this narrative was started by a disaffected expatriate arts reviewer in the early 90s, at the time when Ruth was pounding the red earth pathways of Banana Hill and Ngecha in central Kenya, encouraging the young unemployed and school kids she found there, to try their hand at painting. She'd take along crayons, art paper and dollops of auntie love.

How dare she go to these unschooled simpletons, even to bring them to her famed down gallery when Kenya capital, plus Kampala and Dar es Salaam had graduates coming out of the fine art colleges? This was the sort of huff and puff shots leveled at her - out of earshot, of course. Mind you, these rural places were where most wazungu would never get to know in decades spent in Kenya.

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