What words come to mind when you hear the word “Africa”? For people in the West, the first words might be war, disease, genocide, poverty, AIDS, or other darker, grimmer terms. A new series of exhibitions aims at replacing those words with a new, brighter, more hopeful one—Creative. In Creative Africa, African arts old and new come alive brilliantly and accessibly for a Western audience who may know little of that continent’s past or present save from misguided generalizations. Creative Africa pictures a vibrant new world of creativity waiting to be discovered by those willing to step out of the darkness of prejudice into the light of hope.
Image: Banner for Creative Africa exhibition. Photo by author.
For all its co-opting of African art in the formation of Western modern art (I’m looking at you, Picasso), the West never truly understood African art for what it was meant to be, its context and function, rather than how it could be exploited like so many other natural resources of that continent. When African novelist Chinua Achebe expressed his dislike of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, he saw that book’s problems as just another case of the larger issue of cultural blindness by the West. As Achebe points out, Africa remains a “darkness” to most Westerners, a place with seemingly no history of its own, almost waiting for the West to come and rescue it from its emptiness. For the West, Achebe argues, Africa’s merely a “foil” or “antithesis” to the West, a land that exists in the imagination simply to make Westerners feel more civilized and cultured than their darker brethren. Western ignorance continues to draw a dark veil over Africa—to their and our disadvantage. Creative Africa lifts that veil to reveal the beauty we’ve been blind to for centuries.
Image: Statue. Artist/maker unknown, Edo (Benin Kingdom). Bronze, copper alloy, Loaned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The central exhibition of the five offered together, Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art, draws heavily from the renowned Africana collection of the Penn Museum. What separates Look Again from most traditional African art exhibits is the emphasis on accessibility and understanding. All Look Again asks is that you “look again” at the African art you may have thought you knew or never even tried to know (such as the bronze statue shown above). “What is there to see when you look at a work of art?” begins an early section of wall text. Starting from the ground up—eyes and an inquisitive mind—Look Again guides viewers of all ages and art experiences to look closely at African art through specific examples pulled from the larger Penn Museum collection. Where some exhibitions overwhelm the viewer with volume, Look Again slows things down (the “slow art” movement at its best) and focuses your attention on one item at a time, before stepping back and bringing in broader context and more examples. Look Again lets you walk (slowly) before you run the gamut of centuries of African art.
Non-specialists struggle often with the sea of faces that appear in exhibitions of traditional African art. They struggle to see first each work’s individuality, then they struggle to see how each work connects to others like it. Standing before a wall of reliquary guardian figures (shown above), you wonder how to start. Look Again offers an innovative, playful, interactive way to make sense of such objects with the Kota Data Cloud. Taking drawings and data created by computer scientist Frederic Cloth, Rampant Interactive designed and developed the Kota Data Cloud as a table-top touch screen that “deals” you a set of reliquary guardian figures. The user then chooses to “connect” figures from that set. With a press of a button, you then get statistics that compare and contrast materials, motifs, and other aspects. Through the magic of technology, connections and comparisons that take a lifetime of study appear immediately. The Kota Data Cloud, like the rest of Look Again, takes the intimidation out of studying African art and allows you to relax and enjoy the creativity of Africa’s long, diverse history.
Image: Installation views of (Left) Wedding Dress, designed by Inge van Lierop for Vlisco, Feel collection, season 2, 2015, cotton, wax block print, sequins, beads, lent by Vlisco; (Center) Power Figure, Kongo Kingdom, Vili culture, Republic of Congo, 19th or 20th century, wood, glass, brass; and (Right) Man’s jacket, trousers, and scarf designed by Ikiré Jones, 2013-2016, cotton, wax block print, lent by Ikiré Jones. Photo by author.
I suggest starting with Look Again before moving on to the other exhibitions, if only to see how contemporary African artists embrace their history while moving in new, exciting directions. After looking at one of Look Again’s “Power Figures,” statues used in religious rites and appealed to for favors by driving nails into the wood (example show above, center), I couldn’t help but see a different kind of power evoked in the fashions on display in Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage. The irresistible beauty and imaginativeness of Inge van Lierop’s wedding dress (above, left) and Ikiré Jones’ men’s outfit (above, right) empower the African individuals who wear such clothing that makes you envious of them, that makes you want to be African.
Image: Untitled (Lagos, Nigeria), 2004. Akinbode Akinbiyi, Nigerian (born England), born 1946. Gelatin silver print, approx: 24 × 20 1/16 inches (61 × 51 cm), Courtesy of the artist, © Akinbode, Akinbiyi.
Those interested in African textiles can learn more (and create their own patterns using blocks) in the exhibition Threads of Tradition. Like Vlisco, Threads of Tradition shows that African art isn’t dead. It’s more alive and present than ever. That contemporary presence comes to life even more in the photography of Three Photographers/Six Cities, an exhibition of African photographers Akinbode Akinbiyi, Seydou Camara, and Ananias Léki Dago. From Camara’s images of Islamic manuscripts to Dago’s pictures of illegal nightclubs in Johannesburg called shebeens to Akinbiyi’s urban landscapes (shown above), a clearer picture of contemporary Africa emerges than the one typically shown on American news. A Spotify playlist of contemporary African pop chosen by the photographers themselves and featuring Fela Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ali Farka Touré, and others will make you think you’ve walked into a shebeen yourself.
Image: Installation image of Francis Kéré’s site-specific, immersive environment. Photo by author.
The scene-stealer of Creative Africa, however, is The Architecture of Francis Kéré: Building for Community. Kéré embodies the African spirit in his architecture, which is made from local materials by the locals themselves, all with a sensitivity to both local communities and local ecosystems. Rather than rely on scale models or oversized photographs, the exhibition features examples of the materials themselves—wood, clay, brick—and videos of the people getting involved in the building. During the press preview, Kéré contrasted the American way of construction (professionals behind gates) with the African way (communities coming together). Watching children carry desks into their new school, you know that they’ll value their education more after such personal engagement. Kéré brought the museum’s community (employees and patrons) together to weave a colorful, interactive environment of cords hanging from metal frames (shown above). Again, Creative Africa just doesn’t show you creativity—it involves you in the process and inspires you to find your own inner “Africa.”
Image: (Left) Plaque. Artist/maker unknown, Edo (Benin Kingdom). Bronze, copper alloy, Loaned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Right) Installation image of digital animation of Oba’s palace in Benin during the 16th and 17th centuries. Photo by author.
Near the end of Look Again, a video offers a digital animation of the Oba’s palace in Benin during the 16th and 17th centuries and suggests where ornate plaques may once have appeared on the pillars (shown above), before conquerors carried them away. I imagined an African Elgin Marbles, Greece’s great cultural loss, immediately. Creative Africa mourns such losses as it celebrates today’s victories, while asking you to celebrate along. If museums should be places of enlightenment and entertainment, then Creative Africa provides a template on how to take an obscure subject and make it not only understandable and relevant, but also engaging and fun. From a heart of darkness, Creative Africa brings light and life to a whole new audience.
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the images above from, other press materials related to, and an invitation to the press preview for the exhibition Creative Africa, which runs through September 25, 2016.]