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Main African Artists in the Diaspora

A profile
Wangechi Mutu
By Osei G. Kofi
“I didn’t was struggling belong at with home, this I idea, didn’t that belong perhaps here. the I didn’t reason exist, I was or I in shouldn’t this situation exist, is in I that turned weird into way. something Like I’d that left and didn’t grown belong. on my own like these creatures that grow on Madagascar that are such anomalies. I think there is something about countries and nations that is hard to define. And in fact, that’s probably why we create such massive boundaries, because it’s so slippery where they begin and where they end. These conservative demarcations of nation and state and culture are soon going to be archaic. We have to redefine what we mean when we say “Who are your people?” “Where are you from?”

If you think the 130-odd words cited above and the sentiments therein are from a modern-day philosopher or a social scientist you are wrong. Or, perhaps not so wrong. Eureka – here is world-renowned artist Wangechi Mutu! She was talking to a writer in New York who’d gone to interview the Kenya-born emigrée on the eve of her ground-breaking exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, June 2013.

Wangechi speaks little publicly. But when she does, as in this instance, she bares her soul, poignantly sharing the challenges that assail a nomad who belongs nowhere and everywhere, dealing with constant bifurcation as a fact of life. She’s a daughter of Mother Africa, fertilized by the red soils of Kikuyuland, in the shadow of majestic Mount Kenya. Beckoned by goddess Diaspora Wangechi practises her craft far from home. Home, which home? Nairobi where she was born in 1972? America, whose shores she decidedly landed in her search for the golden fleece soon after high school at nuns’ run Loreto Convent Msongari, among the best secondary education in Kenya? Her search to hone her natural born talents far from home is paired with a hunger for technical expertise. Subsequently, the studies at the United World College of the Atlantic, Wales. At prestigious Parsons School of Art and Design, New York. At historic Cooper Union for the Advancement of the Arts and Science, New York. Capping it all with a Master’s in sculpture from Ivy League Yale, if you please.
Wangechi is arguably the most cerebral and prolific among the dozen plus topnotch diasporic artists wowing museum goers and collectors. Her early art, when she first burst onto the scene, took grotesquerie to a level that would have made Bosch and Arcimboldo blush. She’d scissor images and texts from anthropologic, ethnographic and medical magazines, splicing and spicing them with gems or detritus from high fashion or porn, grafting the lot onto paper and later on mylar, in collages so distinctive they arrested first time viewers in their tracks. In shock and awe. Wangechi’s works grab by the throat with their mishmash-ness, of order in chaos, beauty in horrors, that seem to emerge from our nightmares, or wet dreams, with a surrealist aplomb and Daliesque flair.
Keeping with the spirit of the times Wangechi has segued into sculpture, installation and video, allowing her to better explore her most ardent preoccupations: cultural signifiers and the African identity, politics and the atrocities of war, plastic surgery and the body politics, gay and lesbian rights, etc.

The early grostesquerie got Wangechi noticed. Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, eminent among the world’s power brokers in contemporary art, took her under his wings while she was still in college, including her in the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale which he curated. Enwezor again tapped her to be considered for Deutsche Bank’s inaugural Artist of the Year award in 2000 which she won, with a show at their Guggenheim Museum, Berlin.

“Her constant excavation of her process, the constant excavation of her own ideas, and her breaking boundaries within that” are what makes Wangechi so interesting,” Enwezor lauded at the award luncheon in New York. Artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, Enwezor gave Wangechi a pride of space in the coveted Giardini where she presented a three-piece showcase: a sculpture of a multi-horned encaged bronze mermaid She’s Got the Whole World; a collage painting Forbidden Fruit Picker; and a video The End of Carrying It All, an apocalyptic visual of a Sisyphus figure battling the elements in a vast windblown landscape.
After years of biding time for an interview I finally caught up with the diva around her magistral installation in the Giardini. She was surrounded by a bevy of groupies. The scrum around her was such that all I got was being roped in as an extra in the fashion photo shoot in which she was starring. No time to talk beyond sharing her “admiration and gratitude” for Enwezor. The year before, in 2014, another diasporic mover & shaker Simon Njami of Africa Remix fame included Wangechi in a select group of artists for an artistic enactment of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy. Heaven, hell, purgatory revisited by African Contemporary Artists” which Njami curated at the Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt. In April the stupendously successful show travelled to the National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, for a 4-month run. Wangechi’s collage, “The Storm Has Finally Made It Out of Me, Alhamdulillah,” depicting a mystical creature with an explosion emanating from her midsection, was located in hell among other works.
In one of her most recent stunning sculptural works, Second Dreamer Wangechi unabashedly took from Brancusi’s 1910 Sleeping Muse, which the RomanianFrenchman had borrowed from Africa’s totemic masks. Thus, we now have Africa to Europe to America to Africa! There’s also her Water Woman, an ebony-black sheen sculpture of Nguva or Mami Water of African folklore, depicted as a nubile with a fetching pair of tits and a lower body of slithery fish; a harking back to the millennia of mermaid mythology also shared by Starbucks’ on their coffee cups. Wangechi has been quoted as using “the aesthetic of rejection and wretchedness to explore the hopeful or sublime.” The titles of her works are a world of its own, trenchant, instantly resonant, with deep hidden meanings – never perfunctory, as is the wont of too many among her peers. They surge from the wellspring of her creativity, embodying uplifting pathos, rarely descending into bathos. Sample: Riding Death in My Sleep, 2002, Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, 2005, The Bride Who Married a Camel’s Head, 2009, The End of eating Everything, 2013, Hundred lavish months of bushwhack and Intertwined, which is one of my favs, showing two scantily clad small-titted damsels with heads of hunting dogs gnawing each other’s tongue. Does Wangechi like her women small-titted?
In 17 years since college Wangechi’s exhibitions and awards would be the envy of older artists with decades of practice. Someone recently described her art as “like seeing the world through a shaman’s eyes.” Well, the fact is Wangechi is the shaman.
In 2006-2016 of her 20 solo shows 70% were in museums and public institutions,30% in private galleries. of her 155 group shows 86% were in museums and public institutions, 14% in galleries.
A profile
Yinka Shonibare
By Osei G. Kofi

Art must be fun. It must say something. Which contemporary artist best embodies this uncommon duality? Yinka Shonibare, MBE. He is fun. He is naughty. Never boring. He breaks boundaries. Always evokes something deep. Well, almost always. Huge dollops of humour save Shonibare from humdrum. When the almost entirety of an artist works revolve around fibre glass mannequins and wax prints one must be super talented to always pull it off – and Shonibare does it like a true maestro.

The London-born of Nigerian parents 50-something artist uses his work to explore human foibles, cultural identities, race and class, colonialism, post-colonialism, with their tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europeand the current zeitgeist, Globalisation. Shonibare does it all often with self-deprecation and putdowns that belie the profundity of the subject matters and the messages they carry. While sculpture is his main thing Shonibare has been active in painting, photography, film and performance lately.
A signifier of his art is the brightly coloured wax cotton prints first produced in Indonesia by the Dutch. His trademark media are resin or fibre glass headless mannequins wearing the colourful prints the Dutch exported to West Africa at the beginning of the last century. It caught fashion fire in the hot humid climate. By the 1950s and early independence years the fabric, like the Kente, had become a sign of African pride, notably in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin.
Shonibare makes unique pieces of his sculptural creations. He might make variations of a particular oeuvre, such as the Butterfly Girl and the wind vane series. The latter has had the most international traction lately, with commissions from the US and Germany after it debuted in 2013 in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In December 2016 the latest wind vane, Wind Sculpture VII, was erected in front of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, the first sculpture to be honoured at the prime site.Shonibare was a proponent of installation art way before it became a currency which in the hands of untalented practitioners the genre has turned gimmicky and a real bore.
His first solo exhibition was in 1989 at Byam Shaw Gallery, London. He burst onto the international stage in 2002 with an installation “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation” commissioned by OkwuiEnwezor for Documenta XI in Kassel, a take of humorous bathos on randy Victorians being naughty while pretending they were in serious conversation over serious business.A year later Shonibare gave us Scramble For Africa, 14 life-size mannequins decked out in 19th century costumes of the wax prints around a table somewhere in Europe carving up Africa into exclusive real estates. Measuring 132 x 488 x 280 cm the installation was the Anglo-Nigerian’s most evocative memory pitch for Africans. His most iconic work must be How To Blow-Up Two Heads At Once, 2006. Two male mannequins in leather riding boots each with a gun pointed at the other’s non-existent head. Difficult to tell who won the duel. There is also a female version.
Talking about epistemic art, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was Shonibare’s most complex and technically challenging work. The medium consisted of a specially blown glass bottle, cork, wood, brass, textiles, acrylic, LED lighting and a ventilation system. At 300 x 535 x 250 cm and a 1:30 scale model of Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory inside, the bottle was moulded by aquarium specialists in Rome. Commissioned by the Greater London Authority for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, the work commemorated the Battle of Trafalgar,the 1805 naval fight by the Royal Navy against the combined fleets of French and Spanish navies in the Napoleonic Wars in which Nelson destroyed 27 Franco-Spanish ships without a single British vessel being lost.
For Shonibare, who describes himself as a “post-colonial” hybrid, the work reflected the relationship between the birth of the British Empire and modern Britain’s multicultural context. “It’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom,” he said. The installation, displayed from May 2010 to January 2012, was so widely admired that at the end of its allotted reign in Trafalgar Square, the UK Art Fund launched a fund raiser to purchase and relocate it at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, now its permanent home.
Shonibare’s lawyer father moved the family back to Nigeria when the future artist was three. At 17, he returned to Britain for his A-levels at Redrice School, and study fine art, first at Byam School of Art now Central Saint Martin’s College, and later at Goldsmiths College where he received his MFA. At 18, Shonibare contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, which resulted in a physical disability that has paralysed one side of his body. He moves about in an electric wheelchair and has assistants making the works under his direction.
In 2004, Shonibare was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. He didn’t win but in a BBC website poll 64% of the voters made his work their favourite among the four on the shortlist. Tellingly, he was awarded an MBE that year. An Honorary Doctorate, Fine Artist, from the Royal College of Art followed in 2010. He was elected Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts in 2013. A big deal in the UK.
in 2006-2016 of shonibare’s 45 solo shows 31% were in museums and public institutions, 69% in private galleries. of his 160 group shows 92% were in museums and public institutions, 8% in galleries.
Seyni Awa Camara (b. c. 1945) Grands genoux,2008 terracotta Height 115 cm court. private collection
Seyni Awa Camara (b. c. 1945)
Grands genoux,2008
Height 115 cm
court. private collection