Arts & Culture

Conscious craft is behind the work of African artists

6 min read

Zoe Whitley flew in from London last week, and by Friday afternoon (Feb. 29) — going through her notes at a Harvard lectern — she really needed a cup of coffee.

But there was work to do, like saving African art from being a cliché of the primitive — a body of “instinctual” art when compared with the “practiced” products of the developed world.

Whitley, the American-born curator of contemporary programs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, said the vast continent is still regarded as “a passive recipient [of art], not an agent.”

Timeless Africa, she added, “is a trope that needs to be challenged.”

Whitley was among more than 15 art scholars, critics, gallery owners, curators, and working artists invited to a public conference Feb. 29-March 1 at the Center for Government and International Studies building on Cambridge Street.

In lectures and panels, about 130 registrants listened in on interdisciplinary discussions of issues that captivate — and concern — lovers of African art. The occasion was “New Geographies in Contemporary African Art,” a conference sponsored by the Harvard University Committee on African Studies.

“It’s quite rare to get these different vantages engaging with each other,” said conference moderator Suzanne P. Blier. Blier is the Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and professor of African and African American studies.

The art discussed — film, painting, graphics, and photography — comes from a continent that is 11.7 million square miles of tribal tradition. It’s a place of emerging nationhood and deep history that is both a physical space and, to the world, a concept with shifting borders.

History, memory, diaspora, cultural remnants of colonial rule, intersecting Muslim, Christian, and indigenous religious traditions, the rapid emergence of big cities — “all of these have shaped the way [African] art is being explored, exchanged, and engaged with,” said Blier. She is also editor in chief of Baobab, an electronic media project at Harvard designed to assemble an interactive database of images of African visual culture.

In the first minutes of the conference, in Tsai Auditorium, Blier underscored the subtext of the event — that the University needs a center for scholarly pursuits related to Africa.

“Allston clearly holds great potential for exhibiting works from this art-rich continent, works that for reasons of space and variant museum histories have not been exhibited in an ongoing art context at Harvard,” she said later. “In short, I am cautiously optimistic.”

Joining Blier in calling for a new center was Committee on African Studies Chairman Jacob Olupona, a professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School.

Not giving full attention to things African, he said, “is a reflection of the state of the continent.”

For one, full attention is not being given to a vibrant, largely underground scene that’s redefining the graphic arts in Africa, said Whitley, a Washington, D.C., native and visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art in London. “There’s no sense in the [world] design community that there is an Africa,” she said. “It’s still not accepted as it should be.”

New voices in African design, informed by a local aesthetic, can compete on a world stage, said Whitley. Her lecture slides flashed examples of little-known fashion lines (conceptual street wear from 21MC), and typefaces that echoed the old and created the new (“Plumber’s Butt” — a design that echoes informal signage).

She also touched on installation art, Zimbabwe-style — the “toilet democracy” of Owen Maseko. Graffiti in a public toilet, the artist said, is the only place left for free expression in that troubled country.

Whitley’s presentation was set within “History, Memory, Diasporas,” one of the four pathways of inquiry that framed the New Geographies conference.

“Cosmopolitanism” was one frame; “Place and Photography” was another — which included an exploration of the photographs of Kenya-born New Yorker and conceptual artist Allan deSouza, by the strikingly named Moi Tsien of the strikingly named Ministry of Round Holes in Berlin.

The fourth frame of the conference, “The City,” was an occasion to learn that more than half of all Africans are now urban dwellers.

A film about one African city was the art that drew former Radcliffe Fellow Steven D. Nelson Ph.D. ’98 to the Harvard conference. His lecture, “Karmen Gei: Sex, Song, and Censorship in Dakar,” was, in part, about “the failures of polite society” in that Senegalese city.

A September 2001 fatwa led armed Muslim militants to shut down the theater showing “Karmen Gei,” a film that explores lesbian homosexuality and the intersections of Christian and Muslim culture.

It was a case, said Nelson, of how censorship can amplify the life of a film or other artistic artifact. “Karmen Gei” ceased being an art film seen by just 3,000 people and instead became the subject of wide conversation. “The image enforces borders,” he said, “and breaks them.”

African art, if created by an artist far from the continent itself, will be shaded by longing — “the melancholy of journeying away,” said Cuba-born and Africa-descended artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who now lives in Boston.

Being away from an ancestral home brings fatalism. “I am here,” she said of Boston, “so I belong here.”

But being away brings with it states of “necessary solitude, and reflection,” said Campos-Pons, whose family generations back was from present-day Nigeria and whose great-grandfather was a Yoruba slave in Cuba. And that reflection can sometimes veer into the sentimental — like the painting she showed of her niece on a lonely Cuba shore. “I am not afraid,” she said, “of being cheesy.”

Campos-Pons, a child of an artistic diaspora from both Africa and the Caribbean, creates paintings, installations, and sculptures, along with video and poetry. In her studio, she keeps a 20-by-24 Polaroid camera, too. All of these are means to capture art that often in some way relates to exile, longing, separation, and even nostalgia, which she called “memory without pain.”

In her art, said Campos-Pons, “both memory and the journey [are] always present.”

She uses many images to celebrate her roots, including images of her mother, or other black women; of animals — immigrating birds, pestering mosquitoes, industrious woodpeckers; and the longing that imagined distances brings. (One of her installations was called “Everything Is Separated by Water.”)

Then there are nests, a natural icon that appears in work by Campos-Pons. Nests are temporary homes that have to be reinvented every year. And there is a parallel, she said, “for the body in exile, especially the black body.”