Friday, December 2, 2011

Contemporary African Artist

Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu was born in 1970 in Ethiopia, the first child of an Ethiopian college professor and a white American teacher. They fled Ethiopia in 1977 and moved to East Lansing, Michigan. She studied at University Cheik Anta Diop, Dakar, earned a BA from Kalamazoo College, Michigan, and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design.

Through her schooling Mehretu learned she wanted to make abstract paintings with a narrative content, one that reflected her interest in geography, architecture, history, and urban life. Mehretu's paintings and drawings refer to those elements of mapping and architecture. She uses architectural renderings and aerial views of urban grids that she layers to mask their visual reference. She uses wax-like surfaces that are built up over weeks and months in thin translucent layers. The layers build to a warm, deep layer that is her canvas for explosions of color, lines, and fire. 

Her works have earned her many awards and have appeared in numerous exhibits. If you were to compare her work to “traditional” African art you would not see the connection. In the past she has been asked, “Why don’t you make Ethiopian paintings?” She is from Ethiopian, however she considers herself American, having grown up in the US. That’s not to say she has forgotten her roots. Mehretu’s work is the epitome of interculturalization, which has been a focus in our class. From the age of seven, Mehretu has seen herself as a negotiator between cultures and expectations.

“I use all kinds of resources as guides for structuring the drawings that I'll project onto the wall. I use different types of comic books, different kinds of graffiti and tags, but also parts of baroque engravings like Dürer, Japanese/Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. Different types of media are used to inform the process.”

Art:21’s feature on Mehretu, reveals this interculturalization and the influences that have helped define her work.

Pay particular attention to clip 5:18 to 5:47, and clip 11:06 to 11:47.

Though the lens of traditional African art does not fit with Julie Mehretu’s work, her oeuvre can be viewed through other lenses. Better frames of reference for her work are her gender and the aesthetics of her work. There is a certain care that she takes with in her work, it’s a slow, patient process that, in essence, is more about the process. This careful, nurturing process leads to a sensual build up of mark making that gives off a warmth and comfort that reflects her femaleness. 

I could not find a specific website that is solely hers, but the following sites provided a wealth of information for my research.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Week 12 -- Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Unfortunately I was unable to see the Haitian Art exhibit at the Waterloo Center for the Arts. They were in the process of setting up for an event and they would not let us in. So, I will focus my blog on Rotimi Fani-Kayode.

Interculturalism has been a theme throughout our African Art History course. As we conclude our studies, we’ve been looking at contemporary artists from Africa and how they fit into the category of African art. Koben Mercer’s article, “Eros & Diaspora” discusses one of these artists, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, and how interculturalism has effected his body of work and his identity.
Rotimi was born in Nigeria among the Ile Ife and Yoruba people. At age 11 his family was forced to move and he grew up in Europe and America. Mercer’s article quotes another artist who knew Rotimi, Alex Hirst. Hirst reflects on Rotimi's childhood:
It is important to know that he kept faith with many of the values that his background had given him…Leaving Africa as an exile at the age of eleven meant that he was haunted for the rest of his life by a desire to get to grips with certain mysteries he had glimpsed there; in the traditions and beliefs of his ancestors. He tired to make sense of them in the context of a dislocated world.”

Rotimi's art is a prime example of interculturalism. Though he only lived in Africa for 11 years, those experiences are still a part of him. As he moves to other areas of the world, he collects more and more experiences that all add to his identity. His entire identity is a mix of cultures and a mix of experiences, combined with his inherent being.
On three counts I am an outsider: in matters of sexuality, in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation, and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for. Such a position gives me a feeling of having very little to lose. It produces a sense of personal freedom from the hegemony of convention. It opens up areas of creative enquiry which might otherwise have remained forbidden. Both aesthetically and ethically, I seek to translate my rage and my desire into new images which will undermine conventional perceptions and which may reveal hidden worlds.
The articles on Rotimi Fani-Kayode brought up the idea of an artist’s identity in his/her art. We briefly discussed a quote from “Traces of Ecstasy”, by Rotimi:
“…I feel it is essential to resist all attempts that discourage the expression of one’s identity.”
Art is a mirror image of identity. It communicates the individual, the culture, the society. It is a reflection of what we feel, think, practice, and believe. Art is a reflection of the ideology of a culture. The art of Africa reveals what they were and how they lived. It reflects their religion and their traditions. Masks, statues, crowns, textiles, and stools all symbolize the personality and culture and is a catalyst to identity. The artist or craftsman leaves his/her own feelings and thoughts in the piece or project that influence to inspire.
My identity has been constructed from my own sense of otherness, whether cultural, racial or sexual. The three aspects are not separate within me. Photography is the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photography therefore – Black, African, homosexual photography – which I must use not just as an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms.
Rotimi identifies himself as an outsider, he refers to his sense of “otherness”. His struggle is to communicate his identity without becoming a commodity to particular social groups, collectors, and the “Establishment”. This is a struggle that many artists of African decent deal with, but their identity is always in their work because it is a reflection of them as a human being.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Week 11 -- Contemporary African Art

We discussed three readings this week, African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow by Sidney Kasfir, the article by Olu Oguibe, Art, Identity, Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art, and an interview with artist Yinka Shonibare by Okwui Enwezor, Of Hedonism, Masquerade, Carnivalesque, and power. Our move into contemporary African artists centered around the ideas of stereotypes, authenticity, and the importance of the artist's identity.
In Oguibe's article there was a point in time when the African artist Ouattra was feeling ignored and disrespected by the white interviewer, McEvilly.
             “There! Ouattra explodes. But only within. Like a gentleman. The ultimate signifying
              monkey. He understands – he is brought up to understand, everything in his history
             and in his experience prepares him to understand and to accept – that in dealing with
              the power that McEvilly represents, he is engaged in an ill-matched game of survival;
              a game that he must play carefully if he is to avoid profound consequences; a game he
              must negotiate with patience to prevent his own erasure, his own annihilation; a game
              that he must ultimately concede in order to live.” (p.17)

This passage really touches on the oppression with which the African community has dealt with throughout history and it's effects on the psychology of the black-skinned people of Africa. Ouattra knows the power McEvilly has and knows that he must be submissive in order to keep his career, and his lively-hood, out of jeopardy.

Similarly, in the interview with Yinka Shonibare, the artist recognizes the importance his skin color plays on his art.
              “...I realized that regardless of my internal thoughts, the way I was perceived on the
               outside was different. I also realized that I was in a double bind. If I made work about
               being black, I would be considered simply an artist who made work about blackness;
               if I did not make work about being black, people would speak of me as a black artist
               who did not make work about blackness.”(p.167)

In writing this weeks blog my mind kept going to a contemporary artist that I find profoundly remarkable. Kara Walker is a contemporary artist that deals with slavery, sex, racism, history, and political and social themes. I first saw Kara Walker's work on Art:21. I was infatuated with her simple black and white silhouettes that were both beautiful and disturbing. On my most recent trip to the Walker museum in Minneapolis I had the pleasure of seeing some of her journal pages. There was one page in particular were she wrote about her “blackness”. She described the struggle she felt with being marginalized because of her skin color and her gender. In the world of art she could not escape her external person and was judge and criticized according to her race and gender.
Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says, “The visceral nature of Walker's work has put her at the center of an ongoing controversy. She says many people take issue with Walker's images, and many of those people are black. They worry that the general public will not understand the irony. Or just not understand.” ( – 11/3/11)
 Her work may seem exaggerated, but this was a very real subject. Golden says, “It's dealing with a very real and contemporary subject. This really is not a caricature. There is nothing in this exhibit, quite frankly, that is exaggerated. That is what slavery was about and people need to see that. They need to understand it, they need to understand the impact of it. I don't need to go very far back in my history--my great grandmother was a slave--so this is not something that we're talking about that happened that long ago."
Kara Walker's work deals with multiple dualities and each one is significant within today's social and political world. Dominator vs. dominated, black vs. white, good vs. evil, external vs. internal, history vs. story, and male vs. female are all apparent in Walker's art. Walker says her goal with all her work is to elicit an uncomfortable and emotional reaction. "I've seen audiences glaze over when they're confronted with racism," she says. "There's nothing more damning and demeaning to having any kind of ideology than people just walking the walk and nodding and saying what they're supposed to say and nobody feels anything."
These artists share a common problem, one which can't be resolved until we all become color blind. Until then, people from this class have been educated on the issues these artists face and it's up to us to decide whether to keep it to ourselves or try to make a difference and teach what we know.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Week 10 -- The "Other"

Imaging Otherness in Ivory: African Portrayals of the Portuguese by Suzanne Blier and Mami Wata Shrines: Exotica and the Construction of Self by Henry Drewal are 2 articles that discuss the “other.” The “other” in Blier's article is the Portuguese that were first seen by the sub-Saharan Africans around 1485. Drewal's article identifies the “other” as any object, person, or idea from another culture. Both articles used the term “other” to describe different groups, but both used the term “other” to show how cultures are perceived, defined, and integrated into African culture.

Dewal uses the Hindu chromoliths and other Indian objects to show this interculturation among Africans. Mami Wata is an African water spirit and her devotees use these objects as a way of defining their own beliefs. Even though the devotees didn't know the original origin of these objects, they embraced the imagery and gave it new meaning by incorporating it into their beliefs. By using these foreign items Mami Wata followers subject themselves to the visual cultures of others while deepening their own beliefs. In doing so, they honor both cultures.

Blier's explanation of interculturation shows how a culture takes new information and uses their own culture to explain the new culture that is encountered. The Kongo, Beni, and Sapi people of Africa are the main focus of Blier's article. These 3 communities were among the African people who witnessed the first Portuguese people arriving in Africa. In African culture, the belief is when a person dies they go on a journey. When the first Portuguese arrived in Kongo in 1485 they exhibited the principal characteristics of the dead: they were white in color, spoke an unintelligible language, and possessed technology superior even to that of the local priestly guild of smiths.(Blier, 379) The African people put the arrival of these people into a context that reflected their own culture and knowledge. If wealth, white, people arrive on the shore of the deceased the only explanation they have that makes sense to their culture is the return of the dead. No doubt the local residents found them sources of wonder, perplexity, and shock, as they called to mind dead people who had in some way been able to come back to life. (Blier, 379)

Blier presents examples for each people that shows the cultural integration the African people used in their art. One of those examples is the ivory figural carvings of the Beni.
At the time of the Portuguese arrival, the Beni incorporated their idea of the returned dead in their sculpture. The top of this mask is a great example of the Beni depiction of the Portuguese. The showed the Portuguese as older people with long flowing hair and mustaches. They had deep set oval eyes often shown in a frontal pose. At the top of the mask you see these Portuguese men with their long hair, in between the men are mudfish. The mudfish is the symbol for Olokun, the spirit of water, wealth, and other worldly realms. Because the Portuguese came by boat on the port of the Beni's deceased, the Beni related the Portuguese to Olokun and therefore uses the mudfish as a symbol.

Both articles gave us insight into how these cultures integrated different cultures in order to make sense of the changing world around them. By not ignoring the other cultures, the African people honor these “other” cultures by re-purposing their ideas, objects, and images.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Week 8 -- Vodou

Haitian vodou is seen as “strange” to some people. Others may call it “evil” or “uncivilized” But, the same can be said about Christianity. It may be strange to believe that water can be changed into wine. How civilized is it to light a candle, kneel, and pray before a plastic statue? Where you were born, the culture you were raised in, and the lessons you were taught determine what you view as strange. The readings and the DVD s this week taught us that perspective is important when judging another person's culture.
“The Divine Horseman” was a DVD that showed us an “authentic” vodou ritual with trance-possession and animal sacrifice. What we have to remember, however is this was filmed by a white, western woman and edited by a western film company. This “authentic” ceremony has the perspective of a westerner, and so we really can't call this “authentic.”

Karen McCarthy Brown's article about Mama Lola was another perspective on vodou culture. This perspective showed the importance of the mother-and-child bond in the vodou religion. It also showed us how vodou is engrained in the lives of Mama Lola and Maggie within the United States.
The greatest example of perspective was shown through Henry Louis Gates' piece, “Black in Latin America.” He showed how an island made up of 90% African descendants can have 2 different perspectives depending on which side of the island you were born.
The east side of the island Hispaniola, is the country of Haiti. In and around the capital of Haiti, Port-Au-Prince, is a rich African culture. These Haitians embrace their African roots. According to Gates, they “accept their blackness.” They perform vodou rituals and even though they incorporated Catholicism, they still remained true to their African heritage.
In the west, the Dominican Republic is home to many African descendants, however they consider themselves “Spanish.” In the Dominican Republic there is a larger occurrence of race mixing. These lighter skinned Africans consider themselves “indio.” According to Gates, the term indio is used to “negate their African heritage.” The culture in the Dominican Republic reflects a negative perception of 'black' Africans. Their culture has evolved in such a way that “black” is considered inferior. Gates gave an example of the depiction of the “Sambo.” This figure paints a negative picture of blacks and is “why kids don't admit to being African.” It is the culture in which they were born that give them this perspective.
We've seen the theme of perspective throughout this course. What we have to remind ourselves is to remember who's perspective we are observing. It may sicken us to see a live chicken being mangled for some religious purpose, but we would have a completely different understanding if we viewed it from the perspective of the vodou Oungan. We may not agree with some of these rituals, but we must understand the importance of them and respect the perspective.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Week 7 -- Yoruba Spirituality

The Yoruba people are a large, agricultural society descendant from the Ile Ife community.  They are a deeply spiritual people and look to their ancestors and other spirits to guide them through this world.  The people use a variety of artifacts to ensure a balance between this world and the spiritual world.  The divination tray, or Opon Ifa, is a crucial tool that represents the duality of the visible world and the invisible.

The Yoruba people believe a person chooses their destiny before their birth.  Their focus is on how to interact with the ashe, or life force, so that the people fulfill the purposes for which they were born.  They believe the energies from the dead still live among the people, ensuring the connection between the past and the future, and must communicate with those spirits for guidance.

An individual, or the community, consults the diviner if there is an important decision that needs to be made.  The diviner covers the board with dust from a special tree, and then uses a “tapper,” or Iroke (a decorated ivory wand), to draw lines separating the three paths of life (see video).  These divisions open the channels of spiritual communication.  A set of, 16 palm nuts, are thrown on the board and the diviner “reads” the palm-nut configuration.  The spirits, or ancestors, are able to assist the person through the diviner’s interpretation.  There are a possible 256 combinations the diviner reads that assist the person with their decision. 
A diviner can be either male or female.  The Yoruba are a matriarchal society and believe women are the ultimate vessels for ashe.  Unlike the masquerades, which are still performed by male members of the community, woman are able to act as intermediaries equally with men.  This makes the divination tray another representation of the Yoruba cosmology and the duality present in their culture.  In the tray below women are pictured kneeling naked, according to Visona, this is "a visual metaphor for those who seek their fates."  This again references the life force woman provide.

The divination tray represents the spiritual connection, not only by it’s function, but also in its design and iconography.  The board is divided into a lower level and an upper, raised rim.  These levels represent the 2 worlds, visible and invisible.  The lower level represents this world and is flat and undecorated.  The upper rim represents the spiritual world and is embellished with symbols and decorations that traditionally aid in the divination. 

The image of Eshu is typically found on the divination tray.  Eshu is a primordial Orisha, or god, that is the mediator between the creator and man.  Eshu represents disorder and uncertainty and in Yoruba culture there must be balance, order and disorder, certainty and uncertainty.  Orunmila provides that balance with Eshu.  Orunmila helps people live out their destiny, but the Yoruba can only get Orunmila’s assistance through Eshu, the messenger.

The spiritual beliefs of the Yoruba people center around balance.  Balance between; life and death, men and women, the spirit world and this world.  In order to achieve this balance they must look to the spirits, and their ancestors to help guide them through their destiny and provide balance to the community.