“Making Art in Africa 1960 -2010” gives voice to various artist’s experiences and recalls the work of the Triangle Network that was first thriving in the 1980s. And yet it fails to put the observations into a broader context, as promised in the title.
What does it mean to work as an artist in Africa? This question is posed in bold blue type on the back of Making Art in Africa 1960 – 2010. The title promises a focus on the act of making and with that a space for artists’ expression. It sets the stage: Africa, from her independence years right up to the contemporary. The preamble goes on to proclaim that ‘60 of the continent’s leading artists and curators give very different answers to this question through a series of extraordinary first hand commentaries’.
All those artists speaking about their work, lives and the social, political or familial situations they have found themselves in is the heart and lungs of Making Art in Africa 1960 – 2010. Among the sixty-eight artists and curators interviewed (fourteen women and fifty-four men) Nike Davies Okundaye for example recalls her processes of waxing, applying intricate designs in melted beeswax, inspired by dreams and drawn straight onto fabric. The practices of many other artists can be understood in their own terms and the critical mass of their voices, accompanied by plentiful colour illustrations of works and supporting imagery is what makes this book. John Picton notes in his introductory essay that ‘what really matters here is that we look at the work and listen to the artists.’
This is true, not least because as soon as your attention is drawn away from the valuable encounter of first hand accounts from artists, the cross-purposes of the publication reveal themselves. Firstly there is the role of the Triangle Network, a pioneering, international network founded in the pre-internet landscape of the early 1980s with the aim of providing artists from disparate geographic locations a sense of community, interaction and stimulus. The opening essays trace the personal encounters and life paths of the founders. The works discussed are largely from their collection acquired during the workshop years, and the artists referenced are all connected with the Triangle Network in one way or another. A fascinating list of thousands of artists who participated in the workshops from 1985-2008 maps transnational connections that have no doubt gone on to shape contemporary dynamics both within local scenes and on the global stage.
Without the cover thesis, Making Art in Africa 1960 – 2010 could comfortably be read as ‘35 Years of the Triangle Network’, an openness that would’ve made for a much less antagonistic experience. This preoccupation of the book is a fruitful one, and the aim here is not to deny that the work of the Triangle Network is worth celebrating, rather to ask – if this is core to the publication why not name it as such? With naming this position, one could go on to further reflect on personal taste and circumstance and how workshop models with their accompanying patronage, impact the processes of making art in Africa. In turn one could look at the trickle down affects of a book such as this, as documentation of a personal collection. Or perhaps consider how the dynamism of bringing artists together through the workshop model speaks to the practices of Invisible Borders, or the Asiko art school and others. Or one may reflect on the role of biennials on the continent as points of convergence with similar catalytic affects on experiences of making art in Africa – the possibilities are numerous.
The essayists do note the Anglophone bias, the uneven geographic representation of the continent and that ‘no attempt was made to provide a survey of art-making in Africa’ – positions which are perhaps better unpacked in the context of the Triangle Network and its reach, than under the unwieldy banner of Making Art in Africa 1960 – 2010. An aspect the contributors fail to critique is the role of colonial era influencers in shaping the processes and products of art making in Africa.
In his forward Sir Anthony Caro OM characterises the creativity represented in Making Art in Africa 1960 – 2010 as human nature that ‘flows directly from its source’. For Caro ‘It’s wonderful to be returned to the basic emotion-given from. And we in the West can learn from it’. Within this proclamation Caro upholds a Western Modernist dichotomy between art making in Africa and the West that places the artist in Africa as closer to some natural, untamed source.
This sentiment is felt throughout much of the book as it tends towards privileging mandates that encouraged artists to work from their own internal inspirations, with references to Margaret Trowell or Frank McEwen who ‘in the 1960s, encouraged artists to work in the gallery grounds and follow their natural abilities as sculptors and see where it led.’ McEwen’s directive on art is synonymous with techniques which spread across Anglophone administrations during the colonial period and is explored in detail in Chika Okeke Agulu’s Post-Colonial Modernism, in particular relation to Kenneth Murray’s curriculum in Nigeria. Speaking of the art education programs of Murray in Nigeria and Trowell in Uganda, Agulu explains that ‘[t]ranslated to art pedagogy, adaptation theory meant emphasis on production of traditional art and craft and on the recuperation and reification of “tribal” life…’. While artists taking part in the Triangle Network workshops represent a range of experiences of art education in Africa, its histories lay the ground of an in-depth understanding of art making in Africa between 1960-2010.
Read as a unique insight into the practices of sixty-eight artists and as a means of learning more about the extensive reach of the Triangle Network this book is undoubtedly enriching. When placed within the wider context of art making across the continent it is essential not to loose sight of the layers of influence and power dynamics at play.
Hansi Momodu-Gordon is an independent curator, writer, and producer with recent projects at Autograph ABP and The Showroom (2015), and her book of artist interviews 9 Weeks is published by Stevenson (2016). She has held curatorial positions at the Tate Modern (2011-15), Turner Contemporary (2009-11), and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (2008-09), and published writing on contemporary art with The Walther Collection, Rencontres de Bamako 10th edition, Frieze, and elsewhere.