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African Art and Agency in the Workshop

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The role of the workshop in the creation of African art is the subject of this revelatory book. In the group setting of the workshop, innovation and imitation collide, artists share ideas and techniques, and creative expression flourishes. African Art and Agency in the Workshop examines the variety of workshops, from those which are politically driven or tourist oriented, to those based on historical patronage or allied to current artistic trends. Fifteen lively essays explore the impact of the workshop on the production of artists such as Zimbabwean stone sculptors, master potters from Cameroon, wood carvers from Nigeria, and others from across the continent.

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1. Grace Dieu Mission in South Africa: Defining the Modern Art Workshop in Africa

ePub

Elizabeth Morton

Africa’s first modern art workshop began in the mid-1920s at Grace Dieu Mission near Pietersburg, South Africa. It developed a trademark style of wood carving that won considerable critical acclaim in the 1930s and allowed the school to support and promote South Africa’s first professional black artists. Two of them, Ernest Mancoba and Job Kekana, received contemporary and lasting acclaim. Although the workshop closed abruptly in 1939, its bas-relief style nevertheless became institutionalized elsewhere and is still produced today.

Grace Dieu is notable because it established a pattern that would be repeated in African art workshops for the remainder of the colonial period. The school developed a recognizable and consistent workshop style influenced by the idiosyncratic ideals of a European “founder.” Additionally, the art was created by young peasant men whose training was restricted to a prescribed style. The workshop patrons found at Grace Dieu that it was best to identify a talented and reliable favorite, who could be hired to train the other artists in the desired manner. Finally, we note the emergence of rebel artists, who chafe under the uniformity and other demands of the workshop and who seek to create other forms of art.

 

2. Follow the Wood: Carving and Political Cosmology in oku, Cameroon

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Nicolas Argenti

The . . . mask is made to look like an animal. But it is not an animal; it is a secret.

SEDU TRAORE

(quoted in McNaughton 1988:129)

The kingdom of Oku, made up of three dozen villages spread over the highest peaks of a mountainous landscape, is a hierarchical polity headed by a king (or ∂bfon) and a complex palatine retinue. Within the Grassfields region, Oku is one among several dozen small kingdoms or chiefdoms, each with their own languages and ruling dynasties. Although these polities all share many cultural traits and myths of common origin and ancestry, they have each specialized forms of production for export over the centuries (Warnier 1985), and Oku has become renowned (not only in the region but among museum curators and collectors too) as one of the foremost centers of carving in the region. Although some of the objects produced by its carvers—mainly ceremonial items of palace regalia including the throne-stools of kings—are destined for export within a regional elite sphere of exchange restricted to the ruling elite of the Grassfields, others are used locally by the palace kwifon regulatory society and by Oku lineage elders. Some of the most arresting objects produced by Oku carvers are the masks used by dancing groups both within the kingdom and throughout the Grassfields. These masks represent male elders wearing gigantic interpretations of their characteristic tasseled caps, beautiful young women, and wild forest animals—some of them unidentifiable, all of them as sinister and alarming to bystanders as they are attractive and exciting. The masks (or headdresses, known as “helmet masks” because they are worn on the top of the dancer’s head) are used by the masking groups (k∂kum) of the palace secret societies and the ruling lineages of Oku (Argenti 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007).

 

3. Masters, Trend-makers, and Producers: The Village of Nsei, Cameroon, as a Multisited Pottery Workshop

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Silvia Forni

The village of Nsei is located in the Ndop Plain, a very fertile area about thirty kilometers east of the provincial capital Bamenda, the largest commercial center in the northern Cameroonian Grassfields. Like every other village in this region, Nsei is mainly an agricultural community. According to local customs, women grow the staple foods for family needs (mainly maize, cassava, pumpkins, and green vegetables), while men cultivate cash crops such as coffee and rice, which are sold to local cooperatives that trade these products in national and international markets. Unlike the other villages, Nsei is particularly well known for its rather extensive and eclectic pottery production, which has expanded in scope and volume over the last forty years.

According to historical and archaeological evidence (Warnier and Fowler 1979; Nkwi and Warnier 1982) the Nsei people were established on their present territory by the eighteenth century. Iron, clay pipe heads, ornate vessels, and decorated fiber bags were the main locally produced items that insured Nsei’s regional reputation in the competitive network of exchange characterizing inter-kingdom relations in precolonial times (Fowler 1997). As noted by many scholars, material culture—particularly those items associated at various levels with the male hierarchy that regulates political power—is an essential component of the commercial and competitive relationships among independent Grassfields kingdoms, through which prestige and identity were defined. Thus, the construction of the regional identity is not to be attributed to the common origin of different groups, but is the result of an elaborate system of commercial and symbolic exchanges through which food, utensils, prestige objects, and—in certain cases—institutions and meanings circulated among independent polities.

 

4. An Artist’s Notes on the Triangle Workshops, Zambia and South Africa

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Namubiru Rose Kirumira and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

African contemporary artists are often portrayed as individuals who are caught up in the dynamics of art formation spaces, sociocultural movements, and forces of globalization—as well as new discourses of artistic experience. Workshops in particular have been significant formative spaces in artists’ endeavors to become versatile in a globalizing environment (Deliss 1995; Kirumira 2008; Sanyal 2002). It is worth observing that several types of workshops that include long-term (three-month) residencies, short-term (two-week) workshops, and symposia have existed in Africa for some time; many were begun by colonial patrons. Publications such as catalogs produced by the Triangle Art Trust, and articles by Court (1992) and Richards (1998) have given varied, if limited, accounts of the status of art workshops in Africa.

Murray, Picton, and Loder (2005) argue that the condition of being an artist in Africa is a condition of continuous transition. In the same vein, for over fifty years, African workshops have presented themselves in a continuous transition from artist’s colonies, communities, and craft villages to international workshops. A revealing example of what has changed in the African workshop scenario since 1985 is the introduction and spread of the so-called Triangle Workshops, originated by the British art collector and entrepreneur Robert Loder and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro in 1982. The initial triangle was the familiar one of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom; but three years later the first African Triangle Workshop, Thupelo, was organized in South Africa by artists David Koloane and Bill Ainslie.

 

5. Stitched-up Women, Pinned-down Men: Gender Politics in Weya and Mapula Needlework, Zimbabwe and South Africa

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Brenda Schmahmann

Husbands would help us if they feel pity, but sometimes they don’t [feel pity]. And what makes you see they don’t is that you are pregnant and have a child on your back and are going out fetching firewood and the man does not help.

I became pregnant again [for the third time] in 1988. My husband was working at that time but then he got arrested and was jailed for two years for some reason. That is when our suffering increased enormously. After his return from custody, I got pregnant with our fourth child, who was born in June 1990. In 1992 my husband was jailed again for some reason. Then I got a job but my salary was not enough for me to pay school fees.

The first of these passages quotes Charity Mugala, who was living in Weya—a communal area (formerly known as a Tribal Trust Land) about 170 kilometers east of Harare in Zimbabwe—in the mid 1990s (Mugala, interview by Brenda Schmahmann, October 27, 2006, Weya). The second—dating to 2001—is by Julia Makwana, a resident of the Winterveld, a peri-urban area about 40 kilometers northwest of Pretoria in South Africa.1 Although the context and cultural frameworks of these commentators may be different, both women construct scenarios in which support is not forthcoming from a husband, whether through reluctance or absence, and a female is thus forced to undertake all domestic labour or single-handedly generate earnings necessary to sustain herself and her children.

 

6. Rethinking Mbari Mbayo: osogbo Workshops in the 1960s, Nigeria

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Chika Okeke-Agulu

On the contrary, no experience that is interpreted or reflected on can be characterized as immediate, just as no critic or interpreter can be entirely believed if he or she claims to have achieved an Archimedean perspective that is subject neither to history nor to a social setting.

EDWARD W. SAID (1993:32)

The Osogbo group of artists, particularly those identified with the Mbari Mbayo Club and summer schools and art workshops between 1962 and 1966, has been compared with other contemporary workshop-trained artists elsewhere in Africa. Often their work has been treated as direct products of the colonial or romantic imaginations of European teachers. However, critics have questioned the cultural authenticity of such work—produced, as it was, under the influence of primitivist European teachers. These positions presuppose the gullibility, even naïveté, of the workshop-trained artists; the cunning, imperialist ideas of their European teachers; and a skewed, unequal power relationship between the semiliterate African student and the European teacher.1 Put simply, they raise questions about the authenticity of the work produced by these artists and, related to this, the pedagogical and thus power relationship between the European workshop masters and their African students. I am equally interested in these issues, but not along the same lines as previous commentators on the work Osogbo artists. Whereas most observers see another familiar story echoed in other workshops elsewhere on the continent, I argue that Osogbo was a trans-genre phenomenon in which the person and creative vision of Duro Ladipo loomed large in previously unacknowledged ways. Ladipo’s contribution to the making of Mbari Mbayo was not only fundamental but also significantly placed it outside the horizon of one single disciplinary domain. In other words, Osogbo’s uniqueness, it seems to me, lies in its production, through individual and collective work of those involved in it, a veritable Gesamtkunstwerk in the Wagnerian sense, which ultimately calls for a closer examination of how this might dislodge assumptions about the work produced by the artists, their relationship with their so-called teachers, and the nature and vectors of influences and ideas within the collective.

 

7. Working on the Small Difference: Notes on the Making of Sculpture in Tengenenge, Zimbabwe

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Christine Scherer

The entrance to the village of Tengenenge at the beginning of the year 2000 was marked by a huge bird sculpted of stone. A few meters farther down the dusty road, one sees the first sculptures on wooden plinths. As soon as the eyes become adjusted to the dancing shadows of the trees, more and more stone sculptures become visible to the visitor. Only at a second glance do the shadows among the trees reveal the mass of Objects—seemingly hundreds of them. Later, the visually overwhelmed visitor is informed that there are thousands.

The way of life in Tengenenge seems to be similar to the way of life in the surrounding villages. Daily life takes place outside, where the artists also have their workplace. Clothes are washed in plastic tubs and dried on washing lines between the trees around the huts, which are mostly built in the traditional shape—but some are decorated with murals. Visitors are guided by the pleasant smells of cooking, and often a friendly villager invites the stranger to try traditional sadza. Tengenenge has electric power at its disposal. This becomes evident at the latest when Alice Musarara, one of the renowned female sculptors of Tengenenge, invites customers for a Coke from her refrigerator. Between the huts the children play leapfrog, or chase the poor chickens, unless an adult stops them with a stern voice. For visitors, the village provides a guesthouse and a showroom, to which one is led by a crowd of children.

 

8. Navigating Nairobi: Artists in a Workshop System, Kenya

ePub

Jessica Gerschultz

Governing Nairobi’s contemporary art scene is a complex web of relationships among artists. These relationships are formulated and sustained through the dynamic workshop system underlying production and exhibition. In this system, multiple levels of workshops act as the key unifier, bringing various individuals together to share materials, create, critique, and exhibit. Although individual workshops in Kenya have been discussed (Picton et al. 2002; Kasfir 1999; Burnet et al. 1999:15–18; Nyachae 1995), no attempt has been made to present Nairobi’s workshop network as a fluid system that allows artists to develop and sustain relationships beyond a particular studio space or moment in time. This system fosters relationships among artists and between artists and other social actors, such as children participating in artist-led workshops in community spaces. The oversight in the literature occurs because of the term’s limited connotations. In order to better understand the social networking at the heart of Nairobi’s art infrastructure, it is first necessary to reexamine what the term “workshop” implies and to whom. It is then constructive to outline the configuration of this system in order to consider how it shapes and is shaped by artists’ relationships. I will also discuss its relevance to artists’ conceptions of how knowledge, specifically technical and organizational knowledge, is disseminated. By reevaluating the workshop in this particular context, I will show that workshops comprise a navigable system in which artists develop professionally, relying on each other for training and support. I will demonstrate the centrality of this system and its impact on artists’ modes of working by tracing the career paths of several Nairobi artists who are representative of the wider grouping of workshop-affiliated artists. I will also underline how the workshop system intersects with wider audiences in Nairobi.

 

9. Lewanika’s Workshop and the Vision of Lozi Arts, Zambia

ePub

Karen E. Milbourne

In 1995, two works of art were selected to represent a Lozi cultural identity at the Royal Academy’s renowned exhibition Africa: Art of a Continent.1 The controversial exhibition was ambitious in its efforts to envision a continent. Through the selection of approximately eight hundred works of art, an idea of the African continent was given a material form. As Brian Wallis wrote in relation to the 1990 exhibition Mexico: A Work of Art, “Of all the ways to constitute a nation, this one—the nation as a work of art—is perhaps the most audacious” (Wallis 1994:265). The organizers at the Royal Academy were audacious, indeed, for they attempted to envision not one, but a selection of all historic nations that make up the African continent. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary untold stories included in this enterprise, however, is that of an under-recognized African king who audaciously utilized the power of art to envision his nation, Barotseland (now Western Province, Zambia), a century earlier.

 

10. Artesãos da Nossa Pátria: Makonde Blackwood Sculptors, Cooperatives, and the Art of Socialist Revolution in Postcolonial Mozambique

ePub

Alexander Bortolot

On a sunny day in northern Mozambique in 1973, the British journalist Iain Christie interviewed Samora Machel, the political and military commander of FRELIMO, or the Mozambican Liberation Front, and future president of Mozambique. Christie had come to the northern province of Cabo Delgado to write about FRELIMO’s “liberated zones,” areas where the political movement’s armed rebellion had largely pushed out the Portuguese and established autonomous territories in anticipation of eventual national liberation. A declared Marxist-Leninist vanguard party, FRELIMO intellectuals in Tanzania had early on adopted socialism as an alternative to both the capitalist colonialism of the Portuguese overseas empire and what it termed the “feudal tribalism” of precolonial societies. When war broke out in 1964, Machel and the party leadership sought to erect a new society within its liberated zones based in a materialist dialectic of class struggle and collective production.

 

11. Frank McEwen and Joram Mariga: Patron and Artist in the Rhodesian Workshop School Setting, Zimbabwe

ePub

Elizabeth Morton

The Rhodesian Workshop School, in existence from the late 1950s until 1973, is one of the best-known African workshops. Its key patron, the British-born aesthete Frank McEwen, is a prominent figure in African art history who has been credited with spurring the growth of stone sculpture in Zimbabwe. With a host of talented artists—such as Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Joseph Ndandarika, Sylvester Mubayi, Henry Munyaradzi, and Joram Mariga—McEwen was able to mount successful international exhibitions in Paris, London, New York, and elsewhere. McEwen’s departure from Rhodesia in 1973 (combined with the war of independence in the 1970s) left stone sculpture moribund for some years, nevertheless the workshop artists and their successors regained their momentum in the 1980s and 1990s. For the last twenty years Zimbabwean sculptors have ranked among the finest in the world.

Although there is a considerable body of work dealing with McEwen and his workshop, most notably Ben Joosten’s recent monograph (2001), surprisingly little has been written about the dynamics of the Rhodesian Workshop School. In fact, most of the scholars investigating the material have relied heavily on McEwen’s own descriptions and have not looked beneath the surface to examine the relationships among McEwen and his artists. The result is that they have depended on his chronology as well as his version of events, both of which are not entirely accurate in many cases. An often tense dialectic ran through the workshop. On the one hand there were McEwen’s expectations of what kind of people his artists should be and how they should carve. From the artists’ perspective, the problem was how to obtain McEwen’s support even if they did not fit into his preferred profile.

 

12. “A Matter of Must”: Continuities and Change in the Adugbologe Woodcarving Workshop in Abeokuta, Nigeria

ePub

Norma H. Wolff

In the 1970s, the Adugbologe kin-based workshop located in the family compound in the Egba Yoruba city of Abeokuta was the site of a remarkable and successful family craft industry. The woodcarvers of Adugbologe Compound had catered to the needs of the local community for over a century. Whereas in the past the Adugbologe carvers supplied sculpture for prestige and ritual needs of the indigenous community, in the mid-twentieth century they had expanded their market to a new audience and turned to commodity carving for trade. They sold their products primarily to traders who provided souvenirs to tourists and expatriates, but a handful of family carvers continued to produce for local and prestige needs. The overlap of these traditionally enculturated carvers with those who chose to carve primarily from economic motivations ensured that no drastic changes in formal attributes and subject matter took place in the carvings produced. As an arena of action the Adugbologe Compound workshop encouraged the carvers’ sense of family heritage and their daily exposure to each others’ work favored a more closed mode of imagination reflected in their adherence to the family style. However, changes in production and product were evident. My day-to-day observations from 1972 to 1974 suggest that decision making leading to conscious changes in their products that took them further away from the Adugbologe prototypes was primarily the result of interactions with patrons.1

 

13. Work and Workshop: The Iteration of Style and Genre in Two Workshop Settings, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon

ePub

Till Förster

Workshops offer a unique occasion to observe and document how cultural knowledge on art is reproduced. They bring masters and apprentices, teachers and pupils, and also artists of the same status together—and, thus, provide opportunities to learn from each other, to develop a shared style, or to distinguish the members as a group from other artists. Even within one society, workshops as a setting of learning and exchange often differ significantly and lead, through their different organization and the modes of communication that this organization fosters, to more or less homogeneity in the artistic expression of the member artists. By the same means, workshops may become visible as groups or as individual artists, as many examples from Western as well as non-Western art history show. The many varieties of workshops thus call for a comparative analysis of how the particular organization of a workshop affects the modes of cooperation and communication among its members and how this translates into particular modes of art production as they become visible in a recognizable style and genre. The questions that arise from this short reflection on the significance of workshops for the understanding of the production of art are, however, an empirical challenge. One must first broaden the understanding of terms as cooperation and communication because of the specificities of art and handwork. What happens in a workshop may be easy to observe but it is usually not part of propositional knowledge—that is, artists very often will not want to explain or put in words what they are doing and how they actually cooperate and learn from each other. Any analysis of work in a workshop thus needs a thorough methodological toolkit to describe and conceptualize how artists work, how they cooperate, how they learn their skills and how they develop a nonverbal understanding of what they do. Such a focus is best developed through a study of different workshops, as I will try to show in this article by comparing sculptors’ workshops of the rural Senufo in northern Côte d’Ivoire with painters’ workshops in urban Bamenda, Cameroon.

 

14. Apprentices and Entrepreneurs: The Workshop and Style Uniformity in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

One of the major questions in African art scholarship concerns the degree to which the African artist was and is free to invent. Despite the early insights of Boas (1955[1927]:155) and his followers concerning artistic invention in oral cultures, the accepted picture until recently was that of the African artist as slave to tradition. He could not innovate because the pressures of traditional patronage forbade it. Since that time, numerous field researchers have shown that innovation can and does occur when the conditions are favorable. During the same period, the documentation of African art has expanded dramatically, and with it has come confirmation that the old “one tribe, one style” model fails to describe the stylistic diversity found in most art-producing African cultures (Kasfir 1984). We are, therefore, at a point where everyone recognizes that style varies from artist to artist as well as over time, even in quite highly structured and conservative societies. But how do these variations arise? And, more important, why do they occur much more often in some societies than in others? The purpose of this chapter is to examine the dynamics through which an artist’s personal style is encoded along with the limitations placed upon stylistic change. Although I will make less mention of it, most of the arguments hold true for iconography as well, simply because the two are often inseparable. I will focus on two major aspects of the question: the way in which the artist acquires a style, and the effects of patronage on his ability to change it. In doing so I am faced with a methodological dilemma: to generalize is to invite oversimplification of very complex creative processes, but to maintain that because every African culture is unique, it is not susceptible to comparative analysis is to reinforce stereotypical ideas concerning the lack of any common ground between creativity in literate and in oral cultures. Because of this problem, I have found it useful to compare some of the findings of other researchers with my own answers to these questions. As more documentation becomes available, these comparisons become increasingly valid.

 

CODA: Apprentices and Entrepreneurs Revisited: Twenty Years of Workshop Changes, 1987–2007

ePub

Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

The original version of chapter 14 was prepared for a graduate seminar taught by John Picton at the School of Oriental and African Studies. It was further developed several years later for “The Artist and the Workshop in Traditional Africa,” a conference organized by Christopher Roy in 1985, and appeared in the 1987 The Artist and the Workshop in Traditional Africa as “Apprentices and Entrepreneurs: The Workshop and Style Uniformity in Subsaharan Africa.” It included comparisons of training and innovation among Akweya, Idoma, Ebira, Tiv, Kalabari, Dogon, Dan, Gola, Kulibele-Senufo, Maconde or Makonde, Yoruba, and Annang or Ibibio sculptors. The first five were chosen as examples of woodcarvers who learned their techniques and styles informally, without serving as apprentices to master carvers. The last seven went through apprenticeship systems of various kinds and were therefore trained by experienced members of their profession; some of these artists went on to set up their own individual practices, others were expected to join the kin- or ethnicity-based workshops or cooperatives where they apprenticed.

 

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