The African artists shape our view of the continent

A giant female figure rises from a pile of rubbish: artworks made from rubbish at a landfill
“Untitled #1” (2013) by Fabrice Monterio © Fabrice Monteiro/INSTITUTE

As I write this column, I am preparing to travel to Sharjah to see the art at the Sharjah Biennial. One of the things I love about art is how it can challenge our perspectives and invite us to reflect on our allegiances, belief systems and actions. We live in a world that has historically placed Western systems of knowledge above non-Western, traditional or indigenous understandings. But we can learn a lot by engaging with art that disparages Western systems of belief and knowledge.

Many West African cosmologies share a variation on the idea that the earth and natural world are sacred and should receive special reverence from humans. The prophecy is a photo series by the Beninese-Belgian photographer Fabrice Monteiro, which he began in Senegal in 2013. “Untitled #1” is one of several images of mythological-like figures made from pieces of garbage and transformed into living, walking allegories of the ecological and environmental crises in Senegal, including water pollution and plastic waste.

In this work, a giant female figure rises from a pile of rubbish like a towering deity about to pass judgment on humanity. She stands over an ominous landscape, thick bushes interspersed with carpets of garbage and smoldering smoke. Influenced by the Greek myth of Gaia, Monteiro created a tale that a weary Mother Earth sent her spirit children to prophesy to humanity the consequences of their dealings with nature. Inherent in these warnings is the idea that human behavior toward the rest of creation is in part the result of a broken relationship between the two, and our human inability to recognize any life force other than our own.

Monteiro was also inspired by West African masquerades. Looking at his work brought me back to a memory from my childhood when my family lived in Nigeria. It was a season for masquerades. At some point during the day, larger-than-life, totem-like figures wearing masks and streams of raffia began to parade the streets, roaring, banging instruments and dancing in elaborate, colorful costumes – extraordinary even in the vast landscape of My Childhood Imagination. I was afraid of these figures because I didn’t believe they were human.

In my own Igbo tradition, many masquerades are representative of a relationship between the spirit and the human world, meaning that ancestors and those in the spirit world become invested in what we humans do. Although I didn’t fully understand it or have the language to express it, I knew that this spectacle was symbolic of the fluid boundaries between the mundane and the transcendent. I’ve never had trouble believing in a thin line between earthly and spiritual realities.

Monteiro’s work also draws on elements of animism, most notably the belief that humans are not the only ones possessing a vital energy or spiritual essence. Whatever we may think of this idea, the way we approach creation could be significantly affected if we were open to the possibility that rivers, lakes, oceans, plants, trees, mountains and other animals have the potential to possess an aspect of a soul and that a spirit world existed, grieving at the broken relationship between humanity and the rest of creation.

The 53-year-old Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor has been working on plays that speak of the collision of African and Western cultures for years. Born in Edo State, whose capital is Benin City, Ehikhamenor grew up with both his grandfather’s traditional religious beliefs and the Catholic beliefs of his school days. Still Standing (2022) is a 12ft mixed media image of Oba Ovonramwen, ruler of the Kingdom of Benin who went into exile after the destruction and sack of Benin City by British forces in 1897. The Oba’s traditional robe, headdress and accessories were crafted from thousands of orange, red and white rosaries in Ehikhamenor’s workshop in Lagos. Miniature Benin bronze masks hang from the dress, a nod to the British theft of these valuable cultural and religious artifacts; the artist cast them in Benin using traditional bronze casters. The background consists of thousands of white rosaries that glow in the dark.

a 12ft mixed media image of Oba Ovonramwen

Still Standing (2022) by Victor Ehikhamenor © Courtesy the artist

Works like “Still Standing” aim to open a dialogue about how African cultural and religious knowledge was influenced by the colonial project. Commissioned as part of a series asking artists to respond to memorials at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the work was commissioned alongside the commemorative brass of Harry Rawson, the British admiral who led the 1897 Benin Expedition, displayed. It has now been acquired by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which last year agreed in principle to return its own collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

In “The world is not what it is but what happens,” the 34-year-old Mozambican artist Cassi Namoda paints an almost folkloric image of a small trail of people moving along a shapeless waterscape, united by the effort of carrying a large, thick cloth. In front of a winding, tangerine-colored mountain range, the figures seem to float across the canvas. The clouds are swathes of coral, caramel, soft pink and sky blue. A tiny crimson moon hangs from the upper right corner of the frame. In the lower half, on the right, there is a faint outline of a ladder in the water; perhaps a portal to another realm, an underworld open to traversal of beings between different realities.

Some of Namoda’s works are inspired by the Kenyan philosopher, theologian and writer John Mbiti, an ordained Anglican priest. In his landmark 1969 book African religions and philosophyhe suggested that traditional African religious ideas should be given the same level of respect as other global faiths (although he has been criticized by some for applying a Christian worldview to African cosmologies).

Mbiti also posited a uniquely African understanding of time characterized by two distinct time periods, the Sasa and the Zamani. The Sasa period includes the present and the recent past; The Zamani period includes the distant past and an immeasurable past. According to his book, when a person dies, they remain in the Sasa period until the last person who can remember the deceased also dies. Then the person is considered to be in the Zamani period.

Looking at Namoda’s painting with this concept in mind, I see a lineage of people literally connected by a fabric of time. Those at the back carry the events of the past and recognize how they affect how the people at the front exist in the present. The two people at the front are covered and immersed in the vastness of the present as they move toward a future no one can see.

a small trail of people moving along a shapeless waterscape, united by the effort of carrying a large, thick cloth

“The world is not what exists, but what happens” (2022) by Cassi Namoda © Courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

I think it’s a gift to be open to believing that the way we live our lives in the present can be heavily shaped by patterns and behaviors from our ancestors’ past, suggesting that we inherit more than just physical attributes from those who came before us. It can be encouraging to consider that some of our ways of behaving or living in the world were inherited from our ancestors and provide an opportunity for unlearning and relearning as we make our way through the world.

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