We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today

Street life, dazzling dress, social commentary and a riot of sensuous colour interweave in a rich assembly of West African art, writes Charles Gore

June 14, 2012


Nyani Quarmyne, We Were Once Three Miles from the Sea 2010–11/Courtesy of the artist

We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today

Three venues in Manchester, until 16 September

We Face Forward is a must-see show of contemporary art from West Africa. The initial plan was to exhibit 13 or 14 artists as Manchester’s contribution to the London 2012 Olympic cultural festival, but the project’s momentum saw the number grow to 33, with the final exhibitor selected from the Dakar Biennale in Senegal just two weeks before the opening. Particular attention has been paid to francophone artists, with Mali well represented despite its current political traumas. The result is an eclectic mix of well-established and newly emergent talents, spread across three venues and offering an up-to-date snapshot of the directions and diversity of creativity across the region.

The four curators have developed three loosely linked themes to underpin the display and guide them in commissioning site-specific works. These are the unequal circulation of goods in and out of West Africa; the impact of the global North on the environments of the region; and, finally, how ongoing traditions of cloth and dress remain expressive resources for contemporary artists. All tie in with Manchester’s urban expansion based on cotton and textile production, much of it exported to West African markets, initially through the triangular transatlantic trade whereby Africans were brutally exported to the plantation economies of the New World to produce the cotton sent to Manchester’s mills. Yet Manchester was also important in the liberation of Africa, with the fifth Pan-African Congress held at its School of Art in 1945. Indeed, the exhibition’s title is taken from a 1960 speech by Kwame Nkrumah (one of the participants in 1945), when he declared that the African states becoming independent “face neither east nor west: we face forward”.

The Whitworth Art Gallery offers the best starting point, with an entrance display of exceptionally fine hand-woven textiles from its own collection, where different weaving traditions underscore the visual complexity of cloth and dress as ongoing media of expression in West Africa. The organisation of the remaining space encourages the viewer to contemplate each artist’s work separately. These range from Beninese artist Georges Adéagbo’s installation of an “archaeology” of found objects of popular music and culture to Nii Obodai’s photographic travels across his Ghanaian homeland that offer poetic glimpses into everyday life outside the cities. These are counterpointed in another room by Romuald Hazoume’s installation (and photographic images) of Beninese travelling on motorbikes loaded with plastic containers carrying petrol that has been smuggled from oil-rich Nigeria.

Also on display at the Whitworth are two exuberant new artists from Nigeria, Victoria Udondian and Lucy Azubuike. Udondian was given a month-long residency to produce a site-specific work that imbricates patches of cloth and yarn from Lagos and Manchester to make a monumental sewn, entwined and enroped hanging consisting of three inlaid panels. Although hailing from southeast Nigeria, she has drawn on southwestern Yoruba indigo resist dyeing techniques (known as adire) that are inserted and fused into the central areas of the work to reflect a sense of place and practice that echoes the expressive freedom found in the Natural Synthesis movement of the 1960s, with its innovative attention to local visual traditions.

Azubuike evokes in her abstract collages the torn, frayed and weathered multiplicity of posters found on any Nigerian street corner. Like the Italian Arte Povera movement, her work has an economy of means that is ignited by flurries of sensuous colour. Both these artists exemplify the turn to local West African materials and cultural resources in the articulation of their art. However, one cannot leave the Whitworth without mentioning Cameroonian Pascale Marthine Tayou’s architectural installation The World Falls Apart. This pays homage to Chinua Achebe’s famous 1958 novel Things Fall Apart tracing the disintegration of an African community in the face of encroachment by Christian missionaries who sweep away its values. Wooden pillars rise up to the ceiling adorned with objects that memorialise both the post-colonial and colonial orders. Nigerian Emeka Ogboh’s soundscape of a Lagos market marshals its sensory overload in adjacent Whitworth Park.

The Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall focuses on personal adornment, displaying work by Duro Olowu, the London-based Nigerian designer favoured by Michelle Obama. His eight dresses weave a range of African textile designs into classic layered British cuts to infuse warmth and vibrancy. These are counterpointed by a room devoted to the 1960s street and studio photography of Malick Sidibé alongside two of his lesser-known Malian colleagues, Hamidou Maiga and Abderramane Sakaly, who offer alternative perspectives on the youthful dynamism and self-confidence of the period around independence in 1960.

Moving on to the Manchester Art Gallery, we start in the foyer with two playful Tayou sculptures and a hanging commission by Malian Aboubakar Fofana of 35 differently toned mud-dyed calligraphic flags that reference West African Arabic cursive script as well as Japanese calligraphy. Upstairs, the display is divided into two rooms with the works facing each other in a dialogue that creates a context strikingly different from the other two venues.

The larger room has a sumptuous wall hanging by El Anatsui (Ghanaian by birth, but now based in Nigeria) forged out of flattened bottletops that are transformed into potent layers of colour and glittering surface that continue the cloth metaphor of the exhibition. Alongside is Malian Abdoulaye Konate’s cloth mural Power and Religion, with its iconography of the crown, the cross and the crescent punctuated by a spotted patterning associated with the sheen of the guinea fowl that is so highly valued throughout West Africa. These face a gauzy blue veil of transformed burlap by El Anatsui’s former student, Nnenna Okore, who grew up in Nigeria. Interposed is Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo’s massive sculpture Redemption, inspired by the Bob Marley song, in which two 5m-high wooden chairs standing for the “South” and “North” face each other, embellished with the poignant detritus of migration and border control.

The second room focuses on sustainability and the environment and is busy with new media. One quirky and delightful animation by Malian Abdoulaye Armin Kane plays with the expectations and seeming disintegration of the West African city, including abrupt and unheralded power cuts. Two Nigerian photographers stand out. Charles Okereke uses reflected rainbow oil sheen pools of water to record the life of impoverished locals living by the Festac Canal in Lagos state. George Osodi’s consummate sequential imagery of the Niger Delta combines documentary with exquisite compositions of form and shape to conjure up the dense mangrove environments in which the conflict over oil extraction takes place. These are complemented by Ghanaian Nyani Quarmyne’s thoughtful images in which figures coolly contemplate the photographer/viewer within a coastal backdrop of buildings silted up with eroded sand that the Atlantic Ocean is inexorably sweeping away.

Every artist makes a worthwhile contribution to an exhibition that heralds a resurgent confidence in West African visual motifs and forms, driven forward by biennales, cultural networks and burgeoning local patronage to forge innovative artistic directions. Indicative of this is the fact that artists such as Quarmyne and Fofana, who have spent lengthy periods outside Africa, have now returned as part of a dynamic that is reminiscent of the heady revolutionary efflorescence of the arts in the early days of independence. The curators of We Face Forward skilfully avoid the facile constraints of geography or identity politics, allowing the artists to confront viewers on their own terms.

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