Thursday, May 25, 2006

Grek from the Republic of Benin

b.1974 - Present
Image by Joe Pollitt
Grek from the Republic of Benin
b.1974 - Present
Image by Joe Pollitt

Grek | Anagossi Gratien

Grek is an exciting young talented artist from West Africa, now living in the the Republic of Benin. Originally, from the Republic of Togo, he moved to neighbouring Benin in his teens and now works as an artist in the port of Cotonou. Previously, he has been commissioned by the French Cultural Centre in Cotonou and most recently, set-up a design group in the port of Cotonou.

His work is similar to Alberto Burni and Antoni Tapies of the Art Informel Movement of the 1950`s but I believe this is more by accident rather than design. I use the term Art Informel from the French informe, meaning unformed or formless to refer to the antigeometric, antinaturalistic, and nonfigurative formal preoccupations which is so obvious in Grek`s work, stressing his pursuit for spontaneity, looseness of form, and the irrational. His work is pushing forward new ideas of seeing and using whatever materials are closest at hand. His work is extensively about the plight of the empoverished and his inventive techniques of leaving painted canvas' in the sun for weeks on end is extremely effective and inventive. The end product is a painting that looks like it`s about to fall to pieces, which is purposefully symbolic in the way he chooses to reflect his own economic and social condition.

On the image to the left | L'Homme Malheureux or the Unhappy Man, on the left-hand corner one can just make out a part of a shirt with a corey shell falling out the pocket. When I came to ask Grek what was the significance of the shirt Grek just told me it had a previous owner; an artist in Burkina Faso; but the artists took exception to his work so in return Grek took exception to the man's shirt and now the arguement is over. His shirt now part of his work and if he thinks it's shit then maybe he should reconsider where he buys his shirts. Perfect! The corey shell is symbolic of fame and fortune and is clearly falling out the pocket.

Grek`s work leans towards the gestural and expressive, with repetitive anticompositional formats related to Abstract Expressionism. If ever there was an artist who represented African modernity it is Grek.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Nesbert Mukomberanwa

Nesbert Mukomberanwa was born in 1969 in Buhera, in Masvingo province, Zimbabwe. He began to sculpt in 1987 working as an apprentice for his uncle, Nicholas Mukomberanwa, arguably the greatest Zimbabwean sculptor ever and one of the most internationally respected artists of the 'Shona Sculpture' movement, and was a most prestigious teacher.

By 1989, Nesbert left his apprenticeship and established his own workshop at home in Chitungwiza. There he worked for nearly a decade, developing his own distinctive style yet at the same maintaining the Mukomberanwa attention to detail and pursuit for perfection. Each piece is meticulously worked and finished, a technique seen in all the work of the Mukomberanwa family. In 1998, Nesbert relocated to the village of Dema, south of Chitungwiza. In the tranquillity of the bush, he is finally free to concentrate fully on his art. He has created the 'Village Gallery', where promising young sculptors train in his workshop and pieces are displayed in the gallery and gardens. Being a strong believer in helping other talented artists to prominence, Nesbert also shows works by selected Chitungwiza-based artists in his gallery.

Over the years Nesbert has gained international recognition with recent group exhibitions held in the Netherlands (2001), Switzerland (2002), UK (2002) and USA | Memphis, Tn in April/May 2003. Nesbert is one of Zimbabwe's leading artist's and one of the worlds most exciting sculptors.

The Composer

Measurements: 32" Tall

Nesbert Mukomberanwa's "Composer" is dazzling, unique and commands attention. The lines are part of a new wave of modern sculpture. The piece has a wonderfully simple contemporary design of a single note but it is much more. The rough with the smooth, how symbolic. The true vision of an artist/a composer.

The piece is sculpted out of Springstone, which is one of the hardest and heaviest stones found in Zimbabwe. Through this work Nesbert has taken his talent to new heights and set the bar at an all time high. This piece brilliantly combines texture with a contemporary design creating an exquisite interpretation of a "Composer."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

African Painters

I been working on this project for nearly a decade now but Africa is merely an abstract idea. Imagine a continent that holds the entire human race. Who wouldn’t have an opinion? Who wouldn’t want to say how things should be done? Regardless of being black, white or brown everybody is interested in the development of Africa. It seems to hit a key-note with the world. Who could possibly charter all the events happening on this immense continent. The artists living, dying and yet to be born? Africa’s contemporary has yet to be defined. Where does it starts and ends? Which country started first? What I hated to hear was that world famous artists were and are dying drunkards’, facedown in the still muddy streets they have tried to develop. I just wanted to take on this mammoth task because of those that I would meet along the way. Jack Mapanje, Ibrahim El Salahi, Iba N’Diaye and his wife Francine Ronald Jung and wife Doris over in Germany. Soly Cisse and N’Dary Lo in a bar in Brussels Elisabeth at the October Gallery, not to mention the King of Africa, Charly D’Almeida from the Republic of Benin and the Queen Suzanne Ouedraogo from Burkina Faso. The best I can do is pass on an opinion and try and start the ball rolling in the right direction.

My introduction into this arena of "Art of a Continent" was greeted with great applause and warm welcome but before too long those that where interested in me soon realised that I wasn’t a millionaire businessman or part of the British Council or UK Arts Fund and in fact I was just another Joe. In doing research over the past decade I have come to realise numerous people have given this idea a good go but unfortunately have failed dismally. This is not for want of trying but this is a project not for the faint hearted. Barriers have been set up. It becomes more obvious the more you wade in. You can feel all around you a comfortable sense of pure failure. Misery and despair a constant. After all Africa is seen as a charity. Charity Africa.

I put on a show in Brixton, “Living with Voodoo” – probably one of the best shows never seen in the United Kingdom. The Exhibition was about the importance of mysticism to those living in West Africa with works by Suzanne, Charly, Grek, Emmanuel Kavi - beaded work by JB and painted plywood by Twins Seven Seven from the Oshogobo school. Black and white photography, on the ceremonies in Republic of Benin by me, Joe Pollitt. I was keen to share the experiences I had had in the Republic of Benin with the healing herbs but my path was full of barriers. The Voice gave me a no show and The Guardian, Standard and Time Out…well for them it was all too far out. BBC London Radio rang me on the last night of the month long exhibition. In the studio was the Metropolitan Police Inspector on the Adam - Torso in the Thames - case…what possible chance did I have…? Why I was so keen to put this exhibition on was that the herbs of the Republic of Benin had reduced the tumours in my neck. Having and still having Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma - a Cancer of sorts - I travelled with my growing tumours to a land of healing. I thought the world would be interested in traditional values and the herbs of West Africa but I suppose it really was asking too much. Looking back I see Africa as a journey of immense self-discovery and best taken alone.

A few weeks later I remember vividly going into Bonhams in Knightsbridge in 2003 and discussing contemporary African art with the sales girl. I wont mention her name. I was so excited about talking and showing the art of Suzanne Ouedraogo, a wonderful artist from Burkina Faso whose work focus’ on the issues surrounding women of West Africa. Suzanne is one of the most important female figures in West African art circles but to Bonhams she was a nobody.

“African art!?…Weee could organise a Charity Auction, I suppose. There’s really no interest in African art, you see.” Came the spluttering blurb of this blond-haired upper class twit. To which, I quickly responded, “Africa doesn’t need Charity she needs, ‘Respect’. We need to support women like Suzanne in the world otherwise what good is the art that is actually being produced on this troubled Continent, if all we see is the censored versions of the truth. What is shown is the sponsored commercial junk art being produced mainly outside of Africa."

Disappointed and rejected, I left Bonhams that evening and the very next day I started building the African Painters website.

No interest in Africa! No interest in the creation of contemporary societies in 53 different countries? This is not a niche market place, in fact the African Art Market should be the majority in the World Art Market. No wonder there are so many barriers to entry! This is the emerging Art Market. To ignore it would be foolish. To embrace it would be advisable.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Truely, Madly, Deeply Modern | Godfried Donkor

Born in 1964 in Kumasi, Ghana, Godfried Donkor moved to the UK at the age of 8. Today he is a prominent force and one of the leading lights within the British art world. I caught up with him at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery in Greenwich last week at an Exhibition entitled “Looking Both Ways”.

Presently, Godfried is showing a Video Installation entitled, “Jamestown Masquerade”.

The installation is set in Jamestown, which is the old British Colonial port in Ghana’s capital, Accra. The video is densely layered and the work includes imaginative African custom design coupled with elaborate Venetian mask work. The mask wearing models are juxtaposed and set against a crumbling African port, which could be describes as a futuristic environment for the world at large. The video captures a strong sense of our troubled time in history and warns of a possible fragile future. Godfried’s recent work focus’ on the fusion of opposing cultures, what he refers to as “Creolization”, which is in effect is a renaissance of a new visual language | a brand new visual culture.

A series of hand printed colour stills accompany the Video Installation.

On meeting Godfried, one is initially struck at the pace in which he has to work. Few, if any, contemporary London artists are under such exigent pressures. The demand to show his works Internationally is constantly increasing. The global interest and appetite for contemporary black British artists is almost insatiable, especially after the successes of artists such as Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare. Donkor is seemingly unfazed by this relatively new phenomenon and determined that his work will not be affected by this sudden perverse attention. Although he did jokingly mention that he was off to the Zoo for some fresh fertilizer.

“It is merely a distraction from the work being produced. I want to bide my time and ensure that those viewing my work see me as an International artist opposed to a potential gold mine and simply branded, the elusive Black artist. This new development in Contemporary art circles is viewed as a dangerous form of censorship and often prominent artists are ruined by Collectors who simply buy the artist’s silence.”

Similar to his counterparts Godfried Donkor comes from a stable of impressive St Martins College artists from the mid 1980’s and has extensively exhibited in Cuba, Mexico, America, Spain and the Venice Biennale. In 1998, when invited to Senegal, he was included in the Dak’Art Festival. Godfried was award first prize | Best International Artist at the Festival.

With such successes under his belt today Godfried’s work exudes confidence and his calm, methodical modernist approach is derives from his interest in the modern literature rather than art, with the influences of playwrights and writers such as Pushkin , Beckett and Pinter. Drawing on aspects of time and endurance of the mundane and the omnipresent inequality of life in Britain, which is a prominent feature in Godfried’s dark edgy Brixton.

Recently, Godfried worked on a series of four life-sized - 6ft canvases entitled “Boxers”. The work was produced in his studio in South London in 2005 – Oil on canvas and meticulously painted over a 12-month period. All the intricate details of the FT Index background were carefully and patiently hand-painted. Drawing again on the juxtaposition - this continual theme of the clash of two opposing forces once again – The FT, the global icon of established Britain and the bloody, broken-nosed boxer of the exploited black creates a highbred full-caste – again a “Creolization”.

The works can be interpreted as a pictorial Annual Report but something is not quite right…..! All 4 quarterly reports are overshadowed by an aggressive black boxer, which decisively makes the viewer understandably nervous and uncomfortable these life-size canvases each make similar commentary of today’s growing Global economies and the perennial repetitive division between the Developed and Developing Worlds. The boxers shown on the canvas have an overly obvious reference to violence inherent in society and this point is laboured over the 4 works, effectively mirroring the theatrical influence of Modernism. Godfried’s work is similar to an alchemist’s and his process is thorough and extensive. The process involves constantly boiling the argument down and the end result is purposefully overly simplifying the subject matter allowing the audience to visualise the bastardised core. There is a comfortable confidence on the finished canvases.

Image: Jamestown Masquarade by Godfried Donkor
Author: Joe Pollitt

Ibrahim El Salahi | The Inevitable

The Inevitable by Ibrahim El Salahi 1984-1985 | 9 panels total: 530.86 x 604.52 cm

What Constitutes A Modern African Masterpiece | The Inevitable by Ibrahim El Salahi

Ibrahim El Salahi, the picture maker, was born in 1930 in Omdurman, in the Sudan. He is best known as the pioneer of modern African art.

It was in 1975, when working as the Cultural Minister he was betrayed and accused by the military dictator General Nimieri, of conducting anti-government activities. He was imprisoned for six months without trial. Whilst serving time in prison he had asked the guard for some paper and a pen in order to write letters, draw and occupy his creative mind. He remembers his warden laughing and muttering “Pencils…paper…you’re not in New York now Ibrahim!”

The conditions in a Sudanese prison are unimaginable. There are no beds for inmates, who have to make do with shoes for makeshift pillows. A death sentence in a Sudanese prison is on average 3 years as most inmates die either of TB, Aids or Cerebral Meningitis. The same is true today as it was back in 1975.

When confined to his cell one of the inmates had given Ibrahim a sharpened toothbrush end and suggested he used it as a pencil in the sand, while in the exercise yard. By Ibrahim’s account, the inmates were let out of their cells 3 times in a day. Firstly, around 5.30am to take porridge, served up in dirty tin buckets, then again at 10.00am for exercise for about 25 minutes and finally at 1.30pm for their evening meal. The only way an inmate could determine the time was through the traditional Muslim call for prayer. The call for prayer was routinely conducted five times daily and this gave the inmates a sense of structure, sanity and normality.

Ibrahim explained that he would use the 25 exercise minutes to sketch out ideas for a huge painting. Every day he would sit quietly on the concrete floor in his grubby cell thinking intensely about his new artwork. He couldn’t wait until the 25 minutes came around each day when finally he could return to his work: sketching secretly in the sand. It soon became clear to the other inmates that Ibrahim was a man of culture and out of respect for his position and standing they would proudly keep watch and ensure the guards didn’t catch him hard at work. He was often given a tap on the shoulder and when tapped would quickly scrub out the day’s sketch and bury the sharpened instrument deep in the grubby sand. Daily he would make a strong mental note of where he had buried his sharpened toothbrush and, like a devoted husband to his patient awaiting wife, would habitually revisit the specific spot punctually the following day. As the 25 minutes were up the inmates were all ushered back to their cells and once again, Ibrahim was given another 23 hours to think on the development of his masterpiece. This continued for six long months. By the end of his stay he had created a huge mental sketchbook. After being released from prison he wasted no time in re-establishing his links with the UK and quickly left the Sudan. He soon gained a respectable position as the Cultural Minister for Sudan in Qatar in the Oman and frequently travelled between the Middle East and the UK.

Ten years later, having never forgotten his Government’s betrayal and his time caged in prison, he decided to exercise his thoughts sketched out on the exercise yard in the sullied prison sand. The painting was to be on nine separate panels. The panels were to be broken up in a specific way in order to reflect the time spent incarcerated.

The Sudanese gained independence from the British in January 1, 1956 only to be plunged into a brutal civil war between rival factions from the North and the South this was Sudan’s first civil war 1956-72. In 1969 General Nimieri gained ultimate power through a military coup and after 21 years and to Ibrahim’s delight, Nimieri was finally overthrown in 1985. His painting is a celebration and recognition of the determination of all those who suffered within these years under horrendous tyrannical rule.

Never has there been a better time to show the world, “The Inevitable” by Ibrahim El Salahi. These nine panels of artwork are Africa’s, “Guernica”, a testimony of war and revolution, which raises the global consciousness about the imminent threat of dictatorship and civil unrest. From it’s creation, “The Inevitable”, has been housed in its temporary home at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, NY, though it makes frequent trips abroad but the one place it never goes is the Sudan. Ibrahim has always maintained that the Sudanese people should own the 9-panelled Masterpiece, yet he refuses to allow the painting to travel to the Sudan until the country enjoys, public liberties and democratic institutions.

Speculations as to the exact meaning of the anguished images are as numerous and diverse as the people who have viewed the panels. “The Inevitable”, challenges the notion of warfare and depicts the chaotic, exposing the brutal acts of destruction and genocide. It is a testimony of Ibrahim’s art that the symbols chosen hold many, often paradoxical meanings yet the meticulous significance of the imagery remains ambiguous. Never before has an African artist made such a social statement, which has echoed the sentiments of an entire Nation and is as relevant today as it was in 1984/85. The panels are extremely powerful with determined lines. The western distinction between painting and drawing is irrelevant and as Ibrahim says: “There is no painting without drawing and no form without lines... in effect all pictures can be reduced to lines.”

As the crisis in Darfur escalates and the world looks on, we, like these powerful lines, must ensure that the people of the Sudan survive this appalling genocide.

Author: Joe Pollitt

Friday, May 12, 2006

George Hughes | The African Modernist

George Hughes | The African Modernist

Looking at Hughes’ work one is initially struck by his spontaneity and his imaginative choice of materials for example, the use of spray paint, drawing parallels with American urban graffiti artists the application and fusion of oils, acrylics and fabric paint sends the onlooker into a quandary, even a spin. Hughes uses these numerous materials in order to permanently remain fresh but more importantly to create an interesting dialogue with himself and his audience. One thing that is glaringly apparent is his relentless artistic evolution and what makes his work so exciting is that one can draw few comparisons to other artists, either past or present.

Following no particular school of art Hughes is the ultimate artistic rebel and is in fact creating a new genre as an African Modernist. The closest artist that comes to mind is Julie Mehretu originally from Ethiopia and now a true New Yorker, she also uses a variety of artistic materials but that is where the comparison ends. Hughes is unique, dynamic and wonderfully understated. Once you think you know the work of George Hughes, he suddenly comes up with something outstanding, topical and brand spanking new. There is a distinct paradox to his work, an energetic confusion that incorporates blue prints and polyurethane enamels echoing the complexity of the artist and in this way Hughes keeps himself and his audience constantly interested and captivated. In his series of paintings, which pay homage to the game of football, Hughes draws interesting comparisons to the way in which life is a game being played out. The constant need to keep the ball in play and the focus on having goals and scoring goals. He has extended this idea into a performance piece highlighting the use of space while kicking a golden football while wearing a pair of gold football-boots. Gold is a direct reference to Ghana’s extensive gold resources in the Ashanti Region and the Ashanti Goldmines.

In the words of the artist:

“My works are a diary of introspection, and a residue of self-analysis. They are also an investigation into awareness in relation to the unknown, the familiar, and the essence of being. They are layered with multiple cultural, and poetic undertones that defy singular interpretation. Plural themes and the ambiguous use of pictorial space evident in these works reveal the contradictions of reality.”

Hughes is the artists’ artist, with his unwavering enthusiasm and appreciation for modernity, which seem almost infectious. His dedication and commitment to provide novel and original work is inspiring. Note his understated simple and fluid brushwork, which highlights his artistic ability, combined with his comprehension with the use and application of paint, which provides a sense of depth and a deep understanding of the unconventional materials chosen. Notice his creative use of complimentary colours, juxtaposed by the primary colours and the use of house paint, which sends messages to the audience of perpetual conscious mistakes. Hughes digests and filters everyday common visual language, such as a road signs or an exit sign and reassuringly places the familiar onto the canvas.

Those scrutinizing Hughes’ work will detect his apparent obsession with the urinal the WC, the John, the toilette, the bathroom this is derived from America’s uncomfortable neurosis with physical ablutions. Hughes cleverly plays on the word ‘Waste’ and with his overflowing taps and his pissing men, draws attention to and stresses the lazy, disposable, ‘throw-away’, society that the West has become.

It is glaringly obvious that Hughes’ contribution to modern art is tremendous and his work defines him into a category that can best be described as an original African Modernist. His attitude to art is commendable and his contribute to the modern global society is yet to be revealed. Originating from Ghana and now working as a lecturer in the States, his work reflects his numerous cultural identities and defines him as an original global citizen. Hughes’ mixed media pieces are arguably amongst some of the finest artwork being produced in the world today.

For More:
Author: Joe Pollitt

Breaking the DNA Code of Modern Art

Julie Mehretu is one the world's most exciting if not the most exciting modern artists. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970 she started her artistic career in Senegal at the University of Cheik AntaDiop in Dakar at the beginning of the 90's and then moved to the States in the latter part of the decade to study a MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. She now resides in New York and is a well-respected and prominent figure within the artist community. Her background and influences from Africa have really left their mark on the artist's work. Those that have left the greatest imprint are the genuine forefathers of modern African art, artists such as the late Alexander Boghossian, better known as "Skunder", who sadly passed away in May 2003 last year and is dynamic interpretation of all thematerials around him and the brilliant slight pen strokes from the great Sudanese artist, who now lives in Oxford, England, Ibrahim El Salahi, alongside these men is the ever present soft, gentle and finebrushstroke work of Islamic calligraphy, all these elements have had avisually dramatic effect on Julie's artistic upbringing and visual alphabet.When a viewer sees her work they are almost invariably reminded of the artist of the 50's, Willem de Kooning and the Cobra Movement and more obviously, Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

One simply stands in utter amazement recognising what it was, they were all desperately trying to say in the troubled years after the Second World War. Julie has answered all the questions and has gone the distance,some might even go as far as saying she is Post Abstract Expressionismbut regardless; she leaves no stone unturned and maps out the new way of seeing. It seems she has taken the ideas behind the works of Jackson Pollock and given them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, breathing new life and setting the colours, shapes and shadows free. Those that go to one of Exhibition's are surrounded by other viewers similarly astounded; all dumbfounded; open-mouthed and just nodding in agreement, amazement but mainly in approval.

She has taken the viewer into another dimension and has seemingly taken a huge leap in terms of the development of modern art. All around one can almost hear the penny drop. Julie Mehretu has seemingly broken the DNA code to modern art. Once entering a room the viewer is absorbed into Julie's world. Her pictures are made up of layers. The initial layer is seemly a light pencil sketch but it is much more than that, it is closer to anarchitectural blueprint for the whole painting. She has combined so many elements into her work it is like looking into the artist's chaotic mind and being in it, then taking steps back from it and allthe while different images immerge and exciting thoughts run hazardly around one head. Julie takes the viewer on a personal tour of her mind and the viewer is drawn into the background having to ignore the foreground and the middle for just that instant, a moment to gather the thoughts and allowing the eyes to adjust. In focus, out of focus; looking at the sketch, then out of focus, looking at the busy middle and in focus and then looking again to the edges, out of focus and then in focus, purely dizzy with all the movement. To those that love art this is a feast rarely experienced. It is as if Julie has taken the onlooker to the fair and gently pushed them through the hall of mirrors on a roller coaster. Her understanding of colour is pure genius considerate with its use and how to apply it to maximum effect. Her wonderful appreciation of the primary colours of the reds and greens create a three dimensional quality coupled with blacks to create shape and movement and more importantly perspective. Playing on variants on this theme, orange and yellow give the depth of colour and the blues and black the overall definition. Julie Mehretu's work is unlike anything you have ever seen or likely to see. Simply put she is by far the best artistic fayre-ride in the world today.