Continental shift

29th September 1995 at 01:00
Michael Clarke looks at the Royal Academy and other London exhibitions. Africa 95 is probably the largest celebration of the arts of a continent ever held anywhere. Until the end of the year, galleries, museums, theatres, concert halls, cinemas, universities, television and radio will contribute to a nation-wide season covering the visual and performing arts, music, literature and film, most of which is being backed up by a massive education programme with related conferences and seminars.

The centrepiece of these events is Africa: The Art of A Continent, the most ambitious enterprise ever undertaken by the Royal Academy, which for the first time places sub-Saharan art alongside that of Egypt and its neighbours in the north (previewed in The TES Going Places last week). But in London alone, there are many other exhibitions that widen and deepen our awareness of the art of the continent and, because they bring Africa's cultural history up to the present, more obviously support the central theme of the season, which is that of connection and collaboration between artists working in different parts of Africa and the UK.

The involvement of so many Africans as organisers and curators is evidence of a serious attempt to avoid Eurocentricity, and the presence of even more exhibiting artists and crafts-people in talks, seminars and workshops can only encourage valuable cultural exchange. Most Europeans, however, will have to overcome deeply ingrained cultural assumptions if they want fully to appreciate the objects on show.

The RA's excellent Background Material for Teachers pack rightly reminds us that terms like "primitive" and "tribal" are not only offensive but either misleading or inaccurate, and the current RA Magazine draws our attention to inappropriate distinctions between functional and aesthetic artifacts or fine and decorative art, even questioning the concept of art altogether. As does the Junior Guide to the RA Show, one of several publications and activities produced by the education department.

The validity of this cautionary approach is made vividly clear in the Craft Council's very stimulating show of African metalwork. As at the RA, the range of exhibits cuts across functional, aesthetic and symbolic, but here students can see a hoe as the familiar tool, as a form of currency, and as part of a ritual staff used to ward off evil spirits. Pupils excited by the collection of beheading and throwing knives from Zaire and Gabon might notice that they bear no more evidence of use than the pre-dynastic Egyptian, ripple-flaked knife in Burlington House. All were most likely ceremonial objects of admirable craftsmanship.

Very high standards of craftsmanship are evident throughout the Crafts Council show. There are exquisitely chased and engraved bowls from Morocco, mixed-metal crosses, censers and a crucifixion from Ethiopia and recently forged iron furniture from the Jua Kali metalwork Guild of Kenya. The Kenyan curator of the exhibition, Magdalene Odunde, herself a believer in and demonstrator of the continuity of African craftsmanship, has two magnificent, bronze-cast vessels on display. She will also participate in the study day for teachers and students on October 26.

But in many parts of Africa today, recycling imported objects is a common, and sometimes the only, practice. In John Marmon Halm's tea and coffee set, this process is disguised: the original metal has been melted down and reworked as has the blue plastic of the ball point pens used for handles. In the pots, pans, milk churns and even suitcases for sale in street markets and on show here, there is no attempt to conceal the transformation: the embossed herring-bone pattern of a stew pot readily revealing its previous use as a grate cover.

Yet even in this context, material limitations have not excluded cultural continuity. The "Hands Up!" gesture of the figure bonded into Ajikbike Oguny's recycled steel chair is surely a conscious reference to that in the famous high-backed chief's stool from Tanzania at the RA.

The recycling of materials is not restricted to metal as the dazzling exhibition, African Textiles: Technology, Tradition and Lurex at the Barbican Gallery makes clear. From the early 18th century when Asante weavers were unravelling and reweaving Dutch silk cloth, to the widespread inclusion of imported fabrics into West African patchwork and applique designs today, textiles have incorporated a good deal of salvaged stuff.

Like the metalworker who threaded spent bottle caps on to wire to make the basket at the Crafts Council, Zimbabwians and South Africans embroider any number of found items into their clothes. Even the specially commissioned tent from Egyptian El Din M El Ozy, which opens the Barbican show, transforms factory-woven cloth into Islamic motifs. Add to this the use of recycled aluminium sheets cut into stencils for wax-resist dyeing and it is obvious why the two galleries are running a joint workshop on recycled materials for 16 to 19-year-olds on October 17.

Once inside the textile show, the visitor is swept up in a surprisingly varied selection of objects and a near-bewildering range of materials and techniques; a Congoan coffin made from decorated blankets, an appliqued flag from Ghana, a Nigerian masquerade costume, South African screen-printed cottons portraying Nelson Mandela, as well as the impressive Ikat Kente and Asante cloths that are greatly admired in Britain.

The Museum of Mankind has invited Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp to create a multi-media installation, "Play and Display", which combines the European's archetypal image of African art, the mask, with ceremonial robes and her own steel sculptures in a way that brings her Kalabari masquerade inheritance into the 20th century.

The absence of contemporary art at the RA has not passed unnoticed but it is substantially represented elsewhere. The Barbican Concourse gallery's Signs, Traces and Calligraphy reveals the extent to which Islamic calligraphy has been reduced and reconstituted as a symbol of religious and national identity since the independence of several north African states. At the Photographers Gallery, Nigerian Samuel Fosso's highly manipulated self-portraits poignantly record the search for self-identity in the aftermath of the Biafran war.

In the Serpentine Gallery's Big City exhibition, the highly symbolic, quasi-architectural models of Zairan Bodys Isek Kingelez are set beside the picture postcard sized visionary drawings of Frederic Bruly Bouabre who works on the Ivory Coast, and the politically aware but traditionally oriented, carved and painted tableaux of South African Johannes Segogela. The sole photographer among the six exhibitors, the self-taught Seydou Kerba from Mali, lets his sitters choose their own accessories and backcloths, albeit within the studio, with both disturbing and decorative results.

Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa is a much more collective show, the Whitechapel Gallery's director, Catherine Lampert, and Clementine Delisse, artistic director of Africa 95, working with African curators on the separate sections. Works by 60 artists representing key-movements and artistic centres over the last quarter century are included and, not surprisingly, it is just as diverse and moving as the much older art at the RA. Deeply religious, mixed-media pieces from Sudan and Ethiopia, Ugandan works responding to the Aids epidemic, politicised images from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa take their place beside the highly theatrical installation devised by the Laboratoire Agit-Art from Senegal.

Anyone planning a group visit to any of the exhibitions should contact the appropriate venue (see left) as soon as possible. Most galleries and museums provide special viewings, Inset days and information packs for teachers, but in addition to the events already mentioned, the low-tech forging, mould-making and casting workshops for school groups at the Crafts Council and the one-day session for degree students at the Barbican are certain to fill up more quickly than the excellent weekly or near-weekly workshops for primary and secondary groups at the Serpentine, Whitechapel or RA.

Africa: The Art of A Continent. Royal Academy until January 21 (0171 494 5615)

African Metalwork. Crafts Council Gallery until November 19 (0171 278 7700) The Art of African Textiles: Technology, Tradition and Lurex. Barbican Art Gallery until December 10 (0171 638 4141)

Play and Display. Museum of Mankind until March 17 1996 (0171 323 8055) Signs, Traces and Calligraphy. Concourse Gallery, Barbican Centre, until October 27 (0171 638 4141)

The Impossible Science of Being: dialogues between anthropology and photography, and Contemporary African Photography by Samuel Foss and Mody Sory Diallo. The Photographers Gallery October 20 - January 13 and October 27 - December 9 (0171 831 1772)

Big City: Artists from Africa. Serpentine Gallery until November 5 (0171 402 0343)

Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa. Whitechapel Art Gallery until November 26 (0171 522 7888).

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