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Out of the gallery, art in Africa

If the history of Africa tells us anything, it is that producing great art is no guarantee of winning anyone’s respect. It seems incredible, when you look at the masterpieces of African art in the British Museum in London, that exploiters and imperialists could ever have dismissed the disparate peoples of Africa as lesser breeds, ripe for the plucking. Africa has created some of the greatest art that ever existed, and the brilliance of it has been known to Europeans for a long time.

In the British Museum, there are ivory salt cellars carved by artists in the West African city of Benin for Portuguese trade in the Renaissance. The brass plaques that decorated the Oba’s palace in Benin — which are also in the museum — with their snake-spirit soldiers and blocky, massive strength, were seen and admired by Europeans. The palace was even depicted in print in the 17th century. None of this prevented the British from eradicating the entire civilisation in a single bloody ”punitive expedition” in 1897.

This needs to be considered at the end of a year that saw, in Britain, an ambitious attempt by the Africa 05 festival to make us look again at the art of Africa, with Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent at the London Hayward gallery, events at the British Museum and exhibitions at the South London Gallery, the Photographers’ Gallery and elsewhere. The assumption behind this is that culture humanises relationships. Respect my art, respect me. And yet, the African experience suggests that even when oppressors acknowledge, quite fulsomely, the beauty of your art, this doesn’t stop them classing it as ”primitive” and continuing to treat you as a lower form of life.

If admiring people’s art were enough to change the world, Africa would have got justice long ago.

Read Victorian imperialist literature and it is full of knowledgeable asides about African creativity. In Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, the intrepid Allan Quartermaine apologises for not having more space to share with readers the admirable metalworking skills of the Kukuanas, exemplified by their finely wrought throwing knives.

No, I don’t think it matters, in the bigger picture of African poverty and the rich world’s selfishness, whether we love Africa’s art, past or present, or despise it. Art is not people. Perceptions are not realities.

And this is what I found myself inarticulately trying to explain earlier this year after it was proposed that I go to Africa as an art critic. I wanted to get away entirely from the art that might be presented at the Hayward, and to try to see how art fits into, and perhaps even enriches, the lives of ordinary people. It seems to me that, as African poverty continues to scar the world’s conscience, it doesn’t really matter whether African art makes it in London. But maybe art — the form of creativity that human beings have been addicted to longest — might have a function in the lives of the poor. I didn’t want to know what was hot in Johannesburg galleries, I wanted to know what forms of visual culture might actually be of use to those who have nothing.

One of the most emotional journeys you can take, in Africa or anywhere, is the short boat trip from Cape Town to Robben Island. When you get to the former prison island, you are taken to see Nelson Mandela’s cell — preserved with a felt blanket neatly folded, like an installation by Joseph Beuys — and the yard where he crushed stones into gravel. What especially excited me, though, were the bright paintings prisoners had daubed on grey walls: a syringe above the door to the medical room, lurid figures in a dormitory. Was this part of the culture of resistance that the museum celebrates?

No, the guide explains. These are the work of common criminals who came here after the release of the political prisoners, and before Robben Island was finally closed forever — ”drug dealers and gangsters”. The worthless of the Earth.

Back in Cape Town, in the grounds of the South African Art Gallery, young men lie about, stunned by drugs; the art-goers, black and white, warily eye them as they sidle past. Inside is art that documents the fight against apartheid. If you want to see something that connects with those wall paintings on Robben Island, you need to cross the gardens to the National Museum’s ethnographic displays.

If art were able to change anything, it would surely have saved the San. The San made paintings. In the National Museum, there is a massive rock, ripped from a cave by a British administrator, whose grey, rippled surface is artfully marked with red, brown and white figures: herds of eland, masked hunters stalking them.

I have never seen more beautiful art. The rock paintings of the San connect us with our earliest ancestors if you accept, as contemporary anthropologists do, that their shamanist culture resembled that of the early artists who painted caves in the Ice Age. This miracle of survival earned its makers nothing but contempt.

What connects them with Robben Island? In the 19th century, the Bushmen were treated as outlaws because they refused to acknowledge newly imposed concepts of land ownership and roamed, as they always had, on the trail of prey. They were defined as common criminals and slung in Cape Town’s jails. It was in prison that a few of them started to explain their beliefs to a sympathetic German linguist, so that a knowledge of this lost culture has been preserved, in addition to the San groups who survive in the Kalahari.

Great art whose perpetrators were despised: it is an image of Africa’s cultural history. And it continues today, because the art that makes it into galleries abroad is not, by definition, the culture of Africa’s excluded millions.

It is hard for any outsider to see this art except through peripheral vision — a glimpse of paintings on buildings, or the wax prints worn by women standing by the road. To get closer, the easiest thing is to work with an NGO, and in Ghana in West Africa, I was helped by the charity Action Aid.

The village of Kpobiman is on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Our host, Jeleelah Quaye, runs the village women’s group. She leads us to meet the women in a neat, hut-type building. It’s awkward because the photographer and myself are directed to sit behind a big teacher’s table at the front of the hall, while the women — their clothes a riot of colour and subtle design — sit at a respectful distance. As soon as it is polite, we get up and go outside where, as I have requested, the Kpobiman women’s group will demonstrate their dyeing technique.

Textiles are as central to the cultural history of Africa as rock paintings or masks. In West Africa, in particular, you see women everywhere in exquisite robes.

The dominant culture around Accra is not Ashanti but Ga, although some people I met in Kpobiman were Ewe. These are different peoples with different languages: the cultural diversity of just this little corner of southern Ghana illuminates the multiplicity of Africas. About 60 languages are spoken in Ghana alone.

One of the women has started a fire underneath a vat of dark liquid. As she does so, Jeleelah explains the different chemicals they are adding to the potion. It is an authentic tradition of villages in Ghana but in this project, designed to provide women with goods to sell at market, they use industrially produced synthetic dyes and white potassium soda. The art is in the way they have prepared the cloth, stitching it in tight bunches to create varied patterns.

They also have wooden blocks carved with symbols, which they use to stamp icons on to the cloth. These adinkra symbols constitute a visual language in which each swirling sign signifies a proverb. The same symbols appear on gold weights used by the wealthy Ashanti kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I ask what the stamp we are looking at means, however, everyone laughs. Nobody here knows.

Modernity and tradition coexist in this art, reinvented as a means of self-help for some of the world’s poorest people. Stamped adinkra cloths are particularly associated with funerals: in Ghana, a funeral is a great occasion with crowds of mourners. Of course, funerals happen everywhere. But not everyone is buried in a fish.

I saw my first fish coffin on the road from Kpobiman back into Accra: suddenly, a giant pink tuna materialised out of the trees. On closer inspection, the tuna turned out to be made of carved and painted wood, its hollow interior padded with white satin. Its creator, William Tetteh, stood at his workbench nearby in the open air, chisel in hand, creating a giant, wooden replica of a metal bottle top that, he explained, would be a shop sign.

William is 26 years old and recently opened this tiny workshop after a five-year apprenticeship in one of the world’s most unlikely craft traditions.

The fantasy coffins of the Ga people are an invention that has become instantly traditional, an authentic popular art that is also collected by museums abroad — the British Museum owns examples. The coffins are inspired acts of imagination in the face of death: you can be buried in a giant fish, a corn cob, a beer bottle or a gun. But the possibilities are not endless — the coffin is a signifier of what you did in life. A fish denotes a fisherman. An eagle — I was told — ”is for an eagle”, or a chief.

There is a similarity between the visual code of the coffins and the ancient adinkra symbols still in use in Ghana; in both cases, a bold recurring design has a specific meaning. But while the language of adinkra goes back to earlier times, Ghana’s coffins are a new idea. William tells me how he trained at the workshop founded by Kane Kwe, the man who first devised the fantasy coffins.

There are, if you read the literature, several versions of how this happened, so I’ll stick to the one William told me.

Kane Kwe, he says, ”slept and dreamed”, and the image of a fabulous coffin ”came from his dreams”.

It is like a dream, when you see these startling objects beside the road. William’s friend Regina, full of praise for his talent, shows me a book of pictures of his designs. I worry about the person who commissioned the one shaped like an AK-47.

Are they art or craft? It is a question students of non-European art get into knots over. When European powers in the late 19th century carved up Africa between them, the resulting flow of African masks and other objects to dealers and museums in London and Paris opened the eyes of artists such as André Derain and Pablo Picasso to the power of African creativity. And they had no doubt they were looking at ”art”.

Yet the idea of ”art” as something exclusively aesthetic in nature and purpose is one of the most eccentric modern European notions, developed between the Renaissance and the 18th century. Before that, the objects we revere as art — whether Italian altar paintings or Mayan reliefs — were made for a social purpose, usually religious or royal.

The paradox is that art existed long before ”art”. It is pettifogging not to use the word art to describe the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe.

Nor are they the first art. Humans evolved in Africa; everyone has a common female ancestor who lived in Africa about 200 000 years ago.

Art began here, too. The oldest known art object on earth is a piece of ochre found in the Blombos cave in South Africa, engraved with a diagonal abstract design about 75 000 years ago — at least 40 000 years before the Chauvet cave in France was painted.

Human beings made art for a long time before anyone thought of separating it out as art; art was too important to be put in a gallery. And in Africa, it still is.

Here it is buried in the ground. The coffins of Accra are sold to foreign museums and collectors as ”art”, yet in Ghana they are functional: a dead person goes inside, then the colourful fish is buried in the ground where it will rot. I suppose this is what I really meant when I set out to discover what uses art might have in the everyday life of the poorest continent.

Everywhere you go, you find resourceful, unexpected uses of ordinary things. One of the most telling conversations I had was with an artisan selling wire toys and ornaments in South Africa. How did he start doing it, I asked? You know how it is, he said. When you’re a kid, you make your own toys out of bits of wire and he just carried on doing that as a profession.

After we met William Tetteh, I wanted to find the man he referred to as his ”master”, Anan Cedi, who has inherited Kane Kwe’s original workshop. We set out from Accra looking for more coffin workshops. Soon enough, we saw a giant lobster and a giant bottle suspended over the dusty, crowded street on a ramshackle wooden platform. Entering the courtyard behind the raised coffin showroom, you are suddenly in the world of news images of Africa.

The master is not here, but a lot of apprentices are. Daniel, who has been here seven years, shows me how to plane and laughs at my attempt. Did he always want to do this? ”When I was at school, I didn’t want to be a carpenter,” he says, ”I preferred to do art but my parents said there isn’t enough money in it. They forced me to do carpentry.” When he started working here, however, he realised this was creative: ”I put my art into carpentry.”

The apprenticeship system that has evolved in these workshops would have been familiar to the craftsmen of Benin 500 years ago or, for that matter, to a Florentine artist in the same period. Africans do seem to have a way of inventing traditions: from being one man’s dream, the coffins have become a way of life for many people. This is a fantastic way of maximising the social utility of art. Instead of a European-style cult of genius, which would revere Kane Kwe who invented the coffins 30 years ago as a unique creator and perhaps dedicate a museum to his memory, his idea has been socialised, turned into a culture.

An idea has thus been milked for all its worth and the tuna has nurtured the talents of many teenagers. We never did meet the master of this workshop, or Anan Cedi himself, when we finally reached Kane Kwe’s shop; we just met more and more apprentices. Daniel and the boys who work at the Hello workshop are surrounded by poverty. But they are making a living from art. It is hard to imagine art having any greater value.

The Tree of Life that for most of this year stood in the British Museum’s Great Court, turning its brown leaves towards the glass roof, has now been deposited in its subterranean African galleries. On closer inspection, its leaves were rusting, sharp fragments of metal, the entire sculpture welded from pieces of guns given up or buried after the civil war in Mozambique. The tree sprouting out of death and war is universally understandable as an image of hope.

Yet that meaning did not originate with the artists. The tree was the British Museum’s idea. The craftsmen who made it have been welding sculptures from guns for a few years — the British Museum possesses their earlier and more spontaneous Throne of Guns, which this year toured Britain’s museums. It is a far more potent work of art than the Tree because it draws on traditional themes of African art — kingship and power — and, like the nail- studded 19th-century Congo carvings in the Africa galleries, possesses a sinister authority. Was this considered too troubling? Does African art need to be cleaned up, and in effect reinvented, to be accepted by us?

Art is as natural as breathing to the people of Africa. If there is ever another Picasso, she will be an African. And yet the problem with exhibiting it abroad is that if people are so modest about what they create, it is easy to come in as the big man and reinvent this art for yourself by selecting what to export, and what to say about it. If I am suspicious that curators too easily impose their own aesthetic on African visual culture when they select from it what to call ”art”, it is because I have done it myself. I couldn’t stop it. When I saw William Tetteh at work, making a giant bottletop, it of course struck me as a brilliant piece of pop art, an acid comment, even, on the global economy. I asked him to make me one, too. Africans are in no sense passive victims of this process. William is very happy to speak of his work as sculpture. He promised to have mine ready after the weekend. What would I like — a Sprite top, or one for the local Star beer?

I chose Sprite. Why? For the irony, the comment on the world market, and so forth. The Star Beer top would just have seemed quaint. But the irony was mine; the pop art context was mine; the sculpture that I carried, the paint still wet, through London- Heathrow airport customs is my personal myth of contemporary African art. If you go, you can come back with your own Africa remix.

Africa is different. It is in no sense shut off from the rest of the world and nor are its artists — as I finished this article, I got yet another e-mail from William Tetteh asking after it. And yet, if you filter African art through the norms of globalised culture, you collaborate in eroding what makes it distinctive.

It was by starting to experience its otherness of perspective that I found myself picturing the globe differently, with Africa huge and everywhere else a distant, fabled realm. I don’t really think so much about the art I saw in Africa as about William and Daniel, Jeleelah and baby Hannah, and about Winston Churchill and the staid Afrikaaner Johannes, who showed me his Reader’s Digest book about South Africa on a train across the Great Karoo and insisted, as someone who has never left Africa, that his was the most beautiful continent on Earth. Winston Churchill, our other travelling companion and a ”coloured” according to the defunct madness of apartheid, agreed. After all, this man of startling heretical opinions argued logically, Africa is where the human story began. It is, therefore, the Garden of Eden. It is, therefore, holy ground. That is why nothing bad ever happens here. — Â

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