(Re)appropriation As Resistance: African Modernisms
(Re)appropriation As Resistance: African Modernisms And Their Entanglement With The West
by Kojo Abudu
In May of 2019, I visited Kader Attia’s conceptually rigorous exhibition, ‘The Museum of Emotion’ at the Hayward Gallery. The French-Algerian artist has a special knack for translating the complex socio-politico-historic entanglements between the West and the non-West into erudite, poetic and sometimes haunting art pieces. The exhibition was organised non-chronologically with each gallery attending to specific issues that the artist has grappled with emotionally and intellectually over the last two decades. Virtually every gallery in the exhibition displayed Attia’s unyielding drive for thorough research and medium dexterity – the artist’s practice spans installation, sculpture, photography, collage, video and documentaries. However, there was one particular gallery, the third gallery, that shook my consciousness so profoundly that it is the reason you are reading these very words. I will elaborate on the works exhibited in this gallery later in the article.
Attia’s art and my questions concerning them led me to his brilliantly archived website where I came across one of his artist statements, “Mimesis as Resistance” – a title that I reworked for the purpose of this article. In the statement, and in many of the artist’s interviews, Attia theorises on notions of reappropriation and repair and provides striking examples of their deployment in the colonial context. The artist believes that (re)appropriation, when utilised by the oppressed, becomes a creative strategy for surviving, resisting and overcoming the dispossessive force of the oppressor. Attia’s generative ideas provide the basic framework for this article, helping to contextualise both the art discussed and the critical arguments developed in response to said art.
I want to look at the historic occurrence of modernism in Africa (specifically Nigeria) and analyse how Attia’s ideas help clarify and simultaneously complicate how we narrate these ‘peripheral’ histories of modernism. The article mainly discusses two artists: Aina Onabolu (1882-1963) and Yusuf Grillo (1934) whose works exemplify appropriations of Western art. However, as this article will make clear, these instances of appropriation should not be interpreted as passive, uncritical embraces of European cultural hegemony; rather, they demonstrate the capacity for African artists to act as resistive agents, (re)appropriating Western art as a subversive means for disrupting colonial power and affirming their modern African subjectivities.
Exhibition view of Kader Attia’s ‘The Museum of Emotion” at the Hayward Gallery, London, 2019.
The anxiety over maintaining this “unbridgeable distance” helps to explain why in the context of British colonialism in Nigeria, colonial officials were hesitant to introduce art education into the colonial curriculum, as a formal art education would allow the colonised to master the artistic principles of the coloniser’s culture and eventually threaten the myth of difference that perpetuated colonial authority. Aina Onabolu, a self-taught Nigerian portraitist born in 1882, knew this when he consciously appropriated the representational modes of realism and naturalism – European academic styles, which at the time, were touted as evidence of the cultural superiority of the West – to undermine the dubious ideological claims supporting the British colonial order. As seen in works such as Portrait of a Lawyer (circa 1920s), Portrait of Sisi Nurse (1922) and Portrait of Dr Oguntola Sapara (1920), Onabolu painted realist portraits of the Lagos elite at a time when Africans were viewed as only capable of making tribal ‘crafts’. But Onabolu’s appropriation of realism was not merely spurred by his anti-colonial politics. The artist believed that inherent to realism was a universal visual language that all artists, irrespective of cultural origin, were able to adopt for their own purposes – in Onabolu’s case, representing the burgeoning modernity in colonial Nigeria.
Aina Onabolu, Portrait of Dr.Oguntola Sapara, 1920.Onabolu’s carefully composed portraits, which show a highly attuned sensitivity to the mechanics of perspective and anatomical proportion, make evident his ability to draw and paint in the formal manner of the European illustrations he was initially inspired by. The artist’s appropriation of realism was not, however, fuelled by a repressed motivation to become European, but was rather deployed as an act of resistance – one that proved his equality with the European and therefore invalidated any ideological claims to European exclusivity and superiority. The very fact that British colonial administrators actively refused to acknowledge Onabolu’s talent – sometimes even threatening him – and persistently denied his petitions to introduce a formal art education in Nigerian schools confirmed their anxiety over preserving a racist ideology as well as the exploitative economic system that it justified.
Aina Onabolu, Portrait of Sisi Nurse, 1922.
Yusuf Grillo, The Village of Samaru, near Zaria, circa 1958-1966
Born in 1934, Grillo’s cosmopolitan upbringing in the Brazilian quarters of Lagos had a notable cultural imprint on the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities, particularly his strong identification with Yoruba culture. In many of Grillo’s masterfully composed paintings, he translates the traditional sculptural forms of Yoruba carvings as well as the representational techniques of the European modernist avant-garde into stylised depictions of Nigerian figures, most of whom are elegantly dressed and self-possessed Yoruba women . Grillo is not a very prolific painter, as it takes months or even years for him to become satisfied with a painting. Nevertheless, what one finds in his modestly sized oeuvre is a problematisation of the notion of ‘appropriation’ regarding modernist African practices and their complicated relationship to Western modernist aesthetics. As I will soon show, Grillo’s work undercuts the binary division between ‘indigenous’ and ‘Western [modernist]’ influence by showing more clearly the historical entanglement of the two art traditions – the former being the condition of possibility for the latter.
In The village of Samaru, near Zaria (circa 1958-1966), a painting Grillo likely completed when he was studying in Zaria, he configures his composition by drawing on what appears to be the visual tropes of Western modernism. For example, the non-locality of colour, in particular, the use of pink, orange and yellow tones to represent the ground and the sky, recall the warm, lush colour palette of the Fauves – I’m thinking specifically of Henri Matisse’s Street in Arcueil (1903/04) and The Roofs of Collioure (1905).
From left to right Yusuf Grillo, Harvest, 1963 & Yusuf Grillo, Bata Drummers, 1968
Yusuf Grillo, Ayi & Tayi, restored 2008
Yusuf Grillo, Mother of Twins, 1970
As alluded to earlier, Grillo’s formal manipulation of line, space, texture, perspective and balance mirrors the aesthetic sensibilities of classical Yoruba sculpture as well as the geometric tendencies of Cubism and the design-led, mathematical approach of the Bauhaus school. His depiction of radically simplified abstracted faces oscillates between the concave Yoruba masks in his personal art collection and those seen in Picasso’s African period. However, and this is crucial, Grillo negates the alienating formal European fetishisation of the African art object. He re-appropriates from the European modernists their formal strategies for translating classical African sculpture into two-dimensional painting and in the process imbues these Western modernist aesthetic forms – which are really just alienated classical African forms – with a deeper cultural meaning by reintegrating them into a Yoruba ‘structure of feeling’. Thus, Grillo’s enactment of modernism is arguably more thorough and total. His appropriation of Western modernist aesthetics is critically reworked in the service of fashioning a modern postcolonial Nigerian identity.
Kader Attia, The Scream, 2016 © Alex Schneider
This all brings us back to the Kader Attia’s work, discussed briefly at the beginning of the article. Attia’s critical interventions make clear the cultural entanglement of the West and the non-West as well as the wilful tendency of the West to forget the major contributions of extra-Occidental cultures to its own supposedly ‘superior’ and ‘civilised’ culture. Many of the artist’s works in the gallery I mentioned earlier were fuelled by his frustration at the West’s amnesia. The artist in an interview stated:
“In 2009, I visited the exhibition Picasso and the Masters at the Grand Palais in Paris, which included works by artists like Caravaggio, El Greco, Paul Cézanne … all of whom clearly influenced Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and the works of some of his contemporaries such as Georges Braque. Omitting them from this exhibition was an insult to the traditional art of Africa. In response to this exhibition the first thing I did was to make a work that simply showed how Cubism was invented.”
When Attia attaches pieces of broken mirror unto traditional African sculptures or affixes these mirror pieces onto a bare canvas with a wooden African mask hanging right below it (like in Reconstructions, 2016), he exorcises a history that has hitherto remained repressed within ‘official’ narratives of Western modernism. The viewer is implicated in the work as she views herself, fragmented into different perspectives, in the typical manner of a Cubist portrait. The proximity of the African mask to the site of Cubist reflection makes a simple, direct argument for the interrelatedness of these two art traditions.
Kader Attia, Reconstructions, 2016 © Alex Schneider
“In African art, two things are constantly in operation: the work and the idea of the work. These are not autonomous systems. One needs the other and vice versa. A paraphrase of an lgbo idea will clarify this relationship: where there is something standing which can be seen, there is something else standing next to it which cannot be seen but which accompanies the object.”
Kader Attia, Untitled, 2019
Lastly, Measure and Control, 2013, by juxtaposing stuffed wild animals with their African sculptural equivalents, emphasises a point made earlier in my discussion of classical Yoruba carving and Grillo’s work, that most African art traditions have long transcended the European limitation of mimesis being essential to art. The wooden African sculptures consistently abstract the features of the animals, often rendering them in a flat, simplified manner – a representational mode that would later be adopted by modernist sculptors in the West such as Constantin Brancusi. Attia also critiques Western epistemological tendencies by highlighting their ideological ties to strategies of museological display. Such tendencies include the reproduction of likeness (hence the stuffed animals), the divorcement of nature from culture, the need to ‘contain’ nature and the categorisation of all natural phenomena into a totalising, hierarchized schema (hence the sealed off, sanitised vitrines).
Attia’s poetic revealing of these unacknowledged historic connections are vital because they allow one understand how certain systems of power (colonialism, slavery, white supremacy) erase or misrepresent historical actualities in order to maintain the validity of their dubious ideological constructs. If one accepts my argument that Western modernism could not have occurred without the contributions of non-Western cultures and that this cultural exchange was enabled by the oppressive mechanism of European colonisation then how, as Attia suggests, are we to ethically re-think modernism as a historic and cultural event? I suggest we begin by turning our attention to the underbelly of modernity, to modernisms enacted not by the dominant party (Euro-America) but by the oppressed parties (Africa, Asia, Latin America). This is what I have attempted to do in this article. Fortunately, remarkable scholarship in the field and growing acceptance of the ‘multiple modernities’ thesis has provided much of the intellectual ground on which I stand. The epistemological reorientation being called for is not simply grounded in ethics, however, because to deny or underestimate the importance of modernisms occurring outside the narrow purview of the West is also to commit an act of intellectual dishonesty. Modernism is and always has been global, transcontinental and cross-cultural.
Image Header: The Village of Samaru, near Zaria, Yusuf Grillo, Courtesy of Bonhams
Araeen, Rasheed, “Modernity, Modernism, and Africa's Place in the History of Art of Our Age”, Third Text, 19:4, 411-417, 2005
Enwezor, Okwui, “Where, What, Who, When: A Few Notes on "African" Conceptualism” in Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950-1980s. New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999.
Gikandi, Simon, “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference”, Modernism/modernity, 10:3, 455-480, 2003
M. Hassan, Salah, “African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 109:3, 451-473, 2010
M. Hassan, Salah and Oguibe, Olu, Authentic / Ex-centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art. Ithaca, NY: Forum for African Arts: Prince Claus Fund Library, 2001
M. Hassan, Salah, “The Modernist Experience in African Art: Visual Expressions of the Self and Cross-Cultural Aesthetics” in Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe’s Reading The Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Marketplace (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999): 214-235
Mitter, Partha, “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery” The Art Bulletin, 90:4, 531-548, 2008
Oguibe, Olu, “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art”, Third Text, 16:3, 243-259, 2002
Oguibe, Olu, “Art, Identity and Boundaries: Postmodernism and Contemporary African Art” in Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe’s Reading The Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Marketplace (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999): 16-29
Okeke-Agulu, Chika, “Natural Synthesis: Art, Theory, and the Politics of Decolonization in Mid- Twentieth- Century Nigeria” in Elizabeth Harney & Ruth B. Phillips’ Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018): 235-258
Okeke-Agulu, Chika, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth- Century Nigeria, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Okeke-Agulu, Chika, “The Quest for a Nigerian Art: Or a Story of Art from Zaria to Nsukka” in Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe’s Reading The Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Marketplace (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999): 144-165
P. Dike, Chike and Oyelola, Pat, Master of Masters: Yusuf Grillo: His Life and Works. Nigeria: National Gallery of Art, 2006
 Kader Attia, “Mimesis as Resistance”, 2013.
 Olu Oguibe, “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art” (Third
Text, 16:3, 2002), 244.
 Olu Oguibe, “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art”, 246.
 Olu Oguibe, “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art”, 247.
 Ibid: 246.
 Salah M. Hassan, “African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse” (South Atlantic Quarterly, 109:3, 2010), 455.
 Chika Okeke-Agulu, “Natural Synthesis: Art, Theory, and the Politics of Decolonization in Mid- Twentieth- Century Nigeria” in Elizabeth Harney & Ruth B. Phillips’Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 239
 Unlike in Onabolu’s time, formal art education was now permitted in colonial Nigeria but it came with its imperialist hang-ups. Pedagogical models either enforced an anti-modern ethos, encouraging students to produce ‘authentic’ scenes of traditional village life that were untainted by modernity, therefore reproducing the idea of the primitive native (as per Kenneth Murray’s model) or they espoused a modern Eurocentric outlook that ignored the existence and relevance of local art traditions. This gave rise to a crude opposition between being African and being modern that the Zaria Rebels aimed to transcend.
 This strategy is in contrast to early Nigerian modernists such as Aina Onabolu who believed that a modern Nigerian art had to establish a total break with the art of the past.
 Chika Okeke-Agulu, “Nationalism and the Rhetoric of Modernism in Nigeria: Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko, 1969-1968” (African Arts, 39:1, Spring 2006), 28.
 Chika Okeke-Agulu, “Natural Synthesis: Art, Theory, and the Politics of Decolonization in Mid- Twentieth- Century Nigeria”, 236.
 Ibid: 11.
 An exception is the use of naturalist portraits in royal courts and burial ceremonies. However, according to Babatunde Lawal, these naturalistic portraits are “few and far between in Yoruba art”. Yoruba artists mostly produced ‘conceptual portraits’. To understand why, refer to “Àwòrán: Representing the Self and Its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art”, The Art Bulletin, 83:3, 498-526, 2001.
 Mike Omoighe “Behind The Name Yusuf Grillo” in Paul Chike Dike and Pat Oyetola’s Master of Masters: Yusuf Grillo: His Life and Works. Nigeria: National Gallery of Art, 2006, 200.
 Simon O. Ikpakronyi “Yusuf Grillo: A Most Distinguished, yet Uncelebrated Nigerian Artist?” in Paul Chike Dike and Pat Oyetola’s Master of Masters: Yusuf Grillo: His Life and Works, 59.
 Okwui Enwezor, “Where, What, Who, When: A Few Notes on "African" Conceptualism” in Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950-1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), 110.
 Salah M. Hassan and Olu Oguibe, Authentic / Ex-centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art (Ithaca, NY: Forum for African Arts: Prince Claus Fund Library, 2001), 14.
 Elizabeth Harney & Ruth B. Phillips, Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 7
 Partha Mitter, “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art
from the Periphery” The Art Bulletin (90:4, 2008), 541
 Salah M. Hassan, “The Modernist Experience in African Art: Visual Expressions of the Self and Cross-Cultural Aesthetics” in Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe’s Reading The Contemporary: African Art from Theory to Marketplace (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999), 223