(Re)appropriation As Resistance: African Modernisms


07/05/2019

(Re)appropriation As Resistance: African Modernisms And Their Entanglement With The West

by Kojo Abudu 

When any social or ethnic group is ruled by another cultural order – for example during colonialism or times of slavery – forms of creative or artistic ways of operating that carry signs of reappropriation instinctively emerge among the oppressed[1].
- Kader Attia

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.

In the late 19th century, the intrusion of Western imperial powers into Africa came into full force, largely legitimated by a pseudo-moral obligation to ‘civilise’ the continent’s ‘savage’ peoples. This era of unabated economic and political expansion – not to mention the physical and structural violence that accompanied it – was predicated on a discourse of Othering that sought to negate the humanity of Africans and the diverse cultural expressions that originated within their societies. Modalities of Othering took hold along many dimensions but especially within the sphere of the visual arts, as European colonialists believed that “art and aesthetic sensibility were crucial signifiers of a civilised station, and constituted the unbridgeable distance between savagery and nature”[2]. Thus, one finds that within the colonial schema, the reproduction of difference between the art produced by the European and that of the African was necessary in maintaining an oppressive order of European domination. 

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[3].

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[4]. 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[5]. 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.[6]

Aina Onabolu, Portrait of Sisi Nurse, 1922.

It also goes without saying that Onabolu’s art ought to be understood as one of the earliest articulations of African modernism, that is, if we define ‘modernism’ as an artistic reaction to the condition of modernity[7]. Despite Onabolu’s taking to mimetic representation at a time when Western modernists were going in the opposite direction, via abstraction, Onabolu’s works are nevertheless ‘modern’ in the sense that they express his encounter with [colonial] modernity. Due to the fact that modernity – amoment materialising in the 19th century characterised by rapid industrialisation, technological advancement and global capitalist trade – necessitated, and was thus inextricably tied to, the colonial expansion of European powers in Africa, Onabolu’s works could be considered as a reaction to this paradigmatic historic occurrence, but from the overlooked standpoint of the colonised subject[8]. In other words, his portraits of Lagos’ politicians, lawyers, doctors, priests, socialites and other notable figures act as visual sites for the articulation of modern African subjectivity. These portraits therefore constitute an “archive-making project and an antiracist humanist argument”[9]. Onabolu’s practice also fits within the theoretical framework of modernism in the sense that it constitutes a conscious stylistic departure from the ‘traditional’ artistic conventions that preceded him, just like how the Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Suprematists and the Surrealists rejected what came before them. One thus finds within Onabolu’s art, a modern critical strategy of anti-colonial resistance enacted by the appropriation of a European realist style.

A few decades later, ideological contestations over British colonial power in Nigeria and its attendant aesthetic affirmations of modern African subjectivity would shift with the formation of the Zaria Art Society in 1958 at the Nigerian College of Art, Sciences and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University)[10]. The society was composed of students studying fine art who having been immersed in the ideological currents of Pan-Africanist and anti-colonial thought – generated by the likes of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria’s first president) – sought to produce a distinctly modern art appropriate for an African nation on the brink of independence. Nigeria’s imminent independence spurred utopic postcolonial imaginings, which inflected through the ideological prism of cultural nationalism, motivated these young artists to look at their indigenous artistic traditions as a source of aesthetic innovation and self-affirmation[11]. Their decision to look inward, to refer to their indigenous art traditions, served as an anti-colonial critique of the fine art curriculum, which assumed a thoroughly Eurocentric model, and was taught by a predominantly European faculty that refused to view African art as fine art[12]. The ‘Zaria Rebels’, however, also believed that visual expressions of postcolonial modern African subjectivity did not require an outright negation of the West, but rather an altered, agential relation to it. These ideas were distilled by Uche Okeke, one of the founders of the avant-garde collective, when he coined the term ‘natural synthesis’ during a presentation he gave days after Nigeria’s independence on October 1st 1960[13]Okeke’s theory posited that Nigerian artists produce art on the basis of the selective appropriation and critical reformulation of both indigenous and foreign (Western) art forms. These theoretical aims were realised by consciously appropriating the useful formal and conceptual principles of Western modernist practices – particularly, the belief in progress and the emphasis on formal experimentation – and deploying these appropriated styles and ideas in the service of investigating the critical potentiality of indigenous art forms and/or producing visual representations of modern, postcolonial Nigeria.

Okeke’s ambivalence towards Western art arguably reveals the hybridised, fragmentary state of the postcolonial condition. It has been widely acknowledged that the colonial encounter, despite the uneven relations of power that were its conditions of possibility, gave rise to a two-way flow of culture between Africa and the West that brought into being a “compound [cultural] consciousness”[14]. This hybridised modern subjectivity ultimately transformed the mode of resistive politics that Okeke and his fellow artists enacted through their art practices. The Zaria Rebels likely realised that to suppress the irreversible cultural entanglement of Africa and the West was to erase an integral aspect of Nigerian postcolonial identity. In other words, anti-colonial strategies of cultural self-affirmation that embraced an uncritical ‘return to source’ would just be as harmful as those failing to question the cultural hegemony of European art. The alternative route of aesthetic anti-colonial resistance that natural synthesis proposed required that Nigerian artists combine reanimations of indigenous art forms and subject matter with a selective, conscious and agential appropriation of Western [modern] art. This mid-century articulation of Nigerian modernism differs to Western modernism in that it operates in accordance with a different temporality – one that, instead of rejecting the past, reworks it in order to critique the colonial present and illuminate an alternative postcolonial future. Natural synthesis did anything but yield a consistent Nigerian modernist style, however. In fact, its theoretical formulations inspired the divergent aesthetic explorations seen in Okeke’s experimental uli-based drawings and in Bruce Onobrakpeya’s bronze reliefs. Although Okeke and Onobrakpeya’s formally inventive practices have had an undeniable influence on many generations of Nigerian artists (and hence tend to occupy central positions in discussions of Nigerian postcolonial modernism), at this point, I would like to draw further attention to the work of Yusuf Grillo, a core member of the Zaria Art Society and, in my view, one of Nigeria’s most important modernist painters. I believe that Grillo’s paintings, especially those completed in the 1960s and 1970s, call for a critical re-evaluation in the way art historians theorise and narrativise African postcolonial modernisms.

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 [15]. 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

In Harvest (1963) and Bata Drummers (1968) – two compositions symbolising different aspects of Yoruba social and cultural life – Grillo employs his widely known technique of geometric fragmentation whereby the figures and the pictorial space they occupy are simplified into overlapping, angular geometric planes. Some art historians argue that Grillo’s representative mode echoes the formal techniques of the Cubists, especially Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who rendered figures and objects into flattened geometric shapes. It has also been argued that Grillo’s rendering of the female figure in Harvest (1963), characterised by the exaggerated elongation of the subject’s neck and its bell-shaped shoulder frames, finds its stylistic antecedent in Amedeo Modigliani’s modernist work, Portrait of Mademoiselle Hebruterne (1919).

Forms of art historical analysis that attempt to locate the influence of Western modernism in Grillo’s work, like that just performed above, are all well and good. However, they ultimately provide an insufficient basis for interpreting the cultural complexity of postcolonial African modernism. Given that many of the formal and conceptual breakthroughs in European modern art – as seen in the work of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani, Derain and many others – were brought about by a turn to “primitive” art (i.e. classical African art) at the beginning of the early 20th century, how does one then assess Grillo’s supposed ‘appropriation’ of Western modernism? Is Grillo appropriating Western modernist tropes? Or is he re-appropriating from the Western modernists what they had appropriated from Africa decades prior? I believe the latter question bears a weightier criticality that could lead to a richer understanding of appropriation within the context of postcolonial African modernism. To put it another way: one could rightly argue that Grillo’s formal techniques are inspired by modern European art movements such as Cubism but in order to get a fuller picture of the appropriation dynamic, one ought to take into account the non-Western origins of these avant-garde European art movements.

Many of the ‘Western’ modernist techniques deployed by Grillo have long been hallmark features of classical African sculpture, specifically traditional Yoruba carving. These African sculptural traditions have usually never relied on a faithful imitation of reality, instead abstracting the human figure into block-like forms or exaggerating certain bodily features, especially the head, for symbolic purposes[16]. Arguably, it was not until the early 20th century when European artists encountered [stolen] African objects in their encyclopaedic museums that their formal commitment to mimesis was eschewed.

To be clear, my aim here is not to invalidate the accomplishments of European modern art by locating its condition of possibility in classical African sculpture. Rather, I am trying to show how the distinction between the ‘indigenous’ and the ‘foreign’, especially in the context of modern African art, reproduces an oversimplified, reductive binary that overlooks the reality of cross-cultural flows between Africa and the West and robs modern African artists – who often are accused of being derivative – of their claims to artistic autonomy.

Yusuf Grillo, Ayi & Tayi, restored 2008

Essentially, Grillo’s paintings reflect the “compound consciousness” of the postcolonial African subject. His compositions blend Yoruba and Western art traditions so effortlessly that cultural distinctions between them can no longer be made with ease. The artist thus emphasises the ‘natural’ in natural synthesis. This becomes very clear when looking at two other paintings: Ayi & Tayi (restored 2008) and Mother of Twins (1970). In the former work, Grillo depicts stately female figures both dressed in buba, iro and gele standing in a semi-abstracted room. As typical of Grillo, the figures are flattened and angularly distorted: their limbs are elongated, the volume of their sleeves is exaggerated and their geles are geometrised. In the latter work, the artist depicts a woman carrying two infants. Once again, Grillo distorts the figure by elongating her neck and abstracting her side profile in a linearised manner. In both these works, Grillo draws heavily on Yoruba culture and symbolism. Ayi & Tayi showcases two young urban Yoruba women – “Lagos ladies” as some may call them – who are provocative, self-possessed and express an unapologetically modern Yoruba sense of style[17]. Mother of Twins references a Yoruba tradition where, according to Grillo, a mother of newborn twins must go round, singing and dancing with her babies to ensure their survival[18].

Cultural content aside, these paintings showcase Grillo as a thoroughly astute colourist. The artist infuses both these works with his signature cool colour palette, which often incorporates subtle varying shades of deep blue, mauve and green. Grillo’s affinity for these moody tones is inspired by the Yoruba chromatic tradition and not, as some would argue, Picasso’s Blue Period[19]. His persistent use of blue references the indigo dyes of adire (a resist-dye technique indigenous to Southwestern Nigeria) and “also identifies with the Yoruba Aso Oke type, which often comes in strips of Prussian blue and deep purple”[20].

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.”[21]

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

Within the room, many other repressed art histories are also unearthed. In The Scream, 2016, Attia shows the link between traditional African art and European Expressionism(s) by showing the uncanny physiognomic resemblance between an African mask and the howling, alienated subject in Munch’s iconic work.
In Untitled, 2019, Attia takes up the idea of the ready-made, popularised by proto-conceptualists such as Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, and connects it to its origins in classical African aesthetics, in which idea typically precedes form. As Okwui Enwezor once remarked:

“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.”[22]
 
Attia’s conceptual transformation of found, egg crate-like objects into sculpture thus moves in accordance with the cultural traditions of African art, which usually have never stipulated that art has to produced directly by the artist[23]. Rather, real life objects were often repurposed and symbolically activated as ‘art’ during sacred rituals or masquerade performances[24].

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[25]. 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[26]? 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[27]. 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[28].

Creative acts of appropriation inevitably arose within the historic paradigm of multiple cultural encounters that we now call modernity. But one most not overlook the power imbalances that ultimately provided the conditions of possibility for these encounters as well as the modes of violence – physical, structural, epistemological – that accompanied such cultural confrontations. If there is a common quality to be found in modern art, wherever one looks in the world, it is usually a conscious re-fashioning of the self in relation to what has preceded it and what is yet-to-come[29]. Within the context of African modernism, strategies of self re-fashioning and cultural renewal inevitably brushed up and against the dispossessive force of colonial power[30]. Thus, appropriation of Western art by African artists in the colonial context ought to be understood more accurately as a subversive political act, as a transformative artistic strategy that simultaneously resists the hegemonic European relation and imagines an alternative, postcolonial future.






Image Header: The Village of Samaru, near Zaria, Yusuf Grillo, Courtesy of Bonhams

 

FURTHER READING:

Araeen, Rasheed,  “Modernity, Modernism, and Africa's Place in the History of Art of Our Age”, Third Text, 19:4, 411-417, 2005

Attia, Kader, “Mimesis as Resistance”, 2013

Attia, Kader, “Signs of Reappropriation”, 2011

Attia, Kader, “There is no hierarchy in Art”, 2013

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

 

[1] Kader Attia, “Mimesis as Resistance”, 2013.

[2] Olu Oguibe, “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art” (Third

Text, 16:3, 2002), 244.

[3] Olu Oguibe, “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art”, 246.

[4] https://artwa.africa/pioneers-of-modern-nigerian-art-biography-of-aina-onabolu/

[5] Olu Oguibe, “Appropriation as Nationalism in Modern African Art”, 247.

[6] Ibid: 246.

[7] Salah M. Hassan, “African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse” (South Atlantic Quarterly, 109:3, 2010), 455.

[8] 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

[9] Ibid.

[10] 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. 

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] Chika Okeke-Agulu, “Natural Synthesis: Art, ­Theory, and the Politics of Decolonization in Mid- Twentieth- Century Nigeria”, 236.

[14] Ibid: 11.

[15] Kunle Filani, “Yusuf Grillo: Universalising Yoruba Consciousness” in Igi Araba: An Exhibition and Retrospective of Works by Yusuf Grillo: Lagos: Arthouse Contemporary, 2015.

[16] 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. 

[17] 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.

[18] 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.

[19] Kunle Filani, “Yusuf Grillo: Universalising Yoruba Consciousness”, 2015.

[20] Ibid.  

[21] Kader Attia & Ralph Rugoff in Conversation, 2019

[22] 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.

[23] 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.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Kader Attia, “Signs of Reappropriation”, 2011

[27] Elizabeth Harney & Ruth B. Phillips, Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 7

[28] Partha Mitter, “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art

from the Periphery” The Art Bulletin (90:4, 2008), 541

[29] 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

[30] Ibid.

 

between the art produced by the European and that of the African was necessary in maintaining an oppressive order of European domination. 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[3].