Celebrating 20 Years of African Art in NYC

Axis Gallery is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.  Founded by South Africans Lisa Brittan and Gary van Wyk, PhD., the gallery specializes in art from Africa, and by artists of African descent, whose works often have a social or political bent.  To celebrate the gallery’s milestone, they are mounting two thematic exhibitions, the first of which, Liquid State, is currently on view.

As its title implies, Liquid State, which features the work of six artists, is about change, transformation and slipping away…  Here are a few works that caught my eye:

Rally Welcoming SWAPO Leader, Sam Nujoma, after thirty years exile, Gideon Mendel, 2017, from the Damage series, Windhoek, Namibia, September 24, 1989. Giclée print from water and mold damaged negative on Epson enhanced matte paper

Photographer Gideon Mendel began his career documenting the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  He created this image from a negative of photos he had taken in the 1980s.  That negative was subsequently stored in a box of transparencies and negatives in a friend’s garage, where they got wet and moldy.  He became fascinated by the effects of water on negatives and prints, seeing them as an invitation “to reflect on the idealism behind revolution and the outcomes that the march of history produces”.  The above print (which takes up one wall) of a welcome rally for SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma, is one of many works Mendel has created using images of past political struggles that have been damaged by water or fire.  

In that vein you’ll find another work from his Dzhangal series, as well as the “Water Chapters” from his Drowning World series, a looped video exploring responses by individuals, families and communities to floods in various locations, including the Philippines, Nigeria, India and the US.  Mendel’s work may make you reflect on the duality of water – at once a life and creative force, but one also capable of violent destruction.

flowernuit, Al Miller, 2017, oil paint on aluminum and resin

Al (Algernon) Miller is a Harlem-based artist and  Afrofuturist whose eclectic influences include jazz, Egyptian mythology, African beading and quilting,  landscape design, and technology.  This work, flowernuit is one of several at the gallery from his  Angle angle series, made with oil paint on aluminum and resin, that have a delicate but powerful feeling.

Katangais money copper, varying patination, variable dimensions

Sammy Baloji has created an installation based around his birthplace of Katanga, a resource-rich region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mining has been the major industry and export earner for the country since the early 20th century.  On one wall, you’ll find a grainy large scale print of a black and white photo of the Singers of the Copper Cross, a boys choir in Elizabethville.  They are wearing large Katanga crosses – which resemble the St. Andrew’s cross – that were used as currency in pre-colonial times.  In a vitrine on the opposite side you’ll find 80 of these pieces (photo above).  There’s also a video, Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode 1 that was commissioned for Dokumenta 14, featuring historic photos of the Choir and documenting how copper wire is made from ingots; in the background the soundtrack of a choral mass plays throughout.  This installation calls into question the relationship between currency, Christianity, colonialism and commerce.

There’s much more to see, so make your way over to Axis Gallery before this exhibit closes on October 21st.

The second anniversary exhibit will run from October 27th to November 18th.

Axis Gallery is located at 625 West 27th Street. 

Congratulations Lisa and Gary on your gallery’s first 20 years – here’s to the next 20!

1:54 – Bringing the Power of Contemporary African Art to New York

I immensely enjoyed the first two editions of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair , and this third one was also a delight.  Held once again at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it featured the work of about 70 African artists, represented by 19 galleries from Africa, Europe and the US.  The fair continues to be a testament to the variety of subject matter, techniques and media found on the African continent.  (The name, 1:54 means 1continent, 54 countries).  Here are some of my highlights.

detail from work by Zak Ové, plywood frame with sacking crochet doilies

Being an embroiderer, I headed straight to Vigo Gallery (UK) that showcased Zak Ové’s (UK) fantastic large scale (∼6ft x 4ft) collages created from crocheted doilies adorned with various embellishments.   You can see the influence of the Trinidadian Carnival (he divides his time between London and Trinidad) in his use of color and the musical rhythms of his compositions.  I’d find something new and delightful in his multi-layered works each time I looked. I love seeing traditional crafts being used in new ways.  Not your grandma’s doilies!

Kiosque Baye Fall, Cheikh Ndiaye, oil on canvas


Tapissier, CICAP, Cheikh Ndiaye, oil on canvas

Cheikh Ndiaye’s  (Dakar & NYC) cityscapes are master studies in composition and color – and restraint.  There’s nothing excessive about his use of color, and there are no extraneous elements in his paintings, in which he captures the everyday life of Senegal, yet takes it out of the ordinary.  Galerie Cécile Fakhoury’s (Abidjan)  booth included these two works above.

Untitled (diptych), Armand Boua, acrylic and collage on canvas


[title unknown], Armand Boua, acrylic and collage on canvas

Jack Bell Gallery  (London) had two very large canvases by Armand Boua (Ivory Coast) who applies tar and acrylic paint onto cardboard boxes and then strips them back to create his compelling and layered portraits of street children in his hometown, Abidjan. 

[title unknown], by Serge Attukwei Clottey, plastic, wires and paint

The Keepers, Serge Attukwei Clottey, bronze

Serge Attukwei Clottey (Ghanna)  uses material from everyday objects, especially the yellow gallon containers, which he cuts, drills, and reforms into kente cloth like tapestries, or melts and recasts as bronze  sculptures. These works are a powerful commentary on trade and consumption in modern Africa.   Gallery 1957 (Ghanna) displayed the above works by this multi-talented artist.

Dream in Tatters, Benon Lutaaya, paper collage on canvas

Room  Gallery (Johannesburg) featured the work of four emerging artists, including Benon Lutaaya (Uganda/South Africa) , who uses waste paper material to create abstract canvases that touch on personal space, identity and yearning.

Desunited States of Africa, Nú Barreto, acrylic on canvas, amulets, other objects

(S)itor/Sitor Senghor gallery (Paris) featured the work of several artists, including that of     Nu Barreto (Guinea Bissau/France) whose mixed media work, Desunited States of Africa took up most of the back wall.  I liked how, through it’s simplicity and directness, this work makes you reflect on symbols and patriotism.

Mbeka 2, Maurice Mbikayi

Officine dell’immagine (Milan) featured the work of Maurice Mbikayi (Kinshasa & Cape Town).  The artist collects discarded computer parts, reworking and combining them with other materials into mixed media collages and sculptures, as well as photographs, creating a commentary on electronic waste and its implications for Africa.  Sadly, I don’t think he’s going to run out of materials to use anytime soon.

“Potus” from the “Of Saints and Vagabonds” series by Marcia Kure, collage

The gallery also showed work by Marcia Kure (Nigeria)  who imagines alternative worlds, with stylized, striking, hybrid images that, like fairy tales and myths, are reflections of fears and destabilization – albeit in post colonial societies – as well as hope. 

[title unknown], Ndidi Emefiele, mixed media on canvas

Rosenfeld Porcini’s (UK) booth featured only the work of Ndidi Emefiele (Nigeria and UK), whose mixed media tableaus with their distinctive style of oversized head (often wearing glasses fashioned from unusual materials) on relatively small bodies, upend traditional oil paintings in their exploration of issues of gender identity and social norms. 

Congratulations to 1:54 on another outstanding show – can’t wait to have you back next year!

If you’ll be traveling this fall/winter, 1:54  will be in London on October 5th – 7th, and they will be hosting their first show in Marrakech on February 24th-25, 2018.

Weendu – Bringing African Artists and Artisans to New York

WEENDU closed it’s New York showroom in late March, 2017.  However, you can still contact them through their website.

I recently spoke with Lydie Diakhate, who runs the New York showroom  Weendu featuring handmade furniture, accessories and art made by artists from Africa and the African diaspora.

Clarisee Djionne and Lydie Diakhate of Weendu

Liz:  How long has this showroom been open?

Lydie:  Since June last year, not quite one year. 

Liz:  What’s your biggest challenge so far?

Lydie:  It takes time, and you have to take the time.

Liz: That’s true especially in a city like NY where you’re constantly competing against other people…

Lydie:  All the time; you really have to find your network, your path, your space… especially for us because we are very specific and unusual – we are not about mass production.  As you know, everything is hand-made, so the production is completely different.  It’s really a specific market and it takes time to find the right people, the way to build your image, your network, your relations.  This is new – it’s really the first company like this in New York.  Our desire is to have a long-term presence and to grow. 

Liz: Tell me how Weendu was started.

Lydie:  It began with Clarisse Djionne, she’s the owner and founder.  She works with private designers from Africa, and she’s involved in the arts – she had a wonderful gallery in Dakar for a few years so this is really her field.  As an interior designer, as a collector, she’s very involved and very dynamic.  Her dream has always been to have a place here in New York because the U.S. is an amazing market, it’s the place to be, so many things are happening, and what is new and avant-garde is happening here, too. 

It’s changing in Africa, slowly; now there are beautiful designers in every country in Africa, but we are missing the visibility and the infrastructure to be able to diffuse the work. But the market is growing, it’s very competitive, and African designers are very well trained.  Contemporary design in Africa started in the ’90‘s, first in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, because of the CSAO, which is a huge market that takes place every two years, with artisans from all across Africa in all fields – food, furniture, baskets – everything. There was a lot of passion and enthusiasm for contemporary design, so they started a salon (show) for it.

At the Dakar Biennale they started to show contemporary design.  In St. Etienne, France, which is a very important place for contemporary design, they hosted various African designers for two years.  So African designers were becoming more and more visible, they had increased access to training, as well as more opportunities to interact with other designers – this is very important.  So now we have competitive designers with amazing skills, and their work is at the same level as other contemporary designers from around the world. 

That’s really what we want to show here in the United States, those designers who are at the same level as the others.  We want them to be seen as contemporary designers, first.  Then that they are living in Africa, using African materials, getting their inspiration from Africa, but they are contemporary. 

Painting by Senegalese artist Camara Guyeye


Liz:  How do you find your designers – is it at the salons, or people you know…

Lydie:  Clarisse knows the designers from her work as an interior designer.  When I met Clarisse, she had already selected work by several of the artisans. I’ve been a journalist for a long time, so I already knew these brands when I met Clarisse, which made it very interesting and easy, because we agreed on the selection of works to showcase, I really loved the work of the designers, and I knew them. 

Liz:  How did you meet Clarisse?

Lydie: Through Diagne Chanel, a Senegalese artist, who put us in touch with each other.  It was interesting, as Clarisse and I had been in the same world for many years, and I used to go to her gallery in Dakar, but we never met. We finally did meet in Senegal, and then she came to New York to open the showroom.  She was looking for someone living here in the U.S.; I was very enthusiastic about the idea – that’s how it happened!  We showed at the ICFF (International Contemporary Fine Furniture Show in NYC) in May, that was really the first step for Weendu.  We’ll do the ICFF in New York again in May this year.

Liz:  Will you be doing other fairs?

Lydie:  Yes, we went to Miami in October, but because of Hurricane Matthew they shut down the city for two days, so the show was up for only a few hours – it was so sad. But for those few hours we met wonderful people, we had good conversations… I think that Miami is a great place, for design

Liz:  You also showed at Wanted Design in Industry City in Brooklyn in December.

Lydie:  Industry City is a really interesting concept, you have all these different businesses:  bakeries, chocolate, designers, marketing firms, it’s all very creative, the spaces are amazing.  Wanted Design is an interesting concept, they’re doing a great job, I hope we can work with them again.

Liz:  Who is your target audience: is it designers or individuals looking to furnish their homes?

Lydie:  The people we try firstly to reach are interior designers, architects, upholsterers, concept stores…

Liz:  Tell me about some of your designers.

Lydie:  We have metal furniture by Hamed Ouattara whose studio is in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Armoire by Hamed Ouattara


Tekura, based in Ghana, makes wood furniture

Table by Tekura


in fashion – the artist Marielle Plaisir has a new brand where she’s using some of her paintings on clutch handbags and scarves

Clutch by Marielle Plaisir


Fatyly makes tableware – she’s Senegalese, studied at Central St. Martins in London, and is now working with a company based in Limoges, France.  It’s all high quality (gold trim), hand-made, with a very traditional aesthetic from West Africa: it’s very specific – the big earrings, the hairstyles, the dark lips – she uses this image and makes it very contemporary.  She has also been working with ceramicists in Africa for many years.

Plate by Fatyly


Liz: Are you looking at the diaspora as well as the Continent?

Lydie: All the connections…   Marielle Plaisir is from Guadeloupe and  lives in Miami – she uses fairy tale images in her paintings to tell a story.  She’s interested in the different identities on an island.

Painting by Marielle Plaisir


Liz:  This brings me to my last question, about you.  I met you several years ago when you were showing a  film about Bamako, Mali, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  – now you’re running Weendu New York.  Tell me about your trajectory.

Lydie:  It’s the same for me, it’s art.  I just finished a documentary about the African-American sculptor Melvin Edwards, who works with iron and steel – his work is just beautiful.  I would like to continue to do films about art

Liz:  You also founded a documentary film festival in Accra, Ghana.

Lydie:  Yes, I lived in Accra for 2 years, and the festival ran for 6 years.  But you know when you live abroad it’s not always that easy, so I stopped.

My desire has always been to showcase contemporary African art, so I wrote, organized film festivals and conferences, all with a focus on contemporary African art, to show people that Africa is contemporary. 

Liz:  I think the word is getting out.  Here in NY you have the African Film Festival; in May, 1:54 the Contemporary African Art Fair is coming back for a third year; African musicians are featured at the summer festivals here and throughout the year in various venues, there’s Afropop  Also since the late ’80’s the West African community in New York has been growing.

Lydie:  You see how things are changing:  now, lots of people, galleries and collectors from around the world, and major museums are coming to the Dakar Biennale to see African art. In every country in Africa there is something going on in film, in art, in music.

Hopefully people in the art field in Africa will be able to build a new market and be in a better position to put Africa on the art scene.   

That’s why we’re here, we’d like to be able to help the artists from Africa to have a home here;  to support them, to distribute their work so they’re more visible.  But it takes time…

Liz:  I think in New York is that it takes persistence – you just have to keep on going out, meeting people, going to the shows, going to the events, and what makes it harder is that people come and go…  You finally connect with someone and six months later they’re off to London or Bamako or wherever their next journey is ….

Lydie:  Yes, and that’s hard sometimes to explain that to people who don’t live here… nothing is fixed, everything is moving… one week a store closes, a new one opens, then a building is torn down, a new one replaces it…

For me this is a beautiful challenge – I can bring together everything I like – I’m very happy to be able to work with these beautiful artists, but it’s a challenge.. they’re not well known, most have never had an exhibit in the U.S.

Liz:  And you’re competing with people from all over the world, so that makes it harder.

Lydie:  That’s what I like about New York.  When I first came here, I was surprised by all the different languages, the different cultures, and this is just really wonderful. So for me it’s been very easy to adjust to New York.  You don’t ever feel like a foreigner. 

Weendu Design  is located at 195 Chrystie Street, and is open to the public.  You can find more information on their website  

Philanthropy and Higher Education in Africa

(l-r) Naomi Moland, Teboho Moja, Fabrice Jaumont at the Albertine

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know and admire Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché at the French Cultural Services who’s done so much for dual-language French-English programs in NYC public schools.  Fabrice recently published Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa, and the Albertine book store hosted a discussion between Fabrice and South African educator and author Teboho Moja,    which was moderated by Naomi Moland.  Below are the highlights of that conversation.

Private philanthropy has helped fuel the growth of higher education in Africa – as of 2014, there were 1639 higher education institutions throughout the 54 countries of the continent (as compared to only 31 in 1944).  While many are state-run, private institutions are also springing up to meet growing demand – as in the rest of the world, higher education is seen as a driver of development and income growth.  Over 300 U.S. foundations are investing in Africa, with the big foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon – trying to transform education on the continent. Of the $4 billion that was invested between 2003 and 2013, most has been in English speaking countries, especially South Africa, with very little going to French or Portuguese speaking schools.  Funding from non-US sources tends to  come from governments, and follows the old colonial paths.  While funding for building both capacity and buildings has made higher education more accessible, there is often a mismatch between the priorities of foundations and the recipients – the people on the ground know what is needed, but the donors have the money and so determine priorities.  The speakers cited the example of a foundation that wanted to fund classes in women’s studies, but the university would have preferred to spend the money on upgrading Internet access; this clearly highlighted the need for the relationship between the donor and recipient to be negotiated, so the donors can be involved in setting agenda. Funding by private foundations raises several larger questions:  Who owns development? What is the African model of education? Should countries follow US model?  The speakers noted that the African Union takes a regional approach to higher education that cuts across colonial lines (in it’s Development Plan 2063, NEPAD has placed higher education in the center of its strategy).

They also mentioned initiatives that seek to address these issues, such as as the one by the Carnegie Foundation which sends diaspora members to Africa to work with schools. Carnegie is also working with a group of about eight universities to help them strategically transform themselves into more research-oriented institutions, to enable their students to better compete in the knowledge economy.

While the speakers concluded that philanthropy and foundation funding are necessary for the continued growth in higher education in Africa, they did ask the question  of what happens when the funding stops – will Africa be able to do it on its own, or will the continent look to another source, such as China, to grow its education sector?

All in all, a conversation that gave me a lot to chew on, and made me want to read Unequal Partners.  You can watch a video of the talk here.

The Bronx and Africa: A Potent Combination

Having been born and raised in the Bronx, I’m always happy to go back, especially when super good things are happening.   Which is how I came to be at the opening of the Bronx:Africa exhibit at the Longwood Arts Center at Hostos College.  This was a wonderful exhibit of artists from Africa, living in the NY/NJ area, as well as American artists whose work connects to Africa.  Photography was the dominant media, but there were also video, acrylic paintings, sculptures, digital prints  and linocuts. The place was packed, but I got to speak with several of the artists.

Ibou Ndoye with Loabe Woman, 2007 glass painting

Ibou Ndoye with Loabe Woman, 2007 glass painting

Ibou Ndoye, who hails from Senegal, had  two paintings on glass in the show, which he made using a scratching technique.  His depiction of a Loabe mother and child enfolds the cultural differences he’s encountered: while in America, mothers carry their infants in the front of their bodies, in Ibou’s picture, as in Africa, the mother, in traditional  dress, carries her baby on her back, so as to protect her child from danger.  The colors he uses, pale yellow, grey, brown and black, are colors he associates with America, rather than the brighter ones you’re more likely to find in African painting and cloth.  He’s also included scarification on his subjects’ faces, which in African tradition, allows you to know at a glance where, and what tribe, a person is from.  As Ibou explained, “It’s an early form of barcoding.”

Howard T. Cash, Photographer

Howard T. Cash, Photographer

Howard T.  Cash had some great photographs of important Nigerian cultural and political figures from the early 1980’s; it was his photos of Fela Kuti  at The Shrine and the Coronation of Oba Erediuwa  that caught my eye.  I chatted with Howard, and it turns out we grew up not that far from each other! He left the Bronx to study in Los Angeles, then through “Operations Crossroads” studied in Ghana.  He later opened a photo lab in Nigeria; when that closed, he stayed on as a free lance photographer for three years.

Sculptures by Janet Goldner

Sculptures by Janet Goldner


Janet Goldner is an American artist who regularly visits and works with artists in Mali.  She had several small steel pieces, whose strong geometric motifs clearly showed influences of her time there.


detail from Birds Nest by Tammy Wofsey, 2009 Linocut

detail from Birds Nest by Tammy Wofsey, 2009 Linocut

Tammy Wofsey had only two pieces, but they were fabulous.  I don’t see too many artists doing linocuts, and certainly not as large as these works.  I wanna see more.




Monument for the Future we Never Lived (no 3) by Eto Otigtibe, 2016 treated aluminum

Monument for the Future we Never Lived (no 3) by Eto Otigtibe, 2016 treated aluminum


Eto Otigtibe works on aluminum, either painting it or treating it to yield some lovely geometric abstractions.

Thurston Randall had three great digital prints: I’ve got an interview with him in a separate post below.

Throughout the evening, Gambian musician Muhamadou Salieu Suso, delighted the guests with his mastery of the 21 stringed kora.

There’s lot’s more, and the show runs until May 4th.  Make the time to see it.

There are also several talks with the artists scheduled for the coming months;  you can find more information here 

Interview with Thurston Randall, Jr.

Four Warriors by Thurston Randall, Jr, 2016 Digital print on d'Arches

Four Warriors by Thurston Randall, Jr, 2016 Digital print on d’Arches

I got to talk with Thurston Randall, Jr. for a bit after the Bronx: Africa show, thanks to his lovely wife Sharon.  I had stopped to take a closer look at his three digital prints, whose strong, geometric  composition and vibrant colors caught my eye.  He shared some of his thoughts on the artistic process and spoke about two of his works.

Thurston’s artistic talent was recognized early on, earning him a write up in the New York Daily News when he was five.  He continued his studies at the High School of Art & Design, but, seeing himself more as an academic rather than as an artist, he became a counsellor for people with mental illness, a profession he practices to this day.  Nonetheless, he’s always done something artistic.

In his 20’s Thurston began working with the computer program Paint.  He developed his own style which incorporates architectural elements and representational art, overlaid with texture and character, using colors and patterns to create a story that brings it all together.  Thurston doesn’t necessarily have a preconceived idea when he starts a picture:  “On the blank screen, all these elements come together to create a story; the line, color, shape and form create an awareness in the artist; you see something new every time you open up the screen – a new connection between the last color and the next one, between the last line and the next one…  Composing a picture is like composing music – you start with an idea, you hear the rhythm and the patterns which create a narrative.  When its done – when it has all the forms and ideas I could put in – I put on the border.  The story is complete to me, the artist, and I hope it’s conveyed to the viewer.”

“We experience color every day, in food, clothing, skin, eyes and so on … it’s as important as breath.  Color makes us joyful, sad or hopeful; it represents integrity, character, feeling.  You can’t avoid color.  It is powerful – it can transform your mind, your mood.  Color is very important to me.”

“In The Four Warriors the bond between the lines and colors creates the composition; the connection between the elements creates a truth.  The volumes of their bodies varies; with their crowns and spears, they are protectors.  The colors are those of the sun, the day, and midnight.  The borders represent the borders of the country.”

The King and Queen of African America by Thurston Randall, Jr. 2016 Digital print on d'Arches

The King and Queen of African America by Thurston Randall, Jr. 2016 Digital print on d’Arches

In The King and Queen of African America, I ask, ‘who are we as African Americans?’  When I was growing up, the narrative of who we were was that of slaves, Jim Crow, Negroes, then, descendants of kings and queens.  Who are my ancestors?  The only truth I know would be the King and Queen of African America.  In this picture the king is in the center; to his right is his mother; to his left are his wife and son.  Women are the foundation of the kingdom.  The grandmother is the seat of wisdom:  family, solidarity, community and power flow from her.”

You can see Thurston’s work in the Bronx: Africa exhibit at the Longwood Art Gallery through May 4th.

Before They Close

I can’t believe that 2015 is almost over!  Since many of you will be leaving soon for other locales to celebrate the holidays, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza or another tradition, I wish you happiness, merriment and peace in this holiday season and in the New Year.  In the holiday spirit, I’ll be taking a bit of a rest, and will resume publishing mid-January.  ‘Til then….

While your intrepid blogger has been active, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to write a fuller review of some of the exhibits I’ve seen, but, in the tradition of the year-end round up, I’d like to offer a few recommendations for shows before they close. 

Over by Lincoln Center the American Folk Art Museum,  is hosting a splendid exhibit “Art Brut in America: The Incursion of Jean Dubuffet,” featuring over 150 pieces by 35 artists from the Collection de L’art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Many of the works – pen and ink, pencil, embroideries, mixed media – are incredibly detailed, highly patterned and very imaginative.  A small but fulfilling show.  It closes on January 10th.

On the evening of January 5th, the Museum will show Bruno Decharme’s film, Rouge Ciel, the story of unconventional artists.  There will also be a talk back with the director after the screening.

Across the way at Lincoln Center, the Library for the Performing Arts has an exhibit about “Alice in Wonderland” in performance and song, which runs through January 16th.  My previous review is here .

At Columbus Circle, The Museum of Art and Design  I caught two excellent exhibits.  Wendell Castle Remastered is a wonderful show of the work of this master furniture maker, designer, sculptor, educator, and acclaimed figure of the American art furniture movement, who deftly merges sculpture and furniture.  The show pairs new works in which Castle combines hand craftsmanship—such as carving, rasping, and finishing—with digital technologies—including 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and computer-controlled milling – with the earlier pieces that inspired them. 

Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward   showcases the work of 12 established and emergent kōgei artists. Kōgei is a genre of traditional artisanal crafts that is associated with specific regions and peoples in Japan.

Figure of a Mother Holding a Child, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th cent.

Figure of a Mother Holding a Child, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th cent.

If you’re at the Brooklyn Museum, the Francisco Oller show, (here’s an earlier review)  continues through January 3rd.  Be sure to leave time for “Arts of Africa, Double Take”  a small but innovative exhibit that pairs African art from the 19th century (and earlier) with works by modern African artists.  The show is grouped around themes such as “The Art of Portraits,” “The Art of Trauma,” “Art that Moves,” which gives it a more nuanced feel than the usual chronological/linear displays that are so often used in museums.  The beadwork, especially on the beaded crowns from Nigeria and the man’s corset from South Sudan are standouts, as are many of the masks and carvings.

If you’re looking for theatre, I’d recommend the revival of The King & I  at Lincoln Center;  if you like dance, An American in Paris   is a delightful show, with some wonderful old songs, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night is compelling.

In the book department, I’m currently reading “The Boy is Gone:  Conversations with a Mau Mau General”  by Laura Lee P. Huttebach.  I picked it up after hearing her speak about her visits to Kenya to understand the General’s story, and make it known to the wider world.  As its title implies, the book recounts the many conversations Ms. Huttenbach had with Japhlet Thambu about his life and his participation in the Kenyan independence movement.  The story is told in Mr. Thambu’s voice and makes for a fascinating look at an episode in African history that has been too often misunderstood and distorted in the West. 

West African Art and Photography

Power Figure from the Vili group, 19th cent

Power Figure from the Vili group, 19th cent

If you haven’t already seen the Kongo: Power and Majesty  exhibit at the Met, put it on your list of things to do before January 3rd!  This show has 150 works from 60 institutional and private lenders a wide variety of statues, masks, bells, finials from the 19th century, as well as some terrific textiles from the 17th and 18th cent.  Many of these objects were worn or used everyday, or had religious or ceremonial significance for the Kongo peoples, but they were collected as curiosities by the Europeans.

Perhaps the best way to begin is with the words of the exhibit’s curator, Alisa LaGamma:  “People tend to oversimplify their understanding of Africa, with this cliché that artworks were never created as art per se. Well, we have to redefine our understanding of what art is. Art is the thing that touches, the things that matter the most in our existence, and [what] inspires us to rise above our ordinary behaviors. Here, we’re trying to move beyond an overgeneralized understanding of Africa and Kongo and explain that it’s home to one of the greatest art traditions that exist.”

I would say the exhibition does exactly that.

The Kongo societies lived in what are present day Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo.   Beginning in the late 15th century there was much interaction between Kongo and European leaders and traders.  In 1491, the Kongo  sovereign had himself baptized João I, and adopted Catholicism as the state’s official religion, fortifying the ties between the regions.

Indeed, at the entrance to the exhibit you’ll find an intricately carved ivory oliphant. This ceremonial trumpet, from the 17th century was a diplomatic gift by King Afonso I of Kongo to Pope Leo X.

Luxury Cloth, 17th-18th century, Kongo

Luxury Cloth, 17th-18th century, Kongo

The textiles in this show are exquisite:  luxury cloths, mostly of woven raffia, with geometric patterns of diamonds and lozenges, as well as motifs such as the endless knot, over and under interlace design, and double knot.  While some of these designs were embroidered, in many cases the weavers employed a sophisticated weaving technique so that the design is raised and the fibres cut, thereby providing texture.  In addition to the cushion covers, take a look at the mpu, or crown hats worn by the chiefs.

Seated Female Supporting Figure with Clasped Hands, Master of Kasadi, 19th cent.

Seated Female Supporting Figure with Clasped Hands, Master of Kasadi, 19th cent.

There’s lots of female power in this exhibit as well, represented by ancestral shrine figures  along with mother and child statues. Those created by the Master of Kasadi often have motifs carved on the mother’s torsos.  There are also images of women incorporated on male leadership insignia, like the ivory staff finials of their staffs of office. Many of the women wear mpu, the crowns of the Kongo male chiefs.  Be sure to read the Met’s blog post of a conversation with musician Angelique Kijo.

Power Figure, Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka, 19th cent.

Power Figure, Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka, 19th cent.

The last and largest part of the exhibit consists of  the power figures or Mangaaka – 15 fierce, mesmerizing male wooden sculptures, created by master carvers – sacred objects in whose eyes and abdominal cavities medicines were secreted.  Carved in response to colonial incursions and the ensuing social upheavals in the 19th century, these  warriors and judges were taken into battle, visited the sick, and settled family conflicts.  The nails and blades hammered into their skin represent a prayer, decision or agreement that was made with the Magaaka.  These symbols of law and order in the Kongo communities were almost completely destroyed by  the European overlords who were decimating their lands – only 20 of them exist today.

There are many other things that caught my eye, such as the  ceremonial drums and bells, as well as the 19th century Kumbe bed panel of 6 seated figures and a dog, which made me think of the famous photograph “Lunch atop a Skyscraper.” 

After this exhibit, you should make your way to the companion show, “Jo Ratcliffe’s Photographs of Angola and South Africa.”    These photos taken between 2007 and 2013 depict the aftermath of the the Angolan CivIl war (1975-2002) and its relation to the Border War (1966-89) fought by South Africans in present day Namibia and Angola.  There are very few people in these pictures, and the use of black and white photography captures the bleakness of the abandoned buildings and landscapes which are often littered with land mines.  These photographs raise important questions about war, occupation, and abandonment.

On the other side of the mezzanine is an exhibit of “Photographic Portraits of West Africa”,  starting in1880 and going through the 1970’s.   Whether group portraits of the local elites or images of individuals, whether taken by professionals or amateurs, all these photos possess a certain formality:  no matter if they’re standing or seated, the subjects face the camera with a very serious expression.  It’s only when we get to photos taken in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that we see sitters who are more relaxed, even smiling.  Photographers such as Malick Sibidé, Seydoud Keïta and Oumar Ka alternated between using plain backgrounds to make their sitter the central focus, and using backdrops with strong prints and patterns (especially vertical lines), which often provided an interesting contrast with their sitters’ clothing.  Closing the show are four larger scale photos: two of braided hair by JD Okhai Ojeikere, and  two self portraits by Samuel Fosso. 

I recommend seeing these shows before they close on January 3rd.

Design in Action

Model for UK Pavilion at 2010 World Expo, by Heatherwick Studios

Model for UK Pavilion at 2010 World Expo, by Heatherwick Studios

If you want to to see how design and real life intersect, get up to the Cooper-Hewitt to see “Provocations, the Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio”   Through photographs, models, drawings you see how the studio of UK architect Thomas Heatherwick has responded to some real-life challenges, such as designing the UK pavilion for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai – and you’ll also get insight into the thought process, which originates in a “provocation” or question the studio asks itself.  In the case of the UK’s pavilion, the provocation arose over 10 years earlier, when, designing temporary garden structures for the grounds of Belsay Hall, the studio asked itself how could it build a structure out of the architectural equivalent of matches!  You’ll get to see the model for the sitooteries they created out of plywood and steel for Belsay Hall in1999. Then go look at the model for the World Expo Pavilion to see how they expanded that theme.

Model for a Rolling Bridge Over the Thames by Heatherwick Studios

Model for a Rolling Bridge Over the Thames by Heatherwick Studios

I especially enjoyed the model for a Rolling Bridge across the Thames.  Based on an actual bridge near London’s Paddington Station that the studio designed, when high ships pass under it, the bridge opens and folds in on itself like a snail.  I was lucky to be at the exhibit when they used the model to demonstrate how this works – it’s really fun to see.  Check the Cooper-Hewitt website   for demonstration times.  In addition to these larger projects, Heatherwick has also designed stores, news stands, furniture and handbags.  They are currently re-designing London’s double-decker bus (in the exhibit)!   Heatherwick Studio has taken on projects around the globe, including the Learning Hub at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, and Pier 55 on the Hudson River in NYC.

Model Staircase, 18th cent. France

Model Staircase, 18th cent. France

Be sure to stop on the second floor, to look at the 18th and 19th century architectural models, especially the staircases in the style of the French compagnonnage movement, whose grace and precision are testament to the talents of the woodworking masters who made them.



Adire wrapper, Nigeria

Adire wrapper, Nigeria

On the first floor, great memories of my trips to Mali and Ghana were triggered by the exhibit of African textiles from the museum’s permanent collection, chosen by the architect David Adjaye. It will come as no surprise that many of the textiles he chose have strong geometric elements. In addition to prestige Kente cloth, you’ll also find adire (indigo and white) cloth

from Nigeria and Gambia – each made with a different technique, as well as an adinkra (symbol-language) wrapper from Ghana, hand woven cottons from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, cut-thread and mud cloths from Nigeria and Mali.  Make sure to take a look at the men’s hats in the room’s niches, which are also part of the exhibit.

On your visit, take advantage of The Pen  – as you go through the galleries, you can touch it to a label about an item, and the information on the item is sent to a unique website, where you can view your “collection” at your leisure;  or you can use the pen’s tip to draw on the interactive tables in the museum.  It’s really, really cool.

Africa in the Big Apple

The African continent is making a big splash in the Big Apple this May;  first up, the African Film Festival  celebrating its 25th Anniversary will be taking place May 1st to the 25th at Lincoln Center, the Maysles Cinema Institute and BAMcinématek.   The festival will feature 50 films and documentaries from 25 countries.  I’ve already seen “Head Gone” a comedy from Nigeria that makes you think about how thin that line is between sanity and insanity, as well as being a sly nod at how an invested bureaucracy fails to help those it should and catches others in its net.  “The Prophesy” is a short about a photographer’s attempt through beautiful and provocative images to increase awareness of environmental degradation in Senegal and Australia.  “100% Dakar” brought back memories of my 2008 visit to that vibrant city, with its portraits of several creative artists from that city working in fashion, music, photography, etc. who are responsible for a booming arts scene, despite obstacles and burdens that would be crushing for less hardy souls.  I left feeling really good and hopeful after all these films, and I can’t wait to see more!

When I left one of the venues at the Asian Art week in March, I thought to myself “why don’t we have an African Art Week?”   Then in April, at the Columbia African Economic Forum, I heard Touria El Glaoui, the Founding director of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair  speak about how she was going to bring the show here!  The Fair will take place for the first time in New York City May 15-17, 2015.  Held at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn  the fair will showcase visual artists from across Africa, and will host artist talks, lectures and film screenings. I’m looking forward to discovering the art that will be on display!

BAM is once again hosting the Dance Africa Festival May 16-25.  Now in it’s 38th year, the Fesitval’s theme for it’s 2015 edition is “Brazilian rhythms, African roots“.  In addition to the performances, there will be film, dance workshops and neighborhood events.

And don’t forget African music.  Afropop Worldwide, a Peabody award winning radio show and internet site covering African music made on the Continent and throughout the world.  On their website you can listen to the programs you may have missed, or download them as podcasts, check out their videos, and read their informative articles.