THE SCULPTURES OF PROMISE LAGIRI: Authenticity, Contemporaneity, Power and Identity

It has been 5 years since I opened Boys’ Quarters Project Space and on the occasion of this anniversary I am delighted to be presenting a series of works by Ogoni sculptor Promise Nenyien Lagiri at the gallery. Promise Lagiri is a carver and artist that hails from Ogoniland, more specifically the Eeken Community of Baabe Kingdom. A predominantly rural farming area located an hour outside of Port Harcourt City, Ogoniland consists of 6 kingdoms and 111 villages and is famous not just for the problems associated with the oil extraction that has taken place there since the 1950s but also for its unique carving traditions. Promise is 50 years old and has been carving since the age of 12. Although he is employed in an administrative capacity at a local charitable organization, he is one of the busiest carvers working in Ogoniland today.

I met Promise in 2014, several months into my return to Port Harcourt and Ogoniland, to begin a body of work about the region. Most visitors to the Niger Delta either work in the oil industry or visit in a journalistic or NGO capacity to cover the fall-out associated with the oil industry. However I was there as an artist and I was looking for a different way to map and navigate my ancestral homeland and place of birth. I was not looking for stories about oil bunkering or militancy. I was after something else: culture. I decided to travel from village to village to find out who the carvers of Ogoniland were. After traversing much of the 1000sq km of Ogoniland two carvers stood out as ones that were busy and active in their communities. Lenu Naagbiwa of Boue and Promise Lagiri of Eeken. Out of the two it is Promise Lagiri who expresses something of the history and tradition of Ogoni carving in his practice. Promise is a quiet, calm and modest man. Extremely likeable and easy to be around. A man of few words, part of his energy seems reserved and inaccessible. He is committed to traditional methods such as carving from one block of wood only (never nailing different elements together even in tall, complex masks); he is notoriously choosy about the sorts of wood he sources; he is patient, always ensuring that the carved object is dried thoroughly before embarking on painting to prevent termite infestation and he is committed to using natural dyes instead of the car paint that some carvers have taken to using today when decorating their works. The styles he creates are in line with a powerful heritage and seem to embody a particular spirit of Ogoni. Modern Ogoni mask-making and carving can veer into the ghoulish or even cartoonish. But with Promise there is refinement, delicacy and potency. A sense of connection to something deeper that is revealed in its lines and proportions. There is also genuine personality. You form powerful connections with masks and figurines he has made. After every visit I come away with at least one piece I’ve forged an instant bond with, feeling like I’ve laid claim to a treasure that was somehow always mine.

I consider this breed of contemporary traditional Ogoni art hugely important. It is the product of a fascinating history. Ogoniland, with its highly fertile alluvial soil, was known as the breadbasket of South Eastern Nigeria and for centuries it is thought that Ogonis supplied provisions for slave ships about to set off over the Atlantic from as far back as the 18th century. For this reason the Ogoni people evaded capture by slavers because they were needed to farm. In addition, due to our geographical position set back from the Atlantic coast, we had little to do with the British until 1901. We resisted their advances after that date and did not finally submit to the British until 1914 when they destroyed our centrally important Gbenebeka shrine. So whilst the people of Bonny on the coast have experienced generations of Christianity and Western education, the Ogoni have maintained far more of our pre-colonial culture than many other peoples of the area and this is evident in the uniqueness and potency of our artistic production. So for this reason we put a spotlight on this work. They are avatars of resistance. This history is alive in the work of Promise Lagiri. His commitment to tradition does not feel in any way unimaginative or mechanical, his carvings often feel urgent and alive. And in many ways their existence is miraculous considering the myriad obstacles that Promise finds himself facing as he practises his craft.

The pieces I buy most often from Promise are karikpo masks. The karikpo mask represents a mammal – most often, but not always, the antelope – and is worn on the front of the face. Karikpo masquerade is historically performed during the planting and harvesting of crops in order to ensure fertility. In the past it was played as a form of entertainment at the Ogoni end of year which is the 7th month of the calendar year. Today it is played at different events and mostly for entertainment. A special drum known as kere karikpo is utilized and the dancers take on some of the characteristics of an animal such as shaking the head and pawing the ground. They also famously perform feats of great agility like cartwheels and somersaults – which are particularly hazardous when the tall horned masks are worn.

In the first gallery we are confronted with ten such karikpo masks. Three of them (ones marked out with black horns) represent very old style Karikpo masks. The rest are more contemporary. There is less realism in the older style mask and the eyes are carved as crescents or long diamond shapes, representing more the idea of an antelope. The newer style masks feature slightly more realistic representations of the animal and the eyes have hooded lids. At least in Promise’s creative universe. 

But overall karikpo mask styles are exceptionally varied. Promise is able to deliver a range of styles and he is well-versed in the history of carving. But they are all in his language. You perceive his hand in any style that he carves. Promise himself as well as his works are connected to some sort of spiritual and historical layer of Ogoni life. His own grandfather, Korkege Isaah, was a master carver and Promise cites him and another early 20th century carver named Izuuga Korobee as his greatest inspirations. I asked him about his religion and he stated that he follows the traditional religion, i.e. he is animist and not Christian. This seems significant. The carvers that become Christian tend to give up mask-making altogether. But one wonders what else they receive from the traditional religion that informs the work. I wonder if they aren’t in some uninhibited communion with the spirit of the land. In fact, Promise states plainly that some of his inspiration come “from dreams and from the water spirit, Mami Wata. She reveals works of my forefathers to me through dreams and in return I offer sacrifice to her annually”. Promise’s works give embodied form to our past. They reveal a deep connection with the land and are expressions of an environmental spiritualism. They are also benign.

Karikpo might not be the most spiritually heavyweight tradition in its jovial playfulness. It is not invoking any major animist spirit. However it is profoundly environmental. Mask-makers are keepers of culture. Code keepers. To carve an animal and to dance an animal encodes them into our corporeal as well as cultural being. Carvers also document natural life in Ogoni. As the human population has grown and as the oil economy has asserted itself, wildlife has become scarce. These masks inadvertently document the fauna that have existed in Ogoniland. Forest elephants, monkeys, lions, alligators all used to exist in the Niger Delta. I myself have never seen an antelope in Ogoniland but Promise assures me that they are still there. He encounters them when he is roaming the forest searching for the right wood for his work. Then there is the relationship to tree life that is a part of mask-making. Chopping down a tree may, on the surface, seem to show a lack of reverence for the environment. But the hunt for the right tree or wood actually enhances local knowledge about the resources that exist and encourage resource management. Moreover, the carving industry is a small and sustainable one. 

Karikpo masks are mostly decorated with paint, especially for local Ogoni clients. But in this show we are displaying them partially painted in the case of the old-style masks. As for the newer style masks they are only stained. This contrasts with the second gallery where we see a variety of other masks and figurines freshly painted in three native dyes: white, created using nem a kind of edible clay; black, created using Yan Aghon leaf (also known as detarium microcarpum or tallow) and red which is made from ibeedo, a local seed. These figurines also form an important part of his practise. There is the remarkable breastfeeding figurine known as “Waakoo” which, according to Promise, was originally commissioned by a specific family, the Ruben Nama clan, from before he was born, to show appreciation to mothers and is meant to encourage and remind mothers of this present generation to breastfeed their kids sufficiently at least for a year and three months. The Ka-alu of Eeken Community in Ogoni (Promise’s community) dance with it in masquerade to honour major Ogoni deities including Yor-Gua and Gbene-beka. (Gbene-beka is the founding mother of Ogoniland. It was her shrine that was destroyed by the British in 1914).

Then there are the remarkable face masks Nwibee – which feature the famous Ogoni sculptural trait of an articulated jaw – with the full human figure stood atop of the face. These are freshly painted in bright white, black and red. These masks commemorate heroes and heroines of the community. Promise states that “the honoree could be a good drummer or a woman who has demonstrated great bravery. Couples are also honoured in this way. I use my work, especially this mask, to pay tribute to my forefathers who were able to establish themselves in a particular way that affected their environment or community positively.” In most cases, the figure on the mask is the full body representation of the face it stands on. These masks are, generally, not worn during masquerade. People that request and buy these masks use them in their shrines. But there are some exceptions. Cultural groups such as the Koromu and Pogobere group use Nwibee for masquerade but tend to perform with simpler masks that do not feature the figure on the facemask. There is, however, a cultural group called Waalo who play their masquerade with the entire mask. These masks and their local uses belong to a world that sounds like it might have died out a long time ago. But it is still in existence in the Ogoniland of 2019. This style of work is alive and functioning now. The freshly-painted quality we are presenting deliberately underscores this contemporaneity.  

Traditional art is alive in Ogoniland but it is also under threat. Masquerade is still played regularly but Christianity has a firm grip on the Ogoni people like much of Southern Nigeria and many Christians see masquerade as heathen and anti-Christian. Indeed Promise often fields visits from local evangelists who petition him to stop making his work. Belief is of course not so cut-and-dried. There are those that are Christian in name but still hold animist beliefs or indeed Christians that still fear the perceived power of these objects and the non-Christian spirit world. There is also neutrality. During Christmas and New Year in the villages, you will see a plethora of masquerades being performed. People young and old wear their finest and most colourful attire and roam the villages. Many are recording the festivities on their cheap android phones and tablets, suggesting an appreciation but also perhaps a psychological distance. Indeed during the opening weeks of this exhibition we have regularly witnessed young people taking selfies with the work and all have stated they enjoyed the show, even if they identify as Christian. They do not decry the masquerade or masks but they do not attribute much power or emphasis onto them either. These visitors have, so far, seen this exhibition as a positive way of getting to know local culture and history. (The work, despite it being created this year is seen as ‘historical’). Overall most young people do not want to fish or farm or get involved in carving. They are not interested in rural life. They want city jobs. None of these industries have young people taking up the mantle. The average age of a Nigerian farmer is above 60. Fishing as an industry is dying due to river pollution and low yields and when it comes to carving, Promise says he has trouble retaining apprentices. Ogoni carving is, in fact, a dying craft. Promise is one of a reported eight carvers operating in Ogoniland. It is only when a mask “dies”, is lost or stolen that a new one is requested. The local market for carved objects is therefore limited.

Boys’ Quarters has never before ventured into exhibiting traditional forms of art-making. The Port Harcourt and Niger Delta art scene is focused mostly on painting and some modern sculpture and we have reflected this in our program. We have also shown video art, watercolors and some conceptual photography from national and international artists. But the gallery and its umbrella organisation The Mangrove Arts Foundation exist to explore and support all modes of art making in the region (and to mix in and promote highly contemporary modes into local practises). The idea being to re-invigorate story-telling from the region, build cultural capital and radicalise concepts of environmentalism. We want to tease out and nourish the sinews and connections to environment that exist in the Niger Delta rather than emphasize fissure and disruption (the sort of disintegrative storytelling that our history with oil necessitates). These sculptures by Promise Lagiri are a living embodiment of a connection to land that is important to recognise. To use. They are a vivid part of our art ecology. We must therefore celebrate this type of art production. 

But placing this contemporary traditional type of work, in this kind of art space, at this time, when the issue of restitution of African objects residing in Western institutions is being taken very seriously, is not insignificant. It raises a lot of important questions about our relationship to such cultural production. Questions that, once answered, will inform our own approach to museology. This contemporary traditional art functions differently in Ogoniland (where they are accoutrements to performance and not artworks) and differently again in the white cube galleries of Boys’ Quarters Project Space where they are being displayed as artworks (but contrary to the way these works are displayed in the West are not presented anthropologically and are not geographically othered, because they were made locally). The questions we are asking are: what are the desires and limitations of the storytelling coming from traditional Ogoni objects? Can these objects really represent Ogoni people today given the patchwork of beliefs surrounding them? What stories are they telling? Can an object represent a people at all? Are they aesthetic objects or moral ones? What makes them powerful? What makes them valuable? Are they art? It is also vitally important to confront the contemporaneity of this practice. Contemporaneity forces us to investigate how – locally and internationally – we truly relate to this form of cultural production. What belief systems must be adopted to appreciate Promise’s works? What does it mean to make this kind of pre-modern work today?

I will start by examining the storytelling these objects engage in when shown as artworks at Boys’ Quarters. Placing this show in this gallery performs an important service: we are sharing masquerade practices with other Niger Delta peoples. Telling each other our stories. By presenting work in Boys’ Quarters, in the city of Port Harcourt, we are allowing other tribal ethnicities to get acquainted with indigenous masking cultures they may not have seen in real life before. This exhibition also offers viewers the chance to see the masks close up, even for Ogonis that might have witnessed masquerade. During masquerade there is little opportunity to get close to the masked dancer. This is partly because of the furious dancing and also because masquerade societies actually prefer people not to come too close. Mystery must be maintained. After the performance is finished the mask is locked away. There are other reasons why masks may not be engaged with directly. When the villagers in question are Christian they purposely stay indoors to avoid the masquerade when it is being played. Curious Christians will not go against their peers and join the festivities though they may harbor desires to. There are other kinds of superstitions that prevent people from looking at masks during masquerade. One is that pregnant women should not watch masquerade for fear that the unborn baby may look like the mask. Then there are the masquerade performers that wield machetes like the Ikpong masquerade of Kpean community of Ogoniland. The very real threat of violence is another reason people maintain a distance. According to Boys’ Quarters gallery manager Dumnwii Fadeh, “these kinds of fears do not allow people to have direct access to the mask and to appreciate the details. However these masks and figurines are viewed as more accessible within the gallery. The superstitions, fear and secrecy surrounding masks are diffused. It becomes a work of art and not something to be afraid of. Here in the gallery people have the peace to enjoy it. There is more of a relationship and closeness. You can even have selfies with the work.” Are we destroying the value by allowing people to get close? Dumnwii believes the opposite is true. “We are allowing viewers to see the artistic aspect. Art makes you appreciate the value of what always used to be a secret. This show is actually bringing masking closer to audiences. People are enjoying it as art.”

Though audiences are enjoying the sculptures at Boys’ Quarters and finding connection with their local culture, the work in this show would, paradoxically, be deemed “inauthentic” by Western traditional African art experts. It is these sorts of cultural clashes that incite an exploration into the place of these objects in the world. But why do I consider the Western gaze given that Boys’ Quarters is an art gallery based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria? I do so because these objects are already international, global icons. Ogoni carvings have an international audience and voice. Many objects are found in private collections and encyclopedic museums in Europe and America and have been for a century. Therefore to consider the power of these objects fully we need to contextualise them internationally as well as consider the Ogoni gaze (which in itself is not a monolith). Furthermore for me, the curator of this show, an Ogoni woman brought up in the west, both the masks in vitrines in the West and the masks in performance in Ogoniland are part of my lived experience. They naturally sit in dialogue with one another and I am forced to reconcile them within myself. The other reason we consider the global gaze for this work is because of the Niger Delta’s geopolitical standing. We provide the world with a substantial portion of it’s petroleum needs and moreover the territory is still a focal point for activists and thinkers in the fight against big oil. Ogoniland in particular came to global prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s as the call for Shell Oil and the military government to rectify their polluting, under-developing and genocidal practices in the region intensified leading to the internationally denounced execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 other Ogoni men. Like it or not our art work is connected to this history and is in some way freighted. This connection is emphasised by the fact that Boys’ Quarters is located in the former office of global environmental icon Ken Saro-Wiwa. Whatever happens at Boys’ Quarters is designed to be in conversation with the world. It is what I call a ‘glocal’ space. It is at once a local art gallery but also an international art space that also uses social media platforms to share its exhibitions. All the above gives Promise’s work an expanded geographic and psycho-geographic canvas and, with that, some complicated cultural terrain to navigate.

A quick qualifier: when considering the global view of this work in this essay I need to establish parameters. I will be considering principally the views of Western European and white American connoisseurs with a specific interest in African traditional art. This is because the experience of these objects in the West is filtered through their value system and we engage with these works physically in museums and galleries curated by these same connoisseurs and academics. This demographic has also been writing about this world for around a century, so there is much concentrated evidence to consider. Their gaze does impact the fate of these objects to some degree. But it is a given that the viewer could be anybody. An English solicitor who practices druidism. A Japanese graphic designer. A Maori nurse. An Algerian artist. A Jamaican novelist. A Senegalese taxi driver. An Australian aboriginal painter. Their views are ultimately equally as valuable but not a part of this thesis.

It was my deliberate desire to present aggressively new, freshly-carved sculptures and figurines. I did this in order to gauge responses to its newness and help establish what values underpin our own museological approach within the Niger Delta. Contemporaneity is not an innocuous quality when it comes to traditional African art. The Ogoni pieces that exist in foreign museums and private collections (mostly in Europe and the United States) were made in the early 20th century or late 19th century. Antiquity and its visual signal (patina) is prized and contemporaneity is looked on with suspicion. Indeed, traditional art has to pass itself off as antiquity in order to gain access to elite collectors’ circles in the West and, subsequently, museums. This is because of an important foundational tenet of the Western approach to traditional African art. This tenet holds that authentic Africans – and by extension authentic objects of African art – no longer exist. ‘Real’ African art apparently consists of old objects which were manufactured in the pre-colonial era for indigenous use. Both the museum and the art market thrive on this particular vision of an African world, whose rapid spin into decay is set immediately in motion by the contamination of Western contact. This emphasis on age and denial of the validity of newer works results in a limited supply which is beneficial to those who have a stake in controlling the African art market. However it also denies the artistic capacity of living carvers whose contemporary objects are now inauthenticated. Art historian Sidney Littlefield Kasfir explains how these ideas assert themselves institutionally: “Museums function as official guardians of traditional arts as well as in some cases, arbiters of what qualifies as contemporary, ‘cutting-edge’ form. One way in which they avoid having to endure (and explain) the ambiguity of the past co-existing in the present is to insist that examples of traditional genres be certifiably old. Contemporary traditional objects immediately become suspect as potential fakes and are forced to pass authenticity tests (typically evidence of wear from local usage before arriving on the international art market) in order to be collectable. In this way, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ become exclusionary tactics in the global art world.” This sits in contrasts with Promise’s ideas. He says: “Masks are replicated to preserve them and also to pass them on to the next generation to come.” For him it is not the age of the mask but the idea of the mask that matters. Replication is preservation. Reproduction does not indicate a loss of value and patina means little as it is really a culturally specific requirement for outsiders. Newness will therefore not prejudice locals to the object because contemporariness does not affect its authenticity. 

It is not just age working against the perceived authenticity of the pieces we are showing in this exhibit. The fact that they are “unused” mean that they are viewed as “inauthentic” by these European connoisseurs. The cult of authenticity regarding African art objects is a peculiar pre-occupation amongst European connoisseurs. In Christopher B Steiner’s magnificent African Art in Transit he writes: “African art scholar Malcolm McLeod defines an ‘authentic’ African art object as ‘any piece made from traditional materials by a native craftsman for acquisition and use by members of local society (though not necessarily members of his own group) that is made and used with no thought that it ultimately may be disposed of for gain to Europeans or other aliens’. And in a similar vein African art appraiser Carl Provos is of the opinion that “An authentic piece must be produced for group use by an artist belonging to it or to a related group; the basic materials … utilized in the creation of the piece must be indigenous to the region, and the object must function within the group in accordance with its traditions.” The relationship between age and usage is slippery. Old objects are desired by collectors but age does not necessarily mean the object has been used. Henri Kamer has pointed out that “fakes” can also be old if they have never been used.

Parts of Promise’s practice actually fulfill the most stringent international requirements for the stamp of authenticity. He is inspired by timeless animist spirits and he makes work for local Ogoni masquerade societies. A clear-cut case according to the beliefs of Malcolm McLeod and Carl Provos. His work for our Boys’ Quarters exhibit, however, does not make the grade because they are made for display as aesthetic art objects and not masquerade. However I imagine Promise scores points for the fact that his operation is at a cottage, bespoke scale. The real scorn is reserved for the category of contemporary traditional art known as handicraft or “tourist art”. Work that is reproduced relentlessly for marketplaces by workshops on a scale far larger than Promise operates. The sort of work that is bought by tourists but looked down upon by connoisseurs. Promise is not a part of this market. Although his work is contemporary and traditional you will not find his work – nor the work of any traditional Ogoni carver – in any of the craft stores that exist in the hotel lobbies, airports and streets of Port Harcourt. In fact a lot of the sleek, polished carvings on offer in these stores come from other parts of Nigeria and other African countries. Even Asia. Ogoni traditional art has not been officially commercialized in the same way as other masking cultures have been. We need more time and resources to conduct the research but it appears that Promise’s works are to be found on the international market. They get there because by far and away his biggest clients are the Hausa men from the North of Nigeria or the occasional French West African buyer who spirit away the majority of the objects he makes to these international markets. These Hausa and French West African merchants have been clients of his family for decades and Promise notes that one of his early buyers (now deceased) also bought from his grandfather. These men make their way to Ogoniland, navigating the villages to buy the work directly from him. They often require that he ‘smoke’ the works after they have been painted (to make them appear aged). Promise does not ask where his works end up but he was once told that some of them get to Togo. I have had to presume that the works enter the international market after that and get passed off as antiquities. I have never even seen Ogoni masks or figurines amongst the offerings of the French West African sellers that come to tour the United States in the summertime at different African festivals or the ones that pitch up outside MoMA or the Guggenheim. So, for now, we may have to conclude that their market is a more rarified one especially as the one place I have seen an Ogoni mask for sale is at Pace African and Oceanic (formerly Pace Primitive) in 2019. The only other place I have encountered them is within museums and the homes of wealthy collectors.

My efforts into investigating the pathways of these Ogoni objects beyond Nigeria were thwarted because Promise would not pass on the contact details of his main buyer and for good reason. This Hausa man is his prime customer and he does not want to disrupt business. Promise has two wives and six children to care for. But time and resources will see us at Mangrove Arts Foundation launch a report to flesh out the pathways of this work.

 

So let us then consider the works that are found in the West. Rightly or wrongly, I am often surprised to see Ogoni artifacts in encyclopedic museums and gallery shows in Europe and America, principally because we are such a small ethnic group. Aside from petroleum these objects are the other quiet but persistent exports of ours that find themselves parked in encyclopedic museums alongside more extensive collections of Yoruba, Malian and Congolese works. Whether stolen or bought fairly the works are there, our diasporans, representing something. What role does this plucky and egregious indigenous cultural output take on on our behalf? What do they have to say to this part of the world?

What traditional African art objects have said to Europeans has changed across the decades. In Western museums the objects underwent a double taxonomic shift – first from exotica and trophies of colonial domination in the “cabinets of curiosities” model to scientific specimens when the newly-founded museums of natural history emerged in the late-nineteenth century. Then following their “discovery” by Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and others in the early decades of the 20th century they were placed ceremoniously into art museums and galleries where they were re-contextualised as art objects. ‘Primitive’ art objects but art objects nonetheless. (Everyday objects such as step ladders and even slings have been convincingly drafted from their utilitarian function to that of art object by Europeans seeking to create a market but within this essay we will deal with masks and figurines). Being considered art should liberate the object as a storytelling device. But there is always the sense in the spaces – at least from my perspective – that the objects are weighted. The encyclopedic and pedagogic functions are still implicit in display. There is always this othering that seemingly cannot be avoided. The displays are designed to conjure an idea of African, Asian, First Nations or Native American life. But they simultaneously produce distance even though the works are present and in front of you. This is because of the type of storytelling these objects are engaged in within these spaces.

I would argue that the storytelling of the African object is primarily the European story of the African object. The African story is there but it is the European story that matters more (especially to private collectors). It is the story of European connoisseurship: which Europeans collected the object and which European institution displayed it. There is the story of European conquest that is still built into the history of its value and storytelling though very much de-emphasised today. What modernists such as Brancusi, Braque and Picasso thought about these objects are a permanent embedded layer in the lore surrounding African objects. This is what gives an African mask its value: it’s European history. The other thing is age, mystery, patina. These are its African values. In patina we see a form of storytelling embedded. It is the story of the mask’s usage in Africa. The way it moved in its society of origin. This suggests an interest in the lives of Africans but actually what the insistence on evidence of usage and patina does is ensure that it remains as artifact. Anthropological curio. Of fixed story-telling potential (from the African perspective). In the context of a European or American museum or collection, the object becomes a symbol of subjugation. It is only European connoisseurship that elevates it into art. And in fact if it was truly seen as art then contemporary iterations should be valued. The insistence that the work be antique suggests this entire market is predicated on its otherness. This is the economy of desire and distance.

Exhibit of work on sale at Pace African and Oceanic. Formerly known as Pace Primitive.

The distance and mystery of the object is further upheld by the fact that we often do not know who makes these African works on display. One European collector reportedly told American anthropologist Sally Price: “It gives me great pleasure not to know the artist’s name. Once you have found out the artist’s name, the object ceases to be primitive art.” Price writes: “In other words, the act of ascribing identity simultaneously erases mystery. And for art to be ‘primitive’ it must possess, or be seen to possess, a certain opacity of origin … When those conditions prevail, it is possible for the Western collector to reinvent a mask or figure as an object of connoisseurship.” In fact in Africa we sometimes collude in this silence. Promise’s Hausa clients do not share his name with the buyers. In fact the work would be more valuable if the artist were long dead (which is really the case universally for art).  This is because mystery is what the European client requires and so mystery is what is supplied. This approach may create a thriving market amongst Western collectors as evidenced by the extraordinary sale price of the karikpo mask sold at Bonhams Auction House in 2017 ($37,500 / N13.5million), but in a globalized world and in a public museum, there is no excuse for a disconnected Africa of the mind, predicated as the displays are on ethnographic pedagogy. These objects have a job to do and yet they are not powerful in advocating for Africans. Much has been made of the irony that many black bodies are restricted, policed and maltreated in Europe and America whereas the objects emanating from the culture from which the black bodies originate are prized. But this does not surprise me at all because these objects do not represent black bodies, culture or thought. They represent European history, culture, thought and – I would argue – conquest. Despite their “elevation” to and liberation as art objects, it is European connoisseurship that redefines the object as art. Not African ingenuity. This robbing of agency happens easily when there is a lack of authorship attached to the objects displayed.

The vogue amongst forward-thinking encyclopedic museums is in the direction of promoting authorship. Curators such as Alissa La Gamma head of African and Oceanic Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, academic and Fowler Museum head Marla Berns, Erica P. Jones at the Fowler Museum of UCLA, legendary academic Robert Farris Thompson and others back this idea of authorship and de-anonymising, where possible, the objects that are displayed in museums. I too am, naturally, in agreement with the idea of promoting authorship which is why I have presented a show centering the artist in question. If you profess to be interested in African cultural production then some respect for those that create the work needs to be demonstrated. This adds more weight to the African end of the storytelling of the object. Otherwise the objects cannot act effectively as ambassadors. They are curtailed, stymied by an idea of Africa promoted by collecting circles. A decontextualized Africa or an Africa of the European mind. When of course there is a very real, very vivid Africa of the present with plenty of surprising stories to tell and hinterland to explore. Even in the masks made in 2019.

To illustrate my point, this is the story of the objects in this particular Boys’ Quarters show: It was not an easy show put together. Exhibitions at Boys’ Quarters never are. But this one presented the kind of challenges that we could not predict. The brief was to make a selection of Ogoni sculptures to fill the gallery. However during preparations for this exhibition, there was a spate of very serious cult violence in parts of Ogoniland. Cultism is rife in Ogoniland right now. Cults are heirs to the Niger Delta militants who were armed by corrupt politicians and who were determined to have access to the oil economy they felt shut out of. Between elections, these drug-fuelled cultists raid and violently ransack neighbourhoods and carry out kidnappings. A scourge that community elders are trying to bring under control. During this recent horrifically violent spate, (there were beheadings) Promise, his family and most of his village were chased out of their homes. After laying low for a couple of weeks we decided to go on a mission to retrieve work during a perceived lull in activity some weeks later. Boys’ Quarters manager Felix Fadeh and Promise snuck back into Promise’s compound only to discover that most of the work he had been working on for this show had been stolen. Only a few items remained. After settling his family, Promise relocated his studio for us to Bori, the central town in Ogoniland and started his work over. The show has been delayed by 6 weeks as a result of the violence. But this local crisis has plagued Promise and his village before. In fact Promise himself has experienced kidnap. There have been times when we have not been able to visit him because of it during my art-making weekends in Ogoniland. But there are other far less harrowing stories. There is the inspiration from the water spirit Mami Wata. The unknown contours of that belief. The story of the offerings Promise makes to her yearly. How does she make herself known to him? The story of his profound connection to his ancestors. How do they appear to him? Then there are many more quiet, subtle, unspoken stories that remain between Promise, his blade and his piece of wood. Stories that hang in the air of the forests he wanders in. All these narratives are embedded in the pristine painted figurines in our exhibition. Alive in the newly-hewn nwibee and karikpo masks.

Modern Ogoni masks have a full life they can communicate if they are listened to. The world around the objects, the Africa that lives contemporaneously, should be encouraged to speak. The new Africa that has been set in motion after the arrival of Europeans still has a relationship to this art. Traditional Ogoni art is still used to deal with this new world and its exigencies. The objects on display in this exhibition continue to reflect animist belief. This has not changed. But these figurines and masks are also emblematic of a society undergoing turmoil resulting from oil exploration. They are miraculous emblems of survival that can take on many emotional projections and reflect something useful and interesting back to the viewer. But present day Africa presents a conundrum and is somewhat of a threat to collectors of traditional African art that are only interested in the Africa of their minds. The pre-colonial ‘unsullied’ Africa. A rigid unchanging Africa which is distant not only in culture but in time and geography. In truth an Africa without people. The Africa they can project themselves onto and re-colonise imaginatively. Not the Africa that is. But these objects, contemporary traditional and antique, could and should be connecting people, not reinforcing and reifying distance and difference.

The storytelling potential of traditional objects face another challenge – at least on the surface – this time from an unexpected source: the contemporary African Art world. If there is contemporary art being made in Africa, art that can powerfully and charismatically tell African stories, why ascribe these traditional masks so much storytelling responsibility? How can this kind of traditional work offer any form of subtle and reflexive storytelling given that it is seemingly unchanging and connected to anachronistic belief systems? Should we abandon any thought that they could be art and turn to the flexible and privileged storytelling powers of contemporary African art for a more up-to-date window onto the continent? And are the carvers that make this work even artists when you compare them with contemporary artists from the African continent and diaspora? Aren’t they, in truth, craftsmen dictated to by tradition and duty, displaying no individual or conceptual creativity?

It is, perhaps, understandable to query the artistic credentials of carvers that reproduce the same work again and again. Carvers whose aesthetic choices are governed by the power of custom. Especially when you have the direct contrast of contemporary African artists operating both on the continent and in the diaspora subscribing to internationally accepted modes of art-making, reinforcing the carvers’ identity as timeless, unchanging, craftsmen. We might also consider the foundational idea promoted by Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro in their book Primitive Negro Sculpture (1926) that those who originally responded to spirit and created the traditions are long dead in any case. That they were the true artists and those that follow are mere imitators. However I want to argue in favor of raising our expectations of these seemingly dormant objects, respecting the temporal and cosmological universe they inhabit and opening ourselves to their power which requires humility and vulnerability. I want to argue that we should consider them as art and not just because European modernists deemed them as such.

Firstly we should query this idea that the work is unchanging. Anthropologist Sally Price writes that there is a growing recognition of the need for subtlety and caution in describing the delicate interaction between individual creativity and the dictates of tradition. There has, for example, been a shift in Ogoni carving over time as we show in this exhibition in the case of karikpo masks. A shift towards more realism. We also see shifts within the development of other Ogoni masks like Ogele masks which borrow from Igbo mask-making and reflect modern day political concerns as well as traditional deities and animals. “Traditional” art is reflexive and it evolves. Perhaps it moves in a different way to contemporary art – it has its own relationship to history and, given that it is inspired by the spirit world, evidently operates in a temporally distinct realm. But it is living nonetheless. As to the issue of individuality, there are thousands of tribes with their own hierarchies and systems of producing art. For example there are no carving workshops in Ogoniland. Carving traditions are passed down individually and – according to Promise – via dreams. The mask makers I met in Ogoniland are all distinct. Promise stood out to me as someone whose practice deliberately reflected history in a very particular way. He also has a highly individuated relationship with his chosen religion. This will affect how the works appear in the wood. No two karikpo masks are ever truly the same, subject as they to his own personal whim. (Even when he is commissioned and directed, Promise and other carvers I have met go their own way and use their own inspiration). As for making works to order, the fact that the work is commissioned should not render it artless. Much great and challenging art over the centuries and in this present day have been the result of commissions. Patronage is vital for any art ecosystem.

Tribal Sculpture from Africa & Melanesia on display at Pace African & Oceanic in New York between May 9th-July 19th, 2019.
On the far right is an Ogoni karikpo mask.

The erudition of the work is seemingly rarely borne out in carvers’ artist statements either written or oral especially if the carver in question is not highly literate. And most especially if they expressly do not want you to know everything about their culture or practice, as anthropologists doing primary research on the continent can likely attest. But there is erudition in the work. Not all carvers are skilled enough to create transcendental work, but the ones that are skilled enough should be called artists. Certain types of contemporary artists almost pathologically question their own medium: pondering the nature of sculpting or painting or questioning the very idea of seeing. They explore materiality. Erudition overflows in accompanying artist statements. All laudable and extremely important approaches. But if this critical approach produces weak or unconvincing work, can we claim that it has reached the heady heights of being considered ‘art’? They have the privilege of claiming the noun “artist” very easily but I would question how many of them produce works worthy of the title.

We can quibble about the increments of creativity within traditionalism and the transcendent qualities of craft-based virtuosity, but for me the nature of the works we are dealing with and their unique aesthetic language is the most important matter at hand. They are operating within an entirely separate ontological framework that excludes white connoisseurship. They are translating something important and producing highly unique objects. The uniqueness is measured in what the object can do. What the object can trigger. How the object exists in the world. The judgement is in the power of the object. Where it can take you in performance or on the altar. Philosopher Souleyman Bachir Diagne writes: “the idea that African art expresses the ontology of vital force is already present in [Senghor’s] thought: he speaks of an ‘ordering force’ which is ‘the vital element par excellence’, thus inviting us to think of sculpture and ontology together.” He goes on: “where orality reigns, art constitutes the writing which allows us to read the metaphysics it transcribes. Art is the evidence of African philosophy and, conversely, we do not attain full comprehension of African art without understanding the metaphysics from which it proceeds.”

So rather than lambast these carvers for not being artists (from a Western perspective) I would rather laud them. They are embodying the story of our unique relationship to the earth and they do not have to conform to Western philosophical approaches to art. They are demonstrating a specific way of engaging creatively with the world. We should be so lucky to capture spirit in this way. It is what I am always trying to achieve in my own practice. To get out of my own way. To channel something greater than myself. To utilize and embody rhythm effectively – so much of my video work at its core addresses rhythm and time – and to have craft be the only task at hand to shape the idea that has come through you. (I am a strong believer in the tangible biology of invisible things such as ideas. Ideas are, for me, living entities. Our job as artists is to be faithful to their biological reality and use craft deftly to shape its embodied material form. Honoring its true nature).

It is the biology of these objects that I am attempting to understand in my own practise. I continue to find traditional African objects mysterious. Their true nature is not, in fact, known to us. African knowledge and information is slippery and moves in ways that are hard to fathom. It presents itself directly to you in some ways but hides its true nature from you also. It is much larger than it presents itself to be. What is passed down exactly? What is the nature of this information? How is this information moving in the world? Even though I am an Ogoni woman who has witnessed objects being made and despite the fact I’ve designed and commissioned masks, worn and danced them, made photos and video art from them, they remain mysterious. Part of my practice is dedicated to broaching this distance, attempting to bring mask-making into my emotional and cross-cultural universe. Extracting new meanings from masking culture. There is Karikpo Pipeline, my five-channel video which features masked karikpo dancers performing over remnants of the oil industry in Ogoniland. Then there is The Invisible Man, a mask I designed and commissioned (not from Promise but from another Ogoni carver Lenu Naagbiwe) to bridge the emotional chasm I felt when confronted with masquerade and to help me transcend the pain of multiple family deaths. There are also the Holy Star Boyz. This is a series of photos that I display in lightboxes that feature two polyutherane masks made from a mould cast from one of Promise’s karikpo masks. (A selection of the Holy Star Boyz works are on display in the exhibition in the Windowall Gallery at Boys’ Quarters).

Holy Star Boyz: Night Watch Men (2019) by Zina Saro-Wiwa

There are also a plethora of African and diaspora artists making work with traditional African art objects. Hugh Hayden, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Romuald Hazoume to name but a fraction. Applying free and privileged contemporary art languages and methodologies towards the mysteries of these objects’ existence. Through their work we see the exploration of the nature of a figurine. An interrogation of the objects’ journey. We see these artists critiquing the objects’ perceived exploitation. Relating masks to modern day concerns. African and diaspora artists today are enhancing the storytelling these objects facilitate and incite. The storytelling is evolving. We talk about masks performing or in performance. I believe artists are asking masks to perform differently now. The new work questions the very nature of what a performance or masquerade is. (This is a step forwards from the museological practice of sharing home videos showing the masks in performance in African villages alive and “in context”. A practice which I find still produces distance and whose videos are often poorly filmed and even more poorly presented in the gallery space). To make these objects more powerful in advocating for black people globally within and outside Africa they need to be contextualized with more specificity and sensitivity. Having contemporary African and diaspora black voices around the work is an important step in the direction of expanding the storytelling of traditional African objects. Fascinating conversations about African history, black futures and the nature of being can be explored. Shedding further epistemological light on the traditional objects. Honoring their agency.

Left to right: Pascale Martin Tayou’s Lubi (2006); Hugh Hayden’s Ark? (2019); Romuald Hazoume’s Internet (1997)

Traditional art is alive. Alive in a manner that we may not understand. To my mind we are witnessing its power at work in the ways that the storytelling around the masks is evolving. The ideas that animate traditional sculptures have a biology and a destiny of their own. At the CMAP Conference at MoMA in Spring of 2019 I sat in on a discussion between artist Kader Attia and philosopher Souleyman Bachir Diagne. The conversation discussed the idea of restitution of African objects in Europe and notions of repair. As part of the discourse Diagne talked about African objects speaking different languages in different spaces. He spoke of the objects having the capability to develop roots of their own. It was a refreshing view and one I share. Sometimes I think these objects have a life independent of its African authors and European collectors. I imagine African masks and figurines possessing a powerful agency of their own. Perhaps this agency can take them to places we have not yet imagined. Perhaps these objects should be more than vehicles for recounting the story of their time and place? Could they say something about the future or a totally imaginary world? Must they be pressed into explaining African life? Does this then liberate the Western collector to imagine whatever Africa they desire if I am free to do so also? And if so, isn’t this the interpretative freedom that European Modernists desired?

There is one area I have yet to consider. The very function that some traditional African objects have as fetish objects. Power objects. I have not broached the idea that they might actually work or the idea that the storytelling emanating from the objects concerns this power and may even be directed by this power. When listening to docents in Western museums or even in Boys’ Quarters talking about the African masks and the animist beliefs surrounding them, they speak of a world of belief that most educated materialists would think of as fantasy. A politeness prevails and the information is absorbed by the audience. But there is the sense that this belief system is one that modern educated, rational, post-Enlightenment and perhaps post-colonial human beings do not partake in. Another reason why this distance with the object prevails. But I completely respect Promise and his animist belief system. And if I am to write this essay from a decolonized and honest perspective, from the perspective of an artist that is not animist but who has had experience in the spiritual side of life (mainly from time spent in Brazil, Cuba and the UK and not, as it happens, Nigeria), this aspect of the life of these objects is something we need to acknowledge, examine and integrate into our thesis on their storytelling powers.

I talked in the beginning about Promise’s work being benign. I find most of his works easy to live with. They do not scare me. They are powerful in terms of their beauty but there is another kind of power they do not wield and are not intended to wield. But not all African masks and figurines are benign. There are masks and figurines I don’t like to look at. Works I would not personally have in my home. Many people are frightened aesthetically of some of this art. (I remember in 2015 overhearing a young African American boy complaining loudly to his mother in the Brooklyn Museum that African masks were “scary”). The question is why? The disquiet these objects inspire is utterly intriguing to me. It is certainly to do with line and form which is fascinating enough in itself. But is it something more? I had an experience recently that made me question the nature of African traditional objects yet again. It was the morning after I had visited the home of a Park Avenue collector of African traditional art. A home replete with carved figurines from all over West and Central Africa. I had woken up then dozed off again during the course of the morning. After dozing off (it did not feel like sleep, more like somewhere halfway between wakefulness and sleep) I became aware I was in some sort of hotel room. I was not in Brooklyn, I was somewhere that seemed sub-tropical. There were shutters on the window and the bed I was on in this semi-dream state was underneath the open window. I remember thinking I was thirsty and a young black concierge walked solemnly up to the window bearing a metallic cup filled with lots of ice and passionfruit juice. He put his hand through the open window to hand me the cup. I took the cup and sipped it. The juice was too intense for me. His hand remained there, hanging through the window. I gradually became aware that he wanted me to take his hand. I did not want to appear rude so I put my cup down and took it. We held hands and nothing happened except a developing feeling inside that this ‘concierge’ was some other kind of entity, not a human being, and wanted something from me. I began to feel scared. I tried to let go but he wouldn’t release me. I felt weak. I tried to tell him to let me go but found I could not speak. At this point I felt like I was awake. But I think I was still in this liminal state between wakefulness and sleep. It was also at this point that I had the strangest sensation I have ever experienced in my life. I felt like I was being physically pulled somewhere. Half my head and my left shoulder felt absent as I was being pulled through an invisible screen. I remember thinking I was either dying or having a stroke. Oddly the pulling did not come from the hand. I had a sense the pulling was actually in my Brooklyn bedroom emanating from my headboard. I was genuinely terrified. I was not awake but I was most definitely not asleep. I was between worlds and I wherever I was being taken on to felt too terrifying to contemplate. I needed whatever was happening to stop and stop quickly. I don’t know how I found the strength but I made myself wake up properly. Suddenly I was back in my bedroom in Brooklyn and very much awake. The experience left me quiet and shaken. This had not been a dream. It was likely just a form of sleep paralysis but the sensation of being removed from my life as I knew it was not what I have experienced before as part of sleep paralysis. As I sat there my mind drifted automatically to the collector’s home I had visited the night before and I couldn’t help but connect my experience to the apartment filled with these figurines and masks. What I’d experienced had been very unusual and specific. Outside my range of spiritual experiences. Of course it could also be my mind playing tricks on me and the connection to those African art objects seems tenuous. But my mind went directly to the African objects nonetheless, which is the issue of significance for me. Not whether the connection was real but the fact I even considered that it might be.

I shared this story with an American curator friend who works with traditional African art in an American museum. Without hesitating she recounted two stories off the top of her head. The stories featured a colleague and a student, both white Americans, that experienced paranormal encounters in America resulting from engagement with objects in the museum in one case and in the other case, studying the water spirit Mami Wata, the same spirit that Promise cites as his inspiration. Stories better than the one I have recounted that connected the paranormal occurrences much more directly with the object or subject at hand. I know there are more such stories. Tales that academics and collectors keep hidden because of the shame associated with belief in this world or susceptibility to it. This is the other kind of storytelling these masks engage in. A hidden storytelling but one that also permeates the lore around these objects. Whether you believe the paranormal encounters associated with these objects or not, what is interesting is the plethora of ways these unique objects are moving and affecting us: we dance with and around African traditional objects; we abuse them and we praise them; we hide them and steal them; we forge them and sell them; make work about them; we pity them behind glass vitrines; we underestimate them; spy them in the corner of our eye, like Picasso, then quietly come to the realization that we have changed our mind about them. We are called back to them. Maybe their work has only just begun. Maybe they chose to be stolen, transacted and transported. Maybe this is their technology for moving around. Maybe they have a job to do. Maybe they have us exactly where they want us.

The African mask or figurine throw up profound storytelling challenges. They challenge us aesthetically, politically, temporally, racially and spiritually. It is time we meet the ontological provocations they present with verve, imagination and boldness. This way they become tools to connect as opposed to tools that divide and reduce. These objects are forcing us to evolve. Perhaps this is their ultimate gift.

Zina Saro-Wiwa
(Summer 2019)

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BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta Martha G. Anderson and Philip M. Peek / Kpone-Tonwe and Jill Salmons UCLA Fowler Museum (2002)

Primitive Art in Civilized Places, Sally Price University of Chicago Press (2001)

African Art in Transit Christopher B. Steiner, Cambridge University Press (1994)

Thinking-Feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South Arturo Escobar Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Universidad del Valle, Cali. (2015)

African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude (The Africa List). Published by Seagull Books, 2012.

Traditional Sculpture from the Colonies Author(s): K. C. Murray
Source: The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 93, No. 581 (Aug., 1951), pp. 258-260 Published by: Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.

Rethinking Tourist Art: The Commodity Pathway Diversion of West African Artifacts by Kaitlin van Baarle (2013) KU Leuven

Ontological Distances: Contemporary Art, African Masks, and Western Museums by Ekaterina Golovko Journal of Contemporary African Art • 44 • May 2019 © 2019 by Nka Publications

The Authenticity of African Sculptures by Henri Kamer