Abstract colors, More liberties

Detail of a work in progress, mixed media painting, 2017. 

In this blog, I have written extensively about my work, the creative process, and the figurative. It has become more important to dwell on the abstractions that seem to be taking centre-stage all around us.

Uli has shown us a way of looking at space, engaging it in a way that conveys meaning. Lines and shapes loaded with meaning are juxtaposed with negative bleak spaces that totally shriek in their silence.

Turning it around, the artist considers the power of that non-representational element as subject matter, relocation into deep meditation of color fields. Traditional notions of color no longer apply, nor restrain. Thus, color has gained an independence in its total abstraction- color is the new white noise in artistic communication.

The intention to emphasize local identity is lost on the new international that crosses borders at will. Appropriating passing fancies, one must acknowledge them as relevant memories; hallmarks from journeys, with a cognizance for seeing that in front lies an unfamiliar path that may demand new conversations/interactions. Or else, the artist becomes the bogeyman.

The body of work creates new imagery- exploring an eclectic embodiment- a morpheme of spatial representation. Visual elements are turned on their head- harmony, space, contrast, and balance. Everything is introverted to ‘work’ on the mind where it really counts. External superficialities are done away with in a signature economic style- the work is the reason. The reason is the work.

Reality is a dent on the conscience of the creative, holding ransom all notions and actions towards progress. Concurrently, one must hold on to fantasy- to the subconscious world of dreams as a vision for navigating the psychedelic, hybrid subcultures of today’s world. All accepted standards may fail in the circumstances; boundaries and borders melt away (standing only as a physical presence at the most). Time and Space suddenly embrace to become one experience.

Color is language, identity and representational subject serving all intents of the artist. Color can only be interpreted on a personal level, irreverent to all else. Herein lays the bane of the tribal art grouping- this melting point that allows no measures/ standards to retrain the use or absence of interpretative color.

Having learned drawing, we unlearn drawing. Drawing pretends to unravel the spatial feel of things, working as a witness to a ‘presence’. In turn around, drawing is the real presence. These are tangible existential ideas- generally cultures acknowledge an ‘other’ life separate from this one. Man then begins to ask his place- is this or that the ‘real’ life? To and fro, the tussle becomes the very matter of contention between Realism and Abstraction, the signifier and the amplifier.  

Our visual senses mediate in between engaging and nurturing the mind. Truth is- we know nothing. Let all knowledge begin from there to interrogate meaning.

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Conversation in my head: Between Anthony and Richard

IMG_0084webThe words are distinct in my head. Sometimes the two characters change places- its like the flights, the rise and falls of an angel. There are two distinct personalities. Even I mix up their identities at times. You know how we mix up who is the good or bad twins when they are identical?! So, one is called Anthony; and the other is Richard. (As good catholics, my parents got me baptized as a child. I was named Anthony, after a saint. When I got older, receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, I took the name Richard, after another saint I identified with at the time) The conversation is between these ‘two’.

Richard: You really think you are doing work that could change the world?

Anthony: That is not the intent. I want to add to the raging voices screaming for a change. Mine is a little voice among the many.

Richard: Such modesty seems veiled with grandeur!

Anthony: I may be with the lowly, but I can stand to the exalted ones!

Richard: You start your work often like one thinking to blot out, to obliterate the white canvas?

Anthony: There is usually a first struggle. Painting is a fight that goes on till the very end. At the end, one may not even be able to make up his mind.

Richard: One sees familiar bits of the anatomy of your subject, scattered like in a scene of an accident.

Anthony: The accident has already happened in my mind- I merely recollect the evidence! The work is the statement of facts. In our times, the fact is distorted by new interpretations, situations and far away dreams of other lands.

Richard: Don’t you think your time of working could be put to better use?

Anthony: Maybe I could become a banker, or better still, farmer to eat and live? One has those thoughts drifting, interfering with the waving hand. There is the lure of fast money from the nearby art patron also. Selling out is a good idea. One can do better- sell oneself! I give a part of me into the work. The artworks are my children.

Richard: Hmmm, you begin to sound anti-society…

Anthony: On the contrary, I encourage an embrace of the abandoned in our society. Adoption is an excellent option. Traditional ways of growing society are quite valid, and supported. You see some of my themes are based on conjugal love and the family unit. Maybe those that try to broaden traditional definitions of being and society stir up a furor that quakes the foundations of our society?

Richard: One would think you were answering a different question…

Anthony: In trying to be precise, I preempt every question and give answers to one question in one hasty burst. It is the way we have become. There are complexities of interactions happening virtually, intruding into our physical reality.

Richard: You have other thoughts about the use of materials/media in your work.

Anthony: Oh that. I have had these questions about Material and Idea in Art, which is the more important? The physical material on which the artwork is created can be a very important thing for the young artist. I recall gushing at primed, ready to use canvas at an art materials shop as though it was a masterpiece! After buying it, I will stare at it for a while like one confronted by the notion of a dream that suddenly came true. The idea of the material would intimidate, freeze all intuition. The Idea is a different thing. Without the gift of inscribing the idea, the artist would become but a good craftsman. I don’t say that this is a bad thing- good craftsmanship. One should try to add it in one’s work. But importantly, brood over the idea, incubate it, wait for it. The idea usually comes before the material. Sometimes, I use what is on hand. The idea must be grasped and represented for posterity. It has to get out there. This thing about the importance of the material is rubbished when one realizes that even the must durable materials can be destroyed with poor care! In a roundabout way, the most fragile material can last longer if given proper care. As the artist, I stand with the idea first. Is the idea weakened because the material is not up to standard( quite a subjective idea that has no fixed boundaries)? The way Time acts on an artwork is another thing! Even that becomes included in factoring how one wants his work to be perceived. The artist may wish for the physical work to deteriorate with time, organically. Or allow the owner to choose how the work lives, or dies, or is presented in the future. Its really like when I have unrolled a canvas painting and sold it. I wont follow the buyer to a frameshop to put a frame around it.

Richard: This is too much of an explanation…

Anthony: Sorry, explaining can take some time. Let me go and continue my painting.

Richard: You say it like it is food.

Anthony: It’s not far from it.

Richard: Let me think about what you have said.

My interview with Anna

IMG_0480webThis is an interview I had with artist Anna Mapoubi, artist and owner of the online magazine www.africafuturistic.com. We became friends in 2016 in Dakar during the last Art Biennale. Her works were exhibited at the main pavilion of the biennale. Originally from Cameroun, Anna lives in Paris.

Anna: Hello, how are you? I return to you for the continuation of my interview. As I explained the aim of this online magazine is to offer Anglophone or Francophone Africans the opportunity to discover surprises. Many young Africans are not interested in culture in a broad way, apart from their musical universe, because there is very little text, and magazine accessible for free. The goal is to create a large contemporary archive for free. There are several headings. I would like to introduce you to the People Inside section, this section talks about the artist, but without insisting on his works, but talking about the human, and especially to give more poetry to see, while talking about his job.

 

I love your work, your personality, and having a Nigerian artist in this section will be an honor. The goal is also to collaborate with other critics in Nigeria, because writing is lacking. If you have notes, texts already written by other critics, they will complete our interview. Here are the main questions:

To begin our interview, I would like you to introduce our readers by explaining your vision of a futuristic Africa since the dawn of time.

Anthony: The future of Africa is in unraveling the treasures of the past. Africa has so much undocumented history and so many warped narratives in archives that see Africa as The Dark Continent, a colonialized, vanquished people! More often, outsiders who look in with an air of assumed superiority tell the narrative coming from/ about Africa. I want us as Africans to look backwards- Sankofa (Ghana), Natural Synthesis (Nigeria/Uche Okeke). We must rediscover our heritage and start, like Achebe suggests, telling our own stories! And so, the field of possibilities for the African is vast. We can only start telling our story from where we find ourselves- in the centre of an internationalized world! This is joyful, liberating to find discover that we have so much raw material to work with in Africa!

Anna: What definition do you give to Art? And how do you perceive Contemporary Art?

Anthony: Art is the intention to communicate that moves a child to action. Suddenly, Art has grown in presence because of the opening of the world to new ways, of Neo-internationalism. Art is the beginnings of the reason for creating action(s) that affirm, condemn or suggest. Art has an open-ended meaning since we allowed pop, advertising, video, performance, installation, and photography. As the meaning of what can be called Art has expanded, so also, (has) our appreciation of its importance. We (artists), thus become custodians of this gift. It is a humbling task, as we only must show others outside the aesthetic, the artistic side of life, which occurs naturally around us all.

Anna: When did you know that you were devoting your life to art?

Anthony: It started with my ability to draw from life, or from stories of the Bible. The Jehovah Witnesses’ My Book of Bible Stories was very popular growing up in the eighties. Then I would look to the skies and somehow ‘see’ scenes from the Bible stories we had read. When I tried to share these visions verbally with playmates, they didn’t see what I was saying. I then started drawing pictures of the things I was seeing. Though they did not see what had earlier inspired my work, they enjoyed that I could show these things clearly. So, Art became my personal interpretation and voice for speaking, communicating. Later I started drawing portraits from photographs in the family album. They loved it. I saw that I could get paid for doing it. So I said, Why not? Though my father had groomed me to take over his law chambers as his first son, I made a deal with him that I would study Law after graduating from Art School. When I was done at Nsukka, I told him I was ready. But he told me that there was no need, as lawyers don’t earn a good living!

Anna: As an artist, how will you define yourself? How did you reach the finalization of your fingerprint?

Anthony: A living artist will be most foolish to try to define himself- he is still on the journey! Again, the answer to your question will preempt the art historians; will take on their role. I am still learning, still being excited and overwhelmed by the myriad stimuli in our present world! Sometimes I have a feeling of ‘another bodily existence’- I see myself as one who is just approaching a door of discovery; sometimes I feel that the main ideas I will share with the world is close, that I am almost there! In horror, I shake myself away from such thoughts like someone who is on his deathbed making his will, his final wishes. Actually, I am not near any ‘finalization’. There are worlds/ world-views that I have not experienced. Being African, I have so many uncrossed borders, so many spaces that may never allow me access. So, I am in the process of finalizing my vision. Maybe that would be the way to understand my place in the world better.

Anna: What emotions stimulate you? What is the main work of your creation?

Anthony: Emotions? Emotions are our response to the stimuli of living, our answer to being alive! There is so much. An important thing for me is about relationships, about sharing our niche with others. Themes like love, chaos, how we manage our space all crop up in my work. I am also intrigued by perception of others- I look and it appears more like it is a mirror, not another story that I see. Generally, in my work, the people all wear masks, as it happens in real life! We put up appearances appropriate with the time and place we find ourselves in. The face thus becomes a mask that contorts to express emotion, ideas. A mask is tied with performance- so it has a timeline for appropriateness. Then it is discarded. So, I love the fleeting, whimsical, playful moments. I communicate this-no?

Anna: What is the view of your work by the public, by the artistic community?

Anthony: The public is such a huge audience for one to pretend to know their mindset about One’s work. The people I have met usually see me as that Nsukka artist who has continued painting for this long! It is quite a difficult thing, knowing that Art receives very poor appreciation/ sponsorship from African governments. The economy of our countries is struggling from internal problems of graft, poor leadership, and questions about tribal/ ethnicity to even think of our shared art history/ cultural heritage! I have continued to produce work with the support of family and a small, dedicated group of collectors who seem to be amazed by my new work. The thing is, my work is a child of this daunting society. My work thrives on all the chaos, all the negativity that should kill the creative spirit. It acts differently on me, like one getting high on some banned substance! I throw back my angst at my audience. This audacity against the odds seems to delight them; particularly the privileged ones who may afford to collect my work. For them, it becomes a charity done to society- to show them all that has gone wrong. At other times, of course, my themes celebrate the mundane, ordinary living. I stare at a clay cup, and it transforms into something golden. That is the sort of alchemy that I want to achieve at all times through my work.

Anna: Ongoing projects? Currently, where can you discover your work?

Anthony: Ongoing projects? Well, I am working on so many things now- there is the group exhibition coming up in Lagos- Art X; then I am preparing for DakArt 2018 and a solo exhibition for that year. In between, I have commissions for paintings, and the occasional portrait coming. This seems a good time to work, generally. The small group of collectors is responding quite enthusiastically to my work since I relocated from Lagos to my village Oguta. I now have more time to concentrate on my work.

Nigeria’s huge population and diverse ethnic groups make it such a culturally rich place to live in. There is so much music, festivities and the topography shows such a diverse space where the people have adapted their architecture, culture and traditions to survive. Nigeria has the highest number of ethnic groups. Where does one start any journey through it? Each locality has its attractions. In Lagos there’s the New Afrika Shrine, there are the festivals- Eyo etc. There are the cosmopolitan spaces like Lagos Island with its clustered architecture and the beaches of Lagos! Seeing Nigeria may actually take a lifetime! I decided not to leave Nigeria for other Countries this year, just to look around a bit- I have lived all my life here and I still haven’t seen much!

Anna: Could you tell us about other places touching Nigeria? For example music, design, writer, shopping, galleries, food (foufou) etc.?

Anthony: I read Fine and Applied Art at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, majoring in Painting. Personally, I think the educational system training our youth is flawed. For instance, in teaching Fine Art, I am not sure there is any measure for judging Art as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Well, the educational system Africans inherited from the West (I can speak for Anglophone Africa) did not acknowledge the traditional, cultural and local educational systems already in place when the colonials came. They came with that air of superiority that banned or banished all other knowledge that they saw as primitive, archaic or evil. After all, they were bringing ‘light to the Dark Continent!’ So we find our artists being unrecognized/ or pushed into obscurity in the discussion of Nigerian ancient masterpieces. Our Art history is full of beautiful artworks that are labeled ‘artifacts’, anonymous works that only have location tags, or are associated with a certain culture or tribe. We have masterpieces that date as far back, and rival work of others from other civilizations on earth.

Anna: You can also tell us about your training, formation school in Nigeria, the school and the artistic training in Africa, the fundamentals and the foundations of the African school (like that later we can make a dossier on aesthetics and Art in Africa)

Anthony: Places? You can start with my village Oguta. It is on the shores of Oguta Lake, the second largest lake in Nigeria! The lake has a confluence with the Ulashi River that empties into the Niger River. Beautiful sight! Then there are the colonial trade posts at the shore of the same lake, the capsized gunboat from the Nigeria/Biafra war, the shrines of Mami-wata (the Lake Goddess) Mami-wata is the half-woman/ half-fish (mermaid) worshipped by people all down the west African regions- from Nigeria, Benin, Togo downwards.

Every village in Nigeria has its own color, culture, foods etc. It is so multi-diverse and rich that it can only be experienced to understand it! A Google search would explain more explicitly. I don’t have the time to even begin.

You can ask about my village. I may answer a bit. But all of Nigeria? No. It will take too much time! Documented history and so many warped narratives in archives

NB: Here is the facebook link to africafuturistic.com- https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=africafuturustic for more of such African artists and their stories.

 

Thinking Art, Tinkering with Life

l1142897In secondary school I did not really worry about the Art class assignments. Other things preoccupied my mind- playing around the small stream on the road leading to the staff quarters, or just wandering about in the huge patch of land beside the staff quarters where we also dropped bomb (defecated), slept, or just dodged being part of clean up exercises. Life was too interesting to waste it in class. It was the memories of life that I relayed in my artwork. The colors, the emotional stimuli all gave meaning to form and representation.

In university days, I found an easier way around it. Each assignment or exam question seemed like a hide and seeks game. The lecturer taunted the students to do a kind of mind reading, to find out what he thinks. I would search for all possible answers for most of the duration of the exercise, and in a few minutes I will be done. In the real world, the intent has not changed much. One will be on point more often, if one stays with the prevailing current. The work can depart from there into dreamland. Success comes at a price. Positions must be interchanged on the road.

 

Mathijs Lieshout: Conquering Voids

FB_IMG_1468832997334Man has that strong compulsion to build, to bring something new to fruition. Man here refers to Mathijs Lieshout, a Dutch artist presently residing in South Africa. He moved there when his wife Marieke got a job there.

Mathijs worked in a room with Meghan Judge, a South African artist. There were many artists working in different media and styles in the huge studio space on the third floor of Anstey’s Building, 59 Joubert Street. Mathijs struck me as a very busy man, with sheets of tracing paper and partially coloured papers filled with dark, straight lines scattered all round the smaller cubicle. Looking closely, the drawings reminded one of architectural sketches.

Mathijs Lieshout was more interested in the process of building, than with building with a function in mind. He would go into a finished building, and literally occupy the void within with his structure/work. As a student, his works for the university’s coursework went counter to what his professors were used to. And as with many institutions of formal learning where new knowledge struggles, he flunked his fourth year courses. Not to be deterred, he moved to the Painting section where the head of the department seemed intrigued by his ideas.

In that period, while his classmates were interested in making paintings in the traditional sense-as something that can be collected and shared amongst individuals, he turned his studio into an art gallery of sorts and invited his classmates to display their work! In a sense, his student work was more interested in recreating the process and relocation of artworks, than with the making of art. The result-he studied Painting without creating one painting for review! Yes, he still graduated formally as an artist. Talk about artists getting artistic license! Education became what it should really preach- a flexible use of established criteria to analyze new data, without stifling it with outmoded ideologies.

Since then, the happy fellow has moved on in life, building process-based structures that look like gigantic nests in spaces- a shopping mall, an open forest, etc. The performance of building fixates his mind, like a theatre performance solely preoccupied with putting up a good show, irreverent to the morale. The message is in the process of building.

A year ago, when he arrived in South Africa, he tried working in Pretoria but felt the vibe of the city was not inspiring enough. He kept on returning to Johannesburg, walking around the spaces. He finally settled there, and soon started making sketches for an upcoming project at the Johannesburg City Library.

The huge library is housed in a 1930’s Italianate building designed by John Perry. The collection grew from the initial contributions of a group of prominent South Africans in 1889 to have over 1.5million books in its shelves. For the artist, it has an extremely rich cache of art books, and is called the Michaelis Art Collection. The library also had a small studio for artists attached to its façade. Mathijs Lieshout had found his space! He started working with the young artists there- Bongi Nxasana, Mongezi Ncombo, Lungi, Thumi, David etc. There are more names, as some of these artists come and go freely. Its all well. First names would suffice, for now. The artists have total freedom over the work they produce. They take responsibility. That is the flexible relationship that Mathijs prefers when working with students.

After a while, he and his friend George Togara decided to open an art gallery to help promote and sell the works of these young artists. They found the ideal space for their budget. The gallery is called Togara and Lieshout, on Arts On Main, Maboneng. They are open only on Sundays with the rest of the market, but he hopes to stay open on other days in the near future.

In the interim, Mathijs got approval from the library to build two structures in the spaces between the 1930 building and the renovations of 2012. The initial drawings are on display to the public. It shows a structure made of light, treated wood, joined in shafts rand rising from the ground floor to spiral across the elevators. One can imagine it- a maze of ochre wood waving in the air, breaking the overhead light of bulbs into sharp shards of broken light. The imagined space conjures an idea of sound being distorted by the interference. The artist takes advantage of the space that the architect has left off.

Mathijs Lieshout’s work, by its mere creation, counters the notion of building with reason, or functionality. This references some of the structures built in certain ancient civilizations whose function or purpose are yet to be fully understood. We can only speculate. So does Mathijs, questioning the space, engaging the voids. That is important enough.