Showing posts from August, 2009

Connoisseurs of Contemporary African Art: Call for Contributions to Online Journal

In addition to the below, this just came around via a Facebook group I’ve joined, the Connoisseurs of Contemporary African Art [this links you to the Facebook group], the right contact I guess would be this address: Anyway, this is the message that came around and might be of interest to you: is an exciting online magazine committed to providing interesting content on art, entertainment, books, life & style and social enterprise due to go live in October 2009. is designed to provide a strong focus on promoting emerging talent across Africa in a range of areas including visual and performance art.

“Weku” means “family” and aims to draw on inspirational stories around Africa and elsewhere to create a healthy platform for discussion.

If you fit the profile of talented artist with some connection to Africa do let us know. We believe that a feature on you and your work will provide you with an opportunity to reach a wider audience.

We welcome the opportunity to discuss this possibility further Possibility of collaboration. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any questions.

The questions we are hoping to ask via email are:

When did you first realize you could paint and who were your professional idols?

What would you say is unique about your work?

Where do you get your inspiration from?

What do you like to do when you're not painting?

Do you have any suggestions to help aspiring visual artists?

Anything else you’d like to add?

We look forward to the chance to have you featured on

Yours sincerely

Connoisseurs of Contemporary African Art

NB: We will require a couple of images of yourself and your work if you are chosen to be featured on our site.

Just in case you wondered who the Connoisseurs of Contemporary Art are, this is the description of the Facebook Group:

We all know that Traditional African Art has been exhibited, bought and written about because of it's high aesthetic value.

We all know that Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh were inspired and took from the expressive power of Traditional African Art.

What we know less about is the nourishing presence of Contemporary African Art.

Hopefully, this group through discussions and postings will be able to play a part in sharing and promoting Contemporary African and African Diaspora Art.

Be a part of the cultural renaissance!

So, be part of the cultural renaissance and get in contact with Nii Thompson in London!

Animation in Nigeria: Fusion Media

Just a quickly the link to Paula’s latest blog entry on Nigerian animation and, well, for convenience, I repost it here:

Another contribution to the ever growing and dynamic world of animation on the continent. With a recent launch on facebook/ and their own website, Fusion Media are about to release their very own take on a Nigerian family's view of the world around them... The O Twins is a 3D animated comedy by Micheal Tokunbo Akindelem with charming character designs, and a palette that is vibrant, it looks promising.

The reviews on their own Youtube channel are largely positive and encouraging, with everyone looking forward to the next installment!

The NY Time: Yale Press Bans Images of Muhammad in New Book

I’m sure you’ve already read that before but it escaped me until today – I must be reading the wrong papers at the wrong time?!

In any case, in a few weeks’ time Yale University Press will publish a book by Jytte Klausen entitled The Cartoons That Shook the World. And, already it is generating headlines – or rather, Yale UP’s decision not to reprint the Danish cartoons that sparked the crises a few years back. I don’t know whether that should come to anybody’s surprise – not that they decided against their publication but the controversy that caused. What I mean, either way their decision would probably have generated a heated debate …

Why am I including this here? Well, let’s face it without the whole controversy I would probably not have gotten my funding. Submitted in the aftermath of the crisis, my application to conduct research into artistic traditions in Nigeria, a part of the world where more people than anywhere else are said to have died in riots related to the cartoons, ticked the right boxes. We had talked about this as a subject for my PhD research already during summer 2005 while I was writing my MA dissertation and the topic, before all else, was inspired by a gap in the literature on contemporary arts in Nigeria. But, in 2006 my proposal ticked the right boxes. Also, it was in a discussion about these cartoons that I realised most strongly that there are limits to my understanding – and I here don’t mean the intellectual kind of understanding but to actually comprehend, to grasp … you know what I mean? Raised in a strongly secular tradition and shaped by assertions of freedom of speech following the Falling of the Wall in 1989 I stood there looking at my close friend shockingly unable, on the one hand, to comprehend the extent to which she personally had taken offense with the cartoons and, at the same time, to communicate why freedom of speech, opinion and press was supposedly so much more important than her feelings, why these cartoons just didn’t merit the attention they were given. Almost a year on, I still consider this one of the most confusing moments of my year in Nigeria, one of the most challenging. On a personal and philosophical level two values I hold, or claim to hold dearly clash here (hey, I’m not claiming to always live up to them or even most of the time): respect, respect for the feelings of my fellow human beings and the opinions (which ironically informs the idea of freedom of speech that offended my friend’s feelings) on the one hand and the secular values I grew up with - I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it, right? This moment, my inability to actually grasp my friend’s feelings (I mean why? For God’s sake, she’s my friend, my very good friend, so why am I unable, frighteningly unable to grasp how she can feel the way she does?) has been at the back of my mind while I was reading about religious piety, iconoclasm, the cartoon crisis etc.

I touched upon all this in an earlier blog entry and mentioned Brain Goldstone’s article in Anthropology Quarterly and, in one of the following entries, a more immediately art related argument can be found by David Morgan in the Sacred Gaze (though I can't recall whether he actually references the Danish cartoons themselves). Well, so yes, this is the background against which I find the controversy Klausen’s book already sparks quite fascinating. But anyway, here is the NY Times article that first revealed that Yale UP decided not to republish the cartoons:

Yale Press Bans Images of Muhammad in New Book

By PATRICIA COHEN, August 12, 2009

It’s not all that surprising that Yale University Press would be wary of reprinting notoriously controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a forthcoming book. After all, when the 12 caricatures were first published by a Danish newspaper a few years ago and reprinted by other European publications, Muslims all over the world angrily protested, calling the images — which included one in which Muhammad wore a turban in the shape of a bomb — blasphemous. In the Middle East and Africa some rioted, burning and vandalizing embassies; others demanded a boycott of Danish goods; a few nations recalled their ambassadors from Denmark. In the end at least 200 people were killed.

So Yale University and Yale University Press consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous: The book, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” should not include the 12 Danish drawings that originally appeared in September 2005. What’s more, they suggested that the Yale press also refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet that were to be included, specifically, a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.

The book’s author, Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., reluctantly accepted Yale University Press’s decision not to publish the cartoons. But she was disturbed by the withdrawal of the other representations of Muhammad. All of those images are widely available, Ms. Klausen said by telephone, adding that “Muslim friends, leaders and activists thought that the incident was misunderstood, so the cartoons needed to be reprinted so we could have a discussion about it.” The book is due out in November.

John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, said by telephone that the decision was difficult, but the recommendation to withdraw the images, including the historical ones of Muhammad, was “overwhelming and unanimous.” The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, Mr. Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous.

He noted that he had been involved in publishing other controversial books — like “The King Never Smiles” by Paul M. Handley, a recent unauthorized biography of Thailand’s current monarch — and “I’ve never blinked.” But, he said, “when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question.”

Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and the author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” is a fan of the book but decided to withdraw his supportive blurb that was to appear in the book after Yale University Press dropped the pictures. The book is “a definitive account of the entire controversy,” he said, “but to not include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic.”

In Mr. Aslan’s view no danger remains. “The controversy has died out now, anyone who wants to see them can see them,” he said of the cartoons, noting that he has written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction. He added that none of the violence occurred in the United States: “There were people who were annoyed, and what kind of publishing house doesn’t publish something that annoys some people?”

“This is an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press,” he continued. “There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry.” He added, “It’s not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary.”

Mr. Donatich said that the images were still provoking unrest as recently as last year when the Danish police arrested three men suspected of trying to kill the artist who drew the cartoon depicting Muhammad’s turban as a bomb. He quoted one of the experts consulted by Yale — Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations and the former foreign minister of Nigeria — as concluding: “You can count on violence if any illustration of the prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria.”

Aside from the disagreement about the images, Ms. Klausen said she was also disturbed by Yale’s insistence that she could read a 14-page summary of the consultants’ recommendations only if she signed a confidentiality agreement that forbade her from talking about them. “I perceive it to be a gag order,” she said, after declining to sign. While she could understand why some of the individuals consulted might prefer to remain unidentified, she said, she did not see why she should be precluded from talking about their conclusions.

Linda Koch Lorimer, vice president and secretary of Yale University, who had discussed the summary with Ms. Klausen, said on Wednesday that she was merely following the original wishes of the consultants, some of whom subsequently agreed to be identified.

Ms. Klausen, who is also the author of “The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe,” argued that the cartoon protests were not spontaneous but rather orchestrated demonstrations by extremists in Denmark and Egypt who were trying to influence elections there and by others hoping to destabilize governments in Pakistan, Lebanon, Libya and Nigeria. The cartoons, she maintained, were a pretext, a way to mobilize dissent in the Muslim world.

Although many Muslims believe the Koran prohibits images of the prophet, Muhammad has been depicted through the centuries in both Islamic and Western art without inciting disturbances.

Rather than sign a joint editor’s note for the book and the removal of the images, Ms. Klausen has requested instead that a statement from her be included. “I agreed,” she said, “to the press’s decision to not print the cartoons and other hitherto uncontroversial illustrations featuring images of the Muslim prophet, with sadness. But I also never intended the book to become another demonstration for or against the cartoons, and hope the book can still serve its intended purpose without illustrations.”

Other publishers, including The New York Times, chose not to print the cartoons or images of Muhammad when the controversy erupted worldwide in February 2006.

Ms. Klausen said, “I can understand that a university is risk averse, and they will make that choice” not to publish the cartoons, but Yale University Press, she added, went too far in taking out the other images of Muhammad.

“The book’s message,” Ms. Klausen said, “is that we need to calm down and look at this carefully.”

Of course the topic has since been discussed by a number of other papers and, of course, you will find a variety of opinion about whether or not Yale UP has taken the right decision. I haven’t yet started collecting reactions, I’m not even sure I will take it that seriously. But, this is the statement/open letter of the American Association of University Professors:

Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press

August 13, 2009

"We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands.” That is effectively the new policy position at Yale University Press, which has eliminated all visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad from Jytte Klausen’s new book The Cartoons That Shook the World. Yale made the unusual decision not only to suppress the twelve 2005 Danish cartoons that sparked organized protests in many countries but also historical depictions of Muhammed like a 19th-century print by Gustave Doré. They are not responding to protests against the book; they and a number of their consultants are anticipating them and making or recommending concessions beforehand.

In an action that parallels prior restraint on speech, Yale also refused to give the author access to consultants’ reports unless she agreed in writing not to discuss their contents. Such reports typically have their authors’ names removed, but a prohibition against discussing their content is, to say the least, both unusual and objectionable.

Publishers often refuse to print color illustrations to save money or limit the number of black and white illustrations to reduce the length of a book, but Yale Press has not raised any financial issues here. The issues are: 1) an author’s academic freedom; 2) the reputation of the press and the university; 3) the impact of these twin decisions on other university presses and publication venues; 4) the potential to encourage broader censorship of speech by faculty members or other authors. What is to stop publishers from suppressing an author’s words if it appears they may offend religious fundamentalists or groups threatening violence? We deplore this decision and its potential consequences.

Cary Nelson, AAUP President

I might be overreacting here but don’t we here see the same arguments resurfacing again: the primacy of, here, academic freedom over the feelings of those who might potentially feel offended by the republication of those cartoons. And, I’m sure that the focus on potential terrorists in the opening of the AAUP’s statement reflects the reasoning behind Yale UP’s decision. But I also cannot fail to feel that this, intended or not, reproduces ‘a certain juxtaposition,’ to use Goldstone’s words again, of ‘Islamism” (shorthand for “Islamic fundamentalism”) to … the defining characteristics of democracy, freedom, reason, and pluralism - in short, to civilization,’ (p. 208) a juxtaposition that already informed much (Western) press argument during the initial cartoon crisis. See, there is a lot of debate about ethics, about responsibility towards and respect for the ‘subjects’ of our research. And I know, at least among Africanist scholars, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the ethics of reproducing or exhibiting images or artefacts that own their very existence to (colonial) violence and oppression. Here, the question whether their reproduction or exhibition does not reproduce the original act of violence as well has been seriously considered. – I have to confess that quite some time has passed since I have been reading these arguments and I cannot recall what concrete guidelines for academic practices were suggested on the basis of these considerations. But I fail to see any reflection of this in the AAUP’s statement. - My friend is certainly not a terrorist and still my friendship and respect for her requires me to take her feelings seriously (and, yes, against this background I find this emphasis on potential terrorists by Yale UP as well as AAUP somewhat offending) … although, I haven’t asked her (yet) how, as a lecturer herself, she would feel about the republication of these cartoons in an academic context. Having said this, of course, I have a lot of sympathy for the concerns behind the AAUP’s open letter – I have been raised in a secular environment that (at least ideologically) highly values freedom of speech, academic freedom. And yes, events like the Danish cartoon crisis need to be analysed and discussed (allow those who are willing to read and listen to learn from them) and illustrations, also of potentially offensive images, certainly render any argument more palpable. But, after I had to sit through hour-long lectures on ethics at the beginning of my PhD I expect those in the profession to take equally serious the ethics of republishing these cartoons, I want to see those arguments reflected in the arguments of whether or not the Danish cartoons should be republished. Shouldn’t senior academics like the professors of the AAUP or, indeed, scholars working with Yale UP through their actions and arguments in cases like this provide guidance to those coming to the profession a new, those like me?

Anyway, here are some more opinions from the web – And, while the focus here will be on papers I’m reading anyway, note that the guys from Wikipedia have also already started compiling the different opinions … and, btw., in addition to all above said: yes, I feel strongly about Christopher Hitchens’ last argument, he has a point there as well, or?

Klausen herself as quoted by the Guardian:

Author Jytte Klausen said the book had been ready to go to print when the illustrations were pulled, after Yale received some "quite alarmist" statements from experts who had been sent copies of the proposed images. A professor of politics at a Massachusetts university, Klausen argued for inclusion of the cartoons in the book, which is due out in November in the US and January in the UK. "People think they know the cartoons and actually, by printing the cartoons, I'm arguing that some of them are Islamophobic, and in the tradition of anti-Semitism. If we can't look at them, how can we discuss this?" she said today.

She eventually consented – "reluctantly" – to removing them (she "didn't think it was necessary") but "argued every step along the way" against the excision of the other illustrations: the Doré sketch, an Ottoman print showing the Prophet with a veil over his face, and a reproduction of the cover of a Danish children's book depicting Muhammad.

"You can walk up and down the high street in the UK and pick [the Doré sketch] out of antique bins. The ubiquity of this illustration moved me to want to include it," she said. Admitting that it is "quite explicit" – it illustrates the Inferno canto which shows Muhammad with his entrails hanging out – she proposed substitutions: the same scene has been painted by Rodin, Blake and Dali, but these were not accepted.

"Sadness, not anger, characterises my feelings," said Klausen. "The cartoons ... one can discuss. The removal of the other illustrations poses problems for the text, which was written to the illustrations. I cannot yet judge how confusing it will be to the reader to follow my argument without the illustrations, but for sure these illustrations were intended to awake the reader to the history of depiction of Muhammad in Ottoman, Persian, and Western art - and to show also how we live with images and do not examine them. Well, they will not be examined this time."

Sheila Blair, professor of Islamic and Asian art at Norma Jean Calderwood University and, according to the Guardian one of those consulted by Yale UP reportedly

"strongly urged" the press to publish the images. "To deny that such images were made is to distort the historical record and to bow to the biased view of some modern zealots who would deny that others at other times and places perceived and illustrated Muhammad in different ways," she wrote in a letter to the New York Times which is yet to be published.

The Telegraph quotes the Nigerian-born Under Secretary of the UN Ibrahim Gambari and apparently also among those consulted over the republication of the cartoons saying that

You can count on violence if any illustration of the Prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria.

Several blogs and papers have accused Yale UP of bowing/surrendering to terrorists (I’ve already told you above how I feel about this limitation of considerations to potential terrorists). Take for example Christopher Hitchens in Slate Magazine:

The capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn't even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism—particularly Muslim religious extremism—that is spreading across our culture.


His reply took the form of the official statement from the press's public affairs department. This informed me that Yale had consulted a range of experts before making its decision and that "[a]ll confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence."

So here's another depressing thing: Neither the "experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies" who were allegedly consulted, nor the spokespeople for the press of one of our leading universities, understand the meaning of the plain and common and useful word instigate. If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it's a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it's a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it. There is no other usage given for the word in any dictionary, with the possible exception of the word provoke, which does have a passive connotation. After all, there are people who argue that women who won't wear the veil have "provoked" those who rape or disfigure them … and now Yale has adopted that "logic" as its own.

Let’s leave it there for the moment, I’m sure there is more out there … and, yes, what I have so far documented is largely Western press and academia talking to itself but this is, more or less what I have found so far – I’m not even sure whether the story has been published by al-Jazeera (I certainly couldn’t find anything on their English site) …

To be honest, I’m pretty confused as to where I stand with regard to this – as I said, here two of my beliefs clash: respect for my fellow human’s feelings (after all, don’t I always tell me dad that it doesn’t matter whether he considers the N-word offensive and racist – the German discussion here runs along similar lines to the Afro-American but, I guess, has found far less consideration in mainstream media and culture – but that those such labelled regard it as an insult?!) vs. the value of analysis, debate and academic freedom. What do you think? Where do you stand on this?

Africans need to buy their own art before it ends up in European galleries

Bisi Silva posted this and I thought I repost it here. (bless her for posting it)

This is the second instalment to an article by Osei G. Kofi published 26 July 2009 called African artists poor unlike their cousins. (I also published a link to this here). As regards the source – this was published in the Sunday Monitor Online, 2 August 2009. Anyway, enjoy the read.

Africans need to buy their own art before it ends up in European galleries

In the second and final part of his essay on African art and the international scene, art consultant and gallerist Osei G.Kofi says all is not lost as the continent has its fair share of Picassos and Rembrandts

Despite its negligible presence in I the multi-billion dollar global 1 art market, all is not lost for Africa. On the contrary, the continent is making steady progress breaking out of what Ghanaian artist El Anatsui describes as the “invisibility syndrome.”

Predictably, the inroads began not in contemporary art but in the classical or antiques; what was earlier referred in the trade as “primitive art” and lately given the lesser offensive tag of “primary art,” namely, the artifacts in wood, bronze or terra cotta that for centuries had been seen as the sole vestiges of Africa’s artistic expression.

The 1990s date the actual breakthrough into the world art market. In 1990 a 32-inch wooden sculpture depicting the earth cult priestess Queen Bangwa of Cameroon was offered for auction by the Harry A Franklin family of California. It fetched $3.5 million (Sh273 million) at Sotheby’s, New York. Modest by world market sales for unique antiques, it was nonetheless the highest ever paid for an African plastic art, breaking the record of $2.08 million (Shl62million) set the previous year for a Benin bronze.

After the Queen Bangwa and Benin bronze it took more than a decade for another sensational sale to come by. In 2005 a 19th-century writing slate from northern Angola fetched $1.1 million (Shll7 million) in Paris. The following year was an African gold rush. Drouot of Paris auctioned several stunning pieces from the Verite Family, including a Fang-Gabon mask that sold for $5.8 million (Sh620 million), and a Chokwe-Angola wooden statue of a hunter for $3.8 million (Sh406 million). Sotheby’s Paris also sold a Luba-Congo headrest for (Shl39million) $1.3 million.

Not a cent from these fabulous sales enriched any African. The pieces were from the hundreds of thousands of treasures looted by the colonial authorities or bought for a song by adventurers and missionaries and crated out of the continent. The North American and European families who,.sold these specimens are enjoying the fruits of their parents’ and grandparents’ “investments” - or is it the rape of a continent?

If the great auction houses — Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Drouot, Phillips de Pury, Artcurial, Bonhams — are drivers of the surge in art as investment, the contemporary fairs are congresses where captains of the industry gather to do business, by invitation-only. The European Fine Art Fair or “Tefaf” held in the southern Netherlands city of Maastricht every March is the world’s richest, and understandably, it’s the most exclusive among the dozen-plus “majors,” in a highly competitive annual calendar. Tefaf is where you go if you want to find a Rembrandt, a Canaletto or a Tang Dynasty porcelain to acquire or .invest in.

The Dutch showcase is followed by America’s biggest, the Armory Show, New York, also held in March. Then there is Beijing’s CIGE, in April, followed by Art Basel, the world’s biggest, in early June, and by the Venice Biennale, also in June every second year. Summit India is in August, Shanghai Contemporary is in September, followed by a trio of fairs under the Berlin Forum during September-October. Frieze London, FIAC Paris and Art Singapore are in October, Pan Amsterdam is in November, and lastly, Art Basel-Miami, in December.

Next year the Johannesburg Art Fair marks its third anniversary, a pivotal time, for it will show whether all the hard work by founder Ross Douglas has finally paid off and that the event not only has legs but can also join the majors. The newest kid on the block, Gulf Art Fair-Dubai, like everything the Al-Makhtoum royal family set out to do, is fated to be a hit.

It’s a costly business, creating a world class art fair. Fortunately, a number of banks and financial houses vie to provide sponsorship - in exchange of all sorts of benefits that accrue to them. In China the government and state corporations provided substantial start-up support to the four main fairs.

When will the banks and media houses in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda cotton on to the exciting new world of the global art market, and the fact that corporate art collection or sponsorship for fairs and galleries can be good business? They are late getting on board. If they don’t know how to proceed, there is ample expertise around they can hire.

Leading Africa’s entrance in the world market where a piece of art is not only the creator’s pride and joy but also a potential store of traded value — a financial investment — is a group of talented artists and their savvy agents.

African Renaissance

This Renaissance pack includes Ghanaian El Anatsui, Nigerian-British Yinka Shonibare, South Africans Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Gerard Sekoto, Gregoire Boonzaier, Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern, Mozambican Ngwenya Malangatana, Tanzanians Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga and Lilanga Nyama, Ugandan Jak Katarikawe, Congolese Cheri Samba, Bodo Pambu, Monsenguro Moke, Kenyans Wangechi Mutu, Magdalene Odundo, Kivuthi Mbuno... among others.

Nyarko “El Anatsui” is the most successful of Africa’s living artists. He is also the most culturally resonant, visually sumptuous and eco-friendly among his contemporaries, having connected brilliantly with the Zeitgeist of carbon footprints, environmental protection, etc.

Years of quiet toil as a professor of art in a Nigerian university paid off when a few years back The Smithsonian, Washington, acquired a stunning spread of one of his intricately wrought tapestries which are based on the Asante Kente cloth, and recycled from bottle tops, scraps of aluminum from discarded cans, all held together by copper wire.

El Anatsui now works by commission only as every national museum and every reputed gallery on the planet outside Africa pounds on the door of his Dutch agent, wanting to place an order. The price per large size tapestry is between couple hundred thousand to a million dollars - in the re-sale prices, that is. I know of no African national museum or gallery that has acquired or placed an order for an El Anatsui. Shame.

The world’s highest selling living female artist is Marlene Dumas, a South African resident in Amsterdam. A graduate of Cape Town University, Dumas jolted the art world in 2004 when her portrait Jule, de Vrou, of a bright-eyed Afrikaner girl, fetched $1.2 million (Sh93.6 million) at Christie’s.

The following year The Teacher romped in at $1.8 million (SM40 million), again at Christie’s. How many South Africans bought a Dumas in the 1980s when she was a struggling artist selling for $200 (Shl5.6 million) or so per canvas?

Dumas is closely followed in the top league by compatriot William Kentridge, described as a “virtuoso artist.” His publicists describe his work as offering “a depth of engagement, a wealth of interpretability and unmistakable aesthetic integrity... a fusion of experience, fiction and imagination.” Hmnnn.

Ensconced in his large property not far from Nelson Mandela’s residence in Houghton, Johannesburg, the prolific Kentridge churns out work in mixed media, sculpture, printmaking, ink drawings, animation and short movies that are largely cerebral but mirthful and accessible. Kentridge enjoys distinction among art dealers and serious connoisseurs. He has exhibited widely, mainly in Europe and North America and is featured in several publications.

London-based Nigerian Yinka Shonibari has been widely successful too lately, if not as much in the bank account stakes as El Anatsui, Marlene Dumas or William Kentridge, then in sheer exposure. His installations of headless mannequins dressed in “Dutch wax” cloths of colourful African motifs and harking on colonial themes, the Rococo era, European royal courts, etc, have brought another gust of fresh air into contemporary art. Shonibare is in the more cerebral wing and is feted and bought as much for his lavish productions, including photography and film, as for the intellectualisms he expounds. His Prospero’s Monsters at the James Cohan Gallery, London, in May last year was a feast of the senses.

Let’s pay homage to Mozambican MalangatanaNgwenya, a doyen among the continent’s talents who smashed the glass ceiling in price paid for a contemporary African artist on the international market. Anyone who bought one of Malangatana’s Makonde inspired Garden of Eden or Catacombs of Hell renditions in the seventies must have a big smile pasted on their face. This writer was introduced to Malangatana in the late 1970s but didn’t buy him, simply because I was an impoverished student then. And today I can’t afford him either - not with the sort of money that would cover four years of college education.

For nearly four decades Kenyans have had a gem hidden among them but only the most savvy have actually invested in his work: Ugandan-born Jak Katarikawe, dubbed “Africa’s Chagall.”
The self-taught, illiterate “Professor Jak” was the first African to have his work hang in the Kremlin and has exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Katarikawe has fallen off the strobe lights of world publicity in recent years; since the death of his mentor, Ruth Shaffner of the Gallery Watatu, Nairobi. But he is still there, a near recluse though, still painting, still steadily being acquired by those in the know - that, this man is slated to join the Picassos and Matisses in posterity.

Let me conclude with a story which has a singular pathos and is linked to the perennial frustration of Africans who too often allow outsiders to seize and enjoy fruits from the trees we plant - and later shed tears for our loss. In the alchemy of discerning who among the thousands of African contemporary artists will join the ranks of the world’s greats, and of the advice that a family that created a trust fund for their children with a canvas or sculpture or two by any of the artists could be on to something, the name of Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga stands out.

The Tanzanian-born Tingatinga (1936-1972) is the only African to have found, even if accidentally, an international art movement that now bears his name. Tingatinga produced, perhaps, not more than 200 pieces of work before his life was tragically cut short by a police bullet in Dar es Salaam in a mistaken identity cock up.

Now, two collectors in Frankfurt and Nairobi hold about 80 per cent of the Tingatingaoriginals between them. The Nairobi owner has tried to keep his collection intact, and on the African soul. Years ago he enlisted the support of an agent to sound out the Tanzanian government to see if the state would be interested in acquiring the collection for posterity. The answer was no; the pressing need was in finding water, food and shelter for the population, not art.

Now and then, in need of cash the dealer in Nairobi is forced to put a piece from the collection on the international market. A decade or two from now when all the Tingatinga originals will have found a home in Washington, Frankfurt, Stockholm or Tokyo, Tanzanians, all Africans for that matter, will be up in arms - clamouring for the repatriation of their lost treasure.
By the way, there is a Belgian expat in Kenya who now owns what experts consider the Number One masterpiece of ES Tingatinga. That piece will one day be in Brussels. Go figure.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media

'German Archaeologists Labour to Solve Mystery of Nok'

Surprise, surprise: The German news journal Der Spiegel, or rather its English language online version is actually running a story on Nigerian archaeology! More concretely Nok culture and its artefacts. Of course, German archaeologists had to be involved to merit such consideration in a German mainstream paper such as this one. But, as we say in German: “ ‘nem geschenkten Gaul, guckt man nicht ins Maul” which translates roughly as “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” So, let’s generously overlook that ‘we’ once again need to mediate an aspect of African archaeology and culture via some Westerners experience and that I’m uncomfortable with the uncritical use of terminology such as ‘tribal’ or ‘Voodoo’ - not sure whether this is really the time and place to explain where my discomfort arises from but for a start note that even Wikipedia (itself certainly no academic journal) distinguishes between Haitian Vodou, Louisiana (New Orleans) Voodoo and West African Vodun – or the fact that the only theory of the origin of Nok culture actually mentioned had to invoke some northern (read white) origin – come on, if the chief archaeologist you’re talking to rejects the idea of such a far-reaching transfer of ideas why did you have to mention it in the first place?! A simple we don’t know the origins of Nok culture would have sufficed. Or? … Also, I don’t know Gert Chesi, neither personally nor any of his works as a photographer (though titles like The Last African cause another shiver running down my back, though, we should grant him the favour of the doubt since it was published in the 1970s when such ‘approaches’ would probably have been considered less critically) but lines such as One of the few whites who has been granted access to the area is Gert Chesi … [He] had an ulterior motive in coming here. He runs … a museum in Schwaz, Austria, which houses 50 Nok statues … Once he was with [the local chief] Akaito, Chesi got right down to business leave a bad after taste with me. As I said, I don’t know any of those involved personally … Anyway, have a read yourself (find the full article on the Spiegel website) and don’t forget to check out the photo gallery at the Spiegel website.

A Sub-Saharan Conundrum

German Archaeologists Labour to Solve Mystery of Nok

By Matthias Schulz

Some 2,500 years ago, a mysterious culture emerged in Nigeria. The Nok people left behind bizarre terracotta statues -- and little else. German archaeologists are now looking for more clues to explain this obscure culture.

Half a ton of pottery shards is piled on the tables in Peter Breunig's workroom on the sixth floor of the University of Frankfurt am Main. There are broken pots, other storage vessels, a clay lizard and fragments of clay faces with immense nostrils.

The chipped head of a statue depicts an African man with a moustache, a fixed glare and hair piled high up on his head. He looks gloomy, almost sinister. Just a few days ago, the ceramics travelled 8,000 kilometres (5,000 miles) by sea from Nigeria, where they were unearthed.

Breunig runs an excavation near the Nigerian highlands of Jos, where the mysterious Nok culture once blossomed. Spanning more than 80,000 square kilometres (31,000 square miles), the tropical region they lived in was larger than Ireland. Its inhabitants lived in wooden huts and ate porridge made from pearl millet. Some women subjected themselves to bloody "scar ornaments" scratched into their breasts with knives. And, as archaeologists imagine it, smoke hung in the air as people fired masterly terracotta creations in kilns heated to 700 degrees Celsius (1,300 degrees Fahrenheit).

The most astonishing fact about what Breunig calls "a society without writing" is its age. It dates from around 2,500 years ago, a time when a wave of change in belief systems washed over other continents. Nok sculptors were contemporaries of Solon, Buddha and the early Mayans.

For years, people have believed that Africa was left behind at that time -- but Breunig knows better. "Around 500 B.C., the population exploded," he says. People that had been living a Stone Age-like nomadic existence suddenly settled. Breunig speaks of a "cultural Big Bang."

This region near the equator is still largely unexplored, and the German Research Foundation has allocated sizable funding toward that task. If the researchers from Frankfurt deliver promising results, they will continue to receive state funding until 2020.

With the help of some locals, German researchers set up their base last spring, which consists of nine mud huts in the village of Janjala. A flag with the image of Goethe, the symbol of Breunig's university, flutters on a mast. The Germans have drilled wells, and solar panels provide electricity.

Conditions there are hard. Murky water sloshes from the pump, and the solitary light bulb in the main bricked-lined hut is the only one within 100 kilometres (62 miles). At night, owing to the heat, the researchers have gotten used to sleeping under the night sky, as wild dogs howl in the distance.

Shards, Shards Everywhere

Bathed in the light of the morning sun, the team sets forth. With shovels, pickaxes, laptops and GPS navigation devices in tow, the excavators trudge past an enchanting tree savannah and granite hilltops rising like small islands.

In their excavations, the team encounters hardly any other traces of life. There are no skeletons preserved in the earth since the acidic soil dissolved all bones. Like their cemeteries, the temples and huts of the Nok have disappeared without a trace. No one knows what their farm animals, streets or religious ceremonies were like.

But the shards of clay statues are everywhere -- on rock slopes, in ancient refuse pits and in open spaces. Burrowing animals occasionally dislodge them from their original resting places.

The largest of these impressive figures can stand up to one meter (3.3 feet) tall and resemble what might be kings or members of a social elite. Others wear horned helmets or carved-out gourds on their heads. A third of these figures are women.

The clay figures are strangely uniform, almost as if they had been mass produced. The eyes are always triangular, the pupils are pierced, and the eyebrows are high and arched. They look sedate and immersed in their thoughts. Lightning-shaped tattoos adorn their cheeks.

Scientists are puzzled about who could have created this collection of curiosities. How, they ask, could such a fanciful world emerge 10 degrees latitude south of the equator and far away from the rest of the world's civilizations?

Particularly perplexing is the question of how the Nok people smelted iron. Excavators have found iron bracelets, arrowheads and knives. No sub-Saharan people made anything comparable at the time.

The German researchers, which include geologists and paleoethnobotanists, have now used state-of-the-art analytical devices to examine this area. They use X-ray fluorescence devices, for example, to detect shattered bones, and their infrared cameras should make the remnants of buildings visible. In their initial findings, they have learned that the Nok lived on millet, cowpeas and an olive-like fruit. And Breunig now believes that the statues "were made centrally in some large workshops."

Next winter, the high-tech caravan of researchers will move back into the bush with up to 40 excavation assistants. The project could finally shed some light on a phenomenon that is one of the biggest mysteries of early history.

A Startling Discovery

In 1943, the British colonial civil administrator Bernard Fagg was the first to acquire a Nok figure, which had been used as a scarecrow in a yam field. Fagg encouraged the workers in the surrounding tin mines to come forward with any similar finds. Locals from more distant regions soon began bringing Fagg other artifacts, which brought his collection up to 150 pieces. They brought him amulets and clay elephants. They brought him a figure with a gigantic phallus reaching up to its head; another had vampire-like teeth.

For a long time, experts in Europe and the United States were largely unaware of the exciting findings. Only when a pioneer of thermoluminescent imaging presented new data in the 1970s did the archaeological community start to prick up its ears.

These findings led the community to ask a puzzling question: Was it possible that, between 600 B.C. and 300 A.D., when the Chinese started building the Great Wall and the Romans dotted their empire with triumphal arches, African master sculptors in faraway Nigeria were making statues of the highest aesthetic order out of mud coils?

The swiftest reaction to the sensational discovery came from people in the antiquities trade. In the late 1980s, Nok sculptures appeared sporadically in Brussels and Paris. Not only private collectors, but also state-owned museums, discreetly tapped into the fenced merchandise, and prices climbed as high as $50,000 (€35,000) per statue.

Then, in 1996, the sculptures came to the attention of the wider public when the exhibition "Africa: the Art of a Continent" travelled to London and Berlin. Still, at that time, it was mostly photos of the Nok works that went on display. The owners of the original statues -- mostly of whom were rich American collectors -- did not dare lend the exhibition their dubiously acquired African sculptures.

Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency, noted that the objects were being "systematically stolen" and that Africa's heritage was under threat from thieves. UNESCO finally put the sculptures on a list of objects that were illegal to import or export.

Still, these actions did little to temper the treasure-hunting fever in Nigeria. A gem mine near Kubacha, located in the tribal area of the Koro, emerged as an El Dorado for the sculptures.

"Extremely beautiful and barely damaged statues were discovered there in the tombs of the underground shelters," recounts one insider.

Miners there were constantly finding new choice pieces, including a rider on a fanciful horse and a figure holding a cat in a stranglehold.

Details about the mine are hard to come by. It is located in a semi-autonomous district ruled by Koro chief Yohanna Akaito with an iron fist. Akaito has sealed off the area with his private army, and even Nigerian government officials have no access.

One of the few whites who has been granted access to the area is Gert Chesi, and ethnologist and Voodoo researcher.

"The chief entertained me in his mud palace," Chesi says. "In the morning, trumpet calls woke us up, and then we went to the mine."

Chesi had an ulterior motive in coming here. He runs the "House of the People," a museum in Schwaz, Austria, which houses 50 Nok statues, the most splendid collection in the world. Once he was with Akaito, Chesi got right down to business.

Most museums purchased Nok artifacts without certificates and now hide them in their repositories. But Chesi makes no secret of his treasures.

"Each of our sculptures has an export license issued by Omotoso Eluyemi, the manager of the national museum," he says. "Everything was done legally."

It is true that the late Nigerian antiquities official's office could issue customs documents. But it would appear that he did this all too gladly -- while stuffing his pockets in the process.

Poison and Corpses

Now and then, you hear mention of bodies. Eluyemi died on February 18, 2006. According to the official version of events, he choked on a glass of water at dinner and suffocated. But insiders are sure that the 58-year-old was poisoned.

These are the circumstances in which the archaeologists are operating.

In describing the situation on the ground, Breunig says that "thieves have rummaged through many thousand square meters of ground; there's one hole next to another."

Still, there is some hope for Africa's heritage. To this day, countless Nok villages lie untouched beneath the earth. In Ungwar Kura, for example, the team recently came across more than 130 millstones, which suggests that there was once a large village there.

The statues found there also contain new details. Some have boils and furuncles on their faces, while others appear to be high dignitaries. Foot rings, loincloths and arm chains ornament their bodies. While their hair is formed into buns and braids, twisted chains adorn necks like thick Christmas wreaths. "The social distinctions are clearly defined," Breunig says.

The researchers are still not sure what these peculiar adornments are supposed to indicate. Since stone pavement is often found near the statues, some have thought that they were situated in holy places or near altars. The archaeologists have found remnants of deliberately deposited jewellery chains alongside them, which might lend some degree of support to this hypothesis.

For the time being, though, the purpose of the Nok statues remains unclear. And then there's still the question of whether these objects have anything to do with the Nok people making contact with other people. Some archaeologists believe that the cultural renaissance resulted from contact with northern peoples, such as the Carthaginians, who might have arrived by desert. Still others point to the so-called "black pharaohs" of Sudan, who subjugated the whole Nile region between 750 and 670 B.C.

But, for his part, Breunig rejects the idea of such a far-reaching transfer of ideas. "It's 3,000 kilometres from Egypt to Abuja, and there was the obstacle of the Sahara in between," he explains. And, he adds, Africans didn't have camels in pre-Christian times. Instead, Breunig believes that Nok art evolved independently.

Still, the mysteries remain. If Breunig is correct, the Nok were isolated geniuses who created a tropical civilization out of nothing.

"There's no doubt that the Nok will continue to baffle us," Breunig says. "We're unearthing a magnificent part of the history of sub-Saharan Africa."