On Lorry Arts and 'Race': A Response

Do you remember the feeling when as a kid you though you finally had figured it? When you thought now you know it all? And started showing off? And then your mother/father/teacher ‘brutally’ destroyed all your illusions with one look, one observation, one question, one … ? Well, a few weeks ago I posted a question, yes, in the hope of getting some answers. Me and my flatmate had spend hours looking through the photographs she had taken at Sabon Kwakwaci Motorpark (Kano Local Government) in August this year and wondered why the men in all these action scenes were so lightly skinned. Rambo. Bollywood heroes.[1] Django and Little Rita.[2] At least our (re-) collections didn’t feature any illustrations of ‘African,’ i.e. black men in action scenes. Not even the cultural wrestling scenes I had read about. But, I was put right. And importantly, I was reminded of the limits of even a year’s fieldwork and the gaps in your understanding and knowledge that appear almost inevitable – I actually didn’t see any of the illustrations of Nigerian political and religious personalities in lorry painting, although I observed a few of them portrayed on stickers in the urban and long-distance taxies I used. So, I thought it might be good practice to share with you the response Muhammad Aliyu (whom I know from Kano where he used to teach at the Department of Art and Industrial Design, Kano State Polytechnic and who is currently undertaking his own PhD with the Department of Fine Arts, ABU). This is a slightly abridged version.

… It is no longer news to state that colonialism, Islam and Missionaries arrival on the Nigeria’s soil in particular and Africa in general bought about a new kind of socio-economic and cultural activity, which sought to supplant the prevailing traditional religious practices. The implication of this was the introduction of a new kind of art expression which ignored the subject of the traditional Nigerian art. Essentially, the subject matter was changed to a new concept, hence the portrayal of white skinned. Again, the lorry/truck painters {artists} paint what they think will reflect what their customers may admire with great enthusiasm. They achieve this by way of showing their creative and aesthetic skills. The themes depicted fascinate members of the society who takes a few minutes to admire the artwork. […]

It is not true that the characters have never been localized or Africanized. I strongly disagree with this position based on my findings in 1998 of the research I conducted on Roadside Artists. Let me start from the local {localized} point of view. Paintings of individual members of the society dining in and drinking in ‘local’ restaurants and hotels are portrayed. Portraits of important personalities are also portrayed. Among the popular portraits seen on lorry tailboards are the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero. Political leaders such as Aminu Kano and former President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari are also depicted. Furthermore, painting of Sheik Nasiru Kabara is equally represented. One of the leading traditional Hausa musicians, Manman Shata is not left out. […] His Majesty Haile Selassie who was regarded as the Messiah of the African race by the Rastafarian is also depicted on lorry tailboard. A renowned Islamic scholar, of the Tijjaniya Islamic sect, Sheik Ibrahim Inyass is equally painted.

The truth stands clear; one cannot run away from the word INFLUENCE. Works of lorry artists have been exposed to many external influences, that is why their subject matter covers nearly all the genre expressions. While writing on Modern art practice in Africa, Malik {2000} states that ‘’the reality of modern art practice in Africa is a rich and varied mosaic of interconnecting and desperate individuals, movements and associations who draw from a myriad of Western and traditional African influences. ‘’Tradition’’ and ‘’Modernity’’ in Africa as elsewhere, may be sought of, not only as linear and exclusive entities, but rather as expressions of various overlaps, borrowings and juxtapositions within and across cultures and through time’’. [...]

He also kindly provided a short bibliography, some of which I was aware and had used and some of which I can’t remember from when I sat in the library at the Department of Fine Arts, ABU. Also, anybody interested in the topic may consider the research done elsewhere in Africa (not sure whether the link works, my internet is a bit weird today, but check Africars for some open access documentation) and Asia (particularly well documented, for a start and open access, try Wings of Diesel).

1. Beir,U{1962} ‘’Nigerian Folk Art’’ Nigeria Magazine number 75

2. Enna, Esther (1978) ‘’The Folk Art Found on Tailboard of Lorries and Buses’’ unpublished Bachelor of Education Degree, Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University.

3. Heathcote, D (1971) ‘’The Art of Musa Yola’’ African Arts Magazine, vol.4 number 3

4. Pritchett, J (1979) ‘’Nigerian Truck Art’’ African Magazine

5. Nayaya,S.A(1983) ‘’An Interpretative Study of the Roadside Artists and Their Artwork in Kano City’’ unpublished Higher National Diploma Thesis, Kano State Polytechnic.

6. Iwu, A(1984) ‘’The Role of Road side Artist in Contemporary Nigeria: A Case Study o f Three Artists’’ unpublished Bachelor of Arts Degree, Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University.

7. Alhassan, A’A(1985) ‘’Contributions of Sign-writers to the Social and Economic Development of Kaduna town in Particular and Nigeria in General’’ unpublished Bachelor of Arts Degree,Zaria: Ahnadu Bello University.

8. Mohammed, A (1998) ‘’The Role of Roadside Artists in the Contemporary Nigerian Art Expression: A case Study of Nassarawa Local Government Area, Kano.

Malam, na gode.



[1] You might want to, among others and usefully open-access, see Prof. Abdallah on Bollywood movies and Hausa films.

[2] Sorry, at the risk of looking rather egocentric but I really wasn’t familiar with this aspect of European film history (not quite being a film enthusiast anyway) so I kind of assumed potential readers might benefit from some links too, here also some short Youtube clips for a taste: Little Rita and Django ... there must be some study of the ‘othering’ of native Americans in these films and some feminist analysis of those somewhere but I haven’t found them yet …

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