Showing posts from March, 2011

The Visual Culture of Nigerian Politics: Police Detain(ed) Cleric over Goodluck Jonathan's Campaign Poster

Some while ago the Daily Trust reported that a prominent Sokoto-based scholar has been arrested on charges of defacing posters promoting the campaign of current president Goodluck Jonathan:

Police detain cleric over Jonathan’s posters

Daily Trust, Wednesday, 02 March 2011 00:00

Rakiya A. Muhammad, Sokoto & Misbahu Bashir, Abuja

Prominent Islamic scholar in Sokoto Sheikh Abubakar Jibril was arrested by the police on Monday afternoon and was flown to Abuja yesterday over what police sources said was the defacing of some campaign posters of President Goodluck Jonathan. The Sheikh, who is the Chief Imam of the Farfaru Juma’at Mosque in Sokoto, was arrested with his two sons, his driver and a domestic aide, according to relations and the police. Spokesman for the Sokoto police command ASP Al-Mustapha Sani said policemen on patrol arrested Sheikh Abubakar and the others while they were using black paint to deface the posters of the president and his deputy at some roundabouts in Sokoto metropolis at about 5pm on Monday.

Sani said they were arrested over inciting public disturbance and have been transferred to the Force Criminal Investigation Department in Abuja.

In Abuja, the Force Public Relations Officer DCP Olusola Amore confirmed that five people including Sheikh Abubakar were being held at the Force CID and that they were arrested for allegedly defacing the posters of the PDP presidential candidate and his running mate. He said they were also suspected of inciting dislike for Jonathan and of acts capable of fanning the flames of public disturbance.


But a civil society activist, Ibrahim Tudun Doki described the arrest as political intolerance by the Jonathan regime. Tudun Doki, who is a House of Representatives candidate of the Congress for Progress Change [CPC] recalled that General Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign billboard was destroyed in Port Harcourt, Rivers State last week and that the police did not arrest or charge anyone to court for the action.


Read the full article here:

I am not in a position to comment on the accusations or the political ambitions that may or may not have informed the whole incident. And I have been hovering about how to express my kind of perspective in a way that fit this blog. Let me try.

I am fascinated by the idea that authorities in Sokoto would accord sufficient significance to the disfigurement of the current president’s campaign posters to take such drastic action. My interest in the relationship between (aspects of) visual culture and politics predates these news. Visually one of the defining impressions of my spring/summer 2007 visit to Nigeria was the prevalence of murals of politicians alongside the roads on which I travelled. Even in what appeared to me more remote areas of the country, there was the occasional house on which the portrait of a politician had been painted (as well as those ‘decorated’ by an advertisement for, if I remember correctly, Simba Motors). During a stroll through Zaria’s old town I stumbled across the abandoned signs portraying politicians. What an effort and what skill invested into visual communications considering that I had been previously warned to expect an impoverished visual culture. It also highlighted that there was a political culture that employed visual means of communication. And, that is rather interesting. It contradicted some of the statements I had read in the limited body of literature that spoke about visual culture in northern Nigeria.

There are prominent historians of Nigerian arts who argued that Islam had prevented the development of ‘meaningful’ (whatever that means) traditions of visual arts in the region or that, alternatively, it had only sustained abstract, aniconic artistic traditions. Instead, incidents like this one suggest that, in addition to a lively visual culture of politics, there is a substantial investment in these images. Why else the drastic reaction? This iconoclasm, if that is what you want to call it, is not religious but political. Not unlike the global Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons cannot be understood in religious terms only. As Jytte Klaussen has demonstrated the political context in which these images were published significantly contributed to the escalation of the affair. This is not to say that northern Nigerian visual culture is not influenced by the presence of Islam and prominent interpretation of its sources with regard to the arts. For example, it would be interesting to know why President Goodluck Jonathan has chosen to promote his campaign using music videos – including a short song in Hausa[1] but Ibrahim Shekarau hasn’t.[2] The answer is probably complex but I wouldn’t be surprised if (in the widest sense) religiously inspired attitudes towards music videos and the dancing they depict had played a (possible small) role here. But to restrict the discussion of visual culture in northern Nigeria to the religious argument, would clearly mean to miss important dimensions. And, surely, this incident is another reminder of just that.

[1] I got no political investment here on any side but I was too happy to find I had not totally forgotten Hausa not to link to it.

[2] Or did I just not find it on Youtube, correct me if I'am wrong! Pls. I’d love to know.

Searching for references to the arts in colonial memoires: Noel Rowling (1982) Nigerian Memories.

The memoires of colonial officers in Nigeria and their wives are weird reads. How to best describe why? Well, I guess this sentence almost at the very end of Noel Rowling’s (1982: 77) Nigerian memories summarises it:

‘People to whom colonialism is a dirty word never seem to understand that it was only because we believed in what we were doing that we were able to cope with miseries like that.’

It is hard to accept that they thought they did what was right – but then, I am German and thinking of the generation of my grandparents, the atrocities committed by Germans in WW2, who am I to judge? It is hard to read past the colloquial racism and the prejudices. Sometimes it is so bad it gets almost satirical. I don’t mean to pick on Mrs. Rowling in particular but she has a gift for expressing her sense of the superiority of English civilisation and, sometimes, self-importance in phrases that make me simultaneously squeal and laugh out loud. This is one of my favourites (p. 28-29):

I found the Bible a book I could translate into Hausa, as life in Africa 1935 was very similar to life in Palestine when Jesus was alive.

Surely, this comparison would have British colonial officers and their wives as members of the Roman occupying forces, no? But, you probably cannot expect anybody in the eve of their life to completely pick it apart and question the very foundations upon which it was built. Or can you? It nevertheless makes those memoires rather uncomfortable reads. But those memoires nevertheless, provide one or the other gem that goes via my research. An expression of admiration for the architecture of Kano here, a casual remark about Nigerian reckless drivers and their reliance on appeals to divine protection written across the backside of their lorries there. So, let me share some of them:

Architecture and wall decoration in Kano:


Kano City was a very old city, surrounded by a mud wall with carved entrance gates at the four points of the compass. Nearly all houses were built with sun-baked mud bricks and often colour washed. Those belonging to rich merchants and members of the royal house were usually big square buildings with ornamented walls and doors, and with flat roofs where the ladies of the harem would take the air in the evening.

p. 48

A new mosque was built while we were there, in the traditional style, and was beautifully ornamented. The colours, of all shades of brown and gold were very restful and the palm trees, mango trees, and citrus, grown haphazardly everywhere, gave plenty of shade.

[Does anybody know which mosque she maybe referring to? Is it the central mosque which was eventually replaced by the current building in the 1950s?]

Lorry Decoration

p. 44

... and so unsafe vehicles and dangerous cars were left speeding on the roads, a menace to passengers, other cars and pedestrians, with only a notice in large letters attached to the back of the vehicle saying ‘God help us’ to ensure, as they thought, that they would avoid disaster.

p. 54

African drivers are an amazing brotherhood. They nearly all drive too fast and never worry about the state of the roads. It is a common sight in the south to see a mammy wagon with the sign ‘God Help Us’ or,’ May the Lord keep us safe’ printed on the back of a lorry containing passengers.

Slightly Off-Topic: Africans in European Art

Thanks to a recent blog entry by Afro-Europe, I learned about these two sites which are surely worth sharing even if they are not in any way related to my current research interests. But I guess, they are rather relevant within wider discussions about the relationship of Europe and European artists with Africa. And, guess what, that relationship long predates Picasso. No disrespect intended (if there ever was a good commentary of on the horrors of 20th century warfare, its Guernica!). But there have been Ethiopians who adapted and transformed Byzantine Christian art. There were the so-called Afro-Portuguese ivories probably one of the world’s earliest examples of tourist art. There the influences of Christian missionaries on 15th century Congolese arts. And, of course, European artists have depicted Africans long before ideas about racial hierarchies and the slave trade affected their vision.

Panels at the Filarete Door at St. Peter’s Cathedral. According to Lowe (2006), they respectively depict Pope Eugenius IV Consigning the Decree of Union to Abbot Anthony, the Head of the Coptic Delegation at the Council of Florence and …

… The Departure of the Coptic and Ethiopian Delegates from the Council of Florence. Both were completed in 1445. (Image Source)

Bust of the Congolese Ambassador to the Vatican at the Basilica Sainte Marie-Majeure

Water Colour by Bernandinio Ignacio, a capuchin monk, 1740 (Image Source)

So, here are two websites and some publications I’d like to quickly recommend:

* The Image of the Black in Western Art is a series of publications resulting form a research project originally started by Dominique de Menil in the 1960s.

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”: Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”: Part 2: Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition: Part 1: Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque (November 2010)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition: Part 2: Europe and the World Beyond (Fall 2011)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I: Part 1: Slaves and Liberators (Spring 2012)

* The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I: Part 2: Black Models and White Myths (Spring 2012)

On their website, there is a nice image gallery and a video of a presentation by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Two articles that have come out of the project have recently (February 2011) published in Apollo Magazine: The Image of the Black in Western Art and Race in Classical Art.

Even more resources are available on the website of the exhibition Black is Beautiful. The exhibition examines selected works by artists from the Low Lands that depicted Africans. It offers an interesting selection of short videos, for example explaining who the women is standing next to Moses in this painting by the Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678):

(Image Source)

Find the answer here.

These are, of course, not the first exhibitions and publications on the subject. Already in 1970, Snowden published a volume on depictions of Ethiopians in Greco-Roman Arts. In 1992 Pieterse published White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture.

P.S. Let me clarify, why I think these historical depictions are important. This has nothing to do with absolving Europeans from the history of slavery, colonialism and contemporary forms of exploitation. Rather, they highlight that European perceptions of Africans changed throughout time in response to historical circumstances and the nature of the relations and trade between Europeans and the African with whom they had contact. As such, they provide evidence that racism is not natural but an ideology that evolved at a particular time in response to and in order to legitimate historical relations. This is not to say that there were no negative stereotypes before the Atlantic slave trade required a re-imagening of Africans as lesser humans to justify the trade. I suspect to an extent we are hardwired to fall back on stereotypes in our relations with other human beings. Nobody can genuinely know and understand the personal and collective histories and cultural influences that make every human being on this planet the person they are. But, I guess it’s important that these images document that stereotypes can change and be adapted – and, most importantly, that they do not provide a historical truth but just one interpretation. No?

Ugandan Former Child Soldier and UgandanArtist Peter Oloya on Art for Peace

Having shared with you a recent essay about political art the other day, this seems the appropriate follow up: Peter Oloya, a Ugandan former child soldier and artist currently in Lagos, Nigeria, using his art to promote peace and healing.

Art for peace

By Obidike Okafor

Next Magazine, March 6, 2011 12:31AM

Peter Oloya is a Ugandan artist with a troubled past. The former child soldier dropped his gun for weapons of art and has been painting, drawing and making sculptures since then. The graduate of Ugandan’s famous Makerere University where he studied his art experienced firsthand, the over two decades of war between the Lords Resistant Army (LRA) rebels and Uganda government that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead. “I lost 21 relatives. I and my mother were abducted by the LRA, I was 11 years old. I survived death as a child soldier and managed to escape after 20 months. With what I now call my trauma as a loner, I discovered my artistic talent and worked as a self taught commercial wood carver and supported my family and saved money to study art. Art has restructured my life and those around me” he said.


Moved by the suffering of the youths in Internally Displaced Persons camps in the face of war in northern Uganda Oloya wanted do something, so he used art as his medium for social change. “Art restructured my life. I lost my childhood and teenage stage of life growing up amidst war but I can prevent someone from walking down my painful path. And since art gives me hope and reasons to live, I decided to be a source of change in the lives of many. It is on this basis that in 2004 I founded Art for Community Development, a community based organisation operating in Kitgum and Gulu Districts in Northern Uganda to provide psychosocial support, life skills training in art and craft, to the formerly abducted and disadvantaged youths at the grassroot,” he said.


Oloya had selected Nigeria as his destination after he was awarded the residency, because he saw similarities between the outbreak of violence in Jos and that in Northern Uganda where he was raised. … “I am deeply touched by the conflicts in Nigeria and Sudan. In relation to my experience in northern Uganda, I want to be part of the peaceful solutions in Nigeria and Africa at large. Out of interest, I chose to be part of the change I see. I am working on a peace art project themed ‘Nigeria: Towards a Culture of Peace, Unity, Non-violence and Co-existence’ with selected artists, members of the wider community , from both the Moslem and Christian faiths, from northern and southern Nigeria to promote the culture of peace, non violence and co-existence of Moslems and Christians in Nigeria,” Oloya stated. He also hopes that the message will ring in the hearts of other Africans across the continent. ...

Oloya will give a talk at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos and take part in an art peace project in Nigeria called Hope and Despair. This sounds like a worthwhile project to promote. If anybody has more information pls. let me know and I’ll update this blog accordingly.

Good Intentions: Bidoun's Negar Azimi on Political Art

This touches a nerve with me. Here, I am writing and researching about the arts while around us natural disasters and revolutions unfold. Nigeria is in the run up to the elections and there are recurring reports about violence. I read it. I hope the best for Nigeria and feel with the victims of violence. But ultimately I write about the destruction of political campaign posters. So, what’s the role of the arts in politics? Does art have a role in politics? Negar Azimi of Bidoun Magazine published this interesting article on the topic in Frieze Magazine.

… It is difficult not to recognize in this sea of political shows the art of the token gesture. Of course, many of these exhibitions were thoughtful … Still, a look at their conceptual underpinnings reveals a tightly circumscribed universe of ‘the political’ in which artists address the problematics of power, the question of ‘what is to be done?’ (Istanbul 2009), and finally, use a familiar cast of set-pieces of contemporary art (mostly the installation or the documentary as zeitgeist … to put forward one-liners about any number of issues … Take a good look at the institutions that host these exhibitions, and a familiar medley of programming emerges. An annual line-up may include one show devoted to gender, another to Islam, and perhaps another to Israel to balance out the former – and rarely is the work of artists whose politics we don’t like featured. … When David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 film A Fire in My Belly was pulled from ‘Hide/Seek’ at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington dc last November (the offending scene depicts ants crawling about a crucifix, inspiring complaints from the Catholic League and others), art spaces from across the US leapt at the chance to host the work. New York’s Museum of Modern Art even bought it. … The very fact that the censorship inspired such an outpouring was important, and yet, it couldn’t help, at times, but feel like a form of institutional self-congratulation – another version of ticking the box alluded to above.

All of which leads to the question of what is the difference between representing politics and actually enacting it? Representing politics entails describing a work by starting a sentence with ‘it’s about … x’. When Sam Durant makes sculptures of gallows or Taryn Simon photographs individuals on Death Row, it’s about how capital punishment is a bad, barbaric practice. But what happens next? And what is the good of engaged art – whether it takes the form of governmental critique or institutional critique or otherwise – when it is subsumed back into the system? … Does sitting around a room exchanging experiences and ideas about the war in Iraq nurture a false sense of engagement or community or could it inspire someone to write a letter to their local representative, take part in a protest, or, as a public figure, take a public stand? Does such activity, to return to a worn but handy cliché, simply preach to the converted, or, when, say, placed in public spaces, like museums, pull in a few new converts to the flock?

Read the whole essay here.

Presidential Debates: Shekarau on the Kano State Censorship Board and the Hausa-Language Film Industry

During yesterdays’ presidential debates Ibrahim Shekarau was asked about and commented on the Kano State Censorship Board and the effects of its policies on the Kano based film industry.

Video streaming by Ustream

Carmen transcribed the relevant bit (I did as well but she catches some phrases I didn’t).

[Time Code: 44:45]

Moderator: Now, you say that but in practical terms the impact of the hisbah in Kano has included killing a film industry that was providing employment, what is known in Nigeria as Kannywood. So there has been an exodus of filmmakers out of Kano, who get harassed when they are on shoots, who have been asked to submit their scripts for inspection, and a total disregard of the peoples rights to express themselves through art in that particular way.

Shekarau: No, I think that is totally wrong. The hisbah has nothing to do with the censorship. We have a full fledged censorship board, created by law through the legislation. And the censorship board has created rules and regulations that govern the conduct of any film industry. We have a right to decide what is right for the community. The government has the moral responsibility to protect the right, the interest, the instant transformation (?) of the society. (Clapping). So all we did, all we did, we said, if you want to register and run a film industry, you should comply with A,B, C, D, F, and we told anybody who feels any of these rules and regulations contradicts the provision of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria should challenge us in court, and nobody has done that anyhow.

Moderator: You seem to be very strong in terms of protecting the rights of the majority. What about the rights of the minority inside the state that you govern.

Shekarau: We are protecting. In fact it may interest you to know that Kano state today is the most peaceful state in Nigeria. If you ask any of the so-called minority or non-indigene, they are quite happy, they are quite peaceful. In fact, today, you will be surprised to find that those you call non-indigenes or even the non-Muslim prefer to go for settlement of disagreement within the community either to the hisbah court or to the censorship board. We dont have any problem at all. The rules are working. The society has accepted it. The film industry is thriving very well. All we say is abide by the rules and regulations. And there is no community that will live without guiding principles, without rules and regulations and will think that there will be discipline and order in that community.

I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on Shekarau’s claims here in any detail. Let’s just say that the news sources I follow do not quite bear out the picture of peaceful co-existence of the Kano State Censorship Board and film makers the governor paints in the debate. There have been court cases and there is talk of prominent film makers relocating to Kaduna. I leave it to Carmen to provide you with further detail on the disputes and legal battles. She is more familiar with the Hausa-language film industry and has been blogging about ongoing developments here. I am confident she will also link to the responses to Shekarau's comments by stakeholders in Kano's creative industries if and when they are published.

Some Inspiration: Florie Salnot's Plastic Gold

I first came across Florie Salnot and some of the work she had undertaken with Saharawi refugees in Western Sahara during last summer’s degree show of the Royal College of Art. I collected some promotional postcards containing the address of promotional website and planned to write a short post. But then I got distracted. After all I had a PhD to finish. And eventually I forgot. Until this morning when cleaning up my desk I stumbled across one of the postcards. It had been demoted to a table mat for the army of tea cups that gets me through the day. I had a second look at it and, once again, I found myself thinking what a wonderful idea this was. And, guys, isn’t there some inspiration in here to creatively deal with the waste problem in Nigeria?! I know, all your fashionable ladies may be a bit sceptical a the idea of ‘recycling jewellery’ (and, yes, this is my old complex about not being able to keep up with fashionable Nigerian women speaking here – honestly, how do you keep crisp and clean in that heat when I’m getting soaked in my own sweat?). And, while I think its brilliant, the cute little purse made from pure water bags (sorry, no photo) I have recently seen may not be to everybody’s taste. But, I defy you to find anything not to like about this gorgeous jewellery made of ‘plastic gold’ (Salnot’s more than appropriate term)!

Me thinks they’re gorgeous. And, it’s so easily done, so low tech. So, for those of you looking for inspiration, here’s short introduction to the project from Salnot’s website.

What is the Plastic Bottle Project?

I have designed a technique and some specific tools to enable the Saharawi refugees to produce some pieces of jewelry with the very limited resources which are available in their camps, i.e.: plastic bottles and sand.

The Saharawis are former nomadic people who used to live in Western Sahara. In 1975, Morocco annexed their territory. Since then, over half of them have been living in exile in a barren and remote stretch of Algerian desert. The other part of the Saharawis lives in Marocco.

The Saharawis used to have a craft tradition. However, as at today, the lack of the resources (e.g.: leather) their traditional craft was using and the few sales opportunities for the type of products they had have made their craft decline.

Plastic bottle project-The technique

The technique I have designed, enables the Saharawis to use the bottles in a very simple way, in order to make pieces of jewellery. The technique uses the energy and equipments available in the camp: hot sand and simple hand tools (a knife, a drawing nail board).

The plastic bottle is first painted and then cut into thin stripes with a cutting tool. After that, any type of drawing can be made by positioning some nails into the holes of a nail board: the plastic stripe is placed all around the nails and the whole is submerged into hot sand. The plastic stripe reacts to the heat by shrinking all along the nail drawing and keeping its shape. The piece of jewelry then requires a few last steps and fittings to become finalized. It is a very simple technique which, however, has the power to make the non-precious become precious.

Find more information here.