more from the
May/June 2014 issue:
The Common Network:
Amar Kanwar and Stephen Willats
by Stephanie Bailey
Give Us CPR
by Gerald FitzGerald
ART PAPERS VIDEO:
First Person Leaky
by Rosa Aiello
To: Constant Dullaart
From: Carson Chan
ÀSÌKÒ IN DAKAR
A History—and a Future—
for Alternative Arts Education in Africa
Text / Amanda H. Hellman
As the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, takes its Àsìkò program of arts educational workshops to
Dak'Art 2014—Dakar's 11th African contemporary art biennial—the organization takes the baton from the
alternative models for arts education that emerged during Nigeria's fight for independence.
Mohamed Bourouissa, Le cercle imaginaire, 2008, from the series Périphérique, c-print,
137 x 165 cm [© Mohamed Bourouissa, courtesy of the artist and kamel mennour, Paris]
During the recent Arts Council of the African Studies Association Triennial held at the Brooklyn Museum [March 19-22, 2014], Dele Jegede—a
professor of art history at Miami University in Ohio and an alumnus of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria—said Nigeria is stuck in a "frozen narrative,"
in which midcentury Nigerian modernists are heralded at the expense of artists who are working today. At the heart of this disjuncture is the current
state of arts education in the region, which organizations such as the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos are seeking to redefine.
Although the Nigerian government offers little infrastructural support for the arts, formal, Western arts education has a longer history in Nigeria
than it does in many sub-Saharan African countries. In the 1920s Aina Onabolu (1882-1963), a British-educated Nigerian painter and pedagogue at times
credited as the pioneer of modern art in his home country, encouraged the colonial office to introduce a Western arts curriculum to the students of
Kings College, a secondary school in Lagos.1 What followed was the appointment of Kenneth Crosthwaite Murray (1902-1972), a British artist who
immigrated to Nigeria in 1927, where he pioneered such arts educational initiatives as a teacher-training program at Government College Umuahia
(GCU)—another secondary British colonial institution, which produced such alumni as writer Chinua Achebe, and the sculptor and painter
Ben Enwonwu. Enwonwu would eventually obtain a degree from the University of London's prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. Though Nigerian
artists did go abroad for university education, and continue to do so today, the institutionalization of Western arts education in countries
such as Nigeria reflects another, more nuanced aspect of the exchange between Europe and Africa.
Simone Leigh and Chitra Ganesh, my works, my dreams, must wait until after hell, 2012, single-channel video projection,
continuous loop [courtesy of the artists]. Film direction: Simone Leigh and Chitra Ganesh; camera: Eric Yoon; figure: Kenya (Robinson);
editor: Thomas Love; musical score: Kaoru Watanabe. On view in Simone Leigh: Gone South, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center [April 4-May 31, 2014]
More formal, university-level programs emerged from these early programs.2 The Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology
in Zaria—now Ahmadu Bello University (ABU)was founded in 1952 through an ordinance of the colonial government; in 1957/1958,
its Fine Arts department became affiliated with the Slade School. The Nigerian College of Arts yielded the Zaria Arts Society, an
informal faction of art students led by Uche Okeke, Simon Okeke, and Demas Nwoko. The group, which soon became known as the Zaria Rebels,
engaged the model of natural synthesis, which put the aesthetic traditions of Western art in dialogue with African art. Other, independent
cultural crossovers emerged with similar ideals: in the early 1960s, German writer Ulli Beier co-founded the Mbari-Mbayo club in Ibadan and Osogbo
with Nigerian dramatist Duro Lapido. Mbari-Mbayo sponsored workshops, exhibitions, and performances that produced artists such as Twins Seven Seven
and Jimoh Buraimoh, and pushed against the conservative colonial arts education. These activities were among numerous similar alternative models
to have emerged leading up to and around Nigeria's independence. They remain compelling as historical precursors to the extracurricular organizations
providing arts infrastructure and education today.
Among them is the CCA, founded by curator Bisi Silva in 2007 as a platform for an exchange of ideas and practices among arts professionals in Nigeria,
its neighbors, and the world. In 2010, the 50th anniversary of independence for Nigeria and 16 other African countries, the CCA initiated the Àsìkò
Art School in conjunction with its chosen programmatic theme for the year: "On Independence and the Ambivalence of Promise," which highlighted, among
other cultural and sociopolitical concerns, the inadequacy of postcolonial thinking and methodology for artists, curators, and scholars. Named after the
Yoruba word for "time," "movement," or "period," Àsìkò's pan-African art program began with the specific objective of "filling a gap in the educational system"
in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent. According to program archive notes, governments "tend to ignore the critical methodologies and histories that
underpin artistic practice."
Àsìkò's first project was a month-long photography workshop, held at the CCA in the Yaba district of Lagos. In 2012,
Àsìkò's second iteration was devoted to "History/Matter" and expanded to include curatorial practice and methodology.3 The idea is
that stepping outside the institutional framework left over from the 1920s encourages artistic experimentation—for instance with new media and digital
technologies. The workshop format is, in the opinion of Erin Rice, coordinator for the 2014 Àsìkò program, critical to this endeavor: by nature it offers
a complement to formal art education in Africa, which continues to present a largely conservative approach to visual arts pedagogy and material scope.4
These government-independent workshops may also present more flexible regional collaborations. Sponsored by the Foundation for Contemporary Art - Ghana,
Àsìkò's 2013 program "The Archive: Static, Embodied, Practiced" was held in Ghana, articulating the workshop's commitment to dialogue
with a West African arts community outside Nigerian borders. This year, Àsìkò will take place during the Dak'Art 2014 biennial, the result of CCA, Lagos'
collaboration with Synergie Contemporaine in Dakar. Hosting the exchange at a venue such as Dak'Art will raise international awareness of the potential for
improvement within the existing postcolonial arts education infrastructures to which Àsìkò was created to respond.
Kiluanji Kia Henda, The Merchant of Venice, 2010, digital print on matte paper mounted on aluminum, 170 x 100 cm
[courtesy of Kiluanji Kia Henda and Galeria Filomena Soares]
In his 2013 doctoral dissertation, "The Dak'Art Biennial in the Making of Contemporary African Art, 1992-Present," Dak'Art 2014 co-curator
Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi suggests that the Senegalese government established the biennial in 1989 in order to align the administration then with
that of the country's first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who governed from 1960-1980. Culture was a priority under Senghor; he famously
contributed to the development of the Négritude movement, alongside Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas, emphasizing the shared heritage of the African
diaspora and encouraging a pan-African outlook. This cultural legacy in many ways differs from Nigeria's: despite an economic crisis in the 1980s,
Dak'Art nonetheless emerged in Senegal at that time.
Nzewi notes that the presence of painting and sculpture at the biennial became diminished in 1998, when Dak'Art began to privilege new media
and installation, reflecting international trends. This shift was the result, perhaps, of Internet-bolstered globalization in visual culture,
but also of the sentiments of failed independence governments in the 1980s, which drove artists away from an earlier embrace of cultural nationalism.
Nzewi writes that Dak'Art artists, since 1998, "shifted from the decolonizing aesthetics of post-independence modernism and began to address the socio-political
and economic realities in their various countries."5
The rise of alternative educational opportunities in Nigeria and elsewhere mirrors this progression. In the past two decades, a range of organizations
providing alternative arts educational programs and resources has emerged across the continent. In West Africa, the Centre Soleil d'Afrique in Bamako, Mali,
was founded in 1999 to encourage artist engagement with contemporary political, social, and environmental issues. The Kuona Trust Centre for visual arts in
Nairobi began at the National Museum of Kenya in 1995, and continues to give workshops in woodworking, blacksmithing, batik, drawing, and printmaking in
addition to residencies and studios. In Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Picha has been providing training and facilities for film and sound recording,
printing, and graphic art since 2006. The Netsa Arts Village in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was established in 2008 by artists seeking community based upon the
exchange and discussion of ideas, whereas 32¡ East | Ugandan Arts Trust in Kampala has been offering workshops, visiting and web-streamed lectures, and
discussions—in addition to studios, residencies, and exhibition space—since 2012.
Àsìkò is crucial to the further development of contemporary arts practices in Africa because it offers exposure to new paradigms
but is firmly rooted in the vital historical context of Nigerian arts training initiatives. In seeking partnership with—and pursuing outposts in—other African
countries, the programs developed by CCA, Lagos represent a uniquely international ambition. In addition to Àsìkò, Silva's projects have included curated shows
of West African art at the Art Dubai fair, and The Progress of Love, an exhibition that was shown at the Menil Collection in Houston and the Pulitzer Foundation
for the Arts in St. Louis, as well as at the CCA. Choosing such venues as Dak'Art furthermore reveals an ambition to register to an international art public,
introducing global discussions to the CCA's regional community, and vice versa. The fundamental issue these initiatives seem to address, however, is precisely
how the crossroads of Western formal educational models, postcolonial discourse, pan-African heritage, and the specificities of each country's fraught political
and cultural history can be navigated to productive artistic and discursive ends.
In 2015 Àsìkò will head to Mozambique.
Amanda H. Hellman is Curator of African Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum,
Emory University in Atlanta. Her work explores issues of heritage production and
museum development in West Africa.
All artworks reproduced with this article were created by artists who will exhibit at Dak'Art 2014: The 11th Biennial of African Art, co-organized by Elise Atangana, Abdelkader Damani,
and Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi.
1. See Sylvester Ogbechie, Ben Enwonwu: The Making of an African Modernist (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008); Chika Okeke-Agulu,
"Rethinking Mbari Mbayo: Osogbo Workshopsin the 1960s, Nigeria," in African Art and Agency in the Workshop, ed. Till Förster and Sidney Kasfir
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 154-179; and Chika Okeke-Agulu, "The Art Society
and the Making of Postcolonial Modernism in Nigeria," South Atlantic Quarterly 109, no. 3 (2010): 505-527.
2. Nigerians pressured the colonial government to open universities in the nation; in 1950, 10 years
before independence, the British colonial government established the higher education committee
to develop the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology with branches in Ibadan and Zaria.
3. Bisi Silva, Àsìkò Program Archive, April 30-May 25, 2012: 1.
4. Erin Rice (coordinator, Àsìkò 2014) in discussion with the author, April 8, 2014. Rice explains that
Àsìkò is not a studio-centered workshop, but focuses on collaboration and networking for artists
and curators who have some professional experience.
5. Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, "The Dak'Art Biennial in the Making of Contemporary African Art,
1992-Present," (doctoral dissertation, Emory University, 2013), 1.