As I’m writing this column I’m preparing to go to Sharjah, to view the art at the Sharjah Biennial. One of the things I love about art is how it can challenge our perspectives and invite us to reflect on our allegiances, belief systems and actions. We inhabit a world that has historically valued western knowledge systems over non-western, traditional or indigenous ways of understanding. But we have much to learn from engaging with art that deprioritises western belief and knowledge systems.
Many west African cosmologies share some variation of the idea that the Earth and the natural world are sacred and should be afforded a particular reverence by humans. The Prophecy is a photo series by the Beninese-Belgian photographer Fabrice Monteiro, which he began in Senegal in 2013. “Untitled # 1” is one of several images of mythological-looking characters made from pieces of garbage and transformed into living, walking allegories of ecological and environmental crises in Senegal, among them water pollution and plastic waste.
In this work, a giant female figure rises up from a mound of refuse like a towering deity about to cast a judgment on humanity. She stands above an ominous landscape, dense bushes interspersed with carpets of rubbish and smouldering with smoke. Influenced by the Greek myth of Gaia, Monteiro created a narrative that a tired Mother Earth has sent her spirit children to prophesy to humanity about the consequences of how they are treating the natural world. Inherent in these warnings is the idea that human behaviour towards the rest of creation is partly the result of a broken relationship between the two, and our human inability to recognise any life force other than our own.
Monteiro was also inspired by west African masquerades. Looking at his work, I was taken back to a memory from my childhood when my family lived in Nigeria. It was a season for masquerades. At some point in the day, larger-than-life totem-like figures with masks and streams of raffia would begin to parade through the streets, hollering, beating instruments and dancing in elaborate, colourful costumes — extraordinary even on the vast landscape of my childhood imagination. I was terrified by these figures because I didn’t think they were human.
In my own Igbo tradition, many masquerades are representative of a relationship between the spirit and the human world, implying ancestors and those in the spiritual world are invested in what we humans get up to. Though I didn’t fully understand it or have the language to articulate it, I knew this spectacle was symbolic of the fluidity of borders between the earthly and the transcendent. I have never had trouble believing in a thin line between earthly and spiritual realities.
Monteiro’s work draws also on elements of animism, primarily the belief that humans are not the only ones with a life force energy or a spiritual essence. Whatever we might think of that idea, the way we treat creation might be significantly affected if we were open to the possibility that rivers, lakes, oceans, plants, trees, mountains and other animals have the potential to possess some aspect of a soul, and that a spirit world existed that ached at the broken relationship between humanity and the rest of creation.
The 53-year-old Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor has been working for years on pieces that speak to the collision of African and western cultures. Ehikhamenor was born in Edo state, whose capital is Benin City, and was raised with both the traditional religious beliefs of his grandfather and the Catholic faith of his schooling. “Still Standing” (2022) is a 12ft mixed-media image of Oba Ovonramwen, ruler of the Benin Kingdom who went into exile after the 1897 razing and looting of Benin City by British forces. The Oba’s traditional gown, headdress and accessories were made in Ehikhamenor’s Lagos studio from thousands of orange, red and white rosary beads. Hanging on the gown are miniature Benin bronze ornament masks, a nod to the theft by the British of these precious cultural and religious artefacts; the artist cast them in Benin with traditional bronze-casters. The background is made of thousands of white rosaries that glow in the dark.
Works such as “Still Standing” aim to open a dialogue about how African cultural and religious knowledge was affected by the colonial project. Commissioned as part of a series that asked artists to respond to monuments in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, the work was displayed next to the memorial brass of Harry Rawson, the British admiral who led the 1897 Benin expedition. It has now been acquired by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which last year agreed in principle to return its own collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria.
In “The world is not what exists but what happens”, 34-year-old Mozambican artist Cassi Namoda paints an almost folkloric image of a small trail of people moving along a formless waterscape, united by the labour of carrying a large, thick cloth. The figures seem to float across the canvas in front of a curvaceous, tangerine-coloured mountain range. The clouds are swaths of coral, caramel, soft pink and sky blue. A tiny blood-red moon hangs at the top right-hand corner of the frame. In the lower half, on the right hand side, is a faint outline of a ladder in the water; perhaps a portal to another realm, an underworld open to the traversing of beings between different realities.
Some of Namoda’s work is inspired by Kenyan philosopher, theologian and writer John Mbiti, an ordained Anglican priest. In his seminal 1969 book African Religions and Philosophy, he suggested traditional African religious ideas should be afforded the same level of respect as other global faiths (although he was criticised by some for applying a Christian worldview to African cosmologies).
Mbiti also posited a uniquely African understanding of time, marked by two distinct time periods, the Sasa and the Zamani. Sasa time includes the present and recent past; Zamani time includes the far past and an immeasurable past. According to his book, when a person dies, they remain in Sasa time until the last person who can remember the deceased also dies. Then the person is considered to be in Zamani time.
When I look at Namoda’s painting with this concept in mind, I see a lineage of people, connected by a literal fabric of time. Those at the back carry the events of the past, recognising how they affect how the people at the front exist in present time. The two people at the front are covered and immersed in the wide breath of the present, as they move towards a future no one can see.
I think there are gifts in being open to the belief that the way we live our lives in the present can be deeply marked by patterns and behaviours from our ancestral past, suggesting we inherit more from those who came before us than just physical characteristics. It can be empowering to consider that some of our behaviour or ways of living in the world are inherited from our ancestors, offering an opportunity for unlearning and relearning as we make our way through the world.
Follow Enuma on Twitter @EnumaOkoro or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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