Review: ‘Remember the Future’ – Art Exhibition 

Now, the first thing to say about ‘Remember the Future’ is that it is a brilliantly curated exhibition – the space at ‘Red Door’ is used to ample effect, and the works on display, of which there are many, but not too many, are given their dramatic due. That is where the drama ends, because Dennis Osadebe’s paintings are not so much dramatic, as they are stylishly delicious. The key feeling one has about these painting is their coolness, on both levels of meaning. The influences are clear but not slavishly obvious, and amidst the derivation there is a clear sense of an artist trying to say something new. On the surface, this is pure pop art, but there’s a seriousness about most of the pieces here that belie the playfulness of the style, with the exception perhaps of one piece ‘Afro Dynamic I’; there is an air of worthiness about most of the other pieces, many of which are nonetheless witty and wry commentary on the society in which Osadebe makes his work.  Closer to home, the theme of the mask as a medium for exploring ideas lies at the heart of these pieces; other tropes feel pleasingly familiar, the printed fabric of many subjects echo the work of Yinka Shonibare, and in an oblique way, Cheri Samba. Most subjects in the paintings are depicted in clothing that echoes Ankara print, but without the mawkishness that comes with the familiar patterns; Osadebe digitally creates the patterns, which are then silkscreened onto canvas, after which the background is painted. The astronaut is in many ways a mystical being, like more familiar masquerades, they travel into other dimensions from a present that sends them, but from which they are also no longer or not fully a part; they represent pretense of the future, not a fully realized version of it. And so the metaphor goes, Nigerians find themselves to be modern in their aspirations, but with a staus quo that denies many of their ideas and pretension of themselves, some of which are now possible thanks to technological innovations, one thinks of the mobile phone and its transformative impact, and the corollary impact of the internet, but Osadebe’s conceit neatly shows these masks to be just masks – the characters in these paintings are in a space that is not space; aside from their masks, they’re not dressed for the future; this is perhaps a less emancipatory message than the painter wishes to convey in the exuberance of his work, but the darkness is certainly there, amidst the colour.  

 In ‘Remember the Future’ Osadebe has taken Nigeria’s vaunted ambition to launch a man into space, and riffed off this hubristic national desire to explore ideas of  power, class, and gender; it is an elegant collection of work encapsulating the contradictory zeitgeist of a country whose aspirations for modernity are ostentatiously ambitious, and achievement of those have aspirations have also ostentatiously fallen short. ‘Oil Rules the Nation’ in which an astronaut surveys the universe from a generator powered space station. This is work that will be enjoyed for its message, the currently laughable idea of putting a Nigerian in space wrapped in bubblegum images of current preoccupations, but what’s more enjoyable is the sense of fun, and confidence in these works. Osadebe is one to watch, though one is not quite confident to say these particular works will stand the test of time, it seems certain Osadebe is an artist who may well make his mark on these our futuristic times. 

Dele Meiji, June 2017 

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Review – Moremi

 Crown Troupe of Africa’s rendition of the famous Yoruba myth of Moremi, the lady who saved the people of Ife from the Igbo people (not to be confused with the Igbo people of South-East Nigeria) – is youthful, exuberant and effectively crowd-pleasing. The story, relocated to an Ife that serves as metaphor for the wider Nigerian polity, is laced with clever contemporary references that keep the dram from being overly worthy. The conceit works well, in most respects, and provides the most gratifying elements of entertainment in the play. As a social critique of contemporary Nigeria, the narrative is a little confused – but it does pointedly and with humour highlight the degree to which youth are sacrificed to maintain the social order, without following through with the implications of this critique. More delightfully, the production makes good use of a minimal set, and inventive transitions with music to gives us a sense of the mise en scene and symbolic life of the Ife Kingdom – most elegantly in a brief musical number for one of the river deities.

Though it remains true to the myth, the tragic element of the Moremi story is under-utilised – the salient fact of a mother giving her only son is rather haphazardly worked into the story, and we have very little time to reflect on it in the course of the play; what does sparkle are the actors, and the musical numbers, bar a few bum notes. Providing lots of comic relief is the love sub-plot between Moremi’s son, Oluorogbo, sometimes to the detriment of the play – and the hapless emissaries to the Oba, and their unfortunate encounter with Ife’s market women.

In general, the pacing of the production is sure footed – and it is only at the end when we are given a very bizarre concluding hip-hop number that the youthful exuberance starts to chafe. Nevertheless, this is slick and entertaining fare, which one hopes will find a home to play again.

Moremi played on the 25th – 27th March, as part of Park Theatre at Freedom Park

 Picture courtesy of Segun Adefila | Source: Telegraph Newspapers

 

In praise of Ancestor Worship

So, Grace Mugabe has said that should her husband die before the next election, he should stay on the ballot as a corpse. It’s not a bad idea, and it is keeping with ancestor worship, an aspect of our culture as Africans that we have for so long neglected, albeit never abandoned. Now that Grace Mugabe has put it on the table, it is something that needs to be explored in all African countries. In fact, it is in Southern Africa where this idea first needs to be applied; in South Africa where the African National Congress is struggling to field a candidate with charisma and character to revive its electoral fortunes, the answer is obvious – Nelson Mandela needs to be on the ballot, and if the ANC really wants to recover its radical bent, it should field Chris Hani. Further west, the revolutionary presiding spirit of Angola, Eduardo dos Santos should feel no need to step down, instead, he must wait till he is transformed by death into an ancestor, and can continue to benevolently supervise the development of his country. In West Africa, where the giant of Africa has suffered the travails of death and ill health plaguing the highest office in the land – our veneration of ancestors must be brought back into the field of politics; if during the political crisis of the Jonathan-Yaradua years we had the option of fielding Yaradua as a corpse, would the constitutional crisis have been so great? I think not. As it stands we can even take the idea further and schedule elections with no living candidates at all; for one thing, it would make electoral politics much cheaper, and might even give us a better connection to our history. How wonderful it would be if we could have Nkrumah, Awolowo, and Bouteflika (oh wait, he’s still alive) contest again – alongside their corpses we can also revive moribund political ideas, or at least justifiably allow them to remain in circulation. In truth, putting our political ancestors on the ballot papers all across the continent will save us the hardwork of reconciling our need to have more youthful and dynamic leadership to match our populations – with our long held respect for age – even when such aged persons have more years than sense.

How the Obamas expanded the language of American presidency – with dance

We’re all familiar with the language of American presidential campaigns, the symbolic rituals every candidate must make – kissing babies, high fives with joe average, and sympathetic listening to his wife. Even more familiar are we with the stump speech, and the 100 megawatt smile that communicate, pick me, I’m the best one to lead. Every successful American presidential candidate has had to balance the appearance of groundedness, being relatable, while conveying the gravitas expected from a future president of the United States. In the 20th century, the benchmark has been JFK, against whom every president is measured; after him, we had to wait another twenty years for that kind of liberal glamour, which Bill Clinton conveyed, though Raegan possessed a film star quality that was not easy to dismissed, despite being followed by a cold, conservative message. The Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison famously called Bill Clinton America’s ‘first black president’ saying “he displayed almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” Albeit in a context of negativity, where Clinton’s was symbolically being lynched, Morrison also suggested this was the first president to emerge from a recognisably black cultural milieu, Clinton was cool, he played the sax. Morrison later rowed back from the precision of her statement but the point still stands. After the Clinton era, George Bush’s folksiness was a definite throwback to the era of the president as ordinary guy; Bush, you could also say expanded the language of the presidency, if only by a continuous innovation in buffoonery and inadvertent comic language. Obama’s candidacy was always going to be different – being the first viable black candidate in a country still riven by racial divides required a deft political balance; that balance was almost derailed in the first campaign with the controversy over Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s comments.

But Obama was not only the first Black presidential candidate, but also the first African-American president, equally important with an African-American spouse whose story of struggle was and is more emblematic than his. So when it came to the symbolic language of the campaign and eventually the presidency, Obama and his wife, Michelle have channelled one of the most powerful symbolic aspects of African and African-American identity – dance. Dance, throughout African-American history has been an important aspect of African American cultural expression, often serving as the only outlet for social, political and cultural expression when access to the mainstream of society was barred. Notably, cultural dances such as the cakewalk were as much about enjoying the dance as they were about mocking white slave masters, and in more recent times, dances such as the Charleston, the twist, have all signified the emergence of African-Americans as an increasingly powerful social and political force in American society. So it should be no surprise that the first African-American president and first lady would draw on this cultural tool to inform and communicate during their presidency. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be taken for granted, given the way in which black bodies and identity are frequently policed to conform in spaces predominantly occupied by white power, it was never a given that this couple would feel so free to express themselves. Drawing on the language and history of African-American cultural dance, Michelle Obama used dance to underscore a message of health, and subtly conveyed the arrival of an African-American presence into the language of power in America; we need look no further than the fact that Hillary Clinton, during her presidential campaign sought to channel this language. For Obama, dance was a signifier of his cool, one more signal that this president was ‘black enough’ thank you very much.

How Ghana Got Its Groove Back

 

Ghana, first post-independence black republic, has always had a special place in the heart of Africans and Africanists the world over. Despite this, it’s never been quite cool.  It’s always been a popular destination for African-Americans, partly because of its historical associations with the upheavals of 17-19th century Africa more clearly marked in a place that has more reverence for history than some other countries, and partly because of its aforementioned vanguard position in the pan-Africanist movement. In fact, you could say Ghana was cool back then – when its president Nkrumah was calling for a United States of Africa. The leaders of other countries that shall remain nameless till later on were tepidly arguing for less. It’s the place Fela fled when he was escaping the Nigerian state. It’s where W.B DuBois, Maya Angelou, and a host of other African-American exiles went to rememorize Africa as the civil rights movement turned from its determined anger to the righteous rage of the black power movement. Yet, despite all that until recently, what can one say, there wasn’t that ineffable coolness that seems to rub off on the denizens of a country either through dint of history, achievement or sheer power. Now things seem to have changed.

There is a certain savoir-faire that Ghanaians themselves now seem to possess that wasn’t there before. A degree of economic prosperity and stability has something to do with it – but having discussed this some with Ghanaian friends we all agree the first football tournament on African Soil in 2010, when the Black Stars carried the hopes of many as African team after African team was knocked out before the ignominious finals – was the beginnings of a certain something. Admittedly, less to do with Ghanaians themselves, and more to do with the world switching on to Ghana’s cool. In music where the country has often seemed a poor cousin to the richer seam of music down in the Congo and up in Nigeria, Ghana has been making its mark in recent years.

The dance and music craze of Azonto, so influential it’s managed to shake the British establishment to its knees and produce paroxysms of movement from the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne, is the prime example. But even before Azonto made its impact, Ghanaian musicians had it going on, notably the hip-hop artists Mensa, and Wanlov Kubolor  – the duo known as FOKN BOIS.  Wanlov was brave and brazen enough to let it all hang out on national television – and the duo stepped up to the bigger, brasher, pretender to the giant of Africa throne on the song “Thank God We’re Not a Nigerians”, a song about all the things you want to tell Nigerians but were too shy to say. [I mean, I guess, it’s racist – but Nigerians should know they’ve arrived when their stereotype is so well drawn you can make a song out of it. Still, the Naija response was weak. Actually, can someone do a better Nigerian riposte?]

There are other musicians making their mark too, notably the singer, Efya, whose collaboration with the artist Oladipo is playful, sexy and elegant. [And she doesn’t seem to hold his Nigerianess against him].

And who switched us on to all these artists and musicians, some of the most interesting bloggers on the four ends of the continent; one of these bloggers, Kobina Graham, started and now edits Dust, probably one of Africa’s coolest magazines, chronicling Accra life and style, in a nattily creative and critical way.

The best of the blogs still has to be “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women” started by Nana Darkoa – which reveals and explores the sex lives of African women [and men] in an open, honest, and funny fashion.

To top it all, the country seems to be on a steady upward economic trajectory that it’s larger cousin and rival can only envy – and take advantage of for holidays, and homes away from home. The place is home to a university that actually has the objective of creating people who can think critically, and don’t just ‘sabi book’ – you have to admire a place with universities that are not just aiming to create ‘leaders’ but know what kind of leader they want to create.

All in all, Ghanaian cool seems to be based on something slightly different from Nigerian cool – [which is the ultimate arbiter, isn’t it?] – which seems to emerge out of the manifestation of a thousand fragile egos puffing themselves against the wind; “Ghanaian cool” seems to have a certain louche reserve about it, less brazen more regal, as if all this orderliness is effortless. It’s very polite. The question is, my fellow West Africans, can you maintain it once you get oil money?

Dele Meiji