Sunday 8 April 2012

Nigerian, Italian photographers, poets converge for The Black In The Mediterranean Blue

By Tajudeen Sowole
 The 2012 edition of Lagos Black Heritage Festival (LBHF) takes a Mediterranean persepctive into Pan-Africanism, bringing Italian photographers, American scholars together with Nigerian poets and photographers.

It started on Monday, April 2, shortly after the Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola opened Kongi's Harvest Art Gallery, in honour of the 1986 Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka, at the Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos.
  The first exhibition mounted at the gallery and opened to the public few days after, was a photography show Naija-Italia, which featured works of Nigerian and Italian photographers. It's part of the yearly Lagos Black Heritage Festival (LBHF) organised by the state government.
Prof Wole Soyinka (2nd, left) and other participants at the LBHF 2012.

  The art culture segment of the 2012 edition, instructively, has the theme The Black In The Mediterranean Blue.  The umbrella theme features the photography exhibitions Naija-Italia and Africa: See You See, and poetry,  Night of Poets.  
   A colloquium also added a higher level of intellectual interaction.  Professor of Art History and Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at the WEB DU BOIS INSTITUTE of African and African American Research, at Harvard University,  Paul Kaplan made a presentation. His paper was based on visual representation of Africans in European art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He stated that during his research he had studied tons of pictures of people of African descent.   
  An example of such depictions, he explained, was on the images of the visit of an African ambassador, Antonio Manuel, who paid a visit to the Pope in Rome in 1608.

“When this ambassador known as Antonio Manuel Markey of Nevunda arrived in Rome, he was greeted by the Pope and the Italian authorities with enthusiasm because he and the ruling family in Congo had been converted to Christianity. Unfortunately, as soon as he arrived in Rome, he died; he had been ill during the trip, and it took him four years to reach Rome.

 “But his death didn’t stop the authorities from celebrating his arrival. So he has a beautiful tomb in one of the major Roman churches, with a bust representing him. Important paintings were made in the Vatican and in the Pope’s palaces, commemorating his visit.
Prof Alexander Porteli from Italy, taking pictures during the 2012 LBHF at Freedom Park, Lagos, Nigeria.

    “The pope was also looking for a balance against the power of the Spanish empire, and the reason it took the ambassador so long to get to Rome is that the Spanish didn’t want him to meet with the Pope. They didn’t want the Pope to have independent relations with other Christian powers in Africa. That’s precisely what the Pope wanted; he also was looking to establish relations with Ethiopia as well as Congo. So it is a very interesting episode in both African and European history.
  “There are actually very few images of art in this period that explicitly represent slaves. Europeans were already embarrassed by the slave trade, and artistes were not usually encouraged to represent people in chains or in that way. However, already in the European Middle Ages, from 1200s on, one way for European rulers to show their power was to show that they ruled over, or to show that at least, they were acquainted with people of colour.

  “So emperors, kings and so on, attracted black African courtiers and there are many paintings, right around 1600, which show Africans in that capacity, not as slaves working hard as many already were in Europe and in the Americas, but as finely dressed court servants, symbolising the growing reach of European power.

 “Some of the connections are interesting; for example, the woman who was first hinted, with a young black servant at her side, beautifully dressed in striped garments was also the Duchess of Ferrara. She was also the woman to whom the original story behind Shakespeare’s Othello was dedicated.
Agere cultural display of Yoruba origin, being performed at the LBHF 2012.

 “So a writer wrote a story about that kind of interracial romance, partly because there was already an African presence at this Duchess’s court in the period.”
  Also speaking on the theme of the LBHF, former Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Dr Wale Adeniran stated: “People tend not to remember that Africa has a history of long contact with the outside world, whether Italy or Europe in general, and even as far as the Arab world and Asia. The festival is about situating our contact within its proper historical context, and letting people know that our contact with the outside world does not just date back to colonialism or to the slave trade. Long before the slave trade, there had been contact between Africa and the rest of the world.”
  And came the Night of Poets as works of Soyinka were read by Lola Sonaiya, Odia Ofeimun, Deji Toye, and Tolu Ogunlesi. Works of  JP Clark, Ogaga Ifowodo, and Chris Abani were also read. Segun Adefila read on behalf of  late Ify Omalicha, who also got eulogies from Jumoke Verisimo.
 Jimi Solanke and his group added music to the poetry night.
   Kaplan, interestingly, had something to say about distortion, particularly on Nigeria. He was elated "to be in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, very exciting  in a dynamic city like Lagos."

  He disclosed that on the U.S. government websites, there are warnings about going to Nigeria based on security or health issues. But he was surprised on arrival here, noting that "I found it is a relatively modern city. I am staying in a very pleasant hotel and the traffic doesn’t seem to me any worse than New York, so far." 
Few days earlier, the curator of the exhibitions, a US-based Nigerian Professor of Africana Studies, New York University, Awam Amkpa explained that Africa: See You See Me, is a tour exhibition that had been shown in Portugal, Italy and China. He said it’s a cross-continental show featuring works of 34 internationally renowned photographers.
  The Nigerian photographers include J.D. Ojeikhere, George Osodi, Uche Okpa Iroha, Charles Ologeh, Dokubo Soibifa, and US-based Andrew Dosunmu.
Prof Femi Osofisan and actress, Taiwo Ajayi-Lycet during the LBHF 2012

Africa: See You See Me opened at Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos on Saturday, April 7, 2012. Other photographers whose works featured include Marco Ambrosi, Luis Basto, 
Matteo Danesin, Delphine Diallo, Anirban Duttagupta,
Angèle Etoundi Essamba, Inès Gonçalves,
P. Maïmouna Guerresi, Hassan Hajjaj,
Lyle Ashton Harris and Seydou Keita
Majida Khattari. Otheer are Kilunaje Liberdade, Stanley Lumax,
Mamadou M’Baye, Salem Mekuria, Zanele Muholi,
Malik Nejmi,  Cedric Nunn, Nii Obodai, Alfredo Muñoz de Oliveira, Zak Ové, Pauliana Pimentel, Malik Sidibe,
Aldo Sodoma, Daniele Tamagni, Hank Willis Thomas,
Barthélémy Toguo, Michael Tsegaye and Deb Willis.
 And perhaps to show the other side of Nigerian story hidden from the world, European photographers, ironically, have taken up the challenge. Awam explained that, “Naija-Italia is a story of Nigerians told by Italian photographers. All photographers in this show are Italians. It’s about Africans representing themselves and the influence of such representations on modern photography. It is here that there are more Nigerians than any other nationality.”
The exhibition, he noted, “is still in line with the theme of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival,” which is Black Mediterranean: The Nigerian-Italian Connections.
  Given the low interest in photography in Nigeria, these exhibitions brought offered something to cheer about: in collaboration with Culture Advocates Caucus (CAC), Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) and the Goethe Institut, a symposium was held at CCA on April 6. The topic, Visual Culture/Visual Activism focused how Nigerians have led the way in many respects in using photography as a form of visual activism. Discussants were Nii Obodai and Lyle Ashton Harris, Awam Amkpa and Bisi Silva. Also there was the Nigerian launch of a photography book Excessive Exposure by 
American artist, Lyle Ashton Harris.

   The Africa: See You, See Me show will proceed to Dakar, Senegal from Nigeria to feature in the Dak’ Art biennale. 
  Nigerians, home and in the Diaspora worry over negative images, which do not always represent majority of the people’s characters. For Naija-Italia, it’s a celebration of Nigerians’ resilience abroad”, Amkpa argued. “It does not in any way promote the shortcoming of Nigerians. Naija-Italia documents their elegance, work and resistance to racist oppressions. The Italian photographers in the exhibition are advocates for Nigerian and African immigrants.”
Awam trained as a performing artist at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. He also trained in the U.K. combining performing with visual arts by making films and curating film and photography exhibitions as well as a set of activities in Africa, Europe and North America.
Egungun masquerades during the festival.

As the current Dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts, Kwara State University in Malete, Ilorin, his interest in Nigerian art and culture, he argued, “is not a recent interest but actually the foundation of my artistic and scholarly activities worldwide.
“Africa: See You See Me showcases recent African interventions on how Africans are portrayed. It challenges derogatory representations of Africa while promoting resilient and determined images of Africans on the continent and Diaspora.’’
 On the challenges of Nigerians in Europe, Amkpa said: “Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by various means to destinations in Europe, Nigerians arrive voluntarily or otherwise with a determined resolution to improve themselves or others. Picking up jobs in factories, offices, hospitals, cleaning agencies, streets and farms — they work, socialise, and invent communities sometimes to the surprise of their host nations. Beyond the rituals of their lives they also sought elegance and beauty and used their presence in Italian publics to capture themselves in images.”
One of the works from the Naija-Italia photography exhibition, a portrait of a Nigerian lady in Italy, by Marco Ambrosi.

He chronicled how the Italian photographers started the other side of the story. “A few years ago, Marco Ambrosi, Aldo Sodoma and Matteo Danesin embarked on an inspiring project called Portraits in Black in which they told stories of these Nigerians who navigate everyday life in Italy. Combining influences from African photographic practices by Seydou Keita, Malik Sidibe and Ojeikhere, with their own skills as highly regarded artistic and commercial photographers; their collective enterprise produced an artistic document and collaboration of sorts with their subjects. Their portraits produced in make shift studios, homes, religious and social spaces together gave their subjects opportunities to pose, as they would like to be seen — occupying multiple worlds of Africa in Europe, Nigeria in Italy.”
 The curatorial team also includes associate curator Madala Hilaire. The exhibitions are in collaboration with Culture Advocates Caucus (CAC), with support by the Goethe Institut, Nike Art Centre and Centre for Contemporary Art, CAC.

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