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On Negritude, on Enwonwu, on SAWilliams

I am approaching the subject matter from a fluid and a dualistic position, exploring the notions of the Me is We philosophy made famous by Muhammed Ali in relation to history, appropriation, and Negritude, using sequence as a metaphor to collate a narrative through date, time, object and events.  — Sadiq Ajibola Williams, 2017

With these words, British / Nigerian artist, Sadiq Ajibola Williams sets the tone for his recent solo exhibition Memoirs of a Black Box, which held in Lagos last August at the Revolving Art Incubator. To gain more insight into this context, as well as Williams’ techniques and working methods, one must first understand Negritude, key figures of the movement, and their impact on black Africa, from which many artists today have framed their practice.

As espoused by Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, along with others like Aime Cesaire (Martinique) and Leon Damas (French Guiana), the Negritude philosophy of the 1930s and 40s was first postulated in protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.  It would later seek to emancipate culturally, politically and sociologically, black people all over the world. The movement was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and artistic flowering associated with writers and poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude Mckay that emerged among a group of black thinkers and artists in New York, during the 1920s. With the unfolding Negritude movement in the 1930s, a critical examination of African culture against a background of Western values began. Arguably, Negritude was the first and most significant resistance movement by black Africa, to notions of the superiority of the European culture and civilisation.

These views, based on the assumption that Africa had no history or culture, inspired many of the basic ideas behind Negritude; that the mystique of African life, hinged on its proximity to nature and  constant contact with ancestors, should be placed continually in proper perspective against the soullessness and materialism of Western culture; that Africans must determine from their cultural heritage, the values and traditions most useful in the modern world; that African writers and artists should employ indigenous subject matter to inspire political freedom; that Negritude embraces the entirety  of African cultural, economic, social and political values; and most significantly, the value and dignity of African traditions and peoples must be asserted.

Unarguably, the tenets of Negritude were no better exemplified visually than in the work of celebrated modernist artist Ben Enwonwu MBE (1917 94). In the course of his illustrious career, he would complete a large series of paintings also titled Negritude.  According to the artist, the essence of my Negritude was particularly characterised in the movement of dancing figures and in the beauty of black women. He revealed that his figures are black as at the time, black beauty was an essential and recognised image of the movement.

Enwonwu explained further, that Negritude is the characteristic quality of African art, which is centered on magic and rhythm. The disappearance of magic in the creation of ancestral gods, with the old eye, no longer bothers European interest in African art; nor has the continuity of rhythm, which is the motivational force in African art forms been destroyed. The characteristic positive and negative vital force in the African artistic expression still survives, and this is Negritude the Africanity!

In other works like Anyanwu (1954  55), the female figure is again the central motif in Enwonwus work; first as a physical symbol to convey indigenous aesthetics, ethical, moral and material qualities, and second, in alluding to metaphysical principles and primordial feminine power, as art historian Sylvester Ogbechie asserts.

It is no longer news that modern art owes much to the geometric and rhythmic forms of African sculpture. Enwonwu asserted that the African sculptor penetrated the invisible world in his compulsion to imagine and to create his forms, symbols of his spirit-ancestors. He observed that this rhythm which he describes as the moving energy and vital force of symbolical forms, is present in dance and paintings, in the repetition at regular intervals of a particular line, colour, figure, geometric form, as well as in the contrast of colours.

Sadiq Ajibola Williams, building on these foundational principles, reinterprets them in contemporary manner. Like Enwonwu, his practice is multi-disciplinary, embracing proficient elements of architecture, painting, dance, poetry, martial arts, music, theatre, performance and filmmaking. Though the Negritude movement faded in the early 1960s when its political and cultural objectives had been largely achieved in most African countries, significant events have been documented mostly from a Western perspective, an extant example being the British “Punitive Expedition” of 1897, which resulted in the sacking of the ancient kingdom of Benin. From the historical records of the British themselves, the burning and looting of the palace of its now-world renowned bronzes and artefacts, as well as the deposing and exiling of the Oba, should be more appropriately termed as the “Benin Massacre”.

In Memoirs of a Black Box, his recent solo exhibition at the Revolving Art Incubator, Williams reconstructs and documents our black history against the backdrop of technological advancement, Western religion and globalisation major occurrences since the ebbing of the Negritude movement. This process of deconstruction is the thrust upon which the exhibition is built the flight recorder, better known as the black box, itself a device installed in modern-day aircraft to facilitate into the cause of accidents or disappearance.

Indeed, Sadiq Ajibola Williams agitates for future generations of Africans to retrace and reconstruct their identities from their history and indigenous traditions, in much the same way data is recovered from the black box. In the works presented for the show, Williams questions notions of the 4 elements of existence: body, mind, heart and spirit (soul) as a recollection mechanism in documenting culture, custom and tradition. The Revolving Art Incubator lends itself easily to the display of works, thoughtfully spread across its three floors. The arrangement brings to mind different physical states with varying energy levels. We are reminded that as we journey or transit through separate phases of life metaphors for the several energy levels, we are bounded by the law of energy conservation, with each experience strongly individual but part of a broader collective. Through this composite, the African has shaped his identity, the preservation and continuity of which is dependent on an ability to negotiate his cultural hybridity, occasioned largely by the advent of colonialism where indigenous languages were forgotten, and traditional values lost, circumscribed by the words and concepts he was taught.

The ground floor of the Revolving Art Incubator was dedicated to the soul (Heart and Spirit). Here, the artist in collaboration with Gbenga Akintunde(Tae kwon Do), Fadaka Louis (Shotokan Karate),  Michael Jimoh Ratty (Traditional Eegun), Shogo as The Royal Drummer, and Tokunbo Ademola as Supreme Grandmaster-General of the realm (Tai Chi and Qi Gong), presented a martial art performance aligned with the theatrical element of the exhibitions experiential offerings. Mid- level (The Body Space) was occupied by more performance and theatricals with Donna Ogunaike cast as Mother Substance, Tope Sadiq as Time Lord Afrikanus who leads the viewer into the artist’s world and the theatre performance in a highly immersive manner, Rezthapoet as Father Essence and Kayefi as Sister Earth. The plot is about Mother Substance instilling in her man, Father Essence (The King), a sense of pride, which seems lost to him and his progeny. She charges him to awaken from his slumber, reminding him that he is king. Inspired, he ceases to despair, and commands his generals as represented by the martial artists, to secure the land and the people. The scenario can be likened to a positive awakening or rebirth of black consciousness. As Kayefi skilfully serenades the cast and audience with medleys drawn from contemporary and traditional Yoruba folklore, thus alluding to the characteristic “rhythm” of African art, Williams executed the body of abstract paintings on display, using training sequences of a fusion of martial arts, varying from Shotokan Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Capoeira, and Tai Chi, to Eegun movements of the Yorubas of Nigeria.

In his process, the artist “esoterically and mentally delves into Ijakadi and Ijagbokiti, Yoruba traditional forms of wrestling and swordsmanship” which are offshoots of Eegun training. Interestingly, the actors cleverly incorporate shadow boxing into the blend – all developed in the Lagos-based dojo that Williams trains at. Here, in this performance, Williams finds a common ground between the Yoruba kingdom, Europe and the Orient, in his attempt to re-establish his African identity “within the context of the collectivist and individualist nuances that pervade the global villages of the world” In preparation for the exhibition and as part of his existential and phenomenological process, Williams visited Badagry’s slave port and Brazilian barracoons. These experiences birthed the Memories of Nubia: The Queen Regent, Memories of Atlantis’, ‘The Olokuns’ series and Oguns Yin and Yang segments of the bodies of works on show. Indeed, for the artist, authenticity and esotericism are a huge part of his modes of artistic expression.

Together, the lateral experiences and genres serve to show the complexity of Williams’ oeuvre. They do well to outline his creative process. The outcome is an experimental dialogue in latex and figurative representation of subjects through the daily experiences of the African, using date, time, objects and events as metaphors. According to Sadiq Ajibola Williams, this is a world in which “Africans will own their narrative and make a conscious effort to document and preserve their historical and cultural heritage.”

 

 

Oliver Enwonwu

President

Society of Nigerian Artists

September, 2017

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