Roving Eye: Into Africa

artist Jude Anogwih, Holly Block and artist Victor Ehikhamenor 


Traveling in Africa for two weeks, I am visiting local partners of smARTpower, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State that pairs American artists with their counterparts abroad. As of 2011, the Bronx Museum of the Arts is sending 17 artists to 15 countries to engage in what I call “people-to-people diplomacy.” smARTpower is the State Department’s first major initiative to send visual artists and their work into international communities. Click here to learn more.

The goal of this tour is to visit four of our smARTpower locations—Accra, Ghana; Lagos and Ibadan in Nigeria; and Nairobi, Kenya. A key component of smARTpower is working with U.S. embassies and teaming up American artists with local arts organizations and communities.

This spring we will send at least one U.S. artist to each of these African countries. The artists and partner organizations are: Rochelle Feinstein, with Foundation for Contemporary Art (FCA) in Accra; Brett Cook, with Women and Youth Art Foundation (WYART) in Lagos and Ibadan; and Miguel Luciano, with Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts in Nairobi.

These U.S. artists serve as cultural envoys; they will create programming through workshops and informal lectures. They will work with youth and women, and discuss local economies, health, ecology and social concerns, and hopefully integrate these topics into their work.

My first stop was Accra, which is a huge city, full of traffic. Don’t count on precise New York-style timing! Drink lots of water, sit back and try not to worry.

I was hosted and cared for at every turn. My two hosts, artists Ato Annan and Adwoa Amoah, run the FCA, an art space with a library and resource center with computers and a wireless connection. They offer professional development workshops for artists, and commission public art projects.

Jamestown, which dates to the 19th century, is one of the city’s oldest districts. There I visited some of the art project that FCA has done. I also visited artists’ studios, museums and galleries in other parts of the city. I found interesting work by the artist and designer Tei Mensah Huagie, who makes wall mosaics using recycled flip-flops. I also visited the studio of photographer Nii Obodai. He still uses film and does his own darkroom work, and for many years ran an artist café and gallery that served as an important hub for emerging and established artists.

A highlight was to meet collector and art patron Seth Dei of the Dei Centre For the Study of Contemporary African Art. The Dei Centre is located in his former home, renovated to display his collection of African art with an emphasis on artists from Ghana. New York-based artist Lyle Ashton Harris has worked with the Dei Centre and NYU’s Africa House and school in Ghana. The collaboration manages the conservation and promotion of the Dei family collection, which serves as a teaching facility, training artists and curators. I visited Lyle at his home in Ghana. He has been teaching for NYU in Ghana for the past seven years, offering his knowledge of New York’s contemporary art scene. He invited a group of artists and friends to meet me and made a traditional Ghanaian meal.

My next stop was Lagos to visit Dr. Peju Layiwola, the artist, writer, curator and educator who founded our partner site, WYART Foundation. She will host painter and installation artist Brett Cook, who will do work in both Lagos and Ibadan, leading up to several public art projects. Dr. Peju teaches at the University of Lagos (UNILAG to locals), though the WYART Foundation is housed at the University of Ibadan (UI) and is about two hours by car from Lagos. The WYART Foundation runs art workshops with women, and has a shop where it sells crafts and art objects made by women from the workshops in the surrounding areas.

Ibadan, once the largest city in Nigeria, has a highly dense downtown. UI is a resource and respite from the busy city center. The drive from Lagos, which took just over two hours, gave me a sense of the trade and oil industry. Huge fuel trucks lined the highways, and makeshift wooden camps were set up all along the route for the drivers. Not your typical truck stop. The scariest experience was to watch people dart across the un-laned highway in the dark.

Once in Lagos, I spent the evening and following day with Dr. Adhiambo Odaga, director of Pan African Programs at the Ford Foundation. We visited galleries like The Hour Glass, My Dream, Signature, and Quintessence. The Goethe Institute, located in the City Hall building, had a solo exhibition of photography and videos by Mudi Yahaya, and the Nike Art Gallery, a huge space with four stories of sculpture, painting, clothes, jewelry and antiques.

We also visited the studio of artist Ndidi Dike, who was preparing new paintings for a show. She is also a wood carver and uses found objects from the street and iodized scrap metal in her work. I met up with Jude Anogwih of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA, Lagos) and made a studio visit with the painter Victor Ehikhamenor, who studied in the U.S. and moved back to Lagos last year.

I arrived yesterday in Nairobi and met with artists Sylvia Gichia and Ato Malinda of Kuona Art Trust. Kuona Art Trust (KAT) is probably the closest approximation of a U.S. residency. Located in a former home, it has offices, a resource center, library, new art shop and a metal container shed in the back that houses about 30 studios. KAT will host Miguel Luciano, who will lead art workshops focused on youth in different groups in the city center and outside of Niarobi.

I had a coffee with Jimmy Ogonga of the Nairobi Arts Trust/Centre for Contemporary Art at the restaurant at the Chester House, a hotel in the middle of the downtown section. After our meeting, I stopped in to see the National Museums of Kenya, where I had a wonderful docent tour by a young student. I was impressed with the large facilities for conservation and research. Next I will be visiting the GoDown Arts Centre, where many artists have studios and more galleries.

Now in my final day in Nairobi, I still want to visit the coast, Mombasa and Zanzibar in Tanzania. I will have to save them for the next trip.