Francophone African Art at Alliance Francaise

FRANCOPHONE AFRICAN ART THAT INSPIRED THE WESTERN WORLD By margaretta wa gacheru. Published in Business Daily magazine March 29, 2013 <img border="0" src="http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-girgywN3pyc/UVAny honest Art historian will admit that the seeds that grew into most of the 20th century Modern Art movements came from Africa, especially from Francophone countries like the Benin, Mali, DR Congo, Cameroon and Ivory Coast. Those countries’ sculptures, masks and textiles were among the African arts that inspired early 20th century artists like Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Gustav Klimpt among many others. For instance, the intricate geometric designs of Bakuba cloth from what had previously been the Royal Kuba Kingdom (now the DR Congo) had a profound influence on the Fauvist and the Bauhaus art movements. But often the influence of indigenous African art on Western art is overlooked. Artists like Picasso and Matisse are admired for their creative genius, when both men admitted they owned large Africana collections of sculptures, masks, textiles and amulets. Currently, at Nairobi’s Alliance Francaise, the whole ground floor gallery is filled with examples of the African art that is similar to that which affected those dramatic changes in European art at the turn of the 20th century. A collection of indigenous art and artifacts from eight West African countries has been on display since March 15th when the Francophiles living in Nairobi celebrated Francophone week all last week through music, films, cuisine, and the visual arts. The show will continue through April 21st and it is well worth spending sometime not just seeing but actually reading and studying the well-captioned indigenous art which has been brought to Kenya by one enterprising Cameroon curator and art collector, Abderahaman Njingou, assisted by his Cameroon colleague Mounchigam Mamouda Arouna. Njingou studied African Art and Culture at the University of Cheick Anta Diop. Diop himself was a renowned African historian who spent his scholarly life researching pre-colonial African culture and history with a view to restoring Africans’ sense of dignity and pride in their early empires and civilized societies. Njingou’s exhibition of Francophone African art echoes that same sentiment, as the artifacts he’s collected personally during his travels all around the region bear witness to the beauty, elegance, intelligence and civility of pre-colonial African cultures. Njingou admits that many of the 70 odd pieces are reproductions of art that has either been destroyed during or after the colonial period, situated in Western art galleries and museums or remaining among African villagers who refuse to relinquish or even sell their family antiques. The curator doesn’t try to pretend that his exhibition is filled with all original masks, sculptures, hand-carved doors, and musical instruments, which explains why his prices are so reasonable. For instance, his masks from Ivory Coast, Gabon and Congo run anywhere from KSh2,500 to Ksh5,000. His hand-carved doors and windows from Mali, which are replicas of originals sell for KSh20,000 and KSh8000 respectively. His beautiful Chokwe ‘guitar’ from the DR Congo goes for KSh45,000, but given that it’s four feet tall and an exquisite example of Congolese indigenous sculpture, that price is reasonable. Where the prices shoot sky high is when it comes to the original bronze antique sculptures that Njingou has brought by air, mainly from Benin, but also from Mali, Chad and Central Cameroon. Many of these pieces were produced by Royal court artisans who created specially to celebrate either the king and his court or deceased ancestors or animal spirits such as the leopards, horses or lions, life-size examples of which are all on display in the exhibition. The pair of bronze leopards from Benin Empire are going for KSh500,000 each. The Oba’s (king) head is a ‘steal’ for KSh120,000 while the king’s Ife goddess is Ksh300,000. Perhaps the most striking sculpture in the whole show is the galloping Horse and Horseman King (Fon) from Central Cameroon which Njingou says was cast in 1824. The curator has no problem pricing it at KSH800,000. Tastefully hung, the textile replicas of traditional Bogolanfini ‘mud’ cloth from Mali and Kuba cloth from the Congo are elegant as wall hangings, although they were originally used for everything from currency to clothing. One can easily see why the Modern Art movements were inspired by these amazing geometric designs which were hand woven out of raffia palm fibers. The exhibition also includes dolls, royal stools and one monumental mask used by Ivorian acrobats to entertain the king by leaping through the circular mask in a way similar to what modern day circus entertainers do. The Bobo mask from Burkina Faso is traditionally part of an annual Festival of Masks which is still celebrated. During colonial times, that country was called Upper Volta, but once Thomas Sankara took over as president, he changed the name to Burkina Faso, meaning Country of Free Men. This show of traditional Francophone African art, be it made out of beads, bronze, raffia grass or wood, reveals the indigenous artistic talents that ought to make one exceedingly proud to be ‘free’ African men and women.

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