Francophone artists expand appreciation of African art

Bezalel Ngabo with  his ‘‘Secret of Creation’’. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru

Bezalel Ngabo with his ‘‘Secret of Creation’’. Photo/Margaretta wa Gacheru 
By Margaretta wa Gacheru

Posted  Thursday, March 27  2014 at  13:46

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During the Francophone Fortnight at Alliance Francaise which is wrapping up this weekend, everything from music, film, slam poetry and visual art from all around the French-speaking Africa has been on show.
The visual artists whose works have been on display were all born in Kinshasa: Bezalel Ngabo, an indigenous Congolese and graduate of the Kinshasa Academy of Beaux-Arts; Xavier Verhoest, a Belgian artist who’s been here since the 1990s curating art exhibitions and creating his own abstract art; and Yves Goscinny, a self-taught painter, art collector, qualified chemist and co-founder of the East African Art Biennale who’s currently based in Brussels but lived and worked all over Africa for many years.
Specially invited by Alliance Francaise to participate in ‘Les Rendez-Vous de les Francophonie’, Goscinny is a venerable elder statesman of East African art who worked in Tanzania for close to 20 years before moving back to Belgium, a country his parents fled during World War 2 when Hitler invaded that country.
That was in 2008, but after playing a pivotal role in the Tanzanian art scene, he still returns to Dar es Salaam frequently.
Goscinny not only co-founded the East African Art Biennale in 2003 with Professor Elias Jengo of the University of Dar. He also established the annual ‘Art in Tanzania’ exhibition starting in 1998.
“All the exhibitions have been accompanied by a catalogue,” said Goscinny who feels strongly that documentation of East African art is essential.
“Without a catalogue, it’s as if the exhibition never took place,” said the retired chemist who initially came to Africa to work for the United Nations and then for the European Union.
An avid art collector, Goscinny went searching for local artists in Dar, just as he had done while working in Ethiopia, Togo and Mali. “Initially, it looked as if there were no Tanzanian artists but I finally found them living ‘underground’,” he said.
It was then that he decided to organse the first ‘Art in Tanzania’ exhibition. “We showed the works of 45 artists, most of whom the public had never seen before,” he said.
Subsequently, he began to also exhibit solo artists. But he also began to paint himself. His first exhibition was in 1999 and he’s been painting ever since.
Goscinny also exhibited in the first East African Art Biennale which he curated; “but after that, I didn’t exhibit my work since there were now so many others who wanted to be in the Biennale.”
Goscinny’s vision was to include all five East African countries including in the regional Biennale, but that didn’t happen until 2013 when Burundi and Rwandan artists finally got involved.
The other element of Goscinny’s vision was to make the EA A Biennale mobile from one capital city in the region to another.
“But our sponsors said I was crazy for thinking that could be done. After that, he retired from being chairman of the Biennale, but he still treks between Brussels and Dar.
The Francophone Fortnight show is the first time he’s exhibited in the region since he shifted his base to Brussels, and first time he’s exhibited in Kenya.
The mixed media paintings that he brought to Nairobi are from his “Dar” series.
Expressive of his feelings about what’s happened to Dar dwellers over the past few years, Goscinny said ordinary people have become like ciphers, their human value replaced with the value of money and commerce.
“The figures in my paintings look transparent, and that’s because human beings are no longer important; they are basically invisible. I paint them as silhouettes which is the way dead people are drawn [in homicide cases].”
In a sense then, Goscinny’s art is a form of protest against the dehumanisation of African people.
Yet if one senses an underlying anger in his art, it doesn’t diminish the role that Goscinny has played in advancing and amplifying the interests of East African artists.
The closest correlative to his contribution in Kenya is Elimo Njau since he, too, organised the first indigenous African art institution, Paa ya Paa.

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