Between the Natural and Supernatural

A renaissance in the visual arts of the sort that occurred in Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and South Africa has yet to unfold in East and Central Africa. Writers and poets, however, perhaps as precursors, have found an "African" voice, and have created new images to address contemporary issues. Authors Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Joseph Kariuki of Kenya, Okot p'Bitek and Taban lo Liong of Uganda, and Tchicaya U Tam'si of Congo Republic, respond to today's exigencies with language that is powerful. Although foreign— French or English—it is transformed to serve other cultural canons and needs.

While a number of outstanding visual artists have appeared, their numbers are small. One of the reasons is a demographic one: the total population of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire is less than that of Nigeria alone. In addition, recurrent migrations from Ethiopia south across savannah lands to graze herds or to escape slave traders resulted in the periodic shifting of peoples, and the disrupting of patterns of continuity.

The stability of farming communities, which provided a consistent structure for the arts, and the proximity of nearby rain forests, which created environments for the great traditions of West Africa, didn't exist in East Africa. Art forms in East Africa consisted of items worn or carried such as jewelry, basketry, vessels, rugs, and the arts of adornment. And architectural relics such as tombs and mosques along the Swahili coast demonstrate the early artistic and religious influence of Islam, exemplified by the carved doors of Lamu, and the arts of calligraphy and body painting.

Although wood carving was practiced in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic, only in Zaire and Congo do these classical arts parallel those of West Africa. The variety in central Africa spans a gamut from some of the greatest carvings in the world to delicate Kuba cloth and sacred emblems of authority including crowns, armlets, and knives, which are of great artistic merit and have been a source of inspiration for artists in other parts of the world for six decades.

One factor that hampered the development of a modern art movement was colonial education, which emphasized European values, employed European methods and curriculum, and generally neglected to encourage indigenous expression. Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, served several countries, but instruction followed the British pattern. While Margaret Trowell, the British artist and teacher who founded in 1937 the School of Fine Arts, now a part of Makerere University College, refused to give painting demonstrations, easel painting did develop, and a number of artists created works that reflect this approach. The direction there could not compare with that acquired at the Technical Institute at Zaria, Nigeria, or the support given the arts by the government of Senegal. Also no artist- professors with the vision and experience of Khartoum's Shibrain and El Salahi or Addis Ababa's Gebre Kristos Desta and Skunder Boghossian emerged under this system.

Except for Pancho Guedes in Maputo, Mozambique, and Elimo Njau in Nairobi, Kenya, there were no extraordinary catalysts and mentors like Georgina Beier and Frank McEwen (see chapters 12 and 13) to encourage fresh directions, rather than impose European criteria and aesthetics. Most importantly, traditional values and, in logical sequence, contemporary cultural expressions were undermined by the presence of colonial settlers. Coupled with exploitation for tourist markets, the psychological vestiges and physical strictures of colonialism continued to operate after independence in the form of economic imperialism, which hampered the free development of original expression.

One should add that artistic expression in East Africa has a major ally in nature, itself. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the grandeur of the landscape—plateaus, majestic mountains, waterfalls, lakes, and the national parks (six million acres in Kenya alone)—may well be the source of the transcendental quality in the arts. Creatively interpreted, it reflects not only its own magnificence, but the variety of life cycles, religions, and peoples whether Bantu, Nilotic, Judaic, Indian, or Arabian.

In contrast, with tropical rain forests Zaire and Congo have numerous sculptural traditions of the many indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, instead of serving as a basis for growth, their incomparable legacy has become a seductive force encouraging sentimental attachments to the past. The results of instruction under the aegis of three institutions—the Desfosses School in Lubumbashi (later incorporated into the Academie des Beaux-Arts and des Metiers d'Art run by Laurent Moonens), the Ecole St. Luc founded by Frere Marc-Stanislas in Kinshasa (later also Academie des Beaux-Arts), and the Poto-Poto School in Brazzaville—were mixed. The new art, frequently lacking in purpose and content, took a decorative turn. In this atmosphere romantic rhetoric substituted for fresh vision.

While many artists have suffered the restraints of Western academic schooling, the following selection consists of artists who create works that draw from the past, yet address the present. They suggest the future talent of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zaire, and Central African Republic, demonstrating remarkable originality, consistency of direction, and technical facility in an artistic climate of dull tourist art and Western academic painting.

These individuals, reviewed in a sequence that loosely parallels their age and appearance on the modern scene, are Gregory Maloba, Sam Ntiro, and Elimo Njau, all of whom studied with Margaret Trowell. Their art is often affected by European or Eurocentric teaching, but they are particularly important because of their historical position and the encouragement they have given to others.

Their influence began in the forties, the early days of contemporary art in East Africa. Maloba, one of the first students at Makerere University College School of Fine Arts in Kampala, developed concurrently with the school, and soon became an instructor. Displaying a talent for handling massive form, recognized by Henry Moore and reminiscent of Jacob Epstein, he occupied a role like Nigeria's Ben Enwonwu by creating public works, such as the lndependence Monument for Uganda, for example. As an early modern artist, he bridged foreign and indigenous cultures.

Working in stone, wood, bronze, cement fondue (a luminous cement used in casting), and terra-cotta, Maloba eventually moved from portraiture, which was formidable but Western in style, to equally imposing, but more contemporary concepts. These more recent pieces represent a triumph over his academic background. Of monumental proportions, they might be compared to the work of Henry Moore, but they have a distinct African presence, a description not altogether inappropriate to Moore's work.

Born in Mumias, Kenya, in 1922, he also studied at four different institutions in England, including the Royal College of Art from 1956 to 1957. He taught at Makerere University College for more than twenty years and, from 1966 until his retirement, was head of the Department of Design at the University of Nairobi. Exhibiting extensively, he has served in many other capacities in support of the arts.

Sam Ntiro (1923-), born in Machame, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, also graduated from the Makerere University College School of Fine Arts and, like Maloba, taught there. He too studied in London at the Slade School of Fine Arts at the University of London, and spent a few weeks in the United States on a Carnegie traveling grant, and later as an artist-in-residence at Southern University in New Orleans. As an early teacher, he had a seminal influence. His paintings, which depict landscapes and people at work, however, are limited by a highly stylized approach.

The contributions made by Elimo Njau (1932-), who studied with Ntiro, are different. For years he has worked to encourage artists at a grass roots level in Tanzania as well as in Kenya. Njau, born in Marangu, Tanzania, near Kilimanjaro, was graduated from Makerere University College with a degree in fine arts and education. He supports and encourages artists because he is concerned about the channeling of talents into Western educational systems. He has established two nonprofit galleries: the Paa-ya-Paa in Nairobi and the Kibo in Marangu. Here East African artists, and sometimes artists from abroad, work and exhibit.

Njau explains that "Paa-ya-Paa" means "the antelope rises" and is a symbol of new "creative adventures." As a gallery it "seeks to be 'just a place' away from lecture halls and away from experts, a place where creative ideas and thoughts may flourish and flow freely between persons in the spirit of equality and in a relaxed and casual atmosphere. In such a place and atmosphere we hope artists, musicians, architects, writers, playwrights, actors and critics will gather momentum for further creative work."[1]

Elimo Njau sees the countryside as a source of creativity waiting to be developed. "Excessive use of cultural material imported from abroad for television and the arts ... is not only expensive but [it] gradually kills our confidence in indigenous material let alone our awareness of original local possibilities and experimentation in the use of local material to cut down costs and boost the local image of our indigenous artists' work." [2] Many of his own works, stylized landscapes, like those by Ntiro, hang in prominent places, some as murals in public buildings in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Also a product of Makerere University College is Louis Mwaniki, a professor, sculptor, painter, and printmaker. Born in 1934 in Nyeri, Kenya, he studied in Turin, Italy, from 1961 to 1963. Returning to teach at the University of Nairobi, he left again in 1967 to study in Montreal, Canada, for two years. Later, with a doctorate in art education from New York University, he returned to Nairobi, where he teaches at University of Nairobi's Kenyatta College.

Mwaniki's artistry has a focus that is distinctly African in spite of his foreign experiences. Unlike the work of some artists that bears the stamp of colonial imperatives, he turns the medium to his own purpose; as a result, his work becomes African.

Mwaniki, one of East Africa's fine printmakers, has contributed graphic illustrations to a number of East African publications, and his prints have been included in numerous exhibits abroad. In Things Fall Apart and Despair crisp blacks and definitive forms demonstrate his technical proficiency. Watching over People of the City is a painting that reveals his capacity for striking imagery. His sculpture, like that of Francis X. Nnaggenda of Uganda (also discussed in this chapter), combines metal and rough-textured wood bearing marks of the adz. Rounded corners and solid rocklike forms give his sculptures the appearance of large talismans and amulets. Coordinating individual sculpture images, he creates assemblages in which they function as integral units.

Another carver, Athumani Omari Mwariko, after an apprenticeship to Elimo Njau, opened his own art gallery, Mwariko's Art Gallery, in 1967 in Moshi, Tanzania. There he showed his own works. When the gallery suffered a fire, he restored it to house a variety of artifacts. Born in 1944, in Handeni, Tanzania, he studied at Makerere University College School of Fine Arts. He later attended Haystack Mountain School in Maine. He has exhibited in London, Japan, the United States and East Africa, and has contributed illustrations to numerous publications.

His carvings have the energy of quick, spontaneous drawings. As in the work of Mwaniki and Nnaggenda, the rugged strokes of the adz remain. The resulting strength is reminiscent of work by Ghana's Vincent Kofi. However, there is an important difference. Though generally smaller than Kofi's giant pieces, and in contrast to the calm strength of the latter's sculpture, Mwariko's work expresses emotion that is volatile, and the figures seem to cry out in despair.

Suffering and despair are frequently expressed by East African artists, especially in reaction to political oppression. Athumani Mwariko, like Francis Nnaggenda and Musani Muyinga of Uganda, Kiure Msangi of Tanzania, Hezbon Owiti of Kenya, and Henry Tayali of Zambia, makes strong statements, frequently leavened with humor, about personal and communal tragedies.

Athumani Omari Mwariko, Wrestler, date unknown, wood, 12" high. Collection of Donald Bowen, courtesy of Commonwealth Institute.

A combination of tragedy and humor also describes the work of Samwel Wanjau. When Wanjau brought carvings to show Elimo Njau in 1966, Njau saw a special talent that deserved encouragement, and he responded: "I found that even in his antelopes there was a sense of movement which made the animals appear not static like so many ... done for the tourist market." Njau then encouraged him to "create stories and anecdotes instead of doing small individual animals," and to make use of the grain and bark.[3] After two years of working under Njau's aegis, Wanjau held a one-person show in Njau's gallery.

Born in 1936 in Nyeri, Kenya, Wanjau has had a hard life. His father was a blacksmith, and he was fascinated by his father's workshop. Living through the Emergency, he carved stocks for the guns of the Mau Mau, and "was arrested and thrown in jail. His father's hut was burnt down by the Home Guard and everything was destroyed." He was shot in the arm as he tried to escape and was returned to jail.[4]

In 1957 Wanjau joined a group of Wakamba carvers at the Gikomba Center in Nairobi, but further vicissitudes included his arrest for not paying a poll tax, and being sent back to his birthplace. In 1961 he returned to Nairobi and joined the Wakamba artists a second time. He already had an individual direction as an artist, and although he felt the Wakamba work too limiting, he stayed. There he became technically proficient.

With the help of Elimo Njau, he was able to work in new ways with larger pieces of wood. He defined areas of the carvings with various textures instead of with the glassy smooth surfaces of the tourist pieces. The strength of his forms must be forged by his own odyssey, and considering its harshness, the humor in his work is all the more moving.

Terry Hirst, in an article in African Arts, says that for Wanjau "the conviction with which he expresses himself in both word and wood grows out of long silences." Hirst suggests that Wanjau has a close tie to his own culture because he has not been "educated away from ... tradition" and that because his Kikuyu village is central to his life, it is the "foundation upon which he constructs his creative assault upon the city."[5]

Hirst goes on to compare Wanjau with a singer or storyteller who is reflecting his experiences through tales about a farmer and forest fighter, or rebel. Hirst also comments on Wanjau's fresh perceptions of older themes and cites as an example "the hare ingratiating itself with the tortoise by putting on a tortoise shell [an act] which has wider implications in" today's Kenya. He invents timely modern themes as well: "paratroopers," "beauty queens," and "forest fighters."

Hirst explains that Wanjau "once told a group of students that he has only to see a piece of wood, and he realizes the complete sculpture within it."[6] While each of Wanjau's creatures projects specific traits, each is the quintessence of its species, and they convey human characteristics as well. In a typically African synthesis Wanjau, like the Shona sculptors of Zimbabwe (see chapter 13), also depicts metamorphosis. He distills these characteristics, both human and animal, and creates uncanny references to both. Moreover, he maintains the original quality of the medium itself—so often lost in the process of carving statues for tourists.

Although they relate to everyday life and people, his carvings are never rote. Each carvings leaves no doubt that it expresses closely what Wanjau sees. With vigor and directness, they provide metaphors for and insights into myth and nature.

Francis X. Nnaggenda, born in Uganda in 1936, makes striking statements with sculpture that is radically different from the work of both Wanjau and Maloba. Endowing his work with suggestions of myth, he arrives at a subtle synthesis. Like Maloba, Nnaggenda has taught for a number of years at the University of Nairobi, and his pieces are installed at the National Culture Center in Kampala.

Nnaggenda is a Baganda from Bukumi, and one of the few East African artists not to have attended Makerere University College. First attending the Technical Institute in Kampala in 1959, he later became an apprentice at Freibourg University in Switzerland. He then attended for three years the Bayerische Akademie der Schonen Kunste in Munich, where he completed in 1967 a five-year course.

Nnaggenda's foreign experience and the years of turmoil at home have served as catalysts to bring together elements of conflict. In his large pieces, as in Skunder Boghossian's paintings made in the sixties, the ancient world appears to confront the modern world. Nnaggenda accomplishes this by combining various kinds of wood with hand-hewn surfaces and jagged textures— the marks of the adze still in evidence—with vestiges of smudged paint, daubed colors, and fabricated metal. Such startling juxtapositions invest his pieces with a rugged power. Generally quite large, some of them combine a variety of found objects including old saw blades, nails, and metal scraps.

His assemblages display neither the dilettante use of objet trouve nor calculated artifice. One large piece, Spirit Within Man, recalls, as do Nigerian Jinadu Oladepo's small brass cast figures, the stoic stance of an icon with two large eyes as the dominant feature of three faces.

My Inner Trainer is reminiscent of the works of American sculptor Uzikwee Nelson, who constructs large welded sculptures based on African imagery. With its harsh grainy surface, there is something more strident and apocalyptic in Nnaggenda's piece— a foreboding figure poised as if for flight. Blood Rain Dust has a sense of battles, of scars, and of losses. Rough metal patches on wood, like scraps of medieval chain mail, and nails bent to close a woundlike crevice, suggest a maimed or brutally severed potential.

Francis X. Nnaggenda, My Inner Trainer, 1967, painted and welded metal, 84" high. National Cultural Center, Kampala.

This maiming of human potential is Nnaggenda's theme, and pieces such as this one echo the stark, challenging poetry of his countryman, Taban lo Liong:

with lights we came on scene in time machines
and thought first generator toy
and dismantled wheel rod indicators
shaking cosmology out of balance.

... puny nietzches strut
bloated frogs
race of supermen has come ... was auschwitz far
sacredness is dead
and hiroshima invented.[7]

A recent work, War Victims, integrates his concern for the ecology of the natural environment with suffering endured in Uganda during the 1970s. Sidney Kasfir, in an article on Nnaggenda, addresses the conflicts that present a challenge to today's artists. She cites another: "Widespread belief in witchcraft, in what is now supposedly a Christian country, poses endless riddles and ambiguities for the sensitive artist responsive to his environment." And drawing attention to the difference between the works of Nnaggenda and other African sculptors who consciously adapt African classical forms, she points out that "there is no anthropological self-consciousness in Nnaggenda's work."[8]

In contrast to the organic nature of classical African sculpture and the images by Oladepo or Nelson, the works of Nnaggenda have elements that seem disassociated, or "added on," producing startling juxtapositions. Rather than accumulating or generating other forms, forms and materials function to jolt the viewer. Like Valente Malangatana of Mozambique (also discussed in this chapter), Nnaggenda grapples with the dichotomy between imported and traditional values, and in so doing, creates art that is passionately iconoclastic and suggests conflicts between the natural and supernatural worlds.

The supernatural and natural are joined in a more organic way in the prints of Hezbon Owiti (1946-). Born in Nyanza, Kenya, Owiti had his first major showing of prints and paintings in 1965 at the Mbari Mbayo Gallery in Lagos. An overriding sense of East Africa asserted itself despite the fact that Owiti, a Luo, created these prints and oil paintings in Oshogbo, and even included certain elements reflective of West Africa.

Describing his beginnings, he says,

I was born in Central Nyanza, Kenya. My parents were very poor, but my mother was a very good potmaker. In 1956 I was sent to school to start my foundation in education through the little money of my mother's pots. I took an interest in art during this time and used water colours, pencil and my mother's clay. At the age of 15 I won the Young Artist Certificate of East Africa.[9]

His opportunity to go to Oshogbo came while working as a young artist on his own. Offered a job as caretaker of the Chemichemi Cultural Centre in Nairobi, Owiti was helped by the then director of the center, South African writer Es'kia Mphahlele. Through Mphahlele, Owiti obtained a six-month scholarship from the Farfield Foundation, enabling him to work at the University of Ibadan and in Oshogbo.

After his experience in Nigeria, Owiti wrote:

Artists are ever poor, I am one of the poorest. But I am just 24 years old. I have already achieved critical if not financial success. I have held one-man shows in Nairobi, Lagos, Ibadan [sic], Oshogbo, Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa, and Ohio. And my works have appeared in ... museums in the United States, Great Britain and Canada....[10]

In Oshogbo he was stimulated by atmosphere and artists. From the start, his canvases, thickly painted with brilliant color, had a strong African sensibility. One painting depicting a crippled person with large crutches and whose head is bent at a right angle to the body is especially touching. Laughter at the Zoo reverses people and animals in a burlesque comment on humanity. Owiti explains:

They came along to feed us
They threw their rotten uncooked
food to me
Their laughter was endless when
we chased it
The lines on their faces were
legible with hate
Oooo was their mouth and eyes.[11]

Owiti's interest in animals began as a young child when he started making figures of goats and cows, telling stories about them to other children.

I naturally and [sic] a self-taught artist. I became attendant and assistant gallery-keeper at Chemichemi Cultural Centre in 1963. Without any teaching I groped my way through using oil, ink, and pencil. Later in October that year I won a special prize for a carving at Nairobi's Freedom From Hunger exhibition, which subsequently toured the United States.[12]

His black and white prints, with stark silhouetted images and the barest details—like the chiseled planes of a carving disassembled and then reconstructed so as to be seen in two dimensions—are neither imitative nor nostalgic. Sharp-angled forms and elongated limbs crowd against the frame. A sense of motion is further enhanced by the lines left when negative spaces were carved into the original block.

Hezbon Owiti, Horse, 1966, linoleum cut, 8 3/4" x 11 7/8".

Hezbon Owiti, Life Tree of All Animals, late 1960s or early 1970s, linoleum cut, 10" x 14"

Motion is an inherent characteristic in Owiti's works, especially in his images of horses, which parallel a description of a wild Serengeti horse by Nairobi poet Tejani: "arched neck/and thick nostrils/quicksilver quivering, ... he stood square/with gun-powder feet," and at the sound of an auto horn, "he exploded convulsively/feet limbs and body/boosting each other/and rose/rose."[13]

This energy has zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sources as Owiti depicts a spirit world, bringing alive trees that join with horses and human figures. Humorous or sad, they are always kinetic.

He explains the spirit transformations:

As an artist one quickly becomes used to this intense loneliness. There is no one for you to go to, and you must have total assurance and total honesty.... Suggest you are the only one in the world— you have everything you need—the loneliness comes and then death joins you—everything looks danger to you—suggest you join trees and skeletons.[14]

Depicting this metamorphosis (an integral part of East African belief systems, including that of his own Luo culture), and steeped in masquerade and myth, Owiti is like the stone sculptors of Zimbabwe (see chapter 13). His combinations of animals, trees, and humans, like the Shona's depictions of one creature changing into another, are powerfully evocative of trance. They become metaphors for the unity of conscious and unconscious life.

In his work a man and horse image; a multi-headed horse; a tree trunk, which takes on human form; and tree limbs, which become birds, animals and humans, reinforce the strength of the unpredictable, the sense of magic and transformation, and the connection between the natural, or physical world, and the world of the spirit.

Kiure Msangi (1937-) of Tanzania does not generally interpret subjects such as metamorphosis in his paintings. Addressing political inequities and grievances, he has used traditional symbols in powerfully expressive paintings to interpret the impact of tragedy. Motivated by the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then by that of revolutionary Frelimo leader Eduardo Mondlane, and finally by the killing of a political leader and his neighbor, Tom Mboya, his paintings of these subjects illustrate Msangi's potential as an artist. The painting that depicted the funeral of Mondlane was purchased by subscription and given to Syracuse University where Mondlane studied.

In these works pattern and style are forgotten and the horror of a cosmic disaster is paramount. Brilliant colors and violent strokes are propelled by unbridled urgency. Slashing, thrusting, they shape the figures with thick impasto colors—reds, purples, browns, blacks—and form a powerful alliance with traditional masks. Among the paintings where this marriage is blatant, yet viable, the mask-like faces come alive in a macabre evocation of both history and the present. As recipients of violence, the figures represent the victimization of peoples swept up in history's malevolent floods.

In his depiction of evil and anguish, he is close to Malangatana of Mozambique: neither painter separates himself from feelings and worldly concerns in order to reach an objective state. In Msangi's paintings color and form plumb the depths of physical feeling; figures huddle in fear and are splayed like animals at the slaughter, their skeletal faces torn. They are the antithesis of images in which thought and feeling are distilled to serve as vehicles for meditation.

In the poetry of Kenyan poet Jonathan Kariara, Msangi's victims find their counterparts. Kariara's poem, "Vietnam," describes women whose babies have been slaughtered: "Women sat reclining/Monuments of peace/Sculptured by death, ... winnowed/(The dross drifted with the river)."[15]

Kiure Msangi, The Sharpeville Shooting. 1970, acrylic on board, 24" x 32". Collection of the artist.

Msangi points out that his people, the Pare, are a group that is only 150 years old with a history of recurrent migrations in search of farming or grazing lands.[16] Growing up in a rural environment, he planted seeds and cared for yam vines when he was three years old. As a young adult he attended Makerere University College, where he obtained a bachelor of fine arts degree and a diploma in education. With a Fulbright Scholarship, he earned another bachelor of fine arts degree, this one at the California College of Arts and Crafts, and a doctorate in education from Stanford University.

While in California, he taught at a number of local institutions (Mills College, California College of Arts and Crafts, City College of San Francisco, and Stanford University), helping students understand African values and cultures. He deplores the fact that Africans have been defined by others: "scholars look at other civilizations as 'interesting' instead of as made up of human beings and human experiences." He points out that the Western world appears to be asking, "How long are they going to take until they get to where we are?"

Msangi believes that:

Western academia tends to look at humanity from its own angle, and if only people could lower their guard, when they study other people and really feel as one with them, they could begin to understand why people think and feel the way they do, and then all of that warmth that is African would be understood.

Msangi stresses the importance of humanist principles, which he sees as,

being dropped in favor of personal aggrandisement and personal pursuit of happiness which never really translates into happiness.... When people were less pursuant of materialism, they had less material things, but they pursued goals which were more long-lasting, which were humanly more beneficial.

Finally speaking on behalf of the preservation of differences among peoples, he explains,

I think the world was intended to be a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-cultural globe. That way it has the potential for feeding and enriching all of us. I would hate to see all people black.... I would hate to see all people white or all people Chinese.

Even one language, you see ... I can use English in writing and speech to express my thoughts, I'm sure, as well as I can use Kiswahili, and I'm sure as well as I can use Kipare, and yet with my wife who is Pare ... there are certain beautiful intimate things we can share in Kipare, we don't even have the concept for in Kiswahili, let alone in English. And there are certain things we can share in Kiswahili for which there is no equivalent in English at all and I would hate to think that I would be limited to English, or to Kiswahili or to Kipare because then I couldn't partake of all this wealth here and that wealth there.[17]

Because of his humanist concerns, perceptions of tragedy often form the basis of Kiure Msangi's work. In it he confronts the tragedy of Eurocentric attitudes and presumptions with an understanding sharpened by his many years abroad. He is now committed to working in East Africa, where he is on the faculty of Kenyatta College in Nairobi.

Conflict between current tragedy and past tradition is a characteristic of the work of Valente Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-) of Mozambique. His powerful imagery weaves together the strands of indigenous culture with those of an imposed one, so that they still retain all of the stresses and strains of their inherent dichotomies.

Like Msangi, Malangatana had humble rural beginnings, and worked hard as a child. His father kept leaving home to work in the South African mines. His mother had talents for beadwork and was a tattoo artist, and like many African children, for want of paper, Malangatana drew pictures in the sand. When his mother became ill, he went to live with his aunt. There he kept drawing—often religious subjects prompted by his Catholic schooling—and struggled with menial jobs to earn a living. He eventually went to night school to study art.

Although he received a lot of criticism from others who thought he was wasting his time, he threw himself into a flurry of painting. In 1959 Pancho Guedes, a Portuguese architect who had designed buildings in Maputo with a sculptural brilliance likened to those by Antonio Gaudi, met Malangatana, who was working as a ball boy in the Lourencio Marques Club. Guedes eventually arranged a stipend and studio for him.

Expressing himself both in painting and writing, Malangatana defines his approach to painting in a short biography,

... I do paint for pleasure, not as a profession, but because I love art and poetry. Apart from this, poetry is art written on white paper without colour and in repeated letters, but poetry in a picture has life, smell and movement also ... and I will even say that wherever I am, I shall be painting."[18]

This he has done, and twenty-seven years later, he paints consistently and has completed a prodigious body of work. He has also suffered incarceration, an experience that surely influenced his later work. His latest series cries out for change, and has earned him the role of revolutionary painter. His paintings have been exhibited throughout the world including Europe (at the Museum fur Volkerkunde, Leipzig, Germany; and at the Secretaria de Estado de Cultura, Lisbon), the United States (at the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., and at the African-American Institute, New York City), and Cuba (at the Havana Biennial). He has also received a scholarship to study etching in Portugal.

His haunting canvases, crowded with bodies and bursting with energy, communicate a feeling of crushing pressures in the barrios and streets of Maputo. Soldiers and sailors with weapons and flags consort with prostitutes; weapons, flags, freedom fighters, and pregnant women form a tableau conveying the texture of violence and love and the necessity for change.

His colors, rich reds, dark purples, intense cadmium yellows and oranges, are heavy but luminous like stained glass. He uses them to depict conflict, struggle, rape, seduction, religious ritual, witchcraft, and initiation rites. Some have said that his work is a kind of "black mass," and speaks of a vision not unlike that of Hieronymus Bosch.[19]

As human episodes of nightmarish intensity, painting itself became a kind of exorcism. Within his paintings a palpable aura of magic and evil coexists with love and procreation. His work not only reveals fundamental conflicts but also, because it draws from episodes in his life, contains an essence that is both painful and passionate. These episodes perform another kind of exorcism: they wrench attention from the commonplace to force concentration on life's intensities.

His drawings with delicately wrought outlines also articulate an almost tangible pressure. Space is crammed with rocklike sculptural forms of voluptuous nudes. Masses of heads, limbs, bellies, and breasts are compacted. Images of the cross, of possession, and various creatures with claws and fangs form an ominous alliance. Fascinating details shock, mesmerize, and exert fearful supernatural powers: a lizard-like monster nuzzles a man's head. In many of the paintings a self-portrait shows the artist with tears of blood, hands of monstrous size, and ubiquitous, staring eyes. While a sense of evil pervades, also inherent in this and most of Malangatana's works is the illusion of life, of abundance, and of overpowering sensuality.

Valente Malangatana, Youth Listening to Tales of Bunyale, 1969, ink, 193/4" x 141/8". Private collection.

In his drawings and paintings, women with cascading strands of hair and full rounded forms are bewitching symbols of refuge, love, salvation, and danger.

In his poetry, woman is sanctuary:

In the cool waters of the river
we shall have fish that are huge
which shall give the sign of
the end of the world perhaps
because they will make an end of woman
woman who adorns the fields
woman who is the fruit of man

The flying fish makes an end of searching
because woman is the gold of man
when she sings she even seems
like the fado-singer's well-tuned guitar
when she dies, I shall cut off
her hair to deliver me from sin.

Woman's hair shall be the blanket
over my coffin when another Artist
calls me to heaven to paint me
Woman's breast shall be my pillow
woman's eye shall open up the way to heaven
woman's belly shall give birth to me up there
and woman's glance shall watch me
as I go up to Heaven.[20]

"Woman appears here as a kind of redeemer," says Beier. Many of the women, he notes, "evoke strong religious associations. Malangatana's picture Nude with Crucifix shows the short compressed body of a thickset, reclining woman. The feet and most of the head are cut off by the margin of the picture. The huge breasts and belly form a kind of 'trinity' with dark nipples and navel as the focal points in the glowing, orange flesh. The cross lies embedded between the breasts ... but the hand is a dangerous claw...."[21]

Valente Malangatana, Nude with Crucifix, early 1960s, oil on canvas, dimensions unknown. Location unknown.

Though his paintings are sometimes called surreal, they are not, as Julian Beinart points out, an "intellectual" surrealism. They take a kernel from his own experience, and add other dimensions described by Beinart as: "issues of universal importance—faith and love, jealousy, hate, mysticism and death." He explains that often it is difficult to tell whether figures belong to one race or another, one religion or another, noting "He seems able to avoid making those distinctions that exist so painfully between cultures and one senses in him the crosscurrents that must cause daily conflict to so many people. His paintings are for him the means of resolution, of showing things ... that integrate and belong to all."[22]

Malangatana turns these crosscurrents into powerful dramas, elaborately wrought with symbolic clues and a very real presence of evil. With imagery that evokes the necessity for change, he has become a painter of the revolution. Betty Schneider, in an article in African Arts magazine, quotes him as describing a painting as "a vibrant thing, crying to the spectator, full of heat and life that makes him cry, or creates tremors in his body."[23]

Generally speaking, neither art schools nor artists in Central Africa have made a commitment to change, especially political change. The art schools have, however, produced technically accomplished artists who have created some important works. In 1958 one of Central Africa's most important students, Liyolo Limbe M'Puanga, enrolled in the Kinshasa Academie des Beaux-Arts, founded in 1943 by Frere Marc-Stanislas, a Belgian priest. Although including some references to African art, art instruction was based on the classical European model. Born in 1943 in Bolobo, Zaire, M'Puanga completed courses at the Academie and was admitted to the Ecole des Arts Appliques in Graz, Austria, graduating in 1965. In the same year he entered the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Vienna, finishing with a prize for his excellence and a masters in sculpture in 1969.

Liyolo eventually developed a classical approach to sculpture rooted in two worlds. While he incorporates certain shapes related to the dynamic forms of traditional carvings and castings, his images depict certain naturalistic attitudes associated with European sculpture.

Working in a variety of materials, he chooses classical subjects—mother and child, torso, musician—all monumental in their overall conformation. The legs, arms, and bodies are based on forms in nature and appear to be stylized rather than built-up of geometrical volumes. The neck is lengthened, the body streamlined. One can recognize sharply angled arms and legs and pear-shaped thighs as forms from African art, but the relationships between forms are different.

As the torso is arched or the figure is bent, a sense of motion is generated, and at the same time relates his work to some Western concepts. African carving often adheres closely to the axis and shape of the wood from which it is carved. Most African bronzes have a similar vertical axis, but because many of Liyolo's figures are in motion, they have asymmetrical aspects and do not conform to a central axis.

During the past thirty years his work has gone through many stages and so it can not be easily categorized. He has created pieces such as Torse IV, and Le Criquet, which are tour de force examples of a convergence of style, content, and material, and illustrate his mastery and diverse accomplishment.

Working with many different materials—brass, pewter, bronze, sheet metal, wood—and a master of all of them, he is best known for his work in bronze. The elegance of his bronze torsos echoes the deceptive simplicity of traditional African forms. Liyolo has exhibited throughout the world and teaches at the University of Zaire in Kinshasa.

lbanehe Djilatendo, Deux Chausseurs, 1931, watercolor, 14 3/8" x 28 3/8". Private collection.

In addition to the Kinshasa Academie des Beaux-Arts, there are two other major Central African art schools. One is in Poto-Poto outside Brazzaville, Congo, where Pierre Lods ran a studio workshop. The other school, which was developed from a workshop led by RomainDesfosses, is the Academie des Beaux-Arts (founded by M. L. Moonens) in Lubumbashi, Zaire. Both schools produced a variety of artists, many of whom became commercial. The repeatedly copied neon-colored stick figures of Poto-Poto have become slick, stock items for the tourist market. The art of the Romain-Desfosses group is more decorative than it is expressive of feeling, and it is often identified by stylistic elements such as stick figures, long-necked birds, and snakes.

There are, of course, other exceptions. Both Ibanehe Djilatendo and Lubaki of Zaire painted to give form and meaning to stories. Among East and Central Africa peoples there are master storytellers and singers. Following these traditions, contemporary expression has become a vehicle for stories and myths, often supernatural in character.

Djilatendo's paintings, full of animals, hunters, soldiers, and feathery trees, are explicit narrative tableaux with action described in vivid graphic detail. Executed with great sensitivity, each shape appears as though created by a carefully controlled wash of color, perfect in its synthesis of profile and dimension. The animals are extraordinarily spirited: fierce, shy, quizzical, amused. Like the animals created by Samuel Wanjau, each is lively, humorous, and has a distinct personality.

Lubaki has a more carefree style. His people and animals are wonderfully humorous; elephants pick blossoms from the trees and cavort like puppies, and people are preoccupied with telephones. Both artists are visual storytellers who draw on proverb and myth with humor and verve.

The late Clement-Marie Biazin (1924-1981), a Yacoma from the Central African Republic, was an indomitable artist and raconteur. He had little education, but read about explorers who had undertaken long journeys to find out about other countries. "We don't have enough of that in Africa," he said.

"We should have books recording our past history and preserving the memory of our traditional cultures. But since we have achieved our independence, we have forgotten the traditions that constitute our originality. This is the thought that impelled me to start painting." Leaving home at 22, his odyssey became a twenty-year trek through Zaire (then Congo) and Uganda (then Burundi and Rwanda) from 1945 to 1955; and six months later in 1956 through Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea (then Spanish Guinea), Gabon, and again Zaire. Roaming "on foot ... he worked at whatever jobs were available—as mason, cook, farmhand—until he had set aside enough money to go on to the next country," learning enough of eight or more languages to get along. "Ultimately he covered an area as large as all of Europe. 'I had wanted to see how other people lived,' he said, 'and find out about their customs.'"[24] In 1966 he returned to his home in Bangui, and began as a selftaught artist to create a visual odyssey that culminated in 500 to 600 paintings.

Clement-Marie Biazin, Untitled, late 1960s-1970s, drawing, dimensions unknown. Location unknown.

His paintings are spirited mandala-like panels framed by decorative linear patterns that give them the look of embroidery. Through these paintings he transposed the disappearing customs and oral traditions of African peoples as well as the history of colonial imposition. While his work has important documentary value, the imaginative framework surrounding the illustrative elements and text is most interesting, suggesting a free translation of designs from a Koranic prayer board, an Islamic talisman, or an embroidered robe.

Robert Seve, a French filmmaker, met Biazin in 1967 when Seve was making a film about the Barthelemy Boganda Museum in Bangui. For fourteen years Seve helped Biazin, and also created a prize-winning film about him, the proceeds of which were used to purchase Biazin's art materials. Seve also taped fifty hours of Biazin's accounts. He arranged showings of Biazin's work at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1978, and at the Stadtische Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, in 1980. Michel Leiris of the Musee de l'Homme in Paris compared Biazin's work to "the old codex or modern comic strips," but without the usual "Occidental cliches."[25]

Leiris also comments on the "aesthetic and ethnological" importance of Biazin's art,[26] as does Francois Mathey, a conservator at the Louvre, who explains that Biazin avoids the "anecdotal," and adds that he is most impressed by the work's "purely artistic aspect" in addition to its "historical, political and sociological" importance. "I find back in those story-images all the invention, impetuosity and authority of the anonymous artists of the Middle Ages."[27] Robert Seve sees Biazin's work as painting and story telling with a moral base. His pictures, he points out, refer to the "extermination of ancient Africa," first by the Arabs and then by white colonialists.[28]

On a trip back to the Central African Republic in 1977 Seve found Biazin ill with leprosy and no longer able to work. He took the artist to France, but it was too late. "Clement remained alert and radiant with generosity until his death," in 1981 at the age of 57.[29]

Among the many artists of Central Africa who have developed from a workshop or from working on their own are Ancent Soi of Kenya; Hizza, Jaffary, S. G. Mpata, Ebrahim Said Tingatinga, K. H. Tedo, and Rashidi of Tanzania; and Pli Pli and Cheri Samba of Zaire; all have made original contributions to modern African art.

One of the most significant facts concerning the artists of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire, Congo, and the Central African Republic has to do with the variety of their styles and expressions, not a surprising characteristic given the wide range of peoples and cultures they represent. When their art is closest to its African roots, it weaves a fabric of spirit and matter, unifying the natural and mystical, and recreating myth with vitality and humor. When it addresses the present, it challenges the sources of conflict, especially the unhealed scars of colonialism.

Incorporating such qualities in an original body of work, Wanjau, Owiti, Djilatendo, and Biazin demonstrate directness, spontaneity, and sincerity, while Mwaniki, Nnaggenda, and Malangatana show the potential for greatness. All have managed to transcend the impositions of colonialism. Perhaps their energy, imagination, and independence of vision will inspire others to fulfill their promise and create major movements in East and Central Africa.

Read about New Currents, Ancient Rivers: Contemporary African Artists in a Generation of Change


Extracted with permission from: Jean Kennedy. New Currents, Ancient Rivers: Contemporary African Artists in a Generation of Change. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

To order a copy of New Currents, Ancient Rivers, please contact:

The Smithsonian Institution Press
470 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 7100
Washington, D.C. 20560

  • Disclaimer for African Studies Materials

    African Studies Main Menu