Africa at the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art

Olu Oguibe

The second Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art provides an opportunity for a number of African artists to work with master ceramicists in Liguria, Italy, to produce special pieces of new work in ceramics on a number of varying themes. This opportunity extends a tradition that began almost a half century ago when the Afro-Cuban master, Wifredo Lam joined a group of friends, including Asger Jorn, and moved to the Italian Riviera to work in ceramics with local craftsmen. After many years in Paris during which he worked with Picasso and the rest of the modernists, Lam made the acquaintance of members of the Bauhaus Imaginiste who had begun to pay greater attention to elemental forms and materials such as earth, clay and organic media and the indispensability of such media in a truly soulful and immediate art. Lam’s years of friendship with Picasso had also awakened his interest in ceramics, which, in Picasso’s later years became increasingly central to the Spaniard’s explorations. Though he was an inveterate traveler who had lived in Europe and across the Americas, as a black man Lam was nevertheless a rarity in Liguria which, in the 1950s and 1960s was not exactly Paris, New York or even Mexico City where he would spend time at different stages in his career. Yet, because he was also a man of diverse ancestries and affinities all of which united in his calm but powerful personality and unmistakable creative talent, Lam was at home in Liguria. After short periods of work with the group, he was to move there with his family in the 1970s to settle and work in the generous and welcoming Ceramiche San Giorgio studio in Albisola. Liguria was Lam’s last long-term residence outside Cuba.
When, in 2000, Ligurian curators Tiziana Casapietra and Roberto Costantino decided to revive the tradition of collaboration between contemporary artists and local ceramicists begun by Lam and his friends, and approached me as a collaborator and advisor, I made it a condition of my participation that they extend an invitation to another generation of African artists who may inherit Wifredo Lam’s place and spiritual presence in Liguria. In particular, I suggested the Ghanaian El Anatsui in every respect a contemporary master, who had not only worked in different parts of the world but also had a long-standing personal relationship with ceramics. Like Lam, Anatsui developed and consolidated his artistic career while working away from home, among a group of Afro-modernists in Eastern Nigeria whose preoccupation was to define the language and purposes of art in the postcolonial epoch.
In Nigeria Anatsui discovered and refined the forms and ideas that would anchor his work in the peculiar sensibilities, histories, myths and aesthetic precepts of the West African rainforest, while addressing and incorporating the technologies and concerns of the millennial age. In the main, Anatsui has worked with wood, fire, and his favorite tool, the mechanized chainsaw, the trio representing the modern cosmos: organic nature, the irrepressible elements, and human intervention in nature through technology. With the three he has retraced and reinterpreted mythological paths, inscribed recent history in lasting metaphors, and investigated the increasingly treacherous and uncertain relationship between Man and his inherited universe. Slashing through wood with the chainsaw and then burning the wood with flames, Anatsui symbolically repeats the fundamental ritual of all sedentary, rainforest societies, which is to slash through the woods, the abode of life, death, and all spirits abroad, then burn all matter down to a bed of fertile humus, thus instigating regeneration through an act of apparent destruction, in a cycle of life and death that sustains the world.
In the 1970s, Anatsui turned to clay, driven by his interest in elemental matter, his fascination with pots and pottery and a historical affinity with the medium that dates back several centuries to the period of his people’s migration from Nigeria to their present home in Ghana. Between the late 1970s and mid-1980s Anatsui created hundreds of powerful ceramic pieces dealing with ritual, myth, history and his love of the pot as a form. In Cornwall in 1984, he created 120 unique pieces of pottery, not far from St. Ives where Barbara Hepworth and School of St. Ives had retired decades earlier to escape the city and work with local craftspeople. It seemed most appropriate, then, that Anatsui should be part of the revival in contemporary artistic interest in ceramics in Liguria and for his participation he created a piece that characteristically bridged nature and technology, Digital Sound. A floor piece in thirty-three tiles, Digital Sound uses the metaphor of a river or stream to address the revolution in sound delivery that has made it possible to process sound into digits or bits to be streamed electronically from source to terminal. Obviously drawn to the persistence of nature imagery even in the digital age, Anatsui magnified his poetic play on the metaphor of the stream, with its associations of serenity and lyricism, by using a combination of terracotta and glass that captured those qualities through a palette of viridian and blue.
The founding directors of the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art had already invited another African artist, Bili Bidjocka (I Biennal e II Biennal), who lives and works in Brussels. A multi-faceted artist who has worked in every conceivable medium from new media installations to ecological forms, Bidjocka was among the many artists who would be experimenting with ceramics for the first time during the collaborations with craftspeople in Liguria. For the past few years Bili Bidjocka has been working with the motif of camouflage as a contemporary metaphor for hipness, on one hand, and a classic metaphor for sophisticated survivalist guile on the other hand. Eventually, Bidjocka further complicated the metaphor in the series, Skin, through which he has addressed, with extreme sophistication and subtlety, the equally complicated and ambivalent pathology of skin fetishism. Working with Studio Ernan Design in Albisola, Bidjocka decided to reinterpret his custom animal-striped, long-dress forms in ceramic wall hangings in which negative and positive spaces are interlaced to form a whole. Bidjocka also created other works during his period in Liguria and formed a bond with the Ernan studio that would result in the workshop requesting further collaboration with him.
For the second Biennale the directors gave me the opportunity to invite both El Anatsui and Bili Bidjocka back to Liguria, so as to allow the artists to continue to work with their favorite studios as well as further develop the ideas that they had begun to explore while participating in the first edition. Elsewhere in this catalogue each artist has elaborated on the pieces and projects that he produced for the second Biennale. Bidjocka continues his investigations into skin with a variation on the animal skin that he has chosen for his patterns. He has also created a larger work for the second Biennale that involved very intricate and meticulous craftsmanship in the studio in order to hold the components together while maximizing contrast between the elements. A highlight of Bidjocka’s participation in the second Biennale, however, is his work with the pupils of the Albisola Superiore elementary school where, over a period of several days, Bidjocka and the children produced elements for a ceramic curtain. This dimension of Bidjocka’s project, suggested and initiated by the artist himself, further consolidated the communal nature of the collaborations in Albisola while also further validating ceramics for younger people who may otherwise take their local traditions for granted.
In between the Biennales, Anatsui had returned to Albisola to work further with the studio masters on his own private projects. For the second Biennale he decided to address a different obsession of the digital age, namely security, this time using the metaphor of the padlock. Even prior to the resurgence in national security consciousness that followed the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York in 2001, personal security was already a growing concern among many in both the developed and developing worlds, transforming it into a multi-billion-dollar business. Ever sensitive to paradox, Anatsui is inevitably interested in the widespread obsession with national and personal security in an age that boasts greater freedom, and especially among populations living in what is generally referred to as “the free world.” This irony is the subject of his new piece for the Biennale. In the course of securing and consolidating our liberties and rights, we have simultaneously propagated extreme insensitivity, individualism, and reckless opportunism, thus unseating the foundations and structures of mutual care that served as fall backs in the past. Today, powerful and free yet detached from one another, we discover that all our freedoms have amounted to is an acute feeling of vulnerability and insecurity. Freedom has translated into paranoia. Increasingly we are forced to withdraw into ourselves, and confine our free selves in little cubicles behind locks, latches, passwords and access codes even as we march to liberate nations and propagate freedom abroad. If only we could heed that ancient admonition: free thyself.
Joining these artists in the second Biennale are South African artist Andries Botha and Trinidadian artist Nicole Awai who lives and works in New York. In Albisola she worked with the ceramic studio of master ceramicist Danilo Trogu. For the past half decade she has been creating conceptual work in different media that deliberates on the numerous, complex and sensitive points of contact and mutual contamination between the West and The Rest. In her work for the Biennale, Awai advances a theme in progress that she has been investigating and developing over a number of years. Her chosen metaphor is natural secretion or oozing, a matter and process with which nature responds to injury or invasion in order to protect or heal itself. As Awai rightly points out, natural secretion or oozing can also be an indication of a corrupting incursion or contact as a result of which the victim may gradually decompose and disintegrate. Having decided to explore this aspect of the metaphor in her work in Albisola, Awai also introduced another iconic element that anchors the work historically and culturally, the figure of the action man who in this case she chose to identify as Tarzan.
For former colonial cultures, the figure of Tarzan is particularly problematic and represents not the action hero that the West loves and identifies with, but a trope of colonial deprecation and fixture. Tarzan, lord of the jungle and hero of Arcadia, discovers a world of animal sounds and pristine existence that represents all Others in the Western imagination, a world that is remarkably similar in its rusticity to the Africa of Joseph Conrad’s imagination where all the sophistication typical civilized races is denied the natives, including proper speech. As an enduring cultural icon, Tarzan helped generations of Westerners form their imaginary ideas of all non-Western peoples. His infectious ululation enjoys same significance as the most memorable of Clint Eastwood’s action hero lines or Robert de Niro’s classic retort, “You talking to me?” Tarzan thus deserves particular attention in any investigation or interrogation of globalization such as the second Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art has chosen to embark upon. For a rounded assessment of the multi-faceted implications of globalization, Awai’s work acquires particular poignancy, especially given that globalization is not simply a business of stock exchanges, interest rates, global consolidations and power politics; it is also what I have referred to as a “culture game” in which machinations from the past are replicated with no less diabolism, and culture takeovers are achieved by invading and corrupting the imagination. Awai identifies this process as a three-act engagement of “Incursion, Recession, and Infraction.” It is of no mean significance either, that Awai’s metaphoric figures, touched by the corrupting power of the action man, ooze red, white and blue. It does appear that in this millennium those colors will brand the lives of millions of people the world over, for good or ill.
Uncannily, while Nicole Awai’s theme revolves around a “corrupting event” which causes its objects to secrete and eventually disintegrate, Andries Botha’s work for the Biennale equally dwells on the “gradual but certain disintegration” of a meticulous structure, namely our Progress society. In Botha’s piece, produced in collaboration with the Studio Ernan Design, a carefully constructed grid structure in terracotta is set upon by an integral mechanical device that slowly grinds it down to dust. Despite its apparent integrity and meticulous order, the structure is nonetheless worn down and ultimately destroyed from within. The theme is classical, yet resonates for our epoch. As the collapse of the towers in New York in 2001 amply demonstrated, the self-assuredness of our civilization and its free market and modernist certainties has proven to be a mere fable easily unraveled by the slightest infringement because it rests on a metal imagination, and all metals ultimately yield to stress.
For the past two decades Andries Botha has created works that investigate and address the unraveling of societies and passions that eventually yield to impurities within, their own inherent corrosiveness, or to time. In this new piece, Botha also reverses the ancient tradition of ceramics which involves creation or fabrication rather than destruction. By first fabricating, then engineering the ceramic body to self-destruct, Andries Botha reminds us that the concept of invincible power or impeccable beauty are self-deceptive because all things eventually collapse or self-destruct, be they beautiful urns or powerful empires, for nothing outlasts time.
In their different ways these four artists have not only addressed issues that are central to any discourse of our contemporaneity, each having brought a concern that derives from the specifics of their location and origins, they have also built their concepts around their medium and the mechanisms of their collaborations with the master ceramicists of Albisola. Each apparently had a rewarding experience working with the studios in Albisola and hopefully their contributions will enrich the project of collaboration between contemporary artists and the ceramicists of Liguria. Over the two decades that Wifredo Lam worked off and on in Liguria, he was very much a lone black figure, beloved though he was among the master ceramicists of Albisola. With their presence in the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, these artists extend Lam’s legacy as they further inscribe Africa and its Diaspora in the history of the ceramics tradition in Liguria.

Text published in the catalogue of the 2nd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2003.

Go to the artist's page