Posts Tagged ‘Amsterdam’

Masks in a church – 2

November 18, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. Second and last part

The curators have found two ways around the essentialism described in the first part. One is the – once again – laudable effort to trace the names of the artists who made the masks and statutes. So we learn that there were at least two master artists among the Dan in the great western forest region: Sra and Tanpiémé, working in the 19th century. He great 20th century artist Pablo Picasso got his ideas for cubism from Africa, as we know. In fact, we can home in on the exact encounter that gave Picasso his idea. It was a mask from the Dan. It may even have been one made by either Sra or Tanpiémé. What we can say with certainty is that Picasso’s style would not have existed without the masters from Côte d’Ivoire. (I am not aware that Picasso ever acknowledged as much but perhaps someone can help me out here. Thanks in advance.)

Many of the original artists are not traceable, though, and the way around this has been to attribute a particular style to them and then announce that this work was made by a Master of… And thus we have the Master of Curves or the Master of Essankro, a place in the Baulé region of central Côte d’Ivoire. His mask adorns the flyer about the exhibition, which has not been a random choice. Because, as the Dutch art critic Bianca Stigter very perceptively writes in her review of the exhibition, the choice of objects appears to be informed by European artistic sensibilities. By any (European) standards, the works of art from the Baulé can be described as “refined”, very likely in keeping with the influential aristocracy that their region has produced. And that seems to be the case, Stigter notes, with a lot of the art on display. The curators keep pounding it into her head, she writes, that these are really works of the highest quality. Words like “elegant” abound. Indeed, she counters in her piece, the quality is undeniable but the point of reference still appears to be the great 20th Century masters, including Picasso…

And this is where a lecture of these pieces from an Ivorian point of view would have been very warmly welcomed. The country has no shortage of thinkers, arts critics, lecturers, historians and arts historians who would have shed a light on these works, much brighter than the Amsterdam autumn air that fell into the church on this November day.

Jems Koko Bi

From the exhibition folder: Diaspora, a work by Jems Robert Koko Bi

 

There was, however, another saviour: Jems Robert Koko Bi, a contemporary sculptor whose work provided a radically contemporary context to the other works of offer. His life (born in Côte d’Ivoire, lives in Germany) and his work liberate the exhibition from its frozen-in-time character and launch it straight into the now. His faces, carved from trees with a chainsaw and his piece “Diaspora” from 2013 transcend the whole “Dan”, “Lagoon”, “Lobi”, “Baulé” issues. They entirely cease to matter. Watching the short film about him, I could focus on the individual work by an individual artist with a contemporary – and cosmopolitan – life, even though the interview was done in English, with which he was uncomfortable. Stroke of luck or stroke of genius? In any case, including his work saved the exhibition from being solely about somewhere in “Magical Africa” and gave it meaning beyond its essentially ethnographic nature, in spite of the best intentions behind it.

 

Masks in a Church (part 1)

November 13, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks, statutes and other works of art. From Ivory Coast. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. In two parts.

 

The intentions surely were beyond reproach: let’s make a presentation of “African” masks and familiarize the public with their aesthetic value, their creators and their authenticity. The event was sponsored by – among others – KPMG, an accountancy firm, the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, the Prince Clause Foundation and two largish Dutch public broadcasters, TROS and AVRO, usually on the lighter side of entertainment. (Ironically, these two now occupy the building that was once home to Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the former Dutch international broadcaster.)

Do excellent intentions lead to excellent results? Not always. On the last day of my brief visit to The Netherlands in November I visited De Nieuwe Kerk, an austere Protestant church on Dam Square, in the heart of old Amsterdam. The church forms the backdrop for an exhibition that is entitled: Magical Africa.

That is a bit of an exaggeration. The country in question is not “Africa”, in fact it is, as the folder announces, Côte d’Ivoire, my next station. And then not even all of it: Côte d’Ivoire is the size of France and home to at least 64 languages. The subject matter of the exhibition, masks, statues and a few contemporary works of art, have been taken from four regions: the lagoon area around the largest city of Abidjan on the southern coast, the centre of the country where the second-largest city Bouaké and the capital Yamoussoukro are located, a portion of the Grand West where the Dan and the Wê live and the savannah area of the North, were the Senoufo live and were you find the town of Korhogo. That’s not “Africa”, that’s a few parts of Côte d’Ivoire. I can understand the PR value of the name but it annoys nevertheless.

Magical Africa

Even within that limited setting the differences proved to be astonishing. Compare the fear-inspiring masks that came from the forests that straddle Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire to the more tranquil poses produced in the centre. The Baulé, who live in that part of the country have been a central presence in Ivorian politics and business for many decades, dominating the plantation economy and delivering the first two heads of state after independence. Aristocracy, if you like, which predates Independence. By contrast, the Dan and the Wê in the forest have been much more marginal to political life and, in fact, have had to live with numerous groups of newcomers, driven there by French colonialists and post-independent governments. It is a political configuration that is reflected, although in different ways, in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. To my (admittedly, still Marxist) mind, at least, material culture informs artistic expression here. It is tempting to call the forest masks “raw” and the central statues “refined” but that feeds into another issue that I will deal with later. Suffice for now that what is missing from the exhibition, as with so much Africa reporting, is context.

Well, there is some, in the anthropological sense of the word. We see words like “Dan”, Sénoufo”, “Baulé” and “Lobi” hung like neon signs over the various carefully assembled works of art and explanations are offered about their functions and their makers. Fair enough. But what does that do with the viewer? Not unreasonably, the viewer will associate a particular work of art with a particular people from a particular region. And will freeze those in time. Again, it stands to reason that this happens but anyone who has ever been to Côte d’Ivoire knows that, self-declared or ascribed origins apart, these monikers are essentially meaningless. There is probably not a single Ivorian alive who can claim to be a 100% pure and undiluted member of any “tribe”. The French word for this mixed state of affairs is brassage and it is a reality inside the borders and indeed across them.

“Tribe”, “origin” or indeed “Ivorianness” (or Ivoirité, as it was called) only becomes an issue when it is turned into a instrument in the hands of unscrupulous politicians on the prowl for cheap and easy vote winners. Toxification of the political debate is the inevitable result, as anyone witnessing the arrival of the Geert Wilders Dog & Pony Show in The Netherlands can testify. The same happened in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s. Suddenly people became the champions of the Wê, the Bété, the Baulé, or indeed The True Ivorians.

So my problem here is the essentialism: this is how the Sénoufo portray people during particular festivities or rites. This is how the People Around The Lagoon do things. Reality is a lot more fluid (what to think, for instance, of the Sénoufo who live in the Grand West, or the giant melting pot known as Abidjan?). It is of course a major challenge to point that out during an exhibition and the curators did find at least one credible way around that problem. More on that in the second and final part.

Four Easy Pieces – 3

December 24, 2012

Early evening, October 4th, 1992. It’s five months after my return from Zimbabwe. Resettlement is not proceeding well. But this evening, all private musings become irrelevant background.

There is a massive accumulation of noise. Sirens, hundreds of them. Police, ambulances, fire brigades.All hurry to a place where apparently something absolutely massive has happened. And so it has. A cargo plane belonging to the Israeli airline El Al has lost two engines, made a last attempt to return to Schiphol Airport and has plummeted to the earth, smashing through a ten storeys high apartment block in Amsterdam’s Southeastern Bijlmer district. Fire, death and destruction. The Bijlmer Disaster, as it became known, leaves 43 people dead – probably more.

The Bijlmer is an area planned and designed in the 1960s to provide modern comfortable housing to city dwellers. It was spectacularly unsuccessful. After all, when left to its own devices, an ideology that seeks to uplift an entire society eventually gets to suffer from hubris. Of this Amsterdam social democratic hubris, the Bijlmer remains a powerful symbol.

The area stood largely empty for years. In the 1970s, it became home to many thousands of Surinamese, who were leaving their newly independent country en masse. It is at least ironic that the Independence of the sole existing Dutch colony on the Latin American mainland had been ordained, post haste, by the most progressive cabinet in Dutch history. And then, in one of those inexplicable historical twists, the Surinamese were joined by the descendants of some of their forebears, whom the Dutch had forcibly moved to Latin America, as slaves, mainly from Ghana. The Bijlmer became the destination of choice for African migrants, with papers or without. At the time of the crash, no-one knew for sure how many people were inside that stricken apartment block.

A few days later, the right-wing national daily De Telegraaf, had a picture on its front page of a long line of people waiting to get a paper that would qualify them for some compensation or other, in the aftermath of the crash. The newspaper, not known for its subtlety, asked its readers to note the faces in the line. Black faces. All pronounced to be illegal inhabitants of the disaster area. This is the precise moment that a well-orchestrated campaign began against immigration, with no end in sight.

And so it finally was back with a vengeance: identity politics, of the wrong kind – but identity politics all the same. After all, “we” had been very busy teaching people the virtues of identity politics – of the right kind, n’est ce pas? This old-but-new identity politics, the one “we” had thought we had kicked out of the house, has grown worryingly large, especially after those other plane crashes, this time deliberate, that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York. Immigrants, asylum seekers and Muslims – more and more groups have begun to qualify for exclusion. That is the central message of Geert Wilders, an abnormally successful populist politician in the Netherlands. What you see here is identity politics coming full circle. Fascism: say hello to feel-good fascism, and there is nothing the latter can do about the former: ideologically, politically, morally.

Is there a way out of this mess? Yes, I think there is. It’s called: back to basics. Final part tomorrow.

Four Easy Pieces – 2

December 23, 2012

Of course: it was the Left that had sent me on my way to Southern Africa. Teaching in Zimbabwe was my minute contribution to the project of constructing a Southern Africa where racial superiority thinking would be a thing of the past, sort of. Nearly every country in the region had shed it – at least formally – and in the late 1980s it was already crystal clear that the last remaining bulwark, apartheid South Africa, would be next.

That was the message of a massive musical extravaganza, the Harare leg of a series of world-class concerts called Human Rights Now. It had been organised by Amnesty International in 1988. I was fortunate enough to be there. Peter Gabriel! Tracy Chapman! Bruce Springsteen! Oliver Mtukudzi! And the high point? Music I had never heard before – mbalax, made by the man I share this city with and had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this year: Youssou Ndour.

But there were other matters I was blissfully, stupendously unaware of, and not just inside Zimbabwe itself. Under my radar, something was happening to the movement I felt myself part of. This became much more evident when I had – reluctantly – returned to Europe. I noticed screed after column after thesis, with increasing frequency and loudness, denouncing a portion of society deemed congenitally “racist”, “sexist”,  “homophobe”. That portion was, inevitably, the only group that was able, by dint of breathing in and breathing out, to be all these things at the same time. In one phrase: people who looked – more or less – like me.

With hindsight the following question is legitimate: could it be, that when we progressives were busy throwing out one reprehensible form of thinking like apartheid…through the front door, through the backdoor, off the balcony if necessary…could it be that we were simultaneously inviting into the living room another form of reprehensible thinking? One that did not sound exactly similar but was, in point of fact, exactly the same? I think now that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes”.

My other city, Amsterdam, where I was born, had a proud tradition of social-democratic rule. It gave us, among many other things, housing projects for the working classes that are still the envy of the world. It would have been utterly inconceivable for those who designed these plans that their ideas about “uplifting the masses”, to use that ancient phrase, would have excluded specific groups because of how they looked. That was precisely what fascism had been about and wherever it reared its head, progressives joined forces to ensure it did not  gain power again. Today, the left is powerless to defeat it. Why? Because it has been dabbling in what I prefer to call: feel-good fascism.

Sometimes, a dramatic event can serve to highlight this like no other. Part three, tomorrow.