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In Lagos, a Kenyan experience of African art appropriation

By Tajudeen Sowole   |   09 October 2016   |   3:41 am

Visiting Kenyan Scholar, Lydia Gatundu Galavu speaking during a Lagos interactive event

Visiting Kenyan Scholar, Lydia Gatundu Galavu speaking during a Lagos interactive event

Loss of value, either as a result of of misplaced or missing provenance, has been widely responsible for improper appropriation of African art, particularly in foreign spaces.

Such distortion is even more visible when art of African traditional origin has to contend with contemporary space. Such curatorial challenge was the focus of a visiting Kenyan scholar, Lydia Gatundu Galavu who shared her thoughts with Lagos audience under the theme Displaying Traditional Art in Contemporary African Time, at Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Foundation (OYASAF), Maryland, Lagos. Galavu, a Ph.d Scholar on History of Art in Kenya was in Nigeria as the 2016 OYASAF Fellow.

Few days ahead of concluding her visit, Galavu told participants at the OYASAF Fellowship Interactive Session that choosing Nigeria, as a resource to further her research was unavoidable. “Nigeria is in the forefront of creativity in Africa,” she stated and noted, “OYASAF has the largest collection of African art.”

However, appropriation of art of African origin is as crucial as the energy and other resources invested in collecting the works either traditional, modern or contemporary. More importantly, as some of the continent’s best collections – of traditional art – are on display in foreign museums, with quite a number of them being ancient also adds to the complexity of appropriation, as well as, getting proper provenance. For Galavu, the take-off point should be the reality of the period, which such collection is being handled. “Being in contemporary times, we need to fuse our art into the current understanding.”

Sharing her experience, for example, from spaces such as Berlin Museum, Germany; British Museum, London, U.K; and Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, U.S., Galavu recalled that in quite a number of situations, the presentations were distorted. In fact, sometimes, non-African art, she alleged, were wrongly placed in African museum spaces. And where African contents existed, the texts, particularly on provenance, she said, “do not represent the ideology behind the art and period.”

Galavu’s findings would not be seen as exactly new to the complexity of African art history space, particularly the academia of which she belongs. Nigeria, indeed, is a case study, where lamentations over the dearth of adequate documentation of traditional art have been voiced at different fora.

However, there appeared to have emerged new dawn in the last few years with quite a number of books on traditional African art. Among such books are a collaboration between Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection (FAAAC) and Sylvester Ogbechi titled Making History: African Collectors and the Canon of African Art; in 2013, Conversations With Lamidi Fakeye, authored by Yemisi Shyllon and Dr. Ohioma Pogoson, published by Revilo Company Limited; and last year, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power and Identity, c. 1300, a Cambridge University Press publication, written by an American scholar, Suzanne Preston Blier.

At the OYASAF interactive event, quite a number of contributors from the audience agreed with Galavu on the danger of misappropriation. But again, the issue remains largely about the richness of documentation available to art managers, home and in the Diaspora. Also, the issue of not placing premium on anything of African origin was also highlighted.

In his contribution, the convener, Shyllon argued, “art is the only venture where Africa has competitive advantage in the world,” and stressed how such advantage could help “to project our identity.”Galavu is from Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, Nairobi University, Kenya.

In this article:
Lydia Gatundu Galavu

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