By CAMERON DUODU
On 4 March 2010, one of the marvels that make up life in London will stun us:
the British Museum is mounting an exhibition of Ife sculpture — brass, copper and terra cotta.
Pictures of some of the work I have seen indicate that it’s going to be a feast for the eyes of all Africans and lovers of African art. The faces look out at you like they were sculpted only yesterday, not in the 13th and 14th centuries. They are much alive that they make you forget the art and concentrate on the people the art portrays, instead. It’s a wonderful feeling: these were superb artists by any stretch of the imagination.
The London Guardian has admirably brought some of the pictures together on its website:
The accompanying article does its best to tell readers that these artists were as good as the Greeks and the Romans and so on. For me, these comparisons are de trop. Let people see them and think what they want to think. Anyone who needs to have such works of art to be interpreted for them through references and comparisons to European art, is already a dead soul. An intelligent African need not be too “touchy” to see the subtext: “Hey, this is good art, you know. If you thought Africans did not have art, you are wrong. Pay attention.”
Well, my only concern is that such an exhibition cannot be seen across the length and breadth of Africa. I would like those who call themselves “Afro-pessimists”, in particular to look on these works and marvel — as Ozymandias would say. Whilst the European missionaries, explorers and colonial officials were busy libelling Africans as “brutes” who cannot engage in contemplation (Lord Lugard) they were nevertheless pillaging the art work of the “brutes” mercilessly.
I saw my first Asante gold death mask at the Los Angeles Museum of Primitive (sic) Art. And it was at the Royal Academy in Piccadily that I saw the full magnificence of Asante goldsmithy
in an exhibition called “Asante kingdom of Gold”.
But the mother of all African exhibitions was AFRICA, THE ART OF A CONTINENT — which brought together, art works from the entire continent of Africa. I loved it, but thought: “If a Briton reads about Constable, he can go and see his work somewhere in Britain. If a Dutchman become interested in Rembrandt, no problem he would trot off to the Rikjsmuseum in Amsterdam to see Rembrandt as alive now,through his work, as he ever was. The Spaniard can see Goya and Picasso’s work — in Spain. But a Nigerian would have come to this exhibition in London to fully grasp what Ife represents in world art terms. Just as it was London that taught me about “Asante kingdom of Gold.”
The question is: Why?