In December 1961, the exhibition Art From Africa of Our Time opened at the Harmon Foundation in New York. Earlier that same year, the Freedom Riders began protesting segregation across the American South, and the Museum of Modern Art exhibited its first work of contemporary African art. That convergence is more than coincidence. The liberation of several African countries from colonial rule occurred throughout the early midcentury, and travel between the U.S. and African nations began to open up. Africa — its artists and thinkers — were able to influence America in ways that would have been impossible just years earlier. The impact of that influence is massive, and is the first thing you notice when viewing African Modernism in America, another landmark exhibition, which is on view through February at Fisk University Galleries.
Among the exhibit’s first highlights is Nigerian artist Afi Ekong’s oil-on-canvas painting “Olumo Rock,” from 1960. At first glance it appears to be an abstract assemblage of color, but Ekong, who also went by Constance, named the work after a famed mountain in Nigeria that provided protection to residents during the 19th-century Yoruba civil wars. The painting, at roughly 10 by 30 inches, is a jewel, and almost appears multifaceted — expressive brushstrokes of orange, purple, green, red and blue are outlined in black, swirling with the energy of a van Gogh sky. Just as informative as the title card is a note that the painting was recently conserved. To help ready the work for exhibition, Fisk received funding from multiple institutions, and students from across the campus — art students and math students alike — were able to assist in the painting’s conservation.
Just a few feet down from the Ekong canvas is a pair of works from two more Nigerian artists — a carved chess set from Justus Dojumo Akeredolu and an oil-on-canvas painting by Akinola Lasekan. The painting, called “Ogedengbe of Ilesha,” was also conserved for this exhibit with help from Bank of America, and portrays a hero of the same 19th-century Yoruba wars that informed Ekong’s piece. In this work, Lasekan has realistically depicted a battlefield populated with marching warriors, musicians midsong and vast, atmospheric space. The artist’s background was mainly in commercial illustration — he wasn’t formally trained in Nigeria, but instead earned certificates in international correspondence courses. That academic aptitude serves the history painting well — its composition is complex but harmonious, and elements borrowed from Lasekan’s career as a political cartoonist blend seamlessly, like the lines of smoke that rise from the rifles, and the expressive faces of the musicians.
Akeredolu’s chess set may seem a strange companion piece to the massive history painting, but its placement just underneath highlights the metaphor of war as a kind of game. It’s also a fascinating piece of craftsmanship — the king pieces’ eyes peer out over a face covering that seems almost translucent, and each of the pawn figures are young boys seated in different postures.
14 December 2022