Art Elicited from a Site of Powerful Imaginaries
Sharon F. Patton
Diaspora Dialogue is a concise exhibition that encompasses the aesthetic and symbolic maturation of three well-known African modernist artists: Hampton University professor Kwabena Ampofo-Anti (b. 1949), former Howard University Professor Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian (b. 1937-d. 2003) and Victor Ekpuk (b. 1964). Curator Brian Young presumably selected them because of their close ties to the Washington DC area. Born in Ghana, Ethiopia and Nigeria respectively, these three artists represent two generations of African modernism. Their commonality is their ability to incorporate nativist iconography and images within a style and technique grounded in Western academic training. And simultaneously fifty-seven mixed media works reveal their being attuned to the contemporaneity of their life — especially Pan-Africanism and the Black Art Movement.
The exhibition was on view, February 12- May 12, 2013 at the University of Maryland University College, Adelphi.
Each artist’s works, amply represented here, hold their own within what is a difficult display space: an open-ended gallery that functions as a transit space for visitors and staff at the main UMUC building. Boghossian and Ekpuk’s works bracket the entrance and exit of the gallery while Ampofo-Anti’s works progress spatially down the middle of the gallery, thereby giving visual cohesion to the exhibit.
That there is no substantive introductory text or labels about cultural significances may disappoint some viewers. However this precludes traveling down the ethnographic path so anticipated in exhibits about African art. Rather, minimal labels and focused lighting emphasize the visual delight these works provide. Cultural meaning and history is provided instead by an full-color illustrated catalogue (free!), which includes an essay by Chika Okeke-Agulu titled “Contemporary African Artists and the Pan-African Imagery: Skunder Boghossian, Kwabena Ampofo-Anti and Victor Ekpuk.” It highlights the development of modernism in Africa and each artist’s formulation of their particular kind of modernism. One that is filtered through Western academic art training and social politics of post-Colonial Africa and of the African diaspora in the United States and Europe, and infused with a re-immersion in indigenous African culture.
Ampofo-Anti’s architectonic sculptures (64” -107” h) Omo Mondawmin I (2004), Mamafrika (2008) and Odurugya (2008) recall ancient mosques of Mali yet simultaneously sacred Akan vessels. They, align longitudinally, are framed on either side by the colorful works of Alexander Boghossian and Victor Ekpuk. The zeitgeist of African modernism of the 1970s and 1980s is found in Boghossian’s paintings, DMZ (1975, Howard University Gallery of Art) and The Soul of the Matisse (ca. 1989). A nice counterpoint lies in the abbreviated palette overlaid with improvisational hieroglyphs and/or African ideograms in Victor Ekpuk’s works Omniscience (c. 2000) and Conversation (2012).
As Chika Okeke-Agulu concludes in his essay: “Africa remains for its artists a site of powerful imaginaries, a historical place to which they are bound by ancestry, and an idea that elicits powerful aesthetic and symbolic action.” (p. 19) The exhibition Diaspora Dialogue proves it to be so. This exhibit is a hidden gem; unfortunately it will not be shown elsewhere but the catalogue is still available from the UMUC Arts Program.
Art historian Sharon Patton, Ph.D., is former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.