Categories
Photography Publications

Herzekiah Andrew Shanu, a Yoruba photographer in Congo at the turn of the twentieth century

Portrait of Herzekiah-Andrew Shanu, probably dating from his trip to Europe in 1894. Image courtesy of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (HP.1965.14.246).

A book which I have been enjoying very much recently is Broad sunlight: Early West African photography by Michael Graham-Stewart and Francis McWhannell. You can download an extract of it here. This labor of love is the result of a decade of collecting pre-1920 photographs taken in West Africa. The book is full of previously unpublished images and contains a most useful register with all photographers Graham-Stewart and McWhannell were able to track down. The captions to the photos and biographies of the photographers are a true treasure trove of information. Among others they put me on track of Herzekiah Andrew Shanu – of which you can see a portrait above.

Shanu (1858-1905) was among the pioneers photographing in West Africa, and his exceptional life story is worth remembering. Shanu was born in Lagos in 1858 and for a few years was a teacher at the Lagos Primary School. In 1884, he travelled to the Congo Free State’s capital Boma entering the service of the regime of Leopold II of Belgium as a clerk and translator. He helped recruit soldiers from English-speaking areas for the Force Publique, eventually rising to the position of assistant commissioner of the district of Boma. His photographs – depictions of Africans in and around Boma – were published in the Belgian colonial magazine Congo illustré from 1892 on.

In 1893, Shanu left the administration to devote himself to his business which quickly prospered thanks to various activities such as the hotel industry, photography, the sale of food products, ready-to-wear clothing and even laundry services. Shanu travelled through Europe and visited Belgium, France, Germany and England, a rare feat for an African at that time. In 1894 he apparently visited the Universal Exhibition in Antwerp. He was invited by the Belgian Association for Colonial Studies and gave several lectures, mainly in Brussels to the Royal African Circle and in Tirlemont.

In 1900, the colonial administration employed him to help to quell unrest among West African personnel in the Force Publique. In 1903, Shanu supplied the British Consul Roger Casement with information concerning the abuse of West African workers in the Congo, who in turn referred him to Edmund Morel and the Congo Reform Association, working to end slavery and other humanitarian abuses in the Congo Free State. Morel and Shanu corresponded for several years; Shanu forwarding, among other things, transcripts of trials against low-ranking Congo Free State officials which proved to be most revealing. While trying to acquire information from the police chief of Boma, Shanu was found out and as a consequence beleaguered by state officials. After it was discovered that Shanu had provided the Congo Reform Association with evidence of atrocities in the Congo, government employees were officially ordered to boycott his businesses. His business ruined, and himself reduced to despair, Shanu committed suicide in July 1905.

Some sixty of his negatives and prints are held by the Royal Museum for Central Africa; you can explore them here. “Broad sunlight” is full of exceptional personalities you have never heard from before. The cover image below, for example, is a self-portrait by W.J. Sawyer, who would also take some haunting photographs of Ovenramwen, the exiled Oba of Benin. Another self-made photographer worth getting to know.

Categories
Discoveries

A Kota fighting voter apathy

Slightly deviating from the ongoing series about African art featured in advertisements, check out this cool vintage poster from the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation urging the public to do ‘the right thing’ and register to vote. The poster probably dates from around 1980 and was part of ‘Operation Big Vote’ – on which you can read more here. This nationwide effort by 70 black organisations hoped to stem the tide of black voter apathy. How a Kota reliquary figure from Gabon could inspire people to go vote is unclear to me, but it surely made a very graphic poster! Thanks to Ciprian Ilie for the tip.

ps yes, you assume right if you were wondering if I tried to find the Kota that inspired this poster – but I unfortunately was unsuccessful. It is a pretty common type of course.

Categories
Publications Research

New book: “Transitional art of the Tikar from Cameroon” (David Zemanek, 2021)

I would like to bring your attention to a new book by David Zemanek, “Transitional Art of the Tikar from Cameroon”. This monograph studies a single type of statuary made by the Tikar as a response to Western demand. This publication must be one of the very first ever to focus on the production of art works solely made with the reason to be sold to early tourists and colonial administrators. While the response of African artists to the emergence of a new clientele has been widely documented, the art itself has rarely been the subject of much research (with the exception of the so-called “colons”). Through his work as an expert for his family’s auction house David Zemanek often came across these Tikar statues and was intrigued about their origin. Examples could already be found in German collections before 1914. Western modernist artists might have been influenced by African art, but as this book shows the inverse was also true, with Tikar sculptors being influenced by Western ideas. The Tikar figures under discussion are a good example to show how local sculptors responded to the increased demand for their art by freely combining traditional elements and adding new stylistic features and thus developing a transitional type of art. Artists were able to break free of the traditional patronage system and create a new type of sculpture. This newly acquired stylistic freedom is easily distinguishable in the variety of the 25 presented statues.

Eleven different types of faces. Illustrations by Adam Fisher.

The book also documents the shifting perception of these figures; while mid-century experts in their ignorance might still have considered them authentic, or dealers unscrupulous presented them as such, through time it became very evident they lacked any traditional use and were merely made to be sold. The typical African art collector hence will not waste his time on them, yet they do play a role in African art history in the proces of emancipation of African artists. While these statues still are anonymous works, and lack a signature, they did buy individual and financial freedom for their makers by creating a new form of livelihood.

In the tense current debates about restitution the agency of African artists and dealers remains a neglected topic. In that sense I find it very praiseworthy for Zemanek to add a new layer to the ongoing discussions. These Tikar statues were clearly manufactured as commercial goods, and never looted or stolen – should they also be returned?

You can order the book here, or read more about it on Imo Dara here.

 

Categories
Contemporary

“Chambers of Memory”, an early work by El Anatsui inspired by a 2000 year old Nok terracotta head

El Anatsui – “Chambers of Memory”, 1977. Ceramics, manganese. 40 × 26 cm. Collection of the artist, Nsukka, Nigeria. © El Anatsui. Courtesy of the artist.

Among the first works El Anatsui created after moving from Ghana to Nsukka, Nigeria, was the above “Chambers of Memory” (1977). Aficionados of traditional African terracotta works of art surely immediately recognise a strong influence from the famed Nok heads. Indeed, with the typical facial features and its large bald forehead, El Anatsui fashioned this sculpture to resemble a terra-cotta head from Nigeria’s Nok culture. Arriving in Nigeria in 1975 to teach at the University of Nsukka, he had started to immerse himself in local styles and became fascinated by Nigeria’s national museums and archeological sites. The art of the so-called Nok, the only remnant of the civilisation that created these works, became a strong influence on his early work. The genius of the artist came into play with the creation of the empty chambers on the inside of the head, visible at the back (see below). The interior divisions he created allude to the sites of memory archived in man’s mind. With its empty chambers, the work in that way can be seen as a reflection on collective memory and humanity’s inability to learn from its mistakes. After all, we are for example still clueless what happened with the Nok civilisation, a culture so forgotten we don’t even remember its real name. I like how the artist, inspired by this specific case, made this universal and timeless message. And, also for collectors of classical African art, it does add a new layer of meaning when admiring traditional African terracotta sculptures.

Long before he would get famous with his hanging metal tapestries, El Anatsui thus was already pushing boundaries as an artist. If you are not familiar with his work, please read the brilliant article The New Yorker recently published about him here.

© El Anatsui. Courtesy of the artist.