New York

Mbari Mbayo

Our initial interest in “Mbari Mbayo,” a show of contemporary Nigerian art, must be in it as a phenomenon. The works all come out of three art workshops held in Oshogobo, Nigeria, in 1962, ’63 and ’64, and we naturally wonder whether a likely Peace Corps ethno-sentimentality will emerge. The artists here mostly steer clear of that. Not that they push art in a new direction (art is tired of being pushed anyway): the point is that they show that an African art can be made in the present time without a lot of sweat about roles, identity, or overcompensatory nittigrittiness, and that our old hunch that when there was an African contemporary art white eyes would be able to make discriminations of quality and achievement, was right.

Sixteen artists contribute to a show of paintings, sculpture, graphics, and textile hangings, and of these there can be little doubt that Asiru Olatunde, the author of several reliefs of hammered sheet aluminum, ranks highest in sheer plastic mastery and for his success in avoiding the parochialism of race by, instead, resorting to the “racial” imagery of the human race at large. Thus, his reliefs are not only well-made pieces of metalwork, and well-conceived relief compositions, but they also have a kind of Jungian iconographical catholicity which makes them (presumably) as meaningful to a New Yorker as to a citizen of Oshogobo. If they look surprisingly unstrange to us that is because they as readily call to mind our own symbolic wellsprings as an African’s. This happens when we encounter paired beasts, rampant, like those which go back through the European middle ages to the ancient Near East, in Adam and Eve, and when we notice the proper Lebensbaum, complete with nibbling birds, in his Three Trees.

The small cire-perdu brass figure sculptures of Jinadu Oladepo, on the other hand, seem like the African equivalent of Hummel figurines. This response is provoked by the bourgeois mock-raunchiness of the figures and their cosy narrative groupings, and in their easily deduced audience appeal (cf., the market for Hummels, made by nuns). The few of his pieces which have more conviction than these are more hieratic and abstract.

A man called Twins Seven-Seven is, I gather, taken to be first-rate, a sort of Nigerian Klee. However the belabored “interestingness” of his two large panel paintings puts me off, as does their freaky imagery and their hectic accumulation of detail.

There are too many linoleum prints and serigraphs to discuss here, but Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Leopard in a Cornfield and the prints of Jacob Afolabi seem deserving of mention. In Abraham’s Sacrifice, Isaac suggests a fowl under the blade, and I cannot decide whether this is satire or not, but Afolabi does have an engaging way of pulling faces peeringly into the plane, so that the print, flat in its graphic handling, actively confronts us (in something like the way people, in the early days of television, poked their faces into the camera). The strongest virtue of his prints, and those of the others as well, is in their sense of the equal actuality of positive and negative form, which is just the quality, from Alois Riegl’s time to our own, in which “primitive art” has had most to teach the Western world. If they have succeeded in keeping that consciousness alive as well as in discouraging the cheap revival of old but lifeless forms (tourist art), the Oshogobo workshops must be reckoned a success.

Joseph Masheck