Sunday Jack Akpan

Sunday Jack Akpan’s business card bears the following words: “Undertakes Construction of Images, Statues, Tombstones of all kinds, Pottery Products, Marble Tombstones, Decoration of House Furniture, Drawing and General Arts.” This first exhibition in Italy by the sixty-one-year-old Nigerian artist consisted of a group of eighteen statues (one of which had previously been exhibited at the Venice Biennale) portraying the upper echelons of traditional tribal society: chieftains, matriarchs, sorcerers, shamans, and dignitaries. But they are joined by a soldier in camouflage overalls with a submachine gun, a figure who has apparently been inserted into the social structure and has taken root there, almost like a sorcerer who plays an essentially malignant role in society.

Made from cement, the statues are slightly taller than life-size and are brightly colored, like garden gnomes, those ubiquitous exemplars of European kitsch. But these are not kitsch, for the concept is foreign to a culture like Akpan’s, despite any outside influences on his work, which was seen in certain European exhibitions, including the much noted “Les Magiciens de la terre” at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 1989. In fact, Akpan is still what his business card states—that is, the contemporary African equivalent of the medieval artisan, equally capable of decorating a cathedral and creating more humble works. To point out something specifically African in Akpan’s art is not to say that it is merely of anthropological or ethnographic interest, however. What calls for analysis is not so much Akpan (who is comfortable in his culture), but rather our interest in him and our investigation of other artists like him. One might say, for example, that his work is the result of the updating of West Africa’s traditional symbolic and tribal sculpture to the new social situations of the continent, and as such, his work offers us a concise interpretation of that world. This analysis, while plausible, is insufficient, just as it would be insufficient to attempt to tie our interest in these “garden statues” to circumscribed formal or conceptual elements.

In fact, what we appreciate in Akpan’s work is his ingenuity and freshness, characteristics he neither concerns himself with nor imagines himself to possess. For a couple of years now the trained, shrewd, refined, and decadent eye of the West has been searching for innovations that a now-too-complex alphabet and syntax can no longer provide. This Western eye is looking for something as distant as possible from its own borders, though, paradoxically, those borders are growing ever nearer. Exoticism, understood as mystery and diversity, as a zone free from current rules, is a commodity that is increasingly difficult to find and thus increasingly sought after; Africa is still fertile terrain. But even a few shows, and perhaps a move by Akpan to Europe or the USA, will suffice to transform these idols, these images that are still charged with symbolic power-and thus life—into gigantic souvenirs; that is, literally, into mementos of an irremediably lost world.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.