Katrin Schulze is a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS (UK) and has been a keen supporter and contributor to Connoisseurs of Contemporary African Art. Katrin who is from Germany is undertaking research in African Art in Northern Nigeria.
MyWeku: Your chosen research area will be considered as extremely interesting to most African arts connoisseurs. To the uninitiated it may be considered as obscure and eccentric. How would you describe your area of research and why “northern Nigeria”?
KS: Let me start with your last question: why ‘northern Nigeria’? Basically, during my masters at SOAS Nigerian arts, both, practices primarily drawing upon local traditions and those engaging with international influences, featured prominently in my African arts class. Previously I had spent some time on a DAAD financed Hausa language course in Azare, Bauchi State, and as a result noticed that none of the examples we discussed in class were drawn from the regions north of Abuja. The only exception to this rule was the seminal modernist Natural Synthesis movement at Ahmadu Bello University in the 1950s-60s. Indeed, the few references to the region I encountered in the literature on contemporary Nigerian arts overwhelmingly suggested that Islam, the regionally predominant religion, had prevented the development of any ‘meaningful’ modern arts. However, neither I nor my supervisor was convinced by this argumentation. After all, there were diverse contemporary art scenes in many predominantly Muslim countries. And several published studies on Hausa crafts as well as the existence of art departments at colleges of education and universities in the region appear to suggest contemporary art practices. Such, my PhD topic was conceived. In that sense then, the ‘northern Nigeria’ in my thesis’ title, then, is intended to refer to a broadly defined geographical region. For practical reasons, of course, a comprehensive study of the entirety of contemporary traditions of visual arts in the region is beyond the scope of my PhD. My fieldwork focused on the urban centres of Kano, Maiduguri and Zaria instead. However, how am I to describe my area of research in terms of the art tradition I have tried to document? Well, of course I encountered a greater variety of living practices of visual arts than I could do justice to the 100.000 words of my thesis. Hence, my focus has been on academic practices at the universities and colleges of education in these towns, a set of religious posters and their possible iconographic relationship to poster arts in Egypt and beyond, and lorry arts.
MyWeku: How would you characterise African art in its entirety given that Africa is incredibly culturally diverse and its art forms varies enormously, driven by a plethora of political, ideological, ritual and aesthetic values?
KS: Discussing European arts, we routinely distinguish between different temporal and regional art movements. Indeed, we even acknowledge them as simplifications for the sake of the categorisation and organisation of the abundance and diversity of existing art works. Why then do we too often still fail to go beyond pan-African generalisations or such dual divisions like the equally sweepingly characterised categories of so-called ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’ arts? As an art historian interested in visual arts in a particular place (‘northern Nigeria’) and time (now) I feel uncomfortable contributing to arguments along these lines. Instead, let me answer your question from a different angle: Although my involvement with Africa and African arts came about by accident, I almost immediately discovered a number of exciting works of literature and visual arts. They immediately spoke to me on a personal level but learning about the artists as well as cultural and social contexts that informed them added further layers to my appreciation. Indeed, as I discovered more interesting and challenging artists and art works they inspired me to pursue my Master of Arts degree at SOAS majoring in the History of African arts and subsequently to go on for my PhD.
“So, instead of the opinion you have been asking for, based upon the little I have noticed maybe I can just reply by throwing some questions and unqualified observations back at you and the readers of this site: Rather than a specifically African renaissance, don’t you think that what we are observing is an increased openness for the works of contemporary non-Western artists on the international exhibition circuit and art market in general?”
MyWeku: The renowned Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui recently described African Art as breaking out of its “invisibility syndrome”. Works by Yinka Shonibari, Marlene Dumas and El Anatsui have been bought for thousands of dollars. Do you think African art in its many forms is enjoying a renaissance?
KS: To be honest, the last two years my rather single-minded focus has been on my PhD and issues directly related to my topic, i.e. art practices in a particular region rather than the chances of these works on the international exhibition circuit and art market. So, instead of the opinion you have been asking for, based upon the little I have noticed maybe I can just reply by throwing some questions and unqualified observations back at you and the readers of this site: Rather than a specifically African renaissance, don’t you think that what we are observing is an increased openness for the works of contemporary non-Western artists on the international exhibition circuit and art market in general? My admittedly London-centred impression has been that, as far as non-Western art is concerned, the fashion for African arts (in London among others: Sudan Ancient Treasures, Africa Remix, Africa 2005) was followed by a fashion for Persian arts, contemporary Middle Eastern arts etc. While I admire the artists you mentioned, might it not be that some aspects of their works connect with certain contemporary ideas, concerns, and fashions at the international art scene and for this reason, rather than a renaissance of African arts, have been accepted? I am not really sure how to best put across this hunch but I am wondering because I observed that these artists’ works differ significantly in terms of style and concern from much of the art works I have seen during fieldwork in Kano, Maiduguri and Zaria and I’m not sure whether they would have been as well received on the international art scene, I mean, at least not by the same people.
“Its not that I didn’t enjoy my time in Maiduguri and Zaria! I certainly did. But I also have to admit to being a city girl. I enjoy the hustle and bustle of urban centres and riding an achaba through Kano or at one of the markets you can get a taste of that”
KS: You really make it sound as if the only thing I liked about Nigeria was the food! Granted, the way to my heart has always led via my stomach but I’m also a social being and, in my currently primary function, a PhD student and art historian. So to be honest, before all else my choice of subject and (geographical) area of research were informed by what I and my supervisor perceived as a gap in the literature on contemporary African arts and, of course, with its manifold of cultures and artistic practices, some of them firmly rooted in indigenous traditions, others self-consciously engaging with international influences, I believe Nigeria to be an exciting terrain for art historians. This said, the hospitality and warmth I experienced during my first visit to Nigeria and the taste for moin moin and waina I acquired back then gave me the courage to actually spend a year in Nigeria despite advice to the contrary. (I suspect we’re all aware of the country’s largely unjustified bad reputation.) But as you mention Kano in particular, let me just clarify: Its not that I didn’t enjoy my time in Maiduguri and Zaria! I certainly did. But I also have to admit to being a city girl. I enjoy the hustle and bustle of urban centres and riding an achaba through Kano or at one of the markets you can get a taste of that. Another thing I have to admit to (and here we’re back to the food discussion) is that, by all my liking for Nigerian food, I am a cheese aficionado. For the occasional treat, I can easily find a small selection of fresh and imported cheese in Kano. Also, more than elsewhere as soon as I replied to the initial greetings in Hausa, people tried to engage me into a conversation all be it with my limited Hausa language skills.
“Why then do we too often still fail to go beyond pan-African generalisations or such dual divisions like the equally sweepingly characterised categories of so-called ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’ arts?”
MyWeku: Myweku.com aims to provide a platform for people like you who in their own small way are contributing to enhancing African culture and the arts and who we hope will eventually become established figures in their own right. What impression of the continent will you be taking back to Europe or to your birth country, Germany?
KS: Not sure I can do justice to my experience of Nigeria in a few words. But, in a nutshell, it has been overwhelmingly positive. When I got onto the plane back to London, I left good friends behind. Throughout the year I experienced a lot of hospitality not only from my hosts and friends but, in fact, ordinary people – the many times a bystander told the band of children shouting Baturiya, baturiya, baturiya!!! to stop following me around, the many offers of assistance after I got robbed! And you already mentioned that, with few exceptions and the occasional yearning for cheese and German bread aside, I really enjoyed Nigerian food. But most importantly from the point of view of the student of art history, I encountered interesting practices of visual arts. I have become a great fan of (‘northern’) Nigerian lorry painting! – and learned a lot from talking to artists, art educators and art students. Of course it has simultaneously been a challenging year. There are many differences between life in Berlin or London on the one hand and Nigeria on the other hand. Interesting as they were, they were often exhausting to navigate. And of course, many things we tend to take for granted are not routinely accessible to many people in Nigeria and, of course, on a personal level this really changed my perspective of life. But although I don’t want to downplay all these real life problems, the impressions of Nigeria I have taken back to Europe were predominantly positive ones and I hope I will soon have the opportunity to go back, maybe even for a prolonged period of time again.
“But although I don’t want to downplay all these real life problems, the impressions of Nigeria I have taken back to Europe were predominantly positive ones and I hope I will soon have the opportunity to go back, maybe even for a prolonged period of time again.”
MyWeku: What advice do you have for aspiring researchers looking to study art?
Not sure whether I am the right person to hand out advice to aspiring researcher, not yet at least. After all, I am still at the very beginning of my career. The only advice I already feel entitled to dispense is twofold: First, your PhD topic will dominate your life for the next three or four years (maybe longer). You will go to bed thinking about it and it will be on your mind when you wake up in the morning. So, you better also have a personal interest in your research topic! Secondly (and maybe even more importantly), don’t be shy! How often have I wasted opportunities or time wondering whether or not to dare and approach somebody just to later find that person very willing to assist? So, during fieldwork as well as writing up be polite and respectful but DO get in contact. You might be surprised to find that even an established authority in their field might be very interested in your research!
MyWeku: Anything else you’d like to add?
I think promoting African arts and cultures through efforts like your own might succeed in triggering a more balanced image of the continent and the capabilities of its people!