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A Pan African Circle of Artists

By Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi

In June 1991, Krydz Ikwuemesi, then a third-year art student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, convened a meeting of fellow students and faculty in the arts department to discuss the formation of an organisation to be called the Pan African Circle of Artists (PACA). PACA’s intents were to: create and exhibit art; frame the larger contexts of art production and distribution; generate cultural discourses centred on local rather than outside protagonists; and develop programmes intended to generate interest in art as crucial to how a society imagines and regenerates itself. A larger goal of the organisation was to act as the fulcrum for an integrated art scene in Africa through productive networking among cultural practitioners, agents and actors across the continent. At the time PACA was established, there were few artists’ cooperatives or independent initiatives that were thinking along pan African lines. In an emancipatory quest for self-articulation and visibility, the organisation’s agenda was conceived in response to the ongoing – and, in the eyes of the founders, unacceptable – mediation of African art and discourse by mostly Western interlocutors and gatekeepers.

In the past 23 years, PACA has organised a wide range of programmes, including exhibitions, slide presentations, workshops, poetry and short-story recitations and guest lectures. Publication has been a key focus as well, resulting in the production of exhibition catalogs, academic papers, and books on art, culture, and society, a biannual journal, Letter from Afrika, and, most importantly perhaps, the creation of PACA Press. Key as well has been the birth of Afrika Heritage, an artist-led biennial founded in 1995, meant to represent the perspectives of African artists and engender dialogue among them, so that they may reclaim the agency of mediating the reception of their art on their own terms and in a spirit of collective responsibility and accountability.

This spirit is what drives one of PACA’s most noteworthy and innovative initiatives: a project called Overcoming Maps. It began in November 2001 when 11 members of the organisation set out from Nigeria on a chartered commercial bus to Ghana and Ivory Coast to meet with fellow artists and to experience different cultural and artistic vibes in the sub-region. The members, mostly art teachers in tertiary institutions and studio artists, included Krydz Ikwuemesi, Godwin Ufuah, Kent Onah, Ayo Adewunmi, Tony Odeh, Helen Uhunmwagho, and Clement Emoda. They met with colleagues, including Ablade Glover, Benjamin Menyah, and Philip Amonoo in Ghana, and Yacouba Konaté, Fréderic Bruly Bouabré, James Houra and Savanne Yaya in Ivory Coast. The team visited the Artists Alliance Gallery and Saint George Castle in Ghana and, in Ivory Coast, the arts centre founded by Houra and the Fatima Sylla Art Foundation. At the latter, in Abidjan, they held a roundtable panel with some twelve Ivorian artists, “Art as a tool for cultural integration”. Opinions and positions at the roundtable were gathered together in a document titled “The Abidjan Declaration”, which was to serve as the blueprint for subsequent trips, known as Overcoming Maps: PACA Study Tour of Africa.

In November 2002, as an extension of the Afrika Heritage biennial, in collaboration with Centre Soleil d’Afrique, PACA organised an experimental exhibition titled Crossing Boundaries and Frontiers. Its goal was to establish whether it would be possible to reinvent Afrika Heritage as a roaming biennial, and, in the process, to begin working on collaborative projects with like-minded independent institutions in Africa. The show was programmed to take place within the same timeframe as Overcoming Maps, so that PACA members could physically travel with artworks exhibited at Afrika Heritage, which had come to an end a few weeks earlier in Lagos. Overcoming Maps’s destination that year was Bamako. On 17 November, PACA’s eight-member team – Ikwuemesi, Kent Onah, Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, Abel Mac Diakparomre, Cliff Nwanna, Chike Akabuike, Fatimetu Momoh, and Godwin Ufuah – set out on a road trip from Lagos to Bamako. In the Malian capital, after meeting with many local artists, they staged Crossing Boundaries. The show ran for a week and was held in tandem with a roundtable conference on “Anticipating the demise of neocolonialism: the place of art and artists in renascent Africa”. On the return journey, the team made a detour to Ouagadougou to discover the art scene there.

The third edition of PACA’s cross-continental initiative took place over three weeks in January 2004 and was directed by Ikwuemesi. It was the most elaborate and best funded of all the Overcoming Maps tours. PACA had successfully secured a US$40,000 grant from the Prince Claus Fund toward the undertaking. The decision was made to stage multiple exhibitions and conferences in six different West African capitals and to fund the participation of non-Nigerians. PACA invited Ugandan artist Henry Mujunga, who joined the team in Lagos, and South African artist Jaco Sieberhagen, who joined in Accra and then returned with the team to Nigeria, where he gave lectures in two Nigerian art schools. In addition to Mujunga and Sieberhagen, the Prince Claus grant supported selected artists from Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali – who joined the team as the cohort passed through their respective countries – and two scholars from Nigeria, Peter Ezeh and Kunle Filani, who were flown directly to Accra for the final leg. Extra financial support came from the now late Peter Areh of Pendulum Art Gallery, Lagos, the late Joe Nkrumah of Ghana and the artist, Virginia Ryan.

Overcoming Maps 3 opened at Pendulum Art Gallery in January 2004, with a roundtable discussion and exhibition attended by the Lagos art crowd, the PACA patrons, Yemisi Shyllon and Abdulazeez Udeh, and participating artists – nine Nigerians and one Ugandan. The team, which included a Nigerian journalist (who later absconded), then began a journey across West Africa, spending three days each in Lome, Ouagadogou, Bamako and Accra. In the various cities, the team met and interacted with local artists in their studios and artists’ villages, organised exhibitions, roundtable discussions and conferences at venues including museums, heritage institutions, the French Cultural Centre, the Goethe Institute and independent art spaces. Some of the themes explored in the conferences and roundtables included: “Where is Art? What is Art? The Meaning of Art in the African Cosmos”; “Can Art Fill the Vacuum? The Potential of Art in Social Development”; and “Overcoming Maps: Art, Integration and the African experience”. The team also met with ministers of culture, Nigerian ambassadors to the respective countries, and key cultural personalities, as well as visited important cultural and heritage attractions. Two to three local artists joined the travelling team at every stop.

By the time the group arrived in Accra in late January, it had grown from the initial nine participants to 21. The grand finale of Overcoming Maps 3 in Accra was something made for the history books. It was heralded by the music of Nii Noi, the irrepressible Ghanaian musician and artist. The exhibition and conference were held at the W E B Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture, a fitting venue, and was heavily charged with the pan Africanist spirits of Kwame Nkrumah and the centre’s namesake. The conference programmes included country reports in which appointed artists gave presentations on the state of arts in their respective countries, presentations by invited scholars, and discussions on using art as a vehicle for pan Africanism and political integration.

 Overcoming Maps 3 culminated in a site-specific object installation and performance titled African Union. It was a collaborative work created on the spur of the moment at the Du Bois Centre on 29 January. The work was made of wood and found objects contributed by the 57 participating artists and arranged as a monument to pan Africanism. The artists encircled the monuments holding hands and observed a moment of silence in honour of the departed souls of pan Africanists, such as Nkrumah and Du Bois – a moving experience of fraternity and solidarity.

 Overcoming Maps 3 was successful in mobilising artists in West Africa toward a common goal. It inspired the creation of the Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana (FCA), as well as a few other artists’ collectives and organisations in the region, and has since led to several collaborative projects. The visual documentation of Overcoming Maps 3 included a 60-page exhibition catalogue (illustrating a significant number of works exhibited in the various locations), a book report (commissioned by the Prince Claus Fund) that captured all the aspects of the trip in text and photographs, a video documentary, and ephemerals such as printed t-shirts, vests, posters and pin-ups.

Subsequent Overcoming Maps trips were to Kenya and Uganda in 2005, Zambia in 2008, and Gambia and Senegal in 2010. These trips, however, were made by air.

CHRONIC ISSUE 2This article was originally published in the Chronic (March 2013).

In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states. To read the article in full get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.
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