In a virtual conversation, Sotheby's Elikem Logan invited Mary Evans and Faridah Folawiyo to discuss the evolution of art education in Britain, the importance of this paradigmatic shift for the work of Black artists, as well as the different approaches through which such artists contend with themes of identity.
M ary Evans is an artist and educator with 30 years' experience of art practice and 20 years of teaching in higher education. The former BA Fine Art course leader at Chelsea College of Art, she is the newly appointed Director of Fine Art at the Slade School of Art. Faridah Folawiyo is a Nigerian curator, writer, and art historian, focusing on contemporary art from the African diaspora, with a research focus on photography. The conversation was anchored by analysis of several works which have featured in recent Sotheby’s auctions, such as works by Sam Ntiro and Nengi Omuku from our October 2023 Modern & Contemporary African Art auction, both of which set new auction records for the aforementioned artists. We also discuss the Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu, whose works broke the auction record for a work by an African artist twice in 2023.
Elikem Logan: The first pieces I would like to discuss are two highlights from our Modern & Contemporary African Art auction, Africa Dances by Ben Enwonwu and Woodcutters by Sam Ntiro. Both artists attended the Slade, which is now under Mary's direction. What are your thoughts on these artists and their works?
Mary Evans: Enwonwu and Ntiro at the Slade in the 1950s and 1960s, during Africa's independence movements, is surprising. Art was not the typical path for those seeking to contribute to their nations' independence. Yet, their choice of the Slade, within the diverse University College London, allowed them to study alongside students in fields such as law and medicine - an image of Britain and the Academy which is remarkable. Both artists boldly expressed their West African and East African heritage in their work, which may not have been fully embraced at the time.
Faridah Folawiyo: Enwonwu and Ntiro's time at the Slade seems to have influenced them, even within the strict Beaux Arts curriculum. They managed to maintain a connection to their culture and express it in their work. Mary, how do you balance cultural relativism and the elimination of cultural hierarchies in your teaching? Is there a pedagogy that doesn't rely on the European style?
ME: British art education has become more internationalised, and our approach fosters students' independence, allowing them to find their artistic identity naturally. We aim for a balance between guidance and self-discovery. Students' backgrounds, cultures, and languages influence their artistry, but the focus is on self-discovery rather than imposing identity-based work.
FF: I recently had dinner with an artist named Remi Ajani on the occasion of her solo exhibition. She is an alumnus of the Slade. I sat with her tutor at dinner and she mentioned she had also taught Nengi Omuku and Ndidi Emefiele. Three Nigerian women who have completely different work and styles, them having had the same tutor and institution demonstrates the kind of multiplicity of practice and artistic identity present in that curriculum.
EL: The diversity in teaching styles and approaches raises questions about whether support focuses more on media and technique than subject and form.
ME: Yes, there has been a shift in the way art is taught. Technical skills are still taught, but the emphasis is now on critical discussions and self-discovery. You learn as you go along. The split between the technical and the academic occurred as polytechnics became part of universities. It's more about critical conversations and learning through practice.
EL: I want to address the notion of cultural exchange which we have tentatively touched upon - particularly with regards to themes of migration and displacement, both within and beyond the lens of black identity.
FF: In diasporic and transatlantic contexts, the concept of exchange blurs boundaries, fostering fluidity, especially in the black community through travel, architecture, and art. I often question the origins of various influences; tracing architectural styles from Africa to the Caribbean and America, revealing intermingling often under-appreciated connections in time between cornerstones of the diaspora. In my curatorial work, I ponder potential biases in connecting African American, Caribbean, and West African artists. Do these links exist objectively, or do I impose them based on my experiences and knowledge of history? I dwell in the uncertainty, eager to see how others perceive these connections when they attend the show.
EL: What are the implications of understanding cultural exchange from a perspective of ownership, particularly for marginalised groups. Does something need to be inherently ours for us to resonate with it? Or can we appreciate cultural exchange without claiming ownership?
FF: The ability to anchor one’s self to a single identity is a privilege. Being African, West African, or Nigerian, there's an anchor, but it's not universal. I've experienced the feeling of not being recognized as African in Africa, and it's similar for African Americans. Being Black means grasping something that may not hold you the same way. It's a chance to embrace diverse cultures and create something new.
ME: Born in Nigeria but spending most of my life outside, I face questions about my identity. I once was labelled 'British Dutch Nigerian' in the press release of an exhibition I was participating in. The constant negotiation of identity is shared by many in the diaspora. Many artists bridge the gap between the continent and the diaspora through their work, salvaging and repurposing objects to weave together new narratives.
EL: Artists like El Anatsui excel at repurposing objects with a history, charting social progress over time. Does this sort of ‘sampling’ embody resilience? Is it part of our story to claim what isn't ours and create something new, subverting ideas of indigeneity and belonging?
ME: To echo the work of scholars like Homi Bhabha, I think artists in the diaspora embrace this approach to art-making as a device by which they connect with their native continent, while residing in Western or European spaces, creating work which is a representation of their identity as a syncopated, hybrid entity.
FF: In the context of assemblage and cultural creation, having an African upbringing does not make you immune to external influences. Cultures are inherently hybrid, and subversion is essential for Black artists in response to the historical impact of colonialism. It is about taking something from one context and repurposing it for another, visually and emotionally. There is no pure black or African culture anymore; everything is mixed, and that is not a bad thing.
EL: A wonderful note on which to move to our next set of works. Let us now home in on race and identity. The manner in which artists of colour address their racial and ethnic identity in their work is complex, given the pressures they face. Do you think addressing identity in art can sometimes be too implicit?
ME: Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits serve as a cipher for person-hood, much like Mary Sibande's 'Sophie' figure symbolises South African female domesticity. Both artists offer a captivating exploration of identity. Personally, I prefer working with the silhouette, as it represents the human form without specific features, making it a blank and anonymous canvas. It's a symbol, a cipher, not me or you, but us. This is where the human body becomes significant in reflecting our shared identity. By contrast, I struggle with abstract art.
EL: Is the artistic gesture most potent when the body is the primary motif, or can it be evoked beyond figuration? What is the role of figuration in Black art and how do such ‘trends’ affect Black artists?’
FF: I recently went to a Julie Mehretu exhibition and I feel this is someone that attempts to think through ideas of diaspora, migration, identity and belonging through abstraction. By contrast, the emphasis on trends like figuration in Black art creates a hierarchy - and diversity in Black art should be celebrated. Who dictates these trends, and who benefits from them?
ME: Julie Mehretu, I feel, is often hinting at an architectural cityscape or urban landscape. That draws the onlooking ‘figure’ in, allowing me, the viewer standing in front of often gigantic paintings, to be the figure in that space. So the work is in that sense, still figurative. I often focus on making the black body visible in my art. Unfortunately, Black and African artists often face criticism for doing so, as they are seen as merely performing race and identity. In this fixation on the black body, people tend to engage lazily with the art, not taking the time to consider the artist's intentions. Sonia Boyce made a similar observation years ago, noting that work by Black artists tends to be over-politicised. Boyce's own practice evolved significantly over the years, shifting from figurative pastel drawings of her family to abstract works focused on music and sound. However, even in her recent Venice Biennale exhibition, featuring Black female singers in a video presentation, the emphasis remained on the black body. Boyce had to undergo a 30-year journey to be taken seriously as an artist, highlighting the initial challenges she faced as a Black female artist.
EL: Mary, with your new appointment, and Faridah, dealing with the Academy and market in tandem, I want to ask you about preserving artists' legacies beyond fleeting moments of international attention. Africa 95, Magiciens de la Terre, and similar exhibitions in the late 20th/early 21st century garnered attention, but as history shows, when the West shifts focus, progress dwindles, and we must restart. How do we ameliorate this tendency?
ME: I want Slade students to collaborate with students from other cultures to break down a sense of exoticism we tend to get when dealing with Black artists. I aim to create connections with institutions I have visited, like Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana. Many students from my generation might have been surprised by the art being produced in places like Kumasi, but young people today are more open to it. I want my European students to recognize the quality and relevance of work from their African counterparts. This can be achieved by fostering direct collaborations and interaction, rather than just observing through Instagram. It would be highly beneficial.
FF: During my studies, I didn't see the value of commercial work. However, I find the exchange between Black collectors and artists worldwide fascinating. It's intriguing to contemplate what it means for African-American collectors to acquire African art, or for African collectors to invest in Caribbean works. This exchange contributes to the creation of self-sustaining ecosystems, ensuring our independence, if the West disengages.
EL: The emergence of a Black-led traditional art ecosystem is undeniably imperative. However, a Black-led art ecosystem is emerging which does not conform to the conventions of its Western counterpart. Indeed, Black artists may pioneer a paradigm shift, moving from catching up to the avant garde.