Whilst Africa is embracing all things Chinese – trade, infrastructure and ideas, here is a guaranteed conversation-starter for Africans visiting China.
Just ask about Liu Bolin, the ‘invisible’ Chinese artist whose exhibitions are touring the world – and wowing it.
Bolin has perfected the art of urban camouflage, painting himself from head to toe, blending himself into the background he is in so seamlessly that you will not notice him until he moves. The idea is to make a silent statement and prompt the question: what lies beneath our public realms?
Bolin has exhibited his work in some of the world’s biggest galleries, triggering intrigue and introspection.
Born in China’s Shandong province, before becoming an artist, Bolin did the odd job as art teacher and assistant. It was not ideal.
“I lived at the bottom of society,” he says. “Those years, I felt redundant.”
That is when he often receded to the background, hiding. In October 2005, the Suojia Village International Art Camp in Beijing was demolished, “forcefully”, he tells us.
That was the starting point of Bolin’s celebrated Hiding In The City series, which began as a brand of ‘performance art’ that he is best known for.
“[The demolition] was a shock for me. I created the Hiding In The City series to express my protest. I try to use the series to express my inner world and my understanding of the world around me,” says Bolin.
The artistic process he uses is trompel’oeil (translated from French as ‘trick the eye’). In his work, there is no touching-up by a computer.
Every effect is painted on to his body, slowly, step by step, using it as a canvas to deliver a social message.
That is why his works are moving; he is the front and center of his art.
The Mandarin-speaking artist shares more details about his fascinating work in this interview:
Why do you do what you do?
Many people understand the meaning of my work and the power it has. My work spreads widely on the internet which indicates people know what I want to express. I think the most important thing [about] art is it [can] connect to people’s inner worlds.
What statement are you making?
When I started the Hiding In The City series, I hid myself in the studio [that had] been demolished. That work represents my protest [against] urban demolition.
Describe the work you have done around the world…
In the beginning, I had done work in France and Italy. I was disappearing in front of graffiti, bookshelves etc. I hid myself in various time [zones], languages, backgrounds and events. I thought different things happening at different times [can influence] the way humans think. At the same time, social problems such as the strikes in Paris, [poverty] in India, the financial crises and crash of the World Trade Center in New York, have all influenced my work.
Which is your most recent work?
I had my solo show in Paris in March, and another solo show at a museum in Argentina in April. I recently did new work in Paris, influenced by the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I found 17 local people in Paris and made them disappear in order to question the problems in society. I thought this the modern version of religious war. I will participate in the Biennale of Performance Art in Argentina in June and also work on a new [art] influenced by transgenic food in Argentina.
How does the government in China view your work?
To be frank, the government has never censored my work so far. My work has never gotten any support from anyone but no one has been against it [either]. I have been doing my work quite freely…A lot of people from around the world like what I do and have resonance with my work. This is what I cherish the most.
How much time does it take to prepare for each work and how much does each ‘performance’ cost?
The time [taken to] paint the body depends on the complexity of the background. Like the Supermarket, Magazine…such work needs a lot of time to grasp details. The longest I have taken is almost four days. Actually, it is really hard work. Generally speaking, for a simple background, a day is enough, especially outdoor scenes.
Actually, standing there, being painted on, is a painful process. For several hours, you cannot move, the body aches all over. However, I enjoy such a process which is a sacrifice to the art and a striving for my [artistic] dream. I have never calculated how much it costs for finishing each performance.
What materials do you work with?
I’ve been using cloth designed for Chinese military men. Because in the beginning, I wanted to imitate how a sniper is hidden from his environment, by painting on his face, hands and body. For the paint, we usually use acrylic as it is simple.
How do you fund your work?
I have galleries who are in charge of the commercial part of my work.
What have you planned for the year ahead?
I will work on a new Target series in Italy and an art performance from the series Security Check. I plan [similar] performances next year in both Paris and New York. I would like to find famous buildings and invite people to be a part of it. Last year, there were many plane accidents. I would like people to pay more attention to matters of flight security.
Do you have any plans to visit Africa?
African culture has always been my fascination. When I was in college, I specifically researched Africa’s traditional art. Unfortunately, I have never been to Africa, but I believe I will have a chance to visit it someday in the future. I really look forward to it.
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown
Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.
During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.
“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.
He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.
He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.
“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”
Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.
“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.
During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.
‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’
A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.
Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).
In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”
How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?
“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”
A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.
“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.
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