Art TEDTalks

Embodying Sankofa: 5 African artists influenced by history

At TED2013, graphic designer Saki Mafundikwa highlights the beauty of traditional African written languages, urging designers to draw inspiration from them. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

At TED2013, graphic designer Saki Mafundikwa highlights the beauty of traditional African written languages, urging designers to draw inspiration from them. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Zimbabwean designer Saki Mafundikwa has a powerful vision for the future of African art. As the founder of the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIWA), Mafundikwa is working to bring African art back to its roots. ZIWA, the first school of graphic design in Zimbabwe, and one of the first schools to emphasize the use of digital technology to teach the visual arts, places the continent’s rich artistic history at the center of its curriculum.

Saki Mafundikwa: Ingenuity and elegance in ancient African alphabets Saki Mafundikwa: Ingenuity and elegance in ancient African alphabets This idea sits at the heart of today’s talk, in which Mafundikwa encourages African artists  to take a look at their own cultural heritage for artistic inspiration, rather than looking to the outside world.  He sums up the concept with the Ghanaian glyph Sankofa, which means literally “return and get it” — or “learn from the past.” Says Mafundikwa, “We must go to the past so as to inform our present and build on a future.”

In his talk, Saki Mafundikwa celebrates Africa’s creative heritage by surveying the continent’s history of written language. Jumping across nations, Mafundikwa describes the fascinating writing systems of societies from the Akan to the Bantu to the Yoruba. He points out that, contrary to popular belief, African writing may date back hundreds of years earlier than the scripts of Mesopotamia.

In the spirit of Mafundikwa’s call to action, here is a look at a few African artists who are incorporating their heritage and traditions into their work. These artists offer diverse perspectives, putting Mafundikwa’s ideas into conversation as they contest and corroborate them.

“Glance towards the unknown” by Fathi Hassan. Source: FathiHassan.com

Born to Sudanese and Egyptian parents, artist Fathi Hassan explores his Nubian heritage through the written word. He imagines scripts inspired by his ancestors’ calligraphy, creating beautiful but illegible text. In doing so, he emphasizes the language loss that occurred under imperial domination and recalls his upbringing in a primarily verbal, illiterate society. Hassan was the first artist to represent Africa in the emerging artists category of the Venice Biennale. [Fathi Hassan]

“Ibiebe ABC III” by Bruce Onobrakpeya. Source: National Museum of African Art

“Ibiebe ABC III” by Bruce Onobrakpeya. Source: National Museum of African Art

Nigerian printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya also places the alphabet at the center of his work. He invented the Ibiebe script, a fusion of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy with the writing found in the Urhobo groups of Southern Nigeria. Onobrakpeya was educated by the Zaria Rebels, a school of Nigerian artists who emphasized the decolonization of African art from Western influences. His art received an honorable mention at the Venice Biennale, and he was honored with UNESCO’s Living Human Treasure Award in 2006. [Wikipedia]

Beyond the scope of the aestheticized written word, cultural heritage manifests itself in different ways in different mediums. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the acclaimed male choral group from South Africa, celebrates its Zulu heritage by keeping isicathamiya and mbube singing styles alive. Half a century and three Grammys later, the group has evolved to create the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation, which opened in 1999 to teach children of Zulu heritage about traditional isicathamiya music. [Mambazo]

“Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors” by Wangechi Mutu. Source: Flickr/Cea

“Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors” by Wangechi Mutu. Source: Flickr/Cea

Nairobi-born painter and sculptor Wangechi Mutu explores the landscape of post-imperial Africa in the face of globalization. She blends the aesthetics of traditional African art with images of the female body, giving her work a feminist and African feel. Blending the modern and the traditional, “her works document the contemporary myth-making of endangered cultural heritage.” Mutu’s work has been displayed at the MoMA, the Tate Modern and the Pompidou Center, among others.  [Saatchi Gallery]

Bonus:

British-Nigerian sculptor Yinka Shonibare offers an opposing artistic vision. Counter to Saki Mafundikwa’s desire for African artists to return to their roots, Shonibare blurs the lines of social categories as he explores his transnational heritage.  Shonibare emphasizes the hybridity of his identity as he incorporates vivid African-style textiles with Victorian attire to create a fusion of cultural crossbreeds. He considers culture to be an artificial construct, and in incorporating the different facets of his own identity, he aims to stretch and erase preconceived notions of social groups. His work focuses on individuality, rejecting traditional groups in favor of modern fluidity. Shonibare’s work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, and he won the Turner Prize in 2004.