My learning is affected by the condition of my life
A project by Aude Christel Mgba in the framework of Future of (art) school
My name is Aude Christel Mgba and I am a black woman living now between Cameroon, my country of birth and the Netherlands since 2018. I am an art professional working as a curator with a background in African art history. I am trying to engage through my work with decolonial practices which include collective and personal research projects and platforms that aims to transcribe, translate and embody ancestral knowledge. I specifically work with forms of knowledge production that expand the notion of writing and tackle the idea of tradition through "objects", myths, cosmogony, songs, symbols (...).
In the framework of this project which is a collaboration between Studium Generale and sonsbeek, I was invited by Joke Alkema to respond to one of their current studies. I decided to focus on the study The future of art schools in order to have a broad conversation around school and education. I first wanted to have a dialogue around the history of the present idea of school and art schools and how deeply its legacy in non-western geographies is connected to the colonial past, on how the way it was inserted in this areas also destroyed or modified the ways learning and transmitting worked and at the same time how it divided these societies where every thing was connected and not so compartmentalized as it appears today.
This text is a historical ballad of school and art schools in the African continent. It invokes ways in which some African societies organised their lives and their spaces of learning, the consequences of the contact with the western model of school in these societies and also how after independence artists were resisting collectively these models by creating their own school.
Since many years school has been presented as a space par excellence for the formation of a better humanity, of a future perfect being, as the ideal space for self-realization, for social progress and for economic prosperity of the individual.
We tend to forget that the structures of the school that became somewhat universal is still based on western point of view of society. Should we take a moment to remember in what conditions this perspective of education arose in some non-Western regions like the African continent and how it was strongly embedded in a plan that, on the face of it, served as a tool for modern enterprises in the processes of civilization, while in fact it prepared a new society of future subalterns for the benefit of Europe.
The ultimate aim was to “produce from the schools, African men and women with modern secular skills necessary for the new society of the twentieth century” (Mazrui 1979, 32).
From its inception, the school as an institution has participated in deconstructing and even destroying non-Western societies by denying and negating indigenous cultures, their epistemological heritage and their collective memory. For instance, my father told me that, when schools were established locally in Cameroon, he remembers that they were not allowed to communicate using their own language within the school “campuses”, since their languages were not considered to be languages. Instead, they had to learn the new language of the future modern society: i.e. French. This contributed to the development of a huge distance between new pupils and their communities, which had consequences for the transmission of collective memories. This transmission could no longer be done effectively, as language was one of the channels to do so. The European system of education established a society based on exclusion, separation, categorization, classification. Using the excuse that indigenous people were savages who needed education in order to be civilized, this thought gained ground and local customs were also affected. Consequently, the whole society had to redefine itself and adapt.
In a panel discussion about space and time in precolonial African societies, the Cameroonian academics researcher Bingono Bingono, anthropologist and writer Eya Moane and anthropologist Prince Théophile Tatsitsa pointed out that time was originally marked by the activities of the day and the night. For example, the early beginning of the day was reserved for working the land. The afternoon was reserved for arts training and activities that were continuing agricultural work, for example cooking what was brought from the plantations, fetching water etc. The evening was meant for activities related to celebrations, education and transmission of knowledge. The academics explained that this configuration was meant to create a fulfilled human being, a person who had to be versatile, as during the same day he could move from agriculture to art and end as a teacher in the evening. So, contrary to prevailing ideas, in the majority of pre-colonial societies in Africa there were already forms of art school, whether formal or informal, of course depending on how each society was economically, politically, and socially organised. Art existed within indigenous societies and its philosophy included a more holistic way of thinking about society. Art was an integral part of social customs, without any hierarchy.
Some time ago, I was having a discussion with my father in the context of language (sanaga) classes that he decided to initiate. I asked him what the word for “music” was and he responded by saying “musiki”. He went on to say that in fact there is no word that means music as the English term defines it. Rather, there are social spaces that are named and that give information about their structures in the circle of society. They indicate the type of instruments that are played in those spaces, the song that is performed, the choreography that goes with it, as well as the people who take part.
This transdisciplinary approach to life slowly disappeared, because the schedule and the organisation of the school was based on working within strict categories. By establishing and defining disciplines, existing rhythms of time and space were destroyed. Any possibilities of intersection were prevented, as a result of fixing and creating hierarchies between different cultural backgrounds and geographies, assuming that these categorizations were universal.
(Art?) In Africa?
During colonisation of the African continent, a great part of the artistic production ended up being destroyed, burned, looted and/or taken away as gifts, to serve as evidence and trophies of the savagery of indigenous people. Their discovery has been the subject of several publications by mostly Western philosophers and anthropologists of the beginning of the 1800s, who devalued this body of works through pre-established definitions of art and aesthetics based on European classical canons. Africans were accused of not having a sense of aesthetics, that their “objects” were simply handicrafts and could not be regarded as art. The “ugliness” of many sculptures was due to the fact that Africans lacked the ability to represent nature and the fact that they were used in some rituals and as part of indigenous lives, meant that they could not be considered as art.
Beauty is not useful, so it has no external end (Emmanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment).
In the beginning of the 1900s, the body of works from the African continent was still not considered as art and was commonly referred to as ‘negro art’. Artists such as Apollinaire (poet), Picasso, Braque, Vlaminck, while they were scrutinizing the ethnographic museum of Trocadero, bought ‘African objects’ in which they saw neither the rarity, nor the antiquity, nor the beauty of the material, but simply an encouragement for their own work. Picasso, Braque, Matisse and also Léger also used them as materials for inspiration. This is visible in their ‘revolutionary’ works of this period, as they introduced many forms and colour elements from masks and sculptures into their paintings.
These are the reasons why a history of art from the African continent became inexistent, given that its beginning was usually located at the premises of ‘modern’ art in Africa, which starts with the creation of the first art schools modelled on Western cannons or ideas. Many art historians trace the first of so-called ‘fine art schools’ in the continent back to around the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. Most of these schools were initiated by missionaries, expats and settlers.
Some examples of new Schools of Art in Africa
The first department of Fine Arts was established in Nigeria after pressure was put by local elites on British colonial governments to create higher education schools in Nigeria. In 1952, the first College to be created, the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, introduced an Intermediate Diploma in Fine Arts at the Ibadan branch of the College. Following this development, Architecture and Fine Arts units that were formally operating in Ibadan were transferred to the Zaria Branch. This was the genesis of the Zaria Art School, which pioneered art education among higher institutions in Nigeria. The curriculum of the institution was built around European academic realism and Nigerian culture and tradition was completely neglected. The initial student intake into the Fine Arts programme consisted of eight students. Prominent among them were Solomon Wangboje and Simon Okeke.(Chukueggu, Chinedu C, The Origin and Development of Formal Art Schools in Nigeria).
The Conservatoire de Musique et d’art dramatique (Conservatory of Music and Drama) was the first school for artistic training in Mali, founded in 1948 by the lawyer Paul Richez. It offered classical dance and music courses. The majority of teachers were white European men, teaching Europe dance and music. Later on, in 1959, this Conservatory was transformed into the Ecole des Arts du Mali and brought together the former French Sudan and Senegal, which had just become independent. In 1960, this Ecole des Arts du Mali became l’Ecole des Arts du Sénégal, under the leadership of President Senghor, who then introduced architecture into the curriculum. In addition to training dancers and musicians, the school trained visual artists. The level of studies required for admission was the Certificate of Primary and Elementary Studies (CEPE) for the Fine Arts Division and the Brevet d'Etudes au Premier Cycle for the training of teachers of drawing.
In 1972, the School of Arts became the National Institute of the Arts, made up of three schools, the School of Architecture, the Conservatory and the School of Fine Arts. The School of Architecture remained part of the artistic training complex of the National Institute of the Arts until 1973, when it became autonomous; it then transferred to its own premises. In 1979, the National Institute of the Arts was closed, due to accommodation problems and dwindling student numbers. It was replaced by autonomous institutions, housed in separate premises, as autonomous legal entities.
In Congo Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1943. It was called upon, under the Mobutu regime, to carry out monumental and official commissions. It included courses in ceramics, sculpture, painting, decoration, advertising, metalworking, graphic design, audiovisual design, design and textile techniques in the curriculum.
In neighbouring Zaire, the well-known Poto-Poto Ecole de peinture was founded in 1951, in Brazzaville. Poto-Poto was more of a studio than a school. It was an informal school with no courses. Would-be artists were given paints and canvases and encouraged to express themselves freely. It is owing to the Frenchman Pierre Lods (1921-1988), amateur painter and former soldier, who settled in Brazzaville in 1950, that Poto Poto was founded, first called "Atelier d’Art Africain". It is said that in his residence in Brazzaville Pierre Lods employed several Congolese people (as a cook, driver, laundress, etc.), as many other white settlers did during that time. One of the Congolese men, Félix Ossiali, one day took advantage of his master's absence to steal his brushes and tried a painting on canvas. Against all odds, when Pierre Lods unexpectedly returned and found out, he encouraged him to continue his work, until he judged it to be good enough, according to his own criteria. Dazzled by the talent of his servant, he undertook the installation of a structure, a sort of experimental laboratory, intended for Congolese artists who had no notion of “art history”. The plan at that time was to support purely Congolese artistic creation, free from any connection to Western art, which supposedly distorted the essence of the “African soul”.
In some other countries, artistic practices, and more particularly, painting on easels took place in the studios of “modern pioneers”, artists who themselves were mostly trained by white expatriates, who practiced art in their spare time. For example, the Cameroonian artist Koko Komegne was introduced to painting by Jean Sabatier, an amateur painter in the 1960s, when he had just moved to Douala. Years later, Koko would become one of the federating heads of the Cameroonian artistic scene. He trained a great number of artists who came to his studio.
A universal trajectory of the history of art?
I still remember my three academic years at l’Institut de Formation Artistique in Mbalmayo, an art high school that was founded in the 90s by an Italian NGO called Centro Orientamento Educativo. Our art history curriculum included the origins of art, traced back to the prehistoric period of the Aurignacian (Upper Paleolithic), then the "great civilizations", the Roman, Egyptian and Greek civilizations going back to the Middle ages with the Romans, the Gothic period, the Renaissance, Mannerism ….up to the modern movements such as Expressionism and Cubism, to end with Contemporary art. During the three years, a single chapter was dedicated to African art. The rest was an entire overview with names of artists, all of them men, and characteristics of European art history.
The same scenario was repeated at university, the difference being that this department of Fine Arts was founded by anthropologists and archaeologists whose studies had a specific focus on African research. The incestuous relations between the teacher (former settler) and the pupil (former colonies) remained intact in the way schools were structured, even today. My memories take me back to some of my teachers who were proud to have mastered European authors and theories on art. Theories that we were supposed to use in order to have a critical understanding of the art scene at the time. We also experienced how our curriculum was so strict in structuring different disciplines in such a way that painters were in their own space, as were sculptors and art historians.
The above mentioned examples show that most of the first art schools introduced on the African continent had been inspired by Western canon and art practices. Even when the idea was to go against those European practices, like for example the Ecole de Peinture Poto Poto, it was a picture of what African society was supposed to be in the prejudiced eyes of European pioneers of art schools. Today, this system is still operating, such that many galleries are signing contracts with Africans, mainly painters, who represent a picture of the continent that is expected by the outside world. Another view of the art scene from the continent shows that the critiques of Western ethnologists and anthropologists on African art have motivated the contemporary art scene. It reveals that a number of artists are using painting as their first medium when entering the art world. Also, a great number of these paintings are mostly figurative or realistic. I still remember this question that was always put to me when I said I was at art school in Cameroon: So you are drawing too? Can you draw my portrait?
I guess people have been telling to them that: they said we did not know how to represent nature, let's prove the contrary to them! Representing reality and nature is not a bad thing per se, but it got to the point where going beyond that has been a challenge.
Colonial education was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion and the development of underdevelopment.(Rodney 1972, 263).
It is, however, important to mention that during the same moment of the founding of the first art school and around the independence movements, there was a flowering of practices that wanted to go beyond ‘the European master’, looking back at indigenous social forms of transmission of knowledge: collective learning. Art was one way of resisting the colonial power and this was inspired by ideas of regaining freedom.
This was the case in Nigeria when on 6 October 1958, Uche Okeke met Simon Okeke and Demas Nwoko to discuss the formation of what Uche Okeke called the Nigerian Art Society. Uche Okeke and Nwoko were second year students at the Nigerian University of Arts and Science and Technology in Zaria, Simon Okeke was in the third year. Three days later, an art association called the Art Society held its inaugural meeting, with Uche Okeke as the leader and founding secretary. The importance of the group in the development of Modernism in Nigeria rested on its formulation of a concept of natural synthesis as an aesthetic model to be rigorously pursued by its members. The logic underlying the natural synthesis was based on the dialectical notion of reconciliation between two opposing aesthetics (the traditions of African art and Western art) in order to arrive at a new result that would support and serve the artistic experiments that artists would initiate in their work. (Okeke Agulu Chika, L’Art Society et la construction du modernisme postcolonial au Nigeria).
In Cameroon, Koko founded the first association of artists of Cameroon called Cercle Maduta ("meduta" means "images" in the Douala language), with the artists Viking Kanganyam, Jean-Guy Atakoua and Samuel Abélé. Cercle Maduta closed in 1983 when Koko Komégné founded the CAPLIT – Cercle des Artistes Plasticiens du Littoral with other artists. These different associations performed as liberal schools where sharing, caring and solidarity were at the core of their philosophy.
In Senegal, for example, Issa Samb founded the Dakar-based Laboratoire Agit’Art in 1974, together with a group of artists, writers, filmmakers, performance artists, and musicians. The aim of the group was to transform the nature of artistic practice from a formalist, object-bound way of working to practices that were based on experimentation and agitation, on process rather than on product, on ephemerality rather than on permanence, and on political and social ideas over aesthetic ones. Focusing on communication between the artist and the audience over physical objects, the actions of Laboratoire Agit’Art engaged with the immediate socio- political situation.(www.rawmaterialcompany.org/_514)
As a conclusion note…a brief reflexion of art schools today
What kind of art school do we imagine for the future? How do we create structures that do not reproduce exclusion and hierarchies when it comes to a discipline, to areas we don’t know, or to forms of knowledge, art school that can be also in favour of collective creating and making?
Whether in the South or in the West, numerous art schools, most of them private, are being opened, offering BFA and MFA programmes. While claiming to offer radical programmes and future possibilities of professional careers, they help stoke the fire of competition that rages in the art market. It is an art market that has recently become interested in representing a major force in the economy by providing labour on the basis of gender balance. But the growth of the market hides the fact that not more than 10% of artists who graduated from art schools are making a living from their work. Most of these artistic education institutions exploit tokenism, to attract as many candidates as possible through a selection process that is financially exclusive and that legitimises elite auteurism. The common tools used in this selection process are language proficiency, incredibly high fees - especially for overseas students - ,“originality and authenticity of projects”, a great CV, which means a good network of contacts within “important” art institutions.
Boasting universalization, these institutions yet display a toxic openness with their geographical, gender and race quotas. Artists supposedly admitted because of their outstanding work do not get the chance to actually develop and nurture their skills any further. The learning environment fails to facilitate this. The structure of the programmes does not provide encounters and opportunities for true exchange, in order to experience or implement new ideas or to develop alternative modes of knowledge production. Having to work separately in a studio, for instance, results in unhelpful boundaries between peers. The power of censorship that teachers have over students’ work or perhaps self-censorship that students apply, because they feel there is a race to innovation. In this climate, some students experience exhaustion, because of the time spent on research and because of anxiety about their personal well-being. This applies to students who come from countries outside Europe, for example, who have to figure out for themselves how to navigate the new space and take care of administrative issues.
As we can notice, there is now an urgency in unlearning the modern agenda of this kind of school so that we can create different possibilities for the conditions of our survival.
My learning is affected by the condition of my life
My learning is affected by the condition of my life is a project intended a constellation, a symposium spread over time, centred around a critical reflection on the future of art school. The title comes from a lecture by Professor Kopani Ratelo given in 2017 about Decolonising research, teaching & learning: Situating Africa. The title acknowledges the importance of taking the learner into account as an active participant of knowledge production and transmission.
The proposed programme of the symposium has been developed to reflect on other spaces endowed that can enable us to imagine and conceive a different form of art school for the future.
Through film, conversations, writing, workshops we tried an analysis of some current and past forms of art school, and we looked at forms of art schools that can think of the society as a whole.
This is an attempt at an epistemic reconstruction that leads towards experimenting with various forms of learning, listening, touching, transmitting and producing knowledge. A reconstruction that experiments with the values of collectivity and inter-multidisciplinarity, openness versus enclosure of the classroom space. A reconstruction that uses the body as an entity in itself, as an element of knowledge, and that allows plurality and transversality.
Artists, curators, researchers, writers etc. who already engage with these topics in their practice have been invited to participate in the making of a common tool, via different formats such as workshops, conversations, performances, screening and writing. This common tool(in the making) will be a very small-scale edition of a new syllabus for educators, for students and teams of a future art school.
A Faulty Foundation: Historical Origins of Formal Education Curriculum in Africa: link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-13-6635-2_3
Art Society et la reconstruction du modernisme postcolonial www.multitudes.net/lart-society-et-la-construction-du-modernisme-postcolonial-au-nigeria/
Contemporary African Art: www.contemporary-african-art.com/contemporary-african-art.html
Cultural Identity in an African Context: Indigenous Education: pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e94f/75cee78d56a38bde8db195cf6bd5b2fdd21b.pdf
Ecole Nationale des Arts:HISTORIQUE ET PERSPECTIVES: www.ecolenationaledesarts.sn/articles/general/2/2016/11/17/historique-et-perspectives.html
Episode 693: BFAMFAPhD and the Pedagogy Group:badatsports.com/2019/episode-693-bfamfaphd-and-the-pedagogy-group/
Murderous Humanitarianism: criticallegalthinking.com/2010/11/24/murderous-humanitarianism/
On the Cultural value Debate: The artist as a debtor: artanddebt.org/on-the-cultural-value-debate-2/
School is a factory Sekula zscalarts.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/school-is-a-factory-sekula.pdf
Soixante ans de création à l’École de peinture de Poto Poto (Congo-Brazzaville): journals.openedition.org/etudesafricaines/17024
The Art of Life in South Africa: news.yale.edu/2017/02/10/art-life-south-africa-qa-yale-historian-daniel-magaziner
The origin and Development of Formal Art Schools in Nigeria:www.ajol.info/index.php/afrrev/article/view/58365/46710
What is an Art School: walkerart.org/magazine/whats-an-art-school-interview-sam-thorne