Sunday, February 22, 2009

Leo Asemota

All of you who love Benin--get to know the works of Leo Asemota, a London-based Edo artist. I first saw his pieces at a conference two years ago, and I was struck by how efficiently they conjured the pain, nostalgia, pride, anger, and wistfulness of reflections about the 1897 British invasion and subsequent looting.

They're a part of contemporary art that is aimed at an increasingly small elite, one which presupposes familiarity with art history or other arcane references. I don't often think this is a good thing, though as an art historian I always enjoy the referential sampling of "greatest hits," whether they are Western (as in Yinka Shonibare's work, or that of Kehinde Wiley).

But in teaching...ah... Leo, if you ever Google yourself and see this, thank you for the work below! Your painting created pathways for me to introduce students unfamiliar with Benin's location, talk less of its history and art, into a complex world of colonialism, traditional religion, art history, ethnicity, divine kingship, conceptual art, color symbolism and more, in an efficient way that held students' interest (not a given, by any means!) and provoked indignation. This same efficiency prompted me to use the image in a public lecture on Olokun yesterday.

Is this kind of work really for the elite? Or, looking at the history of what the artist has produced, is it meant more for small, specific audiences? After all, he has produced photo and video documentations of sites in particular London neighborhoods which track their own nostalgias, sorrows, and angers. In a way the practice reminds me of a spectacular theatre professor at Uniben (whose name I've forgotten, though he won a Fulbright) who would send his students to an Edo village or neighborhood. They'd be there less than a week, talking to all kinds of people and making notes, then creating a community play that had its local audience laughing, nodding in agreement, and perhaps mobilizing.

Asemota says these works were inspired by a Benin exhibition he saw in 1994 at the British Museum (or its former Museum of Mankind satellite?). I like it a lot. In its absences, gaps, and interstices, it speaks to interrupted (but not stopped!) history.

Leo Asemota's official website is:

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