African Art in London

London / Art / Africa

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Sowei Mask: Spirit of Sierra Leone @ British Museum


Sowei mask, collected by Thomas Joshua Alldridge in 1886

The idea that artists in the West have long drawn on African art for inspiration is nothing new; Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is probably the most commonly cited example, but there are many more. What is perhaps less well-known is the ways that artists in Africa were (and are) similarly influenced by their encounters and exchanges with European cultures. Needless to say, shifting relationships of trade, patronage and colonial exploitation between Africa and the West have led to rather varying circumstances framing these interactions at different times. The resulting art works often reflect these differences, as well as the creative and politically-aware responses of artists engaging with processes of cultural and social change.

The British Museum’s new display, Sowei Maskis a great opportunity for exploring these issues further; the Sowei mask is carved to express ‘local ideals of feminine beauty, health and serenity’ in the Sande Society of Sierra Leone, but the one featured here, which was collected in 1886, is unusual in that it incorporates a top hat (!) into its design.

A number of events and talks accompany the display, including a free masquerade performance by a London-based all-female Sande initiation society on Saturday 16th February (that’s tomorrow).

To find out more about the wider context for these kinds of art works and their significance, you might like to check out the documentation for the 2010 Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition Through African Eyes.

Show: until 28th April

Opening hours: daily, 10.00 – 17.30, open late Fridays until 20.30

British Museum, Room 3
Great Russell Street, London

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Namvula Rennie @ Open The Gate

Girl with Tub - Namvula Rennie

There’s been a fair bit of African photography on show in London lately. Nigerians Behind the Lens (now finished) and Reflections on the self (still going) both featured some brilliant examples of photographers getting to grips with societies in transition, as well as the sticky business of looking and being looked at. Next up are a selection of images from photographer Namvula Rennie‘s travels in Sierra Leone, Zambia and elsewhere, currently on show at Open the Gate gallery in Stoke Newington. The exhibition is called In Light, In Shadow, and forms part of an artistic programme supporting the venue’s explicit aim to “promote African & Diaspora Cultures”.

The show continues until 6th April.

Sun-Thurs, 12-12
Fri-Sat, 12-2

Open The Gate
33-35 Stoke Newington Rd, London
N16 8BJ

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Imani and others at the BFI London Film Festival


Imani (2010) - dir. Caroline Kamya


Thanks to a tip-off from my friends at African Screens, were I in London during the upcoming 54th BFI London Film Festival, I’d be sure to check out Imani, the debut feature film  from Caroline Kamya, about a day in the life of a former child soldier, a maid and a hip-hop dancer in Kampala. You can read an interview with the director here and find out about screenings here.

Other African film highlights of the festival include:

  • New African Cinema‘: a trio of shorts – The Tunnel, Pumzi and Saint Louis Blues – made through the Africa First mentoring scheme (14/15 Oct)
  • Zimbabwean documentary Shungu: The Resilience of a People (18/19 Oct)
  • Microphone, set in Alexandria’s underground music scene, the second feature from director Ahmad Abdalla after last year’s Heliopolis (18/19/20 Oct)
  • a story of love and war set in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Relentless (20/21 Oct)
  • a tale of courage in the face of prejudice in a South African community, Life, Above All (26/27 Oct)