Nothing can be said about a performer posthumously—not Elvis, not Hendrix, not even Kurt Cobain—that can capture the thrill of their live appearances or evoke the moment when their music coalesced with the zeitgeist. Words, photographs, albums, and video footage can only tip you off to the undeniable truth: You had to be there. And when it comes to Nigerian musician-activist-cult figure Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, I wish I had.
Fortunately, the New Museum’s current exhibition, “Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti,” raises far more issues and provides far more rewards than the standard Rock and Roll Hall of Fame treatment of a musician’s life. While there is plenty of documentation in the form of photographs, films, and sound installations, curator Trevor Schoonmaker, founder of the Fela Project, devotes most of the floor space to contemporary art by 34 visual artists, many of whom created works specifically for this show. As a result, the exhibition leaves just enough inspiration in the mix to convey Fela’s widespread influence, in and outside of Africa, without putting him on a pedestal or cutting him down to vitrine-sized artifacts.
There’s Fela the creator of Afrobeat, the African-centric pop sound that reached international audiences. There’s Fela, who challenged successive regimes of dictators in Nigeria, the most outspoken political critic of his times. There’s Fela the cult leader, who married 27 women in a single ceremony. And there’s Fela who called AIDS “a white man’s disease,” yet succumbed to it himself. But, since the performer never achieved the kind of fame in the U.S. that he did in Latin America, Africa, and Europe, Schoonmaker faces the formidable task of introducing this towering figure to American audiences through the iconography of contemporary art, an exercise akin to showing a Warhol to someone who has never heard of Jackie O. Adding to the challenge is the fact that most Americans are woefully ignorant of Nigeria’s troubled history since its independence in 1960. Without that history, it is impossible to place Fela’s flamboyant lifestyle, outrageous lyrics, and personal bravery in context.
Fela, who was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1938 and died as a self-anointed “Black President” in 1997, embodied the explosive possibilities and harrowing frustrations of the post-colonial period. Raised in the heart of African intelligentsia—his mother, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, led the historic women’s march against the British regime in 1946 and his cousin is Nobel Prize-winning novelist Wole Soyinka—Fela himself was educated at Trinity College of Music in London. His own politicization took place in Oakland, California, in 1969, as the result of a brief encounter with the Black Panthers. He returned to Nigeria and launched Afrobeat, a fusion of American funk, Yoruba rhythms, and highlife club beats. His lyrics, always caustic and always in a street vernacular far from the Queen’s English, constantly challenged his homeland’s military dictatorships and corrupt regimes, as well as the oil industry and the record business. Fela founded his own club, the Shrine; his own commune, the Kalakuta Republic; and his own political party, Movement of the People. In 1977, General Olusegun Obasanjo (now the president of Nigeria) sent 1,000 soldiers to raid the Kalakuta compound; during the course of the attack, Fela’s house was burned to the ground and his mother was thrown from a second-story window. A year later, in an act of protest and defiance of Nigerian law, Fela celebrated his mass wedding to 27 women, thereafter known as the Queens, who performed with him onstage.
This compressed biography can only skim the surface of a life packed with narrow escapes, celebrity encounters, and ganja. Suffice it to say that for contemporary artists who are struggling to find their place in today’s global arena, Fela represents a guiding light and a mentor, despite (and sometimes because of) his many contradictions.
Shrines to Fela are not at all inappropriate in this context, and two artists—Radcliffe Bailey and Barkley Hendricks—offer portraits of the performer that border on religious reliquary. Bailey pays homage with a photograph of Fela performing, encased under glass and surrounded by a colorful canvas frame, an effect similar to a Yoruba funeral display. Hendricks, in Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen . . . , confers Renaissance-style sainthood on the crotch-grabbing performer, a conflation worthy of Saint Augustine.
Fela’s undeniable charisma and machismo provoke many artists in the exhibition to examine his complex relationships with women. Sokari Douglas Camp’s Open and Close Chop and Quench, a kinetic sculpture of a cowrie-festooned African woman with the word AIDS emblazoned on her forehead, robotically claps her thighs together in a caustic critique of Fela’s treatment of his Queens. Yinka Shonibare’s Lady Na Master, a tableau of 27 headless dolls clothed in his typical Brixton-cloth costumes, and Satch Hoyt’s The Shrine, a blood-red, walk-in sound capsule where viewers can listen to Fela’s music while viewing miniature portraits of his wives, are dedicated to these brides of the Black President. Only one work, Senam Okudzeto’s The Dialectic of Jubilation: Afro-Funk Lessons, conveys the true power and sexuality of the women themselves. In this video update of Adrian Piper’s 1983 Funk Lessons, a relative of Fela, Temesi Ransome-Kuti, is shown trying to teach African dance to hopelessly inept Swiss art patrons, her vital movements far outshining the best efforts of her supposedly sophisticated audience.
Certainly Afrobeat—the way that Fela fused American and African pop influences without diluting his sources or compromising his message—is a precursor of many of the strategies used by contemporary artists who are themselves trying to find the right vocabulary to reach global audiences. African American artists, even those as astute as Fred Wilson and Kara Walker, can only refer to an Africa created by American museums, though Wilson’s singing pottery, Because Why O?, and Walker’s jewel-like renditions of imaginary shackles (Golddigger, created in collaboration with Klaus Bürgel) can also be read as incisive critiques of these institutions. But the African artists bring a fresher perspective, often by drawing directly from their personal experiences. Nigerian-born Olu Oguibe scrawls political graffiti across traditional woven mats, and South African Kendell Geers (one of the few white artists in this exhibition) wraps a carved Yoruba figure in the red-and-white tape of the Chevron oil company logo. An even more effective look at the politics of oil is Odili Donald Odita’s installation Heaven Can Wait, a wheelbarrow filled with Nigerian currency standing in a sticky black pool. It’s placed in front of one of the artist’s glowing abstract landscapes, and the juxtaposition allows us to see not only the troubling politics but the expansive beauty of his homeland.
Just as Lichtenstein knew his comic books and Warhol savored Campbell’s soup, these artists are thoroughly conversant in the sights and sounds of Africa, and their authoritative familiarity proves infectious. Watching Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Shakara Scene Oloje—delightful footage of the habitués of a recording studio in Cameroon—I suddenly got it. By shifting my attention away from the impact of American pop on other cultures (a/k/a the American Effect) to a pop figure of such magnitude that he could only be ignored in the United States, I am made increasingly uncomfortable with my own provincialism. Maybe I should hop on a plane or visit the next international biennial, though cultural tourism is not really the antidote. At least, after seeing “Black President,” I know one thing about Africa that I didn’t know before: I have to be there.