Arts + Culture

This Ghanaian Art Historian is Creating a 54-Volume Encyclopedia on African Culture

Nana Oforiatta-Ayim's "Cultural Encyclopedia Project" will chronicle historical and contemporary art, music and literature from each African country.

Ghanaian writer and art historian, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, was a PhD student back in 2009,  when she first conceived the idea of creating a comprehensive archive of African art and culture.


“I would go to the underground library vaults, and I would find theses that were so brilliant and interesting, and yet no one was looking at it and it is so valuable, she tells The New York Times. "I would get completely sidetracked reading about things like the technology of kente cloth. And at the same time I was also thinking that the narrative that is told about Africa is still the backward narrative: no innovation, it’s ahistorical and stuck. Yet with everything I was reading, it was stories of innovation, of knowledge, of technology."

Now, Oforiatta-Ayim's idea is coming to life through her "Cultural Encyclopedia Project," which will chronicle art from each African country, hence its 54 separate volumes. The first volume will be an internet-based repository of historical and contemporary Ghanaian art, literature music and more, reports The New York Times.

The project, which received a $40,000 grant from the Los Angeles County Museum in 2015, aims to help preserve the creations of African artists and help build knowledge about the Continent's history.

Oforiatta-Ayim, who's previously worked with Sir David Adjaye—the architect behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture's building— has gathered a team of Ghanaian musicians, filmmakers, photographers, writers and more to help curate and edit the encyclopedia's first volume.

It's an immense undertaking, and each countries entry will likely take a couple of years to complete, but Oforiatta-Ayim has already created a plan on how to roll out future volumes. "So if other countries are going to take it on, then we are going to have a manual like, ‘this is how we collect things, this is what we did wrong and this is what we did right.' There is no reason that, once we have the manual, there can’t be five countries at the same time working. So what I am doing is building teams in different countries," she says.

There will also be art exhibits to accompany the online encyclopedia, the first of which premiered last week at Oforiatta-Ayim's ANO gallery and research institution, in conjunction with Ghana's 60th independence day.

The significance of the groundbreaking project is certainly not lost on those involved in its production. “What makes up the culture itself? And that is why it is open-ended and it is widespread in music, arts, language, dance. Every possible aspect is used and usable. It’s trying to tell your own stories and taking hold of your narrative," said Nigerian musician Kezia Jones, who's one of the encyclopedia's contributors.

The "Cultural Encyclopedia Project" is about reclaiming African history, but it's also about expanding knowledge of history and culture within the continent as well. It is such an important thing," says David Adjaye."Because actually East Africans don’t know about West Africans’ culture, and West Africans don’t know about North Africans’ culture, and North Africans don’t know about Southern Africans’ culture — and I am being simplistic here — but it is very hard. So this writing and forming of identity of the continent is really important.”

Photos
"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

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