Arts + Culture
From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series' Is an Exploration of African Spiritual Symbols

We caught up with the Ivorian veteran artist for an in-depth conversation around his new artworks.

Ernest Dükü walks gently into the courtyard of London's Somerset House. With his greying hair spiking from his head and wearing the uniform of the fashionably ragged scholar—black suit-jacket and a scarf—he could be confused for a visitor to the 1.54 Contemporary African Art Fair. But Dükü, is an acclaimed Ivorian artist, here for the first UK showing of his new works titled "Black Series."

The 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair is the single largest exhibition of works from African artists from the continent and its diaspora in the UK. For this fifth edition, 130 artists and 42 galleries occupied all three wings at Somerset House in central London drawing in a reported 17,000 visitors. Dükü's works have been selected for many group exhibitions in his France and Ivory Coast, but less so in the US or UK. A major exhibition of his works in Abidjan is being planned for 2018.

Born in 1958 in Ivory Coast, Dükü attended Abidjan's Fine Arts School in the late 1970s before moving to France to study architecture and aesthetics and sciences of art. He now divides his time and practice between both countries though his work is known for transcending way beyond present geographical boundaries and time spans.

From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

Dükü's works are highly distinct negotiations between installation, sculpture and painting which he has described as "sculpted-paintings." It was while a young student at the Fine Arts School in Abidjan that he rejected the two dimensions of the canvas and began to "focus on mural decor to extract a technique that allowed me to be in the feel of the painting without being in that of the easel."

This new technique was needed to accommodate his preoccupation with Akan goldweights, their signs and symbols. His interest later expanded to include the ideographic heritages of Ethiopia's Amharic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Nigeria's Nsibidi, Mali's Dogon and Tassili rock paintings spread across parts of Algeria, Libya, Niger and Mali.

Old Masters whose works have been as influential include Christian Lattier, the Great Ivorian sculptor who adopted traditional weaving techniques to create highly distinct works using stone, wood and wires, the most famous of which is "The Chicken Thief or The Victory of the Samothrace" (1962); and Bruly Bouabre (later Cheik Nadro) who invented approximately 450 pictograms which he used to translate the oral traditions of Bete peoples of Ivory Coast into writing in the 1950s.

Dükü's "White Series" explored the history of the African continent largely through the physicality of signs and symbols and their essential natures which, in turn, led him to the spirituality contained within them. This move to the spiritual marked a new progression in his work which he's themed as the "Black Series."

From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

Our interview took place in the (S)itor section of the exhibition which had three of Dükü's new works on display, as well as works by sculptor Ndary Lo and photographer Oumar Ly, both well regarded and Senegalese.

But are these progressions in his work confined to his practice as an artist or if indeed they also mark changes in his own personal life, and to what degree? "The two are linked," Dükü tells OkayAfrica. "There's an artistic practice that questions religious chaos and at the same time, there is a personal journey that allows for an understanding of this religious chaos."

"The absence of all color is closest to black. From this color, you can extract all other forms of color."

In the "Black Series," a somber, contemplative mood is set by the pitch-black paper which contrast sharply with the mainly white thread-work in shapes and figures that are difficult to identify as any one thing.

Three of the new sculpted-paintings were displayed at Somerset House and next to each other. Upon looking, the white forms on a jet-black surface at first give the impression of real objects, as is the case with FA.LUX.OR Komian @ Amaatawalé shuffle (2016) which looks like a big untidy ball of white knitting wool with a cable sticking out of it. Or very much like a masquerade in ornate white costume with its feet exposed. Stringed to it and held aloft is a baby with just one foot that is disproportionately big for the baby's size.

From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

The jumble of anthropomorphic features, tiny drawings and shadings in white chalk, graphemes, dots of bolder colours in green, purple and red, knotted strands protruding from the main mass make for a constellation that boggles the mind, and will require the viewer to wait and ponder on the constituent elements in order deciphered or simply appreciate in some detail.

"I think that with symbols comes the memory of humanity."

No easy meanings come forth, from the work but also from one's mind on account of how dense the images are. I have found it more helpful to accept defeat, and be open to any meanings—whether paltry or profound, immediate or delayed—which the work offers. In Dükü's words, "I think that this path towards what I call 'the Exploration of Quantum Physics in the Entire Universe' has led me to better understand Akan tradition. There are links between the two."

Another cycle has emerged in Dükü's works, as observed by his curator and dealer Sitor Senghor and great-nephew to former Senegalese leader and intellectual, Leopold Senghor, who says that as a young artist, Dükü decided to focused on painting and sculpture as he didn't like drawing, most of which he would squeeze and throw away. Over time he returned to drawing, on Chinese crisp paper this time which he would squeeze and draw on, "so it was a sort of exercise which lead now to this "black series" which is more simple and really goes to the essence of his work."

From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

Dükü's adoption of a black palette to mark a new transition from a white one could be seen as an easy or artificial imposition. Not for Dükü who insists that "the density of all things is seen in black. The reality of the density of all things is that they all initially begin with the absence of color. The absence of all color is closest to black. From this color, you can extract all other forms of color."

He continues, describing the color black as "atomic" but he may also be referring to the composite images and inscriptions that make up a sculptured-painting like FA.LUX.OR Komian @ Amaatawalé shuffle, and about which he says, "When I use symbols I try to have a sense of them and i look for the history of these symbols to translate it in my work, but I think that with symbols comes the memory of humanity. I use them to make sense of what's happening presently and in the past."

Even the titles of Dükü's works comes leaden with different levels of complexity. Examples from the "Black Series" include K.N.H.R. équilibre Kamaatawale @ Boson interdit (2016), Something else @ tombê de KARNAK (2016), and Awale shuffle @ l'énigme des enlacements (2016). More than being simply distinctive, these composed titles—typically a mixture of different African languages, as well as French and English—are intended to "create sounds, the sound of the world. I believe that the readers of the title should have the same emotion they do when they hear a song."

From Ernest Dükü's 'Black Series.' Courtesy of Sitor Senghor.

The polyphonic density of pygmy music from Central Africa could not, one imagines, make for a harmonious pairing with the homophonic texture of classical music from the West. Dükü has a peculiar habit of simultaneously listening to both forms while working because it will "also mix multiple levels of listening. It assists in enhancing the complexity of my work. I create distance between the music forms and whatever it is I am doing."

Asked what he has observed about visitors' reactions to the "Black Series" during the 1.54 fair, Dükü beams, "I'm very happy because people are often surprised and those that have followed me see that I have put more depth in my work and gone in a new direction. People recognize that i have gone further in my research".

Translation of Ernest Dükü's quotes from French to English by Audrey Lang.

Tay Iwar. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tay Iwar Is Nigeria's Hidden Gem

In a rare interview, the reclusive Nigerian singer and producer talks in-depth about writing and producing his new EP 1997, his forthcoming album Gemini and Nigeria's 'Alté' movement.

Tay Iwar wants some space. The word is the title of one of three songs on his new EP and also one that comes up during our interview, conducted via voice notes and texts on Whatsapp from his base in Abuja—a long way from Lagos which remains Nigeria's music hub.

The choice of the nation's quieter capital over the bustle of its music metropolis is a deliberate one for Iwar and one which fevers his reputation as a recluse and cult figure in Nigerian music circles. This especially happens among the subculture referred to as "alté"—an abbreviation of the word alternative which is used to denote the independent movement that is free from the flash and perceived vacuity of afropop. Precise definitions of the word vary but common denominators include introspection and melancholia, as well as trap and R&B.;

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Photo: Dancers of the Asociación Cultural Afro Chincha Perú via Wikimedia Commons

After Decades of Erasure, Afro-Peruvians Will Finally be Counted in the National Census

Despite an Afro-Peruvian cultural resurgence not a lot has been done to increase the population's visibility on a political level.

In 2009, Peru became the first Latin American country to issue an official public apology to its afrodescendiente population for centuries of "abuse, exclusion, and discrimination." Since then, many have criticized it as more of a symbolic gesture, especially for its failure to mention slavery. It was also seen as a way for the government to highlight Afro-Peruvian culture over making any substantive improvements to the material conditions of Afro-Peruvian communities.

Enter the census, which can play an important role in compelling the Peruvian government to address systemic inequality related to education, poverty, and health. Unfortunately, the last time Peru made a formal attempt to keep track of its African descended population via the census was in 1940.

"In regards to the [actual] number of Afro-Peruvians, there has always been speculation," says Monica Carrillo, an Afro-Peruvian activist, performer, and founding director of the LUNDU Centro de Estudios y Promoción Afroperuanos, a non-profit organization that works on behalf of Afro-Peruvians.

The results of the 1940 census showed that less than 0.5% of the population identified as Afro-Peruvian. Yet the presence of Afro-Peruvians along the Pacific coast of Peru, both in rural and urban areas, has been both historically and culturally significant for centuries. "There was actually a time during the colonial period when Lima was majority Afro-Peruvian," says Carrillo.

Afro-Peruvians also share a unique experience, according to Carrillo, when compared to that of black communities that formed on the Atlantic side of the continent. The latter was able to maintain a closer connection to African religions and languages, while the latter were further displaced, both literally and figuratively, from their traditions.

Nevertheless, Peruvian culture has strong African influences that became more apparent during the second half of the 20th century, when figures such as Nicomedes and Victoria Santa Cruz led a revival of Afro-Peruvian folklore and footballers such as Teofilo Cubillas, considered Peru's greatest player, led the national team through its first golden era. This movement has carried over to the present, with Afro-Peruvian folklore reaching international audiences via Latin Grammy-winning artists Susana Baca and Eva Ayllón.

Victoria Santa Cruz- Me gritaron negra/ They called me black (woman)- Poem with english subtitles

Yet for all this recognition, something as basic as census data has been overlooked in the same way Afro-Peruvian culture was nearly erased. Since 1940, no official data had been collected by the Peruvian government and the question of race was essentially removed from the census.

This finally changed in 2017, when, for the first time in the history of the national census, Peru's National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI) included a question about race and/or ethnicity that gave respondents an option to identify as African-descended. The latest results released by the INEI this past September represent the first official data on the Afro-Peruvian population in 78 years.

According to those results, roughly four percent of the total population identified as Afro-Peruvian, or about 828,800 individuals. "In general, I think that in some way, this [number] corresponds with what was expected," Carrillo says. Prior to the 2017 census, for example, a national survey conducted by the INEI estimated that Afro-Peruvians represented between five and ten percent of the total population.

Still, Carrillo warns, "These results don't necessarily imply that there weren't a lot of people who didn't self-identify [as Afro-Peruvian]." Of the more than 31 million Peruvians counted in the last census, roughly one million either did not indicate any 'race' or 'ethnicity' or selected 'other.'

At the same time, neither word appears in the question. This was done on purpose, according to Carrillo. "There was more emphasis on your cultural background, traditions, and ancestral heritage—race was not asked directly." The same goes for the array of common terms associated with blackness in Peru; such as zambo, moreno, mulatto, and negro; that are listed alongside afrodescendiente and Afro-Peruvian. "It was left open-ended because for us and for the government, it's obvious that it's an ethnic and/or racial question when you see the options," says Carrillo. Similar tactics, it should be noted, were used in Colombia to improve the accuracy of the census question on ethnicity. As a result, the Afro-Colombian population jumped from 1.5% in 1993 to 10.6% in 2005, albeit with criticisms for omitting the term 'moreno' as an option for respondents.

Encouraging self-identification within the framework of the census, moreover, can be controversial for some respondents, if not confusing for others. "It's better to reduce the potential for conflict," says Carrillo. In the case of Peru, this included convening a group of experts to discuss the manner in which race and ethnicity should be incorporated into the census. State-sponsored outreach campaigns, on the other hand, are an area in need of improvement, according to Carrillo. "There wasn't a strong enough campaign on the part of the government so that people would understand why self-identification is important," she asserts. "And well, you know, that takes a lot of time, and they didn't go all in because the resources haven't been adequate."

For its part, Carrillo's organization, LUNDU, created a virtual census to help prepare Peruvians for the questions that would appear on the census. The organization also launched a public awareness campaign called Somos Afrodescendientes that encourages Peruvians to embrace their African heritage. This is in addition to LUNDU's work in combating negative and racist portrayals of Afro-Peruvians in media. Recently, for example, a mattress ad was criticized for implicitly portraying a black woman as unhygienic from the perspective of her condescending white roommate. Carrillo was quoted in a report from NBC News as saying, "The people who run these companies don't have the proximity, experience, or interest in understanding the multiracial public that is contemporary Peru."

Afro-Peruvian women at the El Carmen carnival, 2017 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Visibility, however, is a byproduct of the census, one that reveals the contemporary Peru to which Carrillo makes reference. So in addition to providing official data on the Afro-Peruvian population, the census results from September showed that one-quarter or roughly six million Peruvians identify as indigenous. Visibility is also an essential feature of the broader regional movement of the past two decades to count the indigenous and Africa-descended populations throughout Latin America. The goals of the movement were highlighted by the United Nations as part of the theme of World Population Day in 2010, which encouraged countries to also improve the material conditions of their marginalized, underrepresented populations. The UN also declared 2011 the year for people of African descent and 2015-2024 the decade for people of African descent.

Since then, Mexico has recognized its population of African descent via the census for the first time ever, while Chile, on the other hand, removed the option for respondents to identify as Afro-Chilean just last year. "You make progress, you reach a certain point, but afterwards, you can't let your guard down," says Carrillo.

For Afro-Peruvians, more recently, displacement has emerged as a threat due to the growing agro-exportation industry, among other factors. "If you look at the discourse of the Afro-Latino movement in the region, it is very much associated with the topic of displacement," says Carrillo. In Peru, this has not always been the case. A major land reform in the 1970s is one such example. "A lot of Afro-Peruvians ended up owning their land, which is something you don't necessarily see in other parts [of Latin America]," explains Carrillo. That, however, is beginning to change—which is why she sees the census results as an opportunity to generate more discussion of collective rights. "Afro-Peruvians are losing their land, so yes, I think the possibility of discussing this topic is interesting."

Looking ahead, much of the advocacy and planning that preceded this last census in Peru remains pertinent to the outcome of the next census, which is scheduled for 2027. "We have to keep strengthening the campaigns so that ten years from now, we could perhaps have a greater number of people that self-identify as afrodescendiente," says Carrillo.


Watch Kuami Eugene's Vibrant Music Video "Meji Meji" Featuring Davido

This Ghanaian and Nigerian link up will make your day.

Ghana's Kuami Eugene has been an artist to watch—especially as he shows himself to hold his own on collab tracks.

The music video for his latest, "Meji Meji" featuring Davido, is here. Its upbeat vibe shines through as the two crooners go about their day in Ghana, singing sweet nothings to their love interests.

"Meji Meji" was produced by Fresh VDM, with the video directed by Twitch & Rex.

Take a look at the vibrant video below.

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