Tuesday, April 28, 2015 11:17 am
Adewale Adenle, an artist, is an Assistant Professor at Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina. On 28 April, he will mark five years of the unveiling of his 8ft x 13ft cast bronze sculpture (Congo Square/Bamboula Dance- I7th Century Slaves/Free Sunday Dance) and others. They were commissioned by the City of New Orleans, LA, and installed in Louis Armstrong Park/Congo Square Ground, New Orleans on 28 April 2010.
He was born in Lawanson, Surulere area of Lagos State. His father is from Egbado (Yewa- Igbogila), Ogun State while his mother is an Awori from Itire/Obele Oniwala of Lagos State. He attended Yaba College of Technology, Lagos (1988 and 1991) where he obtained Ordinary and Higher National Diploma in Painting/Drawing. He later received a Master of Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and Master of Art (Museum Studies), Southern University at New Orleans.
He is an extensively traveled artist who (since 1985 till present), in addition to painting in his private studio, is a political cartoonist for several newspapers/magazines in Nigeria, Great Britain and the U.S. These are: The Daily Times, TNT, The Post Express, This Day, Black Enterprise Magazine-New York, and the London based New African Magazine. His works are in various private and public collections in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Between 1996 and 2000, he was the Art/Cartoon Editor with the defunct Post Express newspaper, Apapa, Lagos where he produced numerous illustrations, editorial cartoons, as well as the daily back page pocket gag, The Postmaster. In January 2001, Adewale accepted the position of Cartoon Editor with This Day newspaper, where he was till his relocation to the US in late 2002.
Before his present position, Adenle was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at Texas Tech University (2012-2014).
Adenle is the author of “Mixed Feelings”, a 15-year celebration/collection of his socio-political satire, published in 1999. The 200-page book was collected by The University of California (Berkeley Library) for selected acquisitions in Africana Studies and also catalogue in the U.S. Library of Congress.
From 2003 to 2004, he was hired by WON MURALS INC., where he worked on the massive wall murals for the Philadelphia International Airport, Pennsylvania, and the Aurora Community Center, Colorado. In 2006, the Tangipahoa African American Museum-Hammond, Louisiana, USA commissioned him to work on four paintings (6ft x 8ft each) as part of the museum’s permanent collections. In 2009, he was commissioned by the City of New Orleans to create the cast bronze sculpture at Louis Armstrong Park.
He told Ademola Adegnamigbe via electronic mail what inspired his art.
What inspired the work?
The root of music in New Orleans, (State of Louisiana, USA) has been unanimously linked to the gathering of 18th Century African slaves who gathered every Sunday in Congo Square (Place des Negres) to sing and dance to African inspired lyrics and rhythm, called the Bamboula. This gathering was allowed by the Spanish slave owners whose handling of their slaves was a little humane than their British counterparts.
However, the event, as written by Architect Benjamin Latrobe, a visitor to the city, in an 1819 journal, conveys a sense of savagery on the African slaves. He described them as “ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells, and balls, jingling and flirting about the performers’ legs and arms.” Latrobe was amazed at the sight of over 500 unsupervised slaves who assembled for dancing.
Subsequent writers and artists followed Benjamin Latrobe’s pejorative rendition, with some elevating the “generosity” of the spanish slavers by placing affluent musical instruments such as violin and tambourines in the hands of the slaves. Also, the influence of indigenous American Indians (who helped the slaves in many ways, including providing avenues for freedom) was extensively downplayed in Latrobe’s journal. As the saying goes: “Until the lion lives to tell his story, the story of hunting will always glorify the hunter”.
When therefore the City of New Orleans called for proposals toward establishing a Root of Music Garden in the Louis Armstrong Park (Now a USA National Historical Park), I saw an opportunity to correct historically-enshrined errors, an opening to right the wrongs of our history as black people, while also emphasizing the importance of this cultural/historical occurrence to the birth and development of world-renowned New Orleans music, especially the famous “Second Line” dance and music.
In my proposal, I replaced the violin with a Banjo (or what we’ll simply called “Goje” in Nigeria). I included faces of a few American Indians in the gathering while also providing a figure with African tribal mark, as a recognition of the fact that these slaves were direct Africans with roots defined by their languages, cultures, and skin carvings (otherwise known in the West as scarifications). My proposal was approved in 2009.
What were the challenges you faced on the work?
From the vituperations of artists whose proposals were rejected, to the elite media and politicians who believed that the fund should be expended on other capital projects. The challenges were endless. Perhaps the most telling challenges were the difficulties in sourcing relevant information towards my research, the delay in the process of funds disbursement, and the unavailability of a foundry in the city for the casting of the bronze. (New Orleans was just recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005). The completed work was finally cast into bronze in Atlanta, in the State of Georgia)
What is the historical background of the Louis Armstrong Park and the works ( beyond the informatuion you gave at the beginning of this interview)?
Ok, in addition, here is an abridged version of the historical background:
In Spanish-controlled New Orleans of the late 17th Century-late 18th Century, the slave masters made Sunday a “day of rest for the slaves.” The Spanish gave their slaves the afternoon off and allowed them to socialize. Slaves in New Orleans therefore congregate outside the city to entertain themselves, singing and dancing in an open area just outside the original city, north of Rampart Street. This area became known as the Place des Negres, more commonly as Place Congo. By the time the Americans took control, the city had grown past the Vieux Carre, and this gathering point was called Congo Square.
Congo Square was the place where black slaves could once again be Africans, even if for just one afternoon a week. They would bring drums, bells, and other musical instruments to the square and gather, roughly by tribe, to play music, sing, and dance. Today, the vintage Congo Square ground is fenced within the famous Louis Armstrong Park, in Treme area of New Orleans downtown (in the State of Louisiana, USA). The songs and dances (Bamboula) of the slaves was the origin of New Orleans music today, featuring prominently in the city’s famous “Second Line” dance parade.
What separated New Orleans from the British colonies was the more laid-back attitude of the French and Spanish in terms of treatment of slaves. The Catholics in New Orleans followed the old Code Noir (Black Code), which was a much less harsh overall set of guidelines than what the Protestant British followed. Additionally, the Catholics, even the Spanish, usually did not concern themselves with the “African” aspects of slave life and culture that their slaves kept.
The British planters demanded their slaves take up Christianity (and the slaves did so, at least in outward forms), and African-based music, song and dance were not permitted. These trends continued after the American Revolution by the original states. When New Orleans (along with the rest of Louisiana) became part of the U.S., it took time for American ways to merge with the Continental philosophy.
Tell us about the funding of the project…
Mayor Ray C. Nagin’s administration wrote and received a grant of nearly $3 million dollars from the Edward Wisner Foundation. The money was expended on the total overhauling of the Louis Armstrong Park, with projects including the commissioning of life size sculptures, re-surfacing of the trails in the park, and provisions of other amenities that ensured the re-opening of the park, which had been under lock for several years. The Edward Wisner foundation was established in 1914. The bequest provides for money to be donated to non-profits at the request of the mayor and with the approval of the foundation’s board.
How long did the project take you?
The project itself took about 13 months. From the first disbursement of installment in late February 2009 to the installation/unveiling on April 28, 2010, it was a project whose time has come but executed under intense pressure. Under ideal circumstances, a project of this magnitude will require a minimum of two years especially when a foundry is not within the building and molding area.
Did you at any point feel like abandoning the work?
No. Though there were several intimidating and discouraging utterances and actions from several opponents, their loud voices were swallowed by the reasonable and progressive whispers of proponents.
Who were your mentors?
I am eternally grateful to the foundational training and advises I received from professors like Kolade Osinowo (Emeritus), Dele Jegede, Yusuf Grillo, Tolu Filani, and mentors like Josy Ajiboye, Bayo Odulana, Cliff Oguigo, and a host of my colleagues and classmates. I however draw inspiration from John De Andrea, Alberto Giacometti, El Anatsui, Fabian Marcacio, Robert Rauschenberg, and Lee Bonticou.
What in your childhood influenced you to become an artist?
I have been drawing/painting since I was a kid, growing up in Ijeshatedo area of Lagos (parents moved from Lawanson to Ijeshatedo but I was still attending Methodist Primary School in Obele Odan, Surulere) I was so fascinated with comic books especially “Korak, son of Tarzan”. I would draw and draw, and create my own stories for illustrations. In 1976, I was more inspired by the publicity given to me by my elementary school teachers who circulated the series of portraits I did of General Murtala Mohammed who was assassinated while I was in Primary 4.
The drawing was my averse response to the bloodshed of the beloved leader and also in tacitly seeking the “acceptance” of few of my classmates who (out of childish ignorance) aligned my tribal mark with that of the Col. Bukar Sukar Dimka (the killer of our leader)! In fact, on any occasion where there was a little misunderstanding between myself and any of my classmates, the ever-ready curse/pejorative word against me was “Dimka”. I hated the marks on my cheek then and the best response was to continuously draw and give away the portraits of Gen. Murtala Muhammed.
While in high school (I attended Lagos African Church Grammar School II, Ifako-Agege, later renamed Sonmori Comprehensive High School, SONCOHS). I was among the first set that graduated from there. I would stop on my way home by a movie theatre (Golden Cinema) along Ifako-Ijaiye/Ogba Road and would draw/paint/re create movie posters especially the ones involving my favorite Indian actors. With my consistent reading of StarDust magazines, I was then a moving library of Bollywood actors, history, and events, while also fascinated by and promoting issues in Ade Love’s and Pa Ogunde’s movies. The owner of the movie theatre encouraged me a lot and would often times reward me with free entry into the theatre. Sometimes, he would commission me to recreate a poster to market his old movie. The remuneration for this was free movie. I was always elated though.
My high school art teacher, a Ghanian by the name, Mr. Tettey, encouraged me the most. He often invited me to join him in executing several projects in and outside the school. From imprinting my school logo on all the classroom desks to helping in illustrations, artistic paintings, advert signs outside the school, I lived and breathed art every day as a lad.
On graduation from high school, I sojourned for “a minute” into working on a career in Law (what I believed would satisfy my dad then), but I quickly made the detour to follow my first love- Art. My interest in law persists but at the moment, art practice and teaching has my full attention.
What are the thematic concerns of your work?
I will repeat here my Artist Statement:
My work explores dual realities and logics in political constructs and systems, arriving at an inter-disciplinary concept and a three-dimensional form that vastly engages the viewer to unload and search for multiple logics in its interpretation. Within these dualities, I induce metaphorical slippages in relationships between objects and their context to advance new interpretations and expose contradictions in many conventional social structures. My visual language includes mixed media painting, drawing, installation, socio-political cartooning and illustration—voiced from my unmitigated queer experiences as an immigrant and memoirist.
Born at the dawn of the Nigerian civil war and raised during the extravagant era of the oil boom that followed, I grew to witness the turmoil and social decadence spurred by vast resources and corruption. These seminal events and socio-economic (miss-) opportunities continue to influence socio-political discourse in my homeland and intertwined with policies in my adoptive country, the U.S. As my exploration crosses time and geographical boundaries, I have seen much of my work extending this context to include internal differences and hybrid relationships from my long-standing interest in the anthropology of disciplines and systems, including but not limited to: systems of art, architecture, material culture, and the flora/fauna of dialogue in socio-political settings. While I enlist snippets from these fields, my work is not an unambiguous celebration of the hybrid subjects but an exploration of the diverse connections that construct our socio-political persuasions or affiliations.
My work therefore produces observations intermingled with primary emotions and personal political experiences that are basic to my growth. It unmasks salient socio-political developments in my traditional African background and connects them to related occurrences in the US. While it interrogates the material resources and mechanisms that propel our socio-political beliefs, affiliations and constructs, the central context creates exigent aversion to resource-driven policies that corrodes humane considerations. It explores the combinatorial attributes of painterly forms, metaphorical contents, and sculptural objects to invade the viewers’ space, thereby projecting the invasiveness of political system in our lives. The work, as in politics, subsists in its physicality, which presence and pressure infiltrates our living and continually demands unfettered attention to its narratives.
Its labor-intensive construction and deconstruction process is a direct expression of modern politics as physical action and energy. While the warped and tactile structures convey the unevenness of the political terrain, the jarring visual din bursting the space expresses my personal energetic and averse response to political virulence.
The duality of my context–public and private, Nigeria and US—constructs the complexity and multi-disciplinary layers of my memories, experiences, and identities. These contextual and structural interactions help to clarify the overlapping of the personal and the public; the implicit and the explicit; the hidden and the exposed; connection and disconnection; reality and fantasy—strengthened in the conviction that viewers will construct their meanings and interpretations through their own experience.