Nigeria Meets Western Classicism in Steel Sculptures by Sokari Douglas Camp

May 9, 2016 10:14PM

Image courtesy of October Gallery.

Over the past 35-odd years, Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp has interpreted forms derived from traditional Nigerian customs—such as ceremonial masquerades, textiles, funerals, regattas, and dances—to reflect contemporary concerns. Of particular interest to the London-based sculptor are issues related to colonialism, the division of sexes, and environmentalism, especially the immense pollution of the Niger Delta.

For her larger-than-life figural sculptures, Douglas Camp draws on the aesthetics and deep-rooted traditions of the Kalabari, a tribe living in western Nigeria. Born in Africa but educated in England, she sees their culture from a unique perspective that results in shrewd commentary on the shortcomings of African and Western societies alike. Perhaps most incisively, she calls into question the Western practice of putting supposedly primitive artifacts (like the tribe’s ceremonial masks and religious relics) into museums, where the cultural pieces are essentially sanitized, removed from their often very specific, practical applications.

As Douglas Camp has noted, traditional Kalabari society would not allow a woman to pursue a career in metalworking or to participate in ceremonial events such as masquerades. By the same token, she notes that Western society continues to exploit and colonize various aspects of African culture.

Yet while she criticizes both cultures, her work embodies something of a compromise between the two. For “Primavera,” an exhibition of her welded steel sculptures at October Gallery in London, Douglas Camp reimagines classical European artworks in traditional Kalabari forms, as seen from her distinct, bi-national perspective. For instance, Botticelli’s Italian Renaissance work, from which the exhibition takes its name, serves as the inspiration for Douglas Camp’s Primavera (2016), which depicts a new version of the spring fertility goddess Flora.

Elsewhere, Europe Supported by Africa and America (2015) references a major emblem of Western colonialism: a work of the same name by 18th-century English engraver William Blake. Douglas Camp’s modern take becomes something like a Tin Man version of imperialism, with three steel figures clutching a verdant garland that morphs into an actual gasoline pump—a timely reference to the Niger Delta petroleum crisis.

—Grace-Yvette Gemmell

Sokari Douglas Camp: Primavera” is on view at October Gallery, London, Apr. 7–May 14, 2016.

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