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African artist Adjani Okpu-Egbe is the inaugural Ritzau Art Prize recipient

London—Africa enjoys a vibrant, expansive contemporary art scene, but there is limited funding on the continent to provide local artists with residencies. Since 2017, we have worked to address the issue, supporting residencies for promising artists from the African continent at The International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York City.

This year, we announced a significantly increased residency, with expanded global visibility and professional development opportunities, the Ritzau Art Prize. The prize has been developed with 1-54, the leading international art fair with editions in London, New York, and Marrakech dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora, and itself a sustainable, dynamic platform actively engaged in dialogue and exchange. Juried by a rotating panel of distinguished African artists and specialists, the prize is open to late emerging to mid-career artists whose work is being exhibited at the fair.

We are delighted to announce that Cameroonian painter and installation artist Adjani Okpu-Egbe (b. 1979), whose raw, expressive art investigates African colonial history and political activism, is the inaugural Ritzau Art Prize recipient.

Portrait
Courtesy the artist

An interview with Adjani Okpu-Egbe


Q. Your artworks not only explore specific social and political movements. Would you talk about how your art reaches farther, functioning “as a call to rally support and resistance” as well as justice and solidarity? As you have said to other Afro-surrealists, “seek ye first the ‘woke’ realms of the objective part of their creative process.”

A. As artists, we have an inherent social contract with our communities and that is to dedicate aspects of our work to shed light on issues that affect our day to day lives in our various countries and the world. By doing this we get to indirectly show solidarity to those affected and at the same time help bring a diverse group of people together who could possibly contribute in seeking justice.

Art has immense potential to stir resistance against authoritarianism, rally support and seek justice and as such, if artists prioritise deploying it in that context, then that can only be an all-round good thing to everyone.

Q. A native of Southern Cameroon and an Afro-surrealist Expressionist, you suggest your “creativity to be both a mystical and metaphorical process.” May we ask you to talk about these facets of your inventive practice?

A. I am from Southern Cameroon, Ambazonia, and am a native of Kembong and Ndoi Batanga, the respective hometowns of my paternal and maternal lineages. Both my grandparents were chiefs, hence cultural custodians. My paternal grandfather was the head of the “Nyánkpè” secret society and the totem lived in his house. In 2010, I conducted research and made paintings alluding to the Nyánkpè secret society without prior knowledge about my grandfather’s deeper connections to the society.

It might just be a coincidence, but I do find it mysterious that I can sometimes create things that I don’t have a clear understanding of, only for it all to reveal itself at the end or a few years later. Sometimes I do not understand my own creativity. I do believe that I’m grounded in my understanding of who I am and why I’m here. 

Q. Your work unfolds a range of issues and you employ a range of discarded and found materials. For example, in Takumbeng’s Creed, Ambazonian Fortress (Diptych) you used a found door as a ground, a non-traditional material but one whereas in all of your work, you evince a fluency and dexterity for composition. Talk about the use of doors in your work and their role and significance to you. How is the door a metaphor and how does it allow you to comment on issues?

A.
We live in a time when the effects of climate change are visibly destructive on a global scale, and it’s important that we all do our bit in averting the situation. Recycling obviously plays an important role in that, so using discarded door panels and bubble wrap fulfills that purpose.

I use the door panels to comment on these issues, to help promote sensitization and activism that goes a long way in pressuring our governments to take action.

The doors have other significance. I come from a poor family and moved to the UK where from studying, to serving in the British Army, being the first black and African artist to be commissioned by BBC to give an artistic interpretation of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee on the River Thames on live TV in 2012, and to be able to show my work in respected spaces around the world, and now winning the 1-54 Ritzau Art Prize is a huge privilege that I cannot take for granted.

Obviously, this hasn’t come without serious challenges and doors slammed in my face, but the slammed doors remind me of the ones that have been opened, the ones that are half open … the ones which are opened but not welcoming, the ones that I’ve to keep knocking. It reminds me of difficulties and possibilities in life, hence the metaphorical connotation of “opened” and “closed” doors. On the other hand, the bubble wrap reminds me that in life, every problem comes with a solution, sometimes we just need to dig a bit deeper and exercise a bit more patience.

Adjani Okpu-Egbe, Takumbeng’s Creed, Ambazonian Fortress (Diptych), 2019.
Photograph by Deniz Guzel; Courtesy Sulger-Buel Gallery


Q. The Coronation of Steve Biko (2018) is a highly energetic, full palette work on paper, and you take maximum advantage of the entire sheet, edge to edge. What role does paper play in your studio practice, and could you talk about working on Waterford paper, an English paper known for its natural, woolen surface and texture?

A.
If an artist spends $700 on a linen, subconsciously, there’s pressure during the creative process — the work has to be good and that’s not a good sign.

However, working on paper brings a totally different experience. Probably because paper is subconsciously attached to the toilet, trash, or used as wrapping or packaging materials, and it’s more affordable. It has an ephemeral quality to it, and that makes the creative process less stressful because if in the end one doesn’t like it, it can simply be squashed and put it in the trash. I like to be free when working and nothing helps liberate me better than paper. I prefer Waterford because of its rich texture and it’s absorbent and archival qualities.

Q. How do the rich tones and various subjects in this work describe your response to the brutal killing and political murder of Mr. Biko, following his arrest for subversion in 1977?

A.
The choice of colour plays a fundamental role in my work. In The Coronation of Steve Biko, the use of specific rich colours helps the work to stand out in a way that highlights colourful elements associated with Zulu culture. Biko was arrested purportedly for subversion and then brutally murdered while in custody in 1977 for challenging the Apartheid Regime in South Africa.

It’s impossible to discuss Steve Biko without mentioning his death. In The Coronation of Steve Biko, I’m not talking about his death. I’m more concerned about his legacy and the role of the women who stood by him throughout, but whose contributions are often relegated to the back. To me, Biko was coronated by these women as a little boy and his middle name Bantu, meaning “people” in Zulu, immediately denotes power, leadership, responsibility, selflessness and at the same time, vulnerability — something which I attempted at invoking in the title, the colours, texture, and the whole painting itself.

Adjani Okpu-Egbe, The Coronation of Steve Biko, 2018.
Photograph by Deniz Guzel; Courtesy Sulger-Buel Gallery


Q. A French Soldier‘s Trophy Head in Cameroon 1950’s/1960’s is a visually striking, free-standing three-dimensional object made of clay, an ancient and sensuous medium that is expressive and malleable, as well as metal, wood, and human hair. May we ask you to talk about this work that relates to political turmoil in Cameroon and Ambazonia, and your decision to employ clay and human hair?

A. The work was inspired by the brutal repression and genocide carried out against the Bamileke clan by French and Cameroon forces due to the former’s resistance to French colonial rule. It is estimated that about 60,000 to 75,000 Bamilekes where killed and some of them had their heads chopped off and kept by French soldiers as trophies. It is alleged that both men and women were sexually abused during the genocide, hence pubic hair and head hair, compose part of the material used in making the work.

It’s the first and only sculpture that I’ve created and there wasn’t any war in Cameroon in 2015 when it was made. At the time, my choice of clay was based on what was available in my tutor’s studio. The piece is now showing as part of my installation “The Foundation of Erasure” in Kuntsverein Museum, Braunschweig, Germany.

Adjani Okpu-Egbe, A French Soldier’s Trophy Head in Cameroon 1950’s/1960’s, 2019.
Photograph by Deniz Guzel; Courtesy Sulger-Buel Gallery

Q. You are the inaugural Ritzau Art Prize recipient which will include you traveling to New York City for a 90-day residency. May we ask how you intend to use your time and do you feel that residencies for artists are lacking on the African continent?

A.
l am thrilled to be the inaugural winner of this prestigious prize, and I am much looking forward to going to New York in October and getting to work for three good months. Hopefully it facilitates the opening of more doors for me. I have a plan of what I intend to accomplish workwise. In virus-free times, New York is an amazing city. I want to take this opportunity to thank 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, ISCP, the prize donor and my London gallery for all their hard work and graciousness in making this come to fruition.

Note to readers: An expanded version of this interview is on 1-54.com.

Due to restrictions brought on by COVID-19, the prize announcement originally scheduled for May 7, 2020 at The Caldwell Factory in New York was made on 1-54.com. A special event for the artist will take place during the 2020 edition of 1-54 London, scheduled October 8 to 11.

Announcing the Ritzau Art Prize

New York, New York—Since 2017, Tauck Ritzau Innovative Philanthropy has supported residencies for young, promising African artists at The International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York City. Announced this week, the Ritzau Art Prize, funded by Colleen Ritzau Leth, a specialist in museums, cultural affairs, and international relations.

The prize builds on the foundation’s commitment to provide artists from the continent with dynamic, immersive residencies. Over the next three years on an annual basis, prize recipients will be offered a significantly increased residency, with extraordinary global visibility and professional development opportunities. The first recipient will be announced at the 1-54 New York 2020 preview day on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

1-54 NY 2019/Courtesy of 1-54 © Katrina Sorrentino    

The Ritzau Art Prize was developed in collaboration with 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, the first leading international art fair dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora with annual editions in London, New York, and Marrakesh. Drawing reference to the fifty-four countries that constitute the African continent, 1-54 is a sustainable and dynamic platform that is engaged in contemporary dialogue and exchange.

Ritzau Art Prize

An artwork by Jytte Høy on view during Open Studios at the International Studio & Curatorial Practice Program

Prize recipients will benefit from a private studio in Brooklyn, participation in Open Studios, meetings with visiting critics, opportunities to speak about their art and practice in a publicized public talk, and field trips with peers from at least 25 different countries. The program’s residencies focus on building community and professional discourse among residents and provide a space and platform to share work. After leaving the residency, artists and curators join an even larger network of over 1,400 International Studio & Curatorial Program alumni in more than 85 countries.

 An installation photograph of artist Modupeola Fadugba’s Dreams from the Deep End (2018) at Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana following her Tauck Ritzau residency. Courtesy the artist and gallery.

Eligibility

The prize is open to late emerging to mid-career artists whose work is being exhibited at the fair and who have expressed interest in being considered.

Distinguished Jury

An annually rotating jury will be comprised of distinguished contemporary African artists and specialists. The 2020 inaugural cycle includes Omar Berrada, writer, curator, and Director of Dar al-Ma’mûn; Adrienne Edwards, Engell Speyer Family Curator and Curator of Performance at the Whitney Museum; and Olu Oguibe, artist.

A Commitment to Artists Working in Africa

Africa enjoys a thriving, vibrant contemporary art scene, but there is still limited funding on the continent to provide local artists with residencies to make fresh, new work and create relationships that will advance their careers—and TRIP is committed to addressing this issue. Previous Tauck Ritzau Residency artists include Younes Baba-Ali (2019), whose wry, subversive art often unfolds in the public streets of North Africa; Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba (2018), whose affecting paintings and works on paper explore issues of identity representation and access; and Kiluanji Kia Henda (2017), a self-taught Angolan artist and recipient of a sculptural commission on view during the 2019 edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London.

Together with Robin Tauck, a philanthropist and business leader, Colleen Ritzau Leth invests in individuals and organizations creating bold and daring cultural responses to today’s challenges. A special area of focus includes artists and thinkers active in creating cross cultural dialogue, mutual understanding, and more inclusive, welcoming societies.

#ritzauartprize #culturematters #iscp #154artfair

Supporting Bold and Daring Cultural Visionaries

Dear Friends and Partners—

As 2019 concludes, we are delighted to share with you a few projects and grants that reflect our feeling and ethos that, more than ever, #culturematters.

This year, we invested in daring and innovative artists, researchers, scholars, and teams creating cultural responses to today’s challenges.

Highlights include:

Providing contemporary African artists with world-class residencies

We were delighted that African artist Younes Baba-Ali (b. 1986) was the 2019 Tauck Ritzau Artist in Residence at the International Studio & Curatorial Program, the third annual resident to be selected for this residency. Baba-Ali’s wry, subversive art often unfolds in public streets. He is well known and appreciated in the African art community—he won a prestigious Léopold Sédar Senghor prize during the 2012 edition of Dak’Art, a biennial in Senegal—but less outside of the continent. He recently told us that during his residency he discovered in Manhattan’s Chinatown an underground economy, literally, of cans and bottles, and that because of this experience he is contemplating a new work that considers street survival.

Younes Baba-Ali, 2019 Tauck Ritzau Artist in Residence

Research that promotes mutual understanding and peace

Dr. Séverine Autesserre is an award-winning researcher, author on war and peace, and an expert in peacebuilding, international aid, and African civil wars, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A professor of political science, she is the recipient of the Leth Family Fund for International Research, an endowed fund that allows a diverse cross section of Barnard College’s exceptional New York City faculty to deeply engage in research. We are very pleased to have supported her ability to research grassroots war and peace, which as she said to us “is not something that I can do by staying in my office in New York.”

Ensuring community-based refugee resettlement

Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, is creating a national coalition of organizations that support refugees and the vitality brought by their cultural heritage, and we feel passionate about helping to cultivate energy and new sponsors in Connecticut. We are honored to have contributed underwriting to fund a growth strategy; production of an important video and web page; and turnout of more than 150 people forthe organization’s “Welcome to the New World” event with 2018 Pulitzer Prize recipient for Editorial Cartooning Jake Halpern, whose graphic narrative of the same name follows the lives of a Syrian refugee family after their arrival in the U.S.

2018 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning Jake Halpern, left, at “Welcome to the New World.”

Protection for threatened archaeological sites

Archaeological sites in the Middle East are under threat from war, climate change, and economic development, and one way to study and understand these sites is through photography. In 2018, we supported the University of Oxford’s research group Manar al-Athar to expand the number of images available on its website of archaeological sites in Syria. In 2019, the second installment of our support allowed the Manar al-Athar team to edit and upload more photographs of Petra, needed by organizations such as the Petra National Trust. As Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, deputy director, said to us on the value of our gift, “private philanthropy is nimble and quick—de​te​ri​o​ration of these sites is happening and is real.”

Funerary Pylon Tomb (c. 1st century, A.D.) in Petra, Jordan.

Additional News

Robin has supported the launch of a new global social enterprise approach at America’s largest non-profit in the travel industry, Tourism Cares, in order to expand their work in underserved and post-disaster countries. In 2019, Puerto Rico was added to a list of seven countries, and bringing cultures together to support social enterprises will continue with Tourism Cares, Colombia in 2020.

Supporting new modes of art making; investing in breakthrough thinking and scholarship; and creating more inclusive, welcoming societies defined our grantmaking in 2019 and reflect our belief in the potential of culture.

We are looking forward to a very active and productive 2020, and we thank you for your ideas and friendship.

In partnership,

Robin Tauck and Colleen Ritzau Leth

African artist Younes Baba-Ali is 2019 Tauck Ritzau artist-in-residence

Brooklyn, New York—Africa enjoys a thriving, vibrant contemporary art scene, but there is  limited funding on the continent to provide local artists with residencies to make fresh, new work and create relationships that will advance their careers. Now in its third year, the Tauck Ritzau Residency is working to address this issue. The residency invites young, promising African artists to the International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York City, a light filled former factory converted to gallery and studio space for up to 35 artists from around the world at any one time and is now considered one of the leading residency programs in the world. Artists receive a private, furnished studio space; one-on-one meetings with distinguished local and international art professionals; and the opportunity to present and discuss their work with new audiences.

Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba (b. 1985), whose paintings and works on paper explore issues of identity representation and access, was the 2018 recipient. Kiluanji Kia Henda (b. 1978), a self-taught Angolan artist and recipient of a 2019 sculptural commission to go on view during the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London this fall, was the residency’s inaugural resident in 2017.

Born in Oujda, Morocco, Younes Baba-Ali (b. 1986) is the 2019 Tauck Ritzau resident. His fascinating, wry, and subversive art practice—encompassing technology, found objects, sound, video, and photography—reflects on topics such as diversity, migration, and consumption.

Younes Baba-Ali, 2019 Tauck Ritzau artist-in-residence, during a recent talk in Brooklyn.

The young artist lives and works between Brussels and Casablanca and has increasingly been the subject of solo shows at venues including the well regarded Maison d’Art Actuel des Chartreux. In 2014, he was awarded the area’s Art’Contest Boghossian Prize. He has been included in numerous group exhibitions and biennials in Europe and Africa. At a recent edition of Kunstenfestivaldesarts, the hybrid arts festival in Brussels dedicated to contemporary theatre, performance, and dance, and during the 2019 edition of Afrikikk during the indoor/outdoor Kikk arts festival in Namur, Wallonia, Belgium, he installed sculptures made of satellite dishes, pictured, that comment on issues of migration “and the need to stay connected with one’s country of origin.”

Younes Baba-Ali, Paraboles, 2019

The artist and his mother escaped Morocco when he was four years old. Raised in France, he studied at the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg and earned a Master of Fine Arts at Ecole Supérieure d’Art in Aix-en-Provence.  Baba-Ali says that as he grew older, after years of returning to visit his family, he rekindled his ties with his homeland and returned to Morocco to make art and be part of different joint artist collaborations. He now lives between Europe and Morocco, where he runs an art association and artist residency. His work is appreciated by critics and curators active in the African art community, and in 2012 he won the prestigious Léopold Sédar Senghor prize during the 10th edition of Dak’Art, the biennial of contemporary African Art in Dakar, Senegal.

His site-specific, multidisciplinary, and communal art often unfolds in the public streets sphere of North Africa, far removed from carefully curated white cubes or the Occidental art world.

Younes Baba-Ali, Paraboles, 2019

A recent work, Carroussa Sonore Short Circuits, is based on a traditional wooden cart, or caroussa, used in the city streets of Morocco for selling compact discs featuring Quran recitals. Baba-Ali instead used the cart to play sound art and various musical compositions, reimagining it as “a tool of awareness to listening.” Another work consisted of a megaphone broadcasting in Morse code the Muslim call to prayer five times a day; and yet another was comprised of black plastic bags hanging from the branches of an orange tree that raise questions about the ecological situation and social disparity in Morocco.

Baba-Ali says his residency in New York City was “fascinating,” especially as he puts it, “how people can afford a city that gives and takes a lot.” A sharp and curious observer, he says that he discovered in Manhattan’s Chinatown an underground storage economy, literally, of cans and bottles, where “everybody is looking for a small object.” His art works often begin with looking and exploration, and he says that because of his time at ISCP he is now in the early stages of contemplating a new work that will consider themes of micro-entrepreneurialism and street survival.

#culturematters #iscp

Photography courtesy of the artist and International Studio & Curatorial Program.

Ending violence from war by changing the way we view peace: An interview with Professor of Political Science Dr. Séverine Autesserre

This is the second in a series of interviews bringing attention to issues and innovators in global culture. We spearheaded the development of The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research to provide ongoing support to Barnard College faculty conducting research that promotes mutual understanding between diverse societies and allows Barnard’s exceptional faculty to engage deeply in original studies on topics spanning international relations, peace building studies, economics, and human rights.

In 2018, The Leth Family Fund awarded the second consecutive grant to Professor of Political Science Dr. Séverine Autesserre, an award-winning researcher, author, and an expert in peacebuilding and African civil wars, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her latest findings will be published in a forthcoming text, On the Frontlines of Peace.

Q. Dr. Autesserre, you are an expert in war, peace, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and African politics. May I ask what sparked your interest in civil war and peacebuilding?

A
. Before becoming an academic, I wanted to be a journalist, as my parents worked for the French National Radio Station. However, I quickly discovered that I wanted to do something about war and suffering, and I became an activist. So I worked for humanitarian and development agencies in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nicaragua, and India. But ultimately, I needed the freedom to ask questions and challenge perceptions about peace and peacebuilding and not lose my job. My role as a professor at Barnard has allowed me to do just that.

Q. You have argued in the international news media that even as the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world has failed to stem the flood of violence in Congo, Idjwi—a local island on the border between the Congo and Rwanda where 83 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day—has somehow avoided the conflict, thanks to the everyday involvement of its residents. What did you discover?

A
. The island is peaceful because of its grassroots groups, social networks, strong beliefs, and agency on an individual level. When there is a conflict, instead of calling the police or the army or resorting to violence, people on Idjwi will attempt to contact a local religious network, or a youth or women’s group. Each citizen also helps maintain the stability of his or her village by keeping tabs on potential troublemakers and working with local leaders, such as priests, to prevent minor issues from escalating into violence.

Q.  Interestingly, you argue that traditions the international elite might quickly dismiss, such as local beliefs, actually play a significant role in fostering a culture of peace on the island.

A
. Yes. For instance, traditional promises, or blood pacts, between families who agree never to hurt each other go back centuries on the island. The people of Idjwi also benefit from beliefs in surrounding provinces who claim the island is home to powerful sorcerers who can cast protection upon you, or cause you harm if you try to invade or disturb the island. These beliefs help deter violence by both insiders and outsiders, just as different spiritual and religious systems help prevent violence in other countries.

Q. So how is studying an exception in the Congo like Idjwi “a first step in changing the way we view and build peace”?

A
. Many foreign entities think that local people are incompetent or corrupt, even violent, believing that only outsiders have what it takes to build peace. But it is not the army, state or police, or any outside peacekeeper, that keeps tensions from erupting into violence; it is the community members themselves. I do not believe that all is lost in Congo. Many people strive for peace and manage to make a difference. My research indicates that activists, diplomats, and development workers would do well to focus on tapping into and unleashing the talent and potential of the Congolese citizens.

Q. You have provided expert analysis and commentary in the international news that what builds peace may not be elections or agreements between world elites. “It may not even be democracy — at least not right away.” What did you mean by that?

A
. Most politicians assume that it takes an agreement between world elites to end armed conflicts. But in order to stop wars, an essential first step is to understand how people have actually succeeded in building peace. Many successful examples of peace-building have involved innovative grass-roots initiatives, led by local people, often using methods the international elite tends to dismiss. This may not require billions in aid or massive international interventions, but it may involve respecting local beliefs, including what Westerners may view as superstitions.

Q. The Leth Family Fund for International Research is a permanent endowed fund that allows a diverse cross section of Barnard’s exceptional New York City faculty to engage deeply in research. As the second recipient, why are funds like this important?

A. Researching grassroots dynamics of war and peace is not something that I can do by staying in my office in New York. What readers like most about my book manuscript is all of the stories I can tell them from my time in Afghanistan, Congo, Colombia, Somaliland, and other countries.—all of my on-the-ground material. But collecting this kind of material is expensive. I have to travel to remote, hard-to-reach places, and that costs a lot of money in terms of plane, car, and boat transportation, not to mention finding places to stay, and the like. So funds like this are crucial. Without grants like those provided by the Leth Family Fund, I just couldn’t do the kind of research that I do.

#culturematters

Image: Courtesy of Dr. Séverine Autesserre