Thursday 8 August 2013

Mr. Gobrick : Labourer, Craftsman, Artist

Dear Mr. Gobrick,

He who works with his hands is a labourer.  He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.  He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
          - Francis of Assisi

So this is how I take up your invitation to write you about art – with a quote you certainly know, from a thinker you probably disagree with, followed by opinions you will likely reject.  And all that, along the lines of a subject you just might detest: defining art and the artist.

I’m in the palatial city of Abomey, the seat of the old Dahomey kings in south-central Benin.  My girlfriend and I are traveling across Africa, en route from Paris to Tanzania, where we will live for a year.  Our schedule, along with unforeseen events, has limited the countries we have time to truly dig into to just three: Morocco, the Ivory Coast, and now Benin.  Of the three, little Benin has been the most surprising. 

I mention where I am because it was a single day here in Abomey that made Assisi’s quote make sense, that dipped the theory into reality, and that gave me another excuse to try to be clever.

The indigenous African kingdom of Dahomey had its capital here from its inception in 1625 to its end in 1894, when the last real king (as in, not appointed by the colonising French)Béhanzin burned down the royal palaces here as he fled north in defeat.  The kings, who acquired their great power and wealth by conquest and by selling slaves to European traders (as many as 20% of all slaves taken from Africa during the centuries-long trade were bought from Dahomey kings or their subjects), each built a personal royal palace here on the Abomey plateau.  Only Béhanzin’s (pronounced somewhat like Béyonce) personal palace remains intact, and his relatively large complex is the site of the museum, the heart of today’s tourist circuit, and the location of Abomey’s much-treasured, oft-mentioned UNESCO World Heritage plaque.  The other palaces which dot the city of 90,000 people have all been rebuilt, and while mostly empty, as a far-flung collection they give a hint of how grand and expansive this city once was.

Abomey is one of Benin’s premier tourist destinations, and this reputation is a twin result of the palaces and the city’s arts and crafts, and much of the latter borrow the style of the older work found in the museum.  Our arrival by motorcycle taxi (Zem) was accompanied by the usual shouts and taunts of sellers along the road, but little did we know, one artisan-merchant followed us into our hotel.  He was the Labourer.

He sat on a chair nearby to where we took our lunch, and eventually said hello.  Most hotels don’t allow merchants into their grounds, so we figured he was a guest or had business there.  He chatted to us about where we were from, and mentioned that he had a shop in town, and made crafts.  Would we like to see it?  Sure, why not, we said, after lunch.  And then, a few seconds later, we saw he had brought his wares with him, and they were plopped down on our table.  It was clear that this guy wasn’t just hanging out, making conversation.  And forget lunch – we have to spend money!

Whether I’m in rural paradise or birdhouse suburbia, I usually shy away from stuff on sale.  If I need a shirt, I buy a shirt.  If I have to get a gift, I get an idea for what I want, and search for it.  But I’m no window-shopper, and the best way to guarantee my inattention is to tell me you want to sell me something I wasn’t looking for in the first place.  With the Labourer, however, I made an exception – maybe he’d be the diamond in the rough, worth the chat and the analysis of art?

The man made woven cloth pictures: a rainbow lion, a bunch of fish, a few people standing in a circle, all arranged in squares.  The pieces of fabric weren’t large enough to make blankets or quilts, and so had no practical purpose other than to hang on a wall or raise like a flag.  Now, I have no desire to insult or degrade, but the Labourer’s work was derivative, false, cheaply done and impatiently made.  There was a mass-produced formula you could see in the stitching before he even unfolded the pieces.  There was no inspiration, no message, no thought or feeling in the work.  The man worked with only his hands, riding only on the desire to make money fast.  He was the quintessential labourer, reproducing the same thing over and over again, hoping for profit in quickness and better returns on low quality.

I have no qualm with the Labourer.  I value him higher than the importer of plastic sacks of mass-produced, foreign-made garbage.  I commend his hard work and his ability to do something I couldn’t.  But he’s after money and money alone, and this shows up in every stitch and every weave – except, maybe, for that fun he had with the technicolour lion king.  For Assisi, his place is set.

Though it was clear that the Labourer’s work was derivative, I didn’t know until the next day just what it was derivative of.  The same arrangement in squares, the same style of drawing animals and people, was evident on the front of every single royal palace, and with most of the artifacts in the museum.  There are hundreds of symbols the Fon people used to decorate their kings’ palaces: fish, bowls, men, fruit, weapons, trees, tools, lions, elephants, birds, you name it.  Each building’s front is furnished with bas-reliefs of these symbols, with each symbol placed within a sqaure cut into the wall.  At the rebuilt palaces, the squares are a clear white, and the symbols are vibrant and clear; the original palaces, meanwhile, feature original artwork: faded, damaged, but robust and of the same ilk.  In the museum, there are quiltworks and wooden artifacts which feature the same style but in concentrated, intricate forms.  All of it reminded me of the art of ancient Egypt: crafted expertly by a certain tried and tested formula, emphasising the principal features of the subject at expense of realism (so, an Abomey lion’s legs and feet at profile are the same size, just as Egyptian figures in profile have elongated feet, huge eyes, and full torsos), and detailed not just as artwork but as a means of communication, a language.  For these symbols – just as the Egyptian hieroglyphics – tell a story, tell a history. 

For me, these carvers from centuries ago were Craftsmen.  They worked with their hands, of course, but they followed the rules and laws of their art as governed by the kings, by tradition, and by religion (Voudun, or Voodoo).  Just as with most medieval European religious art, the need of the patron and the need of the thing being expressed far outweight the desire, passion and raw power of the individual artist; indeed, as you know, individualism in art (where an artist signs his work) is a relatively recent phenomenon, and obviously didn’t sweep up the Dahomey monarchy.  There is a lot of head as well as hands in these works, but like the hieroglyphs of Giza or Luxor, I can’t find a lot of heart. 

We were on a guided tour of Abomey, which took us through the royal palaces and ended up at the museum.  As expected, the guide’s penultimate stop before the museum was a visit to the arts and crafts sector of Abomey.  We didn’t say anything, but Al and I looked at each other, knowing we’d be in for another “buy this, buy this” trip.  We passed through a few huts where men and women worked on foot-operated weaving machines.  They were Labourers, caught up less with the colours and shapes of their products than with the wooden blocks and constant rhythm which, even for me, was a little hypnotic.  I didn’t want the scarves they made, but I would certainly walk away with a machine if I could.

After the machines and their operators, we wound through another palace and into another part of town.  From a distance I could see masks and paintings on the walls, and thought we would now be heading into the hustler quarter.  But when we arrived, just one shirtless man greeted us.  He had a wide, shy smile and was covered in paint.  He didn’t hold necklaces and bracelets in his hands, didn’t call me “my friend” or “mon frere”, and didn’t block my way out.  He just opened the door to his shop, and watched me watch his stuff.

The man’s name is Adjamalé, and he is an Artist.

Adjamalé signs his work with name and date, and I couldn’t find a painting older than 2011.  He has dozens of canvases on which is watercolour, oil and other objects such as pebbles, coins, bills, paper, and a pair of jeans.  He is also a sculptor, with virtually every piece containing a person, who variably rides a bike, scales a wall, picks up flowers or sits on a throne looking scary.  Adjamalé is the classic artist who immerses himself in his work without inhibiting thought or self-consciousness, who could very well spend weeks in his shop, tweaking and pasting and painting and imagining.  He is physically  overwhelmed by his own creativity, stepping over the mountains of Art which, to him, fit like brothers with the stones on the ground.

But, to me, what makes Adjamalé an “Artist” is not his habits or his discipline; it is the work itself.  Adjamalé is trying to say something with his work, he’s trying to express something that cannot be expressed in any other way.  His expression is profoundly personal and yet (as it is art) public, thought-out yet spontaneous, funny yet significant, substantial yet childlike.  His sculptures and paintings both exhibit the trait of the masters: they walk the tightrope between greatness and a joke.  They ask, if you are drawn in, why are you drawn in?  And they captivate the observer by happening to be (rather than forcing themselves as) windows into the inner life of their creator.

In much of Adjamalé’s work, we find ourselves in a dreamscape.  City towers double as tall, reaching people, and in their shadows walk the tiny figures of light.  A face encapsulates a forest, and warps into the sky.  It’s hard to do this well without looking like you are just ripping off the Surrealists, but Adjamalé is original and shrewd – he’s also free of the traditions which hamstring so much mainstream (meta-)art.  When I asked him if he knew of Salvador Dalí, he shook his head.  Same with Picasso.  But when I mentioned dreaming – “rêve” – his face lit up, and he took me to another room.

I didn’t buy anything from Adjamalé, and I’d be lying if I said that’s not what he wants.  He is trying to make a living too, but if he had all the money in the world, he’s still draw, he’d still sculpt, and he’d still be covered in paint.  He is not defined by his tools or by his customers, but instead defines them.  He works with his hands, with his head, and with his heart.

So what is art, then?  Can only an Artist make Art?  Why not a Craftsman, or a Labourer?  If I bought the merchant’s rainbow lion, buried it in a time capsule a hundred metres into a mountain, and it is recovered in ten thousand years as one of the few pieces of human heritage left from this era, what would the extraterrestrials say of it?  Even if they are blessed to be able to compare it to Picasso or Damien Hirst (who does not, by the way, work with his hands), wouldn’t they call it art as well?  Is it all in the eyes of the beholder?

Some of Adjamalé’s paintings contain letters that look like Chinese characters, but are clearly something else.  When I asked him what they were, he said they were his own language.  When I asked what they said, he simply stated that they told his story.  His eyes told me that he would elaborate no more on the strange, ordered, blocked-out lines.

Maybe the code by which art and the artist are defined is also written in such characters, interpretable by the artist alone, or perhaps by nobody at all.  Or maybe that last sentence is just a cheap segue for me to conclude my letter and try to be clever at the same time.  How safe is it to say, I don’t know? 

Whatever the case, if you find yourself in Abomey, visit Adjamalé.  He’s worth it.

Yours labouriously,


PS: I've attached some photos, so you may now judge my poor taste.

One of Abomey's mesmerising labourers
One of the rebuilt royal palaces of Abomey;
notice the crafts that ornament the entrance
The royal palace of Guezo, Abomey
By Adjamalé
By Adjamalé
By Adjamalé
Adjamalé's gallery