African & White: a song by China Crisis from the 80s. Apt title for this current blog. Growing up in rural East Anglia (as I did) we had very little to do with Africa or Africans. At a later juncture, I stayed with family in South London and a trip to the shops involved going to Brixton.
On Electric Avenue there are market stalls; it was my first experience of Afro-Caribbean culture. Market traders were calling to sell goods before close of business. Yams, plantains, goat, all sorts of exotic fayre was available. But the people had no sense of how to form a queue. Everyone was pushing and shoving, shouting and clamouring. I think I bought some carrots. Over time I learned how to live in South London, it became home. A high percentage of ethnic minorities reside in that part of the capital. Later I worked at the College of North East London (CONEL) in Tottenham – where there is a similar ethnic mix. CONEL wasn’t an easy pitch and Tottenham isn’t one of the most salubrious parts of the metropolis. ‘African & White’ was a pretty refrain, somewhat detached from urban reality in London.
I practiced martial arts and attended clubs in central and South London. Yoon’s Taekwon-do was based in Clapham and Elephant & Castle – ‘ard Manors. Typically, the clubs consisted of a strong mix of ethnic minorities and it was normal for me to accept authority from Afro-Caribbean instructors as well as Korean masters – Andrew, Ladi, Robert, Braemar et al. I think I was well ahead of the game compared to my peers.
During six years of Art schooling in the capital, there was only one black full-time student on the course we were on at St. Martin’s and one black visiting student at the RAS (Royal Academy Schools). Decades later, I was part of an academic development committee at UAL (University of the Arts, London). There were black admin and security personnel there, but little had changed. It was like being back in the HOD’s (Head of Department) office at Long Acre. A bad case of déja vu. Taekwon-do clubs have always excelled at what is now referred to as diversity – but could our metropolitan elites humble themselves to learn from such different sources? One would hope so, but I doubt it.
At the London Art College (LAC) staff work with english speaking students all over the World. I successfully tutored a Nigerian woman in her home country, she later came to the UK for personal tuition. Recently I was invited to participate in the opening of an exhibition of African Art at Hidden Lane Gallery in Glasgow. This entailed showing some of my own work alongside existant African artists, meeting some of them and joining an ‘Art jam’ (as Busella Ramsay put it) in Milngavie.
I can’t imagine the big-shots of the London Art scene ever committing themselves to this sort of event. I did a ‘trad’ pastel study of a still-life. I placed fruit within and in front of a Manilla, against a back-drop of African textiles. Manillas are decorative bronze casts, used as a marital bond or dowry in Africa. The colour set was warm, the symbolism was about fertility.
Several of us worked in the same room, Hassan did his own thing from imagination, Titus worked carefully from observation – using a palette knife and oils, Busella and her friend did colourful drawings from imagination; Josephine made a sketch in pastels. Chief Abu helped youngsters make drawings and Ian did some clay work.
Afterwards we all went for a meal at a local restaurant. I was the only white face there – an honorary African. Titus drove us back to the city centre. Cruising around Glasgow, late at night in a car full of Africans, I realised I had much to learn. Their collective state of mind is fluid. Things move fast, nothing like the stodge of ‘normalcy’ (to use American journalese). But then Africa is a huge continent whose past and traditions aren’t steeped in Platonism as ours are.
Next day I spent time with Josephine, Chief Oboh Macleod. A Nigerian woman with high social status in her home country, Josephine is a chief and elder in her village. She talked about the erosion of tradition and customs amongst native Africans, giving a specific example of a witch-doctor or medicine-man …..
Arrangements were made for a botanist to meet this person, to gather valuable information with respect to the plants he knew. A few days beforehand, the witch-doctor was unwell. He went off into the bush and died; his knowledge died with him. Cynics might say his medicine didn’t work, but so much is lost when people like this pass on.
When I asked why such erosion of culture has been taking place Jospehine said she thought it was due to the imposition of organised religions from outside Africa on it’s peoples. That would take some measuring to prove, but coming from a native African, I expect there is some truth in it. It was concerning to hear and a far cry from Electric Avenue.
Not to focus on loss, the gathering of African artists in Glasgow along with a fab display of their Art is testimony to the spirit of a great nation and it’s people. They tend to work collectively; less about ego. It did me good to consider African culture now, after my days in South London. Made me listen to ‘African & White’ again.