Featured Artist: George Osodi

George Osodi is today’s  featured artist. His work on the gold mining in Ghana and the extraction of oil  in the Niger Delta has reached an international audience, raising awareness of the harsh conditions that workers and the environment have to endure.

George Osodi  b. 1974, Nigeria De money series no. 1 2009 Fuji crystal archival print National Museum of African Art, museum purchase, 2011-16-1

George Osodi
b. 1974, Nigeria
De money series no. 1
Fuji crystal archival print
National Museum of African Art, museum purchase, 2011-16-1

Visit the artist’s blog post for more information on the artist and recent projects that he is working on: http://georgeosodi.photoshelter.com/

CNN also did a feature on Osodi’s photography’s in a photo essay. Check it out here:  http://cnnphotos.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/26/putting-a-face-on-nigerias-paradise-lost/

Or read more about the Niger Delta and its prevailing devastation here:  http://www.goethe.de/ges/umw/prj/kuk/fot/oso/enindex.htm

More recently Aljazeera featured a documentary on George Osodi as part of their series Artscape titled “The New African Photography”. The documentary follows Osodi as he documents the destruction due to the oil spills  while also exploring Nigeria’s traditional Monarchs or kings.

Check out this link for more information on the making of the film: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/artscape/2013/04/2013421134016645276.html

Guest Voices: Ross G. Kreamer

Todays guest post comes from Ross G. Kreamer, the Assistant Deputy Administrator at the Office of Foreign Service Operation, who shares his experience of the exhibition Earth Matters with us.


Earth Matters at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art

I very much enjoyed the thought-provoking exhibition Earth Matters at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.  My observations are perhaps narrowly defined by my overseas career in agriculture. Having recently returned from a tour at U.S. Embassy/Pretoria as head of the Office of Agricultural Affairs, my thoughts on southern Africa and  regional agricultural issues, e.g.,  food security, employment, trade & investment, the environment and sustainability, informed how I viewed the installation of the show.  I saw, for example, the rice plot (spelling out ‘hunger’) in the garden only after it had been attacked by birds. The pest-damaged rice looked out of place in such a manicured setting, but crop loss is all too often what happens to rice farmers in Africa.  Certainly the artist, Ghada Amer, addresses the very real issues of hunger that afflict many communities around the world, often the result of population growth, natural disasters, and failed policies.  Hopes of a good harvest can be greatly reduced, and with it the specter of food insecurity.  Having done graduate research in Ghana on cassava processing (into gari), I greatly enjoyed artist El Anatsui’s creative use of cassava graters in fashioning a structure that seems to rise and disappear at the same time.  Throughout my overseas postings in Ghana, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and South Africa, I have often remarked upon the centrality of agriculture to cultures and communities.  No wonder so many beautiful utilitarian objects & rituals are inspired by the agricultural cycle, in Africa and around the globe. Balancing the use of the earth’s resources to meet the food needs of a growing population is indeed a very serious matter.


Artist Talk by Anawana Haloba

Please join us for an Artist Talk by


Anawana Haloba

“Subtle Encounters”



Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lecture Hall

National Museum of African Art

950 Independence Avenue



Internationally acclaimed artist, Anawana Haloba was born in Zambia in 1978 and now lives in Oslo, Norway. Haloba has also been involved in a number of international exhibitions, including the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art (Dakar, Senegal, 2006), the Sharjah Biennial (2007, 2013), Manifesta 7 (2008), the 16th Biennale of Sydney, Australia (2008), and the 53rd International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Italy, in 2009. Her work appears for the first time in the United States in the exhibition, “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,” currently on view at the National Museum of African Art.


In her work, Haloba explores the relationship between various populations as they collaborate and negotiate within socio-political, economic, and cultural contexts. Using primarily performance and sound-oriented video installations, Haloba examines the interaction between the historical and current narratives of communities, with particular focus on the political, social, and cultural tenor of the voices responsible for crafting them.  For this talk, she will explore the history of her use of salt as a medium and discuss her current research at the Smithsonian on the influence of Franz Fanon and the role of women on independence movements in Africa and the Caribbean.

From the Archives: Sangomas and the Sacred Power of Earth

Zulu woman in Natal, South Africa. Photograph by Constance Stuart Larrabee, 1949. EEPA 1998-060947 Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

Zulu woman in Natal, South Africa.
Photograph by Constance Stuart Larrabee, 1949.
EEPA 1998-060947
Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Thabiso Phokompeʼs paintings and assemblages are meant to tie directly with concepts of the earth. Through his materials and visual cues, Phokompe seeks get closer to the spiritual and political power of the earth, and regain a sense of connectedness to the land that sometimes now seems to get lost in the din. He also describes how declaring himself to be a “child of the earth” was a political act in South Africa during the Apartheid years when he and his fellow Zulu did not have the right to own their land.  As he says in his artistʼs statement on his website (http://www.phokompe.com), “…the earth has always been part of everything.”

Phokompe illustrates vividly this notion in his two works included in Earth Matters: Untitled #13 (2001) and Bambezela (2012). The former, created while he lived near Johannesburg, South Africa, reflects organic forms and pigments, natural materials and the working of the artistʼs hand. The latter was created after Phokompe moved to Brooklyn.  Its grid pattern and sand paper are reflective of the rhythms of city streets and new construction. Despite their visual differences, both pieces utilize found materials taken directly from a place that Phokompe called home and both illustrate his ongoing interest in re-using and reinvigorating discarded materials.

Phokompe describes his mother, a Zulu sangoma (diviner), as an early influence.  Her ability to create a sacred space with simple objects fuels his attraction to found objects and informs his fascination with muti, or medicine bundles activated by a sangoma to communicate with the ancestors, heal, and restore order. Earth is also a central ingredient of muti.

This photograph (1949) by Constance Stuart Larrabee of an unnamed Zulu sangoma presents the spiritual leader as strong and calm, a stoic force in the midst of the crowd that fills the background. The beaded headdress and fur near her neck marks this women as an important figure in the community, someone respected for her ability to commune with the ancestors. She bears the marks of someone empowered to locate the source of a problem or illness, and set muti into action.

Earth Matters Around the Web: Charles Okereke

Today’s post will feature Nigerian born artist Charles Okereke,  one of the artists featured on the Earth Matter’s exhibition.  Okereke  works with different media ranging from photography, video and  sculpture. He also writes, acts and directs plays and drama pieces.

Charles Okereke

Charles Okereke

Earth Matters features works from Okereke’s Canal People Series which you can view by visiting his blog at http://charles-okereke.blogspot.com/

Once a Blue World, from the Canal People series below is currently showing in Earth Matters.

Charles Okereke  b. 1966, Nigeria Once a Blue World, from the Canal People series 2009 (2013 exhibition print) Chromira print on archival paper 44.5 x 59.7 cm (17 1/2 x 23 ½ in.) Collection of the artist

Charles Okereke
b. 1966, Nigeria
Once a Blue World, from the Canal People series
2009 (2013 exhibition print)
Chromira print on archival paper
44.5 x 59.7 cm (17 1/2 x 23 ½ in.)
Collection of the artist

You can also find out more about this body of work in an interview with the artist here:


In 2009 Okereke joined the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographic Initiative, an artist -led project founded by Nigerian artists committed to affecting change in society. The video below traces the group of artists that participated in this project in 2011.

Visit the  Invisible  Border’s website  http://invisible-borders.com/ to learn more about the project

Guest Voices: Mary Jo Arnoldi on Mud Masons of Mali

Today’s guest post comes from Dr Mary Jo Arnoldi, who talks to us about the making of  Mud Masons of Mali, an exhibition that opens next week on August 31 at the  Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Be sure not to miss it!

Mud Masons of Mali –The making of an exhibit

Mud Masons of Mali, part of the Grand Challenges Earth Matters initiative, opens on August 31, 2013 in the Focus Gallery of the African Voices exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It includes photographs, objects and 4 original films made in collaboration with masons from Djenné, Mali.  In the exhibit the masons speak about the pride they take in their city, the skills they have acquired, and the different challenges they face in the 21st century.

1. The Grand Mosque in Djenné.  2009.  Photograph by Barbara Frank.

1. The Grand Mosque in Djenné. 2009. Photograph by Barbara Frank.

The original idea for Mud Masons grew out of a number of visits to the city of Djenné during the course of my research in Mali over three decades. Djenné, a World Heritage site since 1988, includes some of the most magnificent mud brick buildings in the world including the city’s Grand Mosque and over 200 historic houses (photo 1). My interest was certainly piqued by the architecture, but I also wanted to learn more about the men who build and maintain the city.  In 2003 I had the opportunity to work with a group of Malian masons who constructed a mud brick Djenné style city gate on the Washington Mall as part of the Smithsonian’s Folklife festival (photo 2). Later I was inspired by my colleague, Dr. Trevor Marchand’s collaborative research with Djenné’s masons (see his award winning book, The Masons of Djenné  from Indiana University Press, 2009).

2. Malian Masons building a Djenné style city gate on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. 2003.  Photograph by Hugh Talman.

2. Malian Masons building a Djenné style city gate on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. 2003. Photograph by Hugh Talman.

In 2010 Trevor and I began working together on this exhibit and the films.  Many exhibitions and books have featured the architecture, but it was our intention to give a voice to the masons, themselves.  Making the films has been a special delight involving working with five talented and generous Djenné masons: Konbaba Tennepo, Boubacar Kouroumansé, Lassina Kouroumansé, Salif Droufo, and Almamy Kouroumansé.  Ranging in age from 77 to 21, each of them brings a different set of experiences to this story.

Our project posed unique challenges.  Midway into it we were blocked by the escalating war in northern Mali and by the political turmoil that followed the overthrow of the Malian government in March of 2012.  Unable to film in Mali, we decided to bring the five masons to Leiden, the Netherlands along with Bilangalama (Bill) Sissoko, a colleague, now retired from the National Museum in Mali.

3. Malian Masons arriving in Amsterdam.  2012  Photograph by Trevor Marchand.

3. Malian Masons arriving in Amsterdam. 2012 Photograph by Trevor Marchand.

Mody Sounfountera in Djenné handled the complicated logistics of getting passports and visas for the five masons and getting everyone to the airport and on the plane to Amsterdam (photo 3).  Dr. Annette Schmidt, curator at the Museum für Volkenkunde in Leiden, worked with the Dutch embassy in Mali to secure the masons’ visas and hosted our film project at the museum. Pete Durgerian of Headfirst Productions from the UK shot the film in Leiden.  He also sent a camera back with the masons to Djenné where Mody shot the masons’ working and other scenes in the city.  He then uploaded the video over the internet to Pete, who incorporated segments into the films.  We also commissioned an orginal film score from the Malian musicians, Lassana Diabaté (balafon) and Toumani Kouyaté (kora) which was recorded in Bamako.

4. Malian and Dutch masons at a building restoration site outside Leiden. 2012. Photograph by John Heywood.

4. Malian and Dutch masons at a building restoration site outside Leiden. 2012. Photograph by John Heywood.

The change of venue led us to new topics and global exchanges that were incorporated into the films.  The team visited a Dutch Victorian era restoration project and the Malian masons and the Dutch masons bonded easily over their mutual respect for the craft.  Indeed, Malians and Dutch masons, alike, echoed the complaint that architects and engineers, who often direct restoration projects, have no real feeling or experience with how these buildings were constructed in the past (photo 4).  We also spent a morning at a mosque with the imam, who had originally emigrated from Morocco.  While the masons and the members of the Leiden congregation come from very different regions in the world, what united them all was Ummah, the community of Islam.

The masons are now back in Djenné, the war in the north is over and peace has been reestablished. The  national elections took place in mid August and a new Malian president was chosen.  All the members of our project team – in the US, UK, the Netherlands and in Mali – look forward to peace and prosperity for Mali and for Djenné in the coming years.

For more information on Mud Masons of Mali please  visit  http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/mud-masons


Mary Jo Arnoldi

Curator, African Ethnology

National Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Institution

Egypt in Crisis

The crisis in Egypt is reaching a violent crescendo as the country declares a month-long state of emergency. Hundreds of Morsi supporters were killed by security forces yesterday during a sit in protest.

Check out the video clip below reporting on the current state in Egypt.


Or watch:

For more information check out the following links:



Ghada Amer, "Hunger" (2013)

Ghada Amer, “Hunger” (2013)

Egyptian born Ghada Amer is currently showing her installation Hunger in Earth Matters. Amer questions the exploitation of  hungry Egyptian citizens and the corruption practiced by politicians in what is referred to as “vote buying”.

Artsy recently posted a piece called In the Studio with Ghada Amer. Explore more of Ghada’s work here: http://artsy.net/#feature/in-the-studio-with-ghada-amer

Earth Matters Around the Web

Water is tremendously important to life on Earth, its biodiversity and to sustaining human life. It is easy to take water for granted especially in first world countries where it is easily accessible.  Even though the Earth may appear to be abundant with water ( about 70 % percent of the Earth is covered in water), in many parts of the world access to clean drinkable water is limited and a luxury.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

This may be a result of a lack of resources and infrastructure in certain countries, or the result of climate change and natural  phenomena such as droughts that can occur in anywhere from Texas to Somalia. 

Check out this link for more information on the water resources of that the Earth holds: http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html

Other geographical areas like the Middle East are abundant in oil, gas, sunshine and wind but are lacking in one essential: water.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Check out the video below to watch engineer Fahad Al-Attiya talk about the ways that Qatar creates its water supply.

Or watch Anupam Mishra talk about engineering feats that were used to harvest water  in India’s Golden Desert. These structures were built centuries ago and are still used today.

While wars are being fought for the control of oil,  the fight for the control of water is looming. Read the following articles that discuss this issue below:




For more information on the water crisis, click on the link below for a list of ten must-see documentaries that expose some of the critical issues facing water in the 21st century.


Let’s all try to be responsible Earth citizens and save our water. Check out the link below for tips on how to save water everyday:


Guest Voices: Artist Andrew Putter

Todays guest post comes from South African artist Andrew Putter who talks to us about the process of making Flora Capensis. 

One of my favorite things about making art is that I get to have all kinds of adventures along the way. Typically, when I make pictures, there are many steps involved that aren’t seen once the final artwork goes up on the gallery wall. For this blog, I chose three of the many hundreds of photographs I’ve kept of the tests, meetings, and research I did during the process of making Flora Capensis, and talk a little about each of them in turn.

Photograph 1

This first photograph is of a mountain and a bay about 15 km from the busy, built-up city of Cape Town where I live. When I turned 38 in 2008, I decided that I needed to take a break from my hectic working life, so for two years I walked along the edge of this mountain every day and swam in the cold Atlantic sea. The best thing about this bit of coast is that to get to the ocean, one has to walk for 20 minutes along a footpath: there is no road. The land (the entire mountain!) is owned by the National Parks Board, so no-one may build or live there. It’s remote and quiet, and the further one walks along the path, the further one gets away from people, buildings, the city. The Parks Board spent a lot of money in the last 15 years getting rid of the invasive alien vegetation which took over in the 1970s. They successfully restored the extremely diverse indigenous vegetation which originally grew there for millions of years. It was whilst walking alone in the sun along the path one day, amidst this exquisitely rich seaside vegetation that I suddenly realized that there had once been people who lived here before the Europeans colonized the area in the 1650s. Although they’d been mentioned in our school history books when we were kids, few people took them seriously, and I’d pretty much forgotten about them. These original people – the Khoikhoi (derogatively called ‘Hottentots’ by the 17th century Dutch) – would have lived in the local landscape when it looked very similar to what this remote bit of coast still looks like today. It was from this moment of walking in the sun along this path, and feeling in my body the historical presence of these people, that I became interested in trying to find out all I could about the Cape Khoikhoi, and their encounter with the Baroque Dutch (amongst whom were some of my ancestors) who landed here in 1652. Although I did not know it at the time, many of the people of Cape Town today have Khoikhoi ancestors.

Photograph 2 

These two photographs brings back really good memories. Once I knew I was going to need enough rare, wild indigenous Cape flowers to make the six big arrangements for my final Flora Capensis artworks, I began searching for people who could help me find these flowers. Because most of these flowers aren’t grown in people’s gardens and it’s illegal to pick them in the wild, I had to find people who had the authority to assist me in finding and picking wild flowers without interfering in any damaging way with the local floral ecology. In the end I met many such people, and was able to gather flowers from a number of different sites in the countryside beyond the edges of the city of Cape Town. This photograph shows a group of women – Helene Preston, Libbes Loubser, Judy Wood, and Maggie Fowler – who took me out into a part of the country called Darling, known for the wild flowers which carpet the veld there in Spring. Under the leadership of Helene, these women go out into the veld in a Landrover once a week to keep an eye on various populations of rare wild plants, sending their information back to a big national database on local vegetation. What fun they have! After wandering around for a couple of hours bending down to look closely at the colorful life that has sprung up since they last visited, they unpack a table, flasks of tea, and homemade biscuits, and sit down to relax and chat. That’s what the photograph on the left shows: tea-time. On the right is a photograph of some of the flowers I brought back to the city with me after that trip. I remember so well the warm still air, the strange sweet scents of many different kinds of rare flowers, the moisture of the wet earth after the rains, and the gentle conversations over delicious biscuits.

Photograph 3 

The photograph on the left is a preparatory test I did for the final Flora Capensis works (I’ve shown one of the final Flora Capensis works on the right). When I took art in high school, our teacher often told us to make preparatory drawings before making a ‘final’ painting. I had no idea how to do that, and saw no need for it anyway. Why not just make the painting! I only understood the value of preparatory work when I was studying art at a postgraduate level, and watched my teacher – the artist Malcolm Payne –produce a new body of artwork. Malcolm was doing his masters in Fine Art at the same time that he was teaching me, so I got to see a lot of his working process over those two years. I didn’t know him before then, so the first things I saw him make came as a surprise. They were little realistic paintings, and to my eye, they looked really bad. Every few weeks when I went to his studio to talk about my work, I would see whatever new things he had made since we last saw each other. There were funny bits of wood with shards of mirror stuck on them. There were images made with spray paint, using plastic chains as a stencil. And countless other things too. I remember thinking how unfinished it all looked, and wondered whether he was the right person to be teaching me. But as time went on something incredible happened. Malcolm started making new, much bigger and much more ambitious work. This series of monumental, extremely complex mixed media works turned out to be his final pieces. It was only then that I saw how all the many, many little works he’d been making in his studio wasn’t meant to be seen by others. They were tests and explorations – experiments – simpler versions of parts of the final work that he was practicing on before he got to make the ambitious final works. If he had tried to solve all of these technical problems whilst making the final works, he would have probably messed them up. His experiments gave him opportunities to learn skills he would need to make the final works, as well as start growing his ideas – one step at a time – for how the final works would end up looking. Which brings me to my preparatory work photograph, shown here, on the left. When I set up this still life in my garage, it was a good few months before I made my final works, and was still pretty unsure of how I’d make those final works. I knew that I wanted to photograph indigenous Cape flowers styled to look like a 17th century Dutch flower painting. I also knew from experience that the best way to understand something you’ve never done before is just to do it – badly! By doing a ‘bad’ version of it (fast and cheap) you quickly start to understand and learn about what it is you’re trying to do, and get an immediate, in-the-flesh view of your idea. So even though no-one was meant to see this test, it was an important step in getting me to the final works, helping me see more concretely what it was I was trying to achieve.


From the Archive: Termite Mounds

An anthill in the Lunda countryside, Congo (Democratic Republic). Photograph by Emile Gorlia, lantern slide, ca. 1910. Emile Gorlia Collection EEPA 1977-0001-179-01 Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution

An anthill in the Lunda countryside, Congo (Democratic Republic).
Photograph by Emile Gorlia, lantern slide, ca. 1910.
Emile Gorlia Collection
EEPA 1977-0001-179-01
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

There are estimated to be over 2,000 known termite species around the world, with more expected to be discovered, named and added to the taxonomy in the future. Here in North America, termites typically remain hidden pests but in the tropical savannas and drier savannas of regions in Africa (as well as Australia), termite termitariums can dominate the landscape, occasionally reaching up to 30 feet tall.A typical smaller termite mound, as taken in this archival photo by Emile Gorlia in 1910 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, can also take quite an impressive form. For residents in these areas, termite mounds are an indelible part of their interactions with the earth.

Several of the objects in Earth Matters feature termite mounds or are constructed with soil from termite mounds and reveal the ways that.  Among west African Wee peoples, the mud of a termite mound has had many important connotations: its red coloration speaks to blood; its phallic shape connecting to underground structure tunnels relates to fertility; and its clay-like plasticity is linked symbolically to the origins of humankind. Thus, clay from termite mounds was a crucial component in the making of glé heads – oracles made by a practitioner of glé – used to combat malignant sorcery and disease, as well as discover the perpetrators of crimes. The mud made from termitariums, as well as other materials, was also ingested by glé practitioners, bringing them closer in contact with the potent spirit of glé through the power of earthen materials.

The material of termite mounds binds and reinforces connections to the power of the earth. These mounds can reach beyond and below what mere human eyes can see.

Their shape signals a conduit to the underground, an otherwise enigmatic and inexhaustible territory. Thus termite mounds can be symbolic of the transition between the underground and the visible earth, this life and the next.

The giwoyo-inspired mask displayed in Earth Matters uses the shape of the termite mound (in this case, that those of the genus Cubitermes sp., whose mounds, unlike the one above, has a mushroom-shaped superstructure). Used by the Pende people of central Africa, giwoyo was danced to reach across from the world of the living to that of the dead, to extend across transitional spaces in the same way that a termite mound does.

For these and other African cultures, termite mounds act as more than simple metaphors or abstractions but as profound features of the landscape.  Termitariums help shape understandings of earth and what earth is in concrete ways. Visit Earth Matters for yourself and try to spot even more references to termitariums