Exodus Stations #3

Why Collect African Art?
Two Collector's Biographies

Nadine Siegert, Katharina Greven September 2018

José de Guimarães is part of a group of European artists, collectors and patrons whose contact with the African continent not only formed their own identities and artistic practices, but whose engagement in Africa and beyond also formed the European reception of African modernism after the Second World War. In this essay we sketch out a connection between Guimarães, a Portuguese artist and collector, and the German collector, publisher and art critic Ulli Beier. Both figures have lived and worked in African countries for many years, collected works by the continent’s artists and developed a very specific relationship with the place and its objects. We are interested in what they collected physically, such as artworks or photographs, as well as abstractly, such as memories, and how these became part of their lives.

Beier was an art patron in search of a home. His loss of home in 1933, when his family fled Nazi Germany to move to Palestine, connected him with the process of decolonisation—at least in his mind. Later, while living in Nigeria, he constructed a very specific image of Africa, which he actively shaped not only through founding institutions and workshops, but also in the way he and his family lived (Greven, forthcoming). ‘Guimarães started working in Angola while it was still part of the Portuguese empire. When he arrived in 1967, he probably benefited from the freedom Angola offered him in contrast to Portugal, which suffered from severe economic problems already due to the prolongation of the colonial war. While Guimarães’s own artistic practise has been largely influenced by the art and culture he found in Angola, Beier was more interested in the people and the intellectual and political discourses during this moment of cultural decolonisation.

By analysing the engagement of the two collectors with the art of the African continent, particularly during the period of African modernism1, we aim to show how different their positioning was towards the art production, artworks and artists, and how both personalities are also important for the formulation of a canon and therefore the reception of African modernism in Europe. Certainly the biographies of Beier and Guimarães are dense and include many important moments, but in this essay we focus specifically on the periods when they lived in the African countries of Nigeria and Angola, respectively. These periods occurred approximately at the same time, yet their reasons for living on the African continent and their personal backgrounds greatly differed.

Guimarães went to Angola in the context of his military service from 1967 to 1969. This relatively short period nevertheless had a strong impact on him and spurred not only his artistic practice but also his interest in collecting art from Africa, and later also from Asia. In 1968, he had an exhibition at the Museu de Angola, where he showed painted wooden boxes. His central motifs were numbers and letters in a bright pop art style. During this period, he also formulated a manifesto with the title “Arte Pertubadora! Manifesto aos pintores inconformistas”, in which he argued for the importance of non-conventional artistic practises and the implication of unusual material. This manifesto, however, was directed against the artistic conservatism of his home country rather than directly relating to an Angolan setting. Conversely, the texts Beier wrote during his years in Nigeria clearly reveal how he embedded himself within the local artistic and intellectual world. Both profited from their time in Africa, but Guimarães used his experience for the formulation of his own artistic identity, whereas Beier was more active as a mediator within the artistic scene and later also with the link between Africa and Europe.

In 1970, Guimarães went back to Angola for three more years, this time much more as an artist. He studied architecture and was participating in interdisciplinary art projects. Like other artists around him, he started to travel the country because of his growing interest in traditional aesthetic practises. Based on these experiences, he developed an alphabet of symbols that combine European and African elements. Even today, this alphabet remains a characteristic element of his artistic practise.

When Guimarães was in Angola, society and the arts were being politicised, but the country was still a Portuguese colony (or Overseas Territory, which is what it was called at the time), whereas Nigeria had already gained independence from Great Britain in 1960. However, in both Angola and Nigeria, the political consciousness of the people and the critique of the colonial regime were rising. In Nigeria this led to negotiations for independence from the British Empire, but in Angola it led to the formation of liberation movements and a brutal anticolonial struggle.

Beier lived in Nigeria from 1950 to 1966 and again from 1971 to 1974. He started teaching English phonetics at the University of Ibadan, employed by the British colonial government. In 1951 he changed to the Extramural Department, where he could give courses throughout Western Nigeria, teaching the students about their own heritage, or what he perceived as their heritage. He tried to work not only against the colonial academic curriculum but also to restore the confidence of his students and their belief in their own culture, or what he declared to be their culture. This effort framed his work from the beginning. In his lectures he introduced critical European texts about modern Western civilisation, but also included African poets (mainly those associated with Négritude) in his curriculum that portrayed Africa positively. With European staff members he perceived himself as an outsider and redefined himself by becoming a close friend and collaborator of the Nigerian intellectual and artistic elite; he played an active part in forming Nigerian culture in the years after independence rather than being a commentator or observer of it. His engagement with the artistic scene in and around Nigeria is exemplified by the establishment of two Mbari Clubs (one in Ibadan in 1961, the other in Oshogbo in 1962) as well as by co-founding the art and literature journal Black Orpheus in 1957. At this time, the artists and writers were highly engaged with the question of national identity and how this could be transformed, in terms of style and matter, into the arts. This led to the formation of a postcolonial version of Nigerian modernism that was aware of both its own modernity and of the local traditions (Okeke-Agulu 2015).

In Angola, on the contrary, artists were finding alternative ways to distinguish themselves from the conservatism of the Portuguese art canon of the time. The search for a nationalist formulation was part of the endeavour of an intellectual movement called Vamos Descobrir Angola, but it only manifested in fine arts after independence in 1975 and was then conceptualised as Bantuism and Angolanidade. Its protagonists, Viriato da Cruz, António Jacinto and Mário Pinto de Andrade, had all studied in Europe and became highly engaged in politics during these years. In the 60s, turning their backs to the monumental fascist art of the colonisers, artists were engaged with European and American modernisms—pop art and surrealism in particular. Guimarães’s own artistic style fit in very well.

Visual artists were part of a small cultural elite in Luanda, Angola’s capital. Some were critical of the colonial regime, but direct political critiques were rarely seen at this time. This might have been due to cautiousness, since the repression was strong and the sanctions increased by Portugal’s secret police after 1961were severe. There was a stark contrast between the militant struggle at the borders of Angola and the relatively peaceful state of the city. Nevertheless, the anticolonial fight in Luanda was a cultural one: the art scene included artists who served in the Portuguese army and had other positions in the colonial administration as well as a small number of Angolans. Guimarães’s works were shown together with those of other Portuguese expatriates, but also with the first works of the young António Ole, whose work Sobre o consumo da pílula resulted in a scandal within Luanda’s art scene because he depicted the pope consuming a contraceptive pill. Another artist in the scene was Portuguese surrealist Cruzeiro Seixas, who went on to become the director of Museu de Angola, where modern art exhibitions were regularly shown (Seixas 2005). This leaning towards Western aesthetics can be understood as a form of artistic cosmopolitanism. In contrast to the fascist Lisbon in the 50s and 60s, Luanda was relatively open-minded and cosmopolitan. This led to a vastly different cultural context in comparison to the atmosphere of the cultural elite in Nigeria, who were also progressive but more interested in forming their own cultural identity.

Motivation to Collect Art

Both Beier and Guimarães shared the opinion that their knowledge and expertise was based on research and lived experience. Beier’s exhibition and publishing practices were influenced by a melange of early postcolonial discourse, such as the Négritude movement and the fascination for “outsider art” as well as his strong anti-academic position and a personal desire for a place of belonging (Greven, forthcoming). When he came to Germany in 1981 to open the Iwalewahaus, a centre for modern and contemporary art from Africa, as part of the University of Bayreuth, he acted as an expert on African art beyond modernism.

Beier had learned the local language of Yoruba and translated oral narratives into English to make them accessible to a bigger audience. Meanwhile, Guimarães invented his own alphabet based on his experience in Angola as a form of abstract language combining diverse elements. This can be considered as a form of artistic deconstruction of diverse signs and, as an ongoing project, it can also be regarded as a synthesis of his experiences and the effects of his time spent in Africa. Beier, however, was not interested in cultural deconstruction like Guimarães. Rather, he focused on an emerging modernist innovation based on tradition: the modern artist.

Beier was not an artist and never saw himself as one, and therefore didn’t place his own artworks in relation to his collection. But he did extend this relationship to Susanne Wenger, his first wife, and Georgina Beier, his second wife, who were both artists and had their very own relationship to Nigerian modernism—or rather played an important part therein. Beier even considered Wenger as the first modern local artist (Beier 1994, 17), but this is disputable despite her role in Oshogbo’s New Sacred Art movement, which developed its own connection towards Yoruba heritage. Beier’s writing practise though can be considered similar to what Guimarães was trying to do with his artworks: Beier wrote under pseudonyms such as Sangodare, which was given to him by Yoruba friends. For him, this was a sign of how close he was with the Yoruba community and “The decision to publish some of his critical writings as Akanji or Aragbabalu and his creative work as Ijimere appears to be part of Beier’s strategy of inserting his polemical voice into the discourse of Nigerian art and literature, without drawing attention to his identity as a foreigner” (Okeke-Agulu 300).

Guimarães had a different approach. His intention was not to insert himself into the Angolan culture but rather to insert Angolan art into his practise; he literally incorporated objects he collected into his own artworks. In the best case, we can understand this as a form of cultural appropriation or, if we apply the concept of “cultural anthropophagia”2, as a form of digestion.

Beier also combined works of traditional art with modern ones, similar to Guimarães’s approach, although not to create a new artwork. Rather, he brought them into aesthetic resonance with each other. For Beier, two forms of authenticity are relevant for his understanding of the arts from “elsewhere”: the authenticity of the traditional art, which he felt obliged to save or rescue through his photography, his writings and also to some extent through his museums, and the authenticity of modern art, which in his view was innovative but not completely detached from its traditional predecessors. Here, tradition was used as an inspiration rather than a cultural determination (Greven, forthcoming). This is reflected in the three museums Beier founded in Nigeria: the Antiquity Museum and Museum of Popular Art in Oshogbo and a pottery museum in Ife. For the Antiquity Museum, he collected artefacts and displayed them in a non-ethnographic way, focussing on their forms without social or historical contextualisation, and was influenced by a nostalgic view formed by pre-colonial fantasy. Although his idea of the unspoiled Africa appeared to be an emotional attitude, his work in the museum was pragmatic. The artefacts became part of a local heritage and therefore gained a different value. By exhibiting them, Beier might have sparked local artists to find a new interest in traditional forms, but by declaring the artefacts as antiquities, he historically framed the objects and reintroduced them as a source of inspiration for the artists without forcing them to follow traditional forms in their modernist production. Thus, the artefacts changed function: they became a source of knowledge and provided a new awareness of cultural heritage. The Museum of Popular Art primarily showed works by academically untrained artists who also fit into his definition of modern artists, “[…] whose work showed a formal or conceptual synthesis of modernist avant-garde techniques and the sense of enigma he identified with indigenous art and religions in Africa. Such work must at once be formally expressive and intuitive rather than deliberate or mannered but also suggestive of some indeterminate spirituality and indirectly evocative of Western modernist and indigenous African artistic traditions” (Okeke-Agulu 136-137).

Guimarães also displayed his acquisitions in private and institutional museums, but to become part of Guimarães’s collection, a piece must have had a certain quality or a historic presence, whereas Beier was interested in authenticity and originality. It is important to remember that Guimarães’s intentions were also artistic: he combined his own works with those of artists from his collection to re-value the cultures he collected. In the interview published in this book, he calls this an “archaeological interest” foregrounding the historical context. Beier’s activities in Ibadan and especially in Osogbo aimed to support the emerging modern artists. The Mbari Clubs promoted the modern artists in Ibadan from academic backgrounds who worked, however, against the academic curriculum, and the “outsider artists” in Osogbo who were supposed to remain uninfluenced by academia. Although both Beier and Guimarães were deeply interested in art objects and showcased them in both private and institutional museums, Guimarães’s interest was fixated on the object and its historic context, while Beier extended his interest to the artist and cultural context.

The two biographies of these European patrons and collectors are of course very individual and show the differences in their perspectives and approaches towards the arts from the African continent. But perhaps the connection offered in this text can also shed light on African modernism as an entangled then separated phenomenon. Beier and Guimarães both embraced African modernism—a still emerging style during the periods in which they lived in Africa—and unlike other European collectors, they were not only looking at the so-called ethnic or traditional art but were also interested in what was happening in the here and now of their chosen home.

This perspective can be brought into a broader context of the history of African modernism, wherein both African and European actors positioned themselves in the art scenes during moments of independence in African countries. There, they formulated notions of art related to nationalist and cosmopolitan ideologies. The idea of the “modern” in Africa can thus be understood as both deeply rooted in the past and courageously oriented towards the future. Beier and Guimarães each played a role in that endeavour and therefore must be considered when drawing a more complex and complicated picture of African modernism.


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