all photos by the author, except where otherwise noted
Forcefully pointing to neighboring modern homes, constructed of cement and cinderblock, protected by sturdy, imposing compound entry walls, artist and chief Ekpenyong Bassey Nsa said to me: “This is what I work for.” His animated answer came after a series of questions regarding whether he was a part-time artist, what inspired and motivated him to create, and if he had other jobs. As we discussed the social realities of being an artist, leaning on his Honda Civic hatchback, in July of 2009, we overlooked his own housing compound, located in the Local Government Area of Calabar South, a district of Calabar, urban capital of Cross River State, Nigeria. He went on to explain that a major motivation inspiring his work was to earn enough money to modernize and replace his father's outdated and dilapidated wattle-and-daub structure he and his family inhabited.
Bassey Nsa taught me an important lesson that day: the way in which money and economic sustainability play crucial roles in how he, his family, and broader society determine his value as a maker and custodian of Efik culture. As our conversation continued, Chief Bassey Nsa further articulated that his art was his career, working full-time, explaining how being an artist alone fed and supported his family. His work and artistry means multiple things to him, one of which, and perhaps the most important, is financial survival. In the course of the conversation, I quickly realized that my questions were based on assumptions from what I had read prior to fieldwork: Most “traditional” African artists were part-time, only active during the dry season, not necessarily financially dependent on their work.
Through my interactions with Chief Bassey Nsa, other artists, and cultural practitioners, I came to learn about the financial challenges of being a traditional-based artist in the city and how money and economics permeated all aspects of artistic practices, methods, and approaches. While Bassey Nsa passionately embraces his role as an artist preserving Efik culture and heritage in a postcolonial state, the motivation of renovating his family compound, coupled with later discussions we shared and my further ethnographic experiences in Calabar, affirmed how being a traditional-based artist in an urban environment is an economic enterprise, riddled with layers of financial implication as much as it is a cultural endeavor punctuated by creativity, innovation, and heritage preservation. In fact, the seemingly separate realms, preserving cultural traditions, creativity, and economics, are seamlessly interwoven.
In focusing on Chief Bassey Nsa, this essay provides a case study exploring the economic realities facing a traditional-based African artist. My approach follows William Fagg's almost obvious suggestion to forge relationships with artists over longer periods of time (Fagg and Pemberton 1982:36) and John Picton's call for more “writing about real people,” how they interface with art, and more transparency in the way in which we collect our ethnographic data (1994:16–18). Drawing on my almost ten years of working with artist Bassey Nsa, and building from Jean Borgatti's work with artist Lawrence Ajanaku (1979), I propose a sustainable and mutually beneficial method in working with living traditional-based artists.1 This approach is especially important in the twenty-first century as the pressures of global commerce increase the challenges facing the economic livelihood of many artists in Africa as well as the broader world. The case of Chief Bassey Nsa may also have potential for broader relevance into an important question plaguing the study of African art history: Why are traditionally based artists left to the margins of our scholarly discourse?2
THE UNSUNG IN AFRICAN ART HISTORY
Why do so few nuanced studies about traditional-based African artists exist? Is this simply a result of the eventual fallout from the emergence of a field formed shortly after colonialism, when turn-of the-century ethnocentrism and otherness defined the ways Africa was represented to the world? Zoë Strother, drawing on Johannes Fabian's critique of the “ethnographic present,” blames the way in which writing about African culture in the present tense has also favored plural rather than singular pronouns, highlighting whole groups rather than individuals. Such erasure of individuals had a detrimental and long-lasting impact on African art history. Indeed, the employment of the “ethnographic present,” an early form of framing African (and other “non-Western”) cultures as perpetually stuck in a time before European contact, is a pungent residue stinking of colonial temperament (Strother 1999:19–20).3 It is certainly more than mere coincidence that African art history unofficially formed in 1957, just as African countries started gaining independence and the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the United States. Indeed, the broader picture of research and publication in the first three decades of the discipline (1957–1987), led by our pioneers, captures a concerned interested in categorizing style, attributions, shedding light on local contexts, and dispelling the notion of static and unchanging Africa. When contextualizing the early years of the discipline within a broader context, challenging general misconceptions characterizing Africa required more attention than the individual, traditional-based artist.
However, this is not entirely true, and we have all too often cited these reasons for the lack of focus on the individual, traditionally oriented artist. As one peels back the layers of research on African expressive cultures, before and shortly after the formation of the discipline, anthropologists Melville Herskovits (1938), Frans Olbrechts (1946), Hans Himmelheber (1963), and Eberhard Fischer (1963),4 to name just a few, demonstrated an interest in identifying and researching individual, traditional-based artists. In fact, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, three important multidisciplinary edited volumes on traditional-based artists were published: The Artist in Tribal Society (Smith 1957), Tradition and Creativity in Tribal Art (Biebuyck 1969), and The Traditional Artist in African Societies (d'Azevedo 1973).
Contributing to the latter two volumes, William Fagg, the long-time Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum, is often celebrated for his early focus on individual artistic agency, especially with his work analyzing Yoruba art. His identification of individual artists, stylistic comparative analysis, and efforts to contextualize art through the originality of the artist, stand out as major early contributions to the field (Fagg 1964, 1969, 1982). Other important contributions from these volumes included Robert Farris Thompson's extensive essay on female pottery artist Àbátàn (1969) and William Bascom's artist biography of Duga of Meko (1973). Taken collectively, the efforts of these three laid a methodological foundation for placing traditional-based artists at the fore of African art discourse; very few continued, however. With their focus on Yoruba artists, coupled with other important contributions, Yoruba-centered discourse remains the most documented and thoroughly investigated hub for individual traditional-based artists in all of Africa. The Yoruba example has thus become the gold standard in discussions surrounding traditional-based artists and their individual agency.5 One is often puzzled as to why the Yoruba model has not been applied to other cultures throughout the continent.
Beyond Yoruba artisans, while interest in identifying and engaging artists increased in the 1970s and 1980s, few publications focusing on traditional-based artists surfaced.6 In Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of An African Art, Simon Ottenberg devoted an important chapter to detailing the artistic profile of Chukwu Okoro (1975:67–83).7 A seminal contribution came from Borgatti, who in 1979 organized a solo exhibition (at the then-UCLA Museum of Cultural History, now the Fowler Museum) on the Edo master artist, carver, and cloth applique mask maker Ajanaku. The exhibition—featuring commissions acquired by Borgatti herself—and an accompanying catalogue, detailing Okakagbe masquerade and Ajanaku's innovations, artistic approach, and personal history, were the first of its kind: an exhibition and catalogue focused entirely around a traditional-based African artist (Borgatti 1979). Despite this groundbreaking model, to which I will return, the topic of the traditional-based artist laid dormant within the field until its resurgence two decades later.
Early in the 1990s, and crucial to this essay, Sandra Klopper argued that, because of the diverse and varied motivations guiding African artists, generalizations are pointless. Instead, Klopper suggested shifting attention toward foreign and local patronage dynamics, implying the important role of the economic aspects of artistic practice (1993). Appearing in this journal in the late 1990s, the two-part special issue Authorship in African Art, guest edited by Alisa LaGamma, refocused attention on individual artists (1998a). Significant portions of the issues were dedicated to the study of traditional-based artists. Among the many important essays were Roslyn Walker's focus on the Yoruba sculptor Olówè of Isè (1998a) and Strother's examination of the Pende carver Gabama a Gingungu (1999). Both demonstrated that the histories and innovations of deceased “traditional” artists, however fraught with difficulty, could indeed be documented due to lasting praises locally persevered by subsequent generations.8
The special issue also coincided with two major exhibitions presenting traditional-based African artists to the broader public: “Master Hand: Individuality and Creativity among Yoruba Sculptors” (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and “Olówè of Isè: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings” (National Museum of African Art). The latter, curated by Walker, was also accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue raisonné—the first of its kind (1998b). Despite the focus once again on Yoruba individual artistry, the waning years of the 1990s witnessed an increase in attention to individual artistic agency, which in turn set the stage for another exhibition/catalogue, this time on the mud cloth artist Gneli Traoré (Imperato 2006), and a full-length monograph addressing the masquerader and master performer Sidi Ballo (McNaughton 2008).9
While recent scholarship has become more sensitive to identifying and working with traditional-based artists, the collective example of Fagg, Borgatti, and Walker has largely gone unheeded. While these essays and texts are foundational to our understanding of individual agency in traditional-based African arts, they simply are not enough. Nor do they, save for Klopper, suggest or address the crucial place economics occupy in the practices and lives of African artists. Sidney Kasfir and Till Förster offered one of the most extensive investigations into the business and financial aspects of African workshops (2013).10 However, the question still remains: In working with traditional-based artists, do our methods consider the economic issues framing their artistry, and does this impact our ability to tell their story to the broader audiences? In what follows, at least from the perspective of Calabar, it is clear the answer to the former question is no, and the latter, yes. In highlighting Bassey Nsa and his work in urban Calabar, I make the case that through our ongoing, trustful relationship, specifically through commissioning work from him, documenting it, and publishing his work and practice, our mutually beneficial relationship has brought attention to his story and his artistry.
A FATHER'S SON: ARTIST EKPENYONG BASSEY NSA
Chief Bassey Nsa (b. 1973) is a third-generation multimedia Efik artist, known for his raffia and cloth masquerade costumes, funerary shrine installations, beadwork, as a teacher of Ekpe masking choreography and nsibidi knowledge, as well as other creative talents (Figs. 1–4).11 His father, late chief Bassey Ekpenyong Nsa (1933–1997), was his teacher, a highly renowned local Efik artist during his lifetime. Still to this day, stories about his father's artistic abilities and innovations are commonly shared, especially when Bassey Nsa is at work.12 According to most elder Efik cultural custodians, the importance of Bassey Nsa's father is legendary, as he is often cited as the artist who modernized Ekpe masquerade costume (Fig. 5).13
The motivation that best contextualizes Bassey Nsa's artistic spirit is surpassing his father's legacy, not due to an over-inflated sense of his own self, but to honor his father, who wished this of him on his deathbed. In terms of the importance of modernizing his father's house, in the words of Bassey Nsa, “My father built a house, you see. No matter it was [a] thatch house, but I have to innovate—that is the blessing, if you understand me. It's a blessing he was blessing me …”14 With the premature passing of his father in 1997, Bassey Nsa was on his own at the age of 24. In spite of his loss, he has always kept his father close and relied on his wisdom and teachings long after his death. At the start of every commission and sometimes at its completion, whether mask, funeral shrine, or masking and nsibidi lesson, his father is consulted and honored with the pouring of libation (Fig. 6).
Libation and the veneration of his father as an ancestor stems from his lineage's long-standing commitment to Ekpe. Well known to students of African art, the Ekpe secret society has a long and layered history in Calabar and the broader Cross River complex, one steeped in politics, local governance, arts, and ritual. Bassey Nsa and his father made careers—although not exclusively—from countless Ekpe commissions and training droves of students in the society's esoteric knowledge and expressive culture.
Bassey Nsa's fervent relationship to his father, still connected through the bond of Ekpe and libation, provides the backdrop for understanding his ambitions as an inspired artist to rebuild his father's house. His family's crumbling house, sitting on the land inherited from his father, served as a visual signifier of a man struggling to fulfill his father's wish that his son make it as an artist in contemporary, urban Calabar and even beyond. Rebuilding his home had as much to do with honoring his father's legacy as it did for Bassey Nsa to provide an updated structure with modern amenities for his family. Yet another motivation lurked: to prove to prospective patrons that he was a successful and sought-after artist. While some might be turned off by a traditional-based artist thinking squarely in economic terms, this was yet another important lesson taught to him by his father: Being a successful artist in urban Calabar meant not only loving one's art, but also treating it as a business, guided by a keen understanding of money and how monetary gains shape artistic notoriety. In Bassey Nsa's words, “these days, people will not take you seriously as an artist unless you have car and a respectable house.”15
THE BUSINESS OF TRADITIONAL-BASED ARTS IN CALABAR
Shortly after the increased urbanization of Calabar in the late 1970s, art and culture became a viable means for financial sustainability with the emergence of cultural clubs in the early 1980s (Fenton 2016b:179–80). These groups, consisting of members from various masquerade associations, each with their own mask artist, lead drummers, and singers, competed with one another for business. Today, patrons still rely on commissioning these groups to perform at traditional weddings, community festivals, and similar events.16
This system of patronage was well entrenched when Bassey Nsa was on his own after the passing of his father. In fact, his father was a well-known member of a sought-after cultural club, serving as the chief artist. Bassey Nsa came of age as an artist within this context, when economics and masquerade arts, and other forms of local culture, were deeply interrelated. For him and other traditional-based artists active in Calabar since the 1980s, money and profits have become major competitive impetuses driving innovation.17
Bassey Nsa's abilities at manipulating color, compositional balance, and incorporating new materials, as well as other visual strategies, distinguish him from other artists in Calabar. These innovations are easily recognized across his broad portfolio. His funerary installation known as mkpoto mkpa or “canopy for the dead,” commissioned for the celebration and public remembrance of deceased Efik or Efut family and clan heads, has made him the most sought-after artist in this genre (Fig. 4). The mkpoto mkpa is meant to showcase the family's wealth with the incorporation of imported materials, a reflection of the Efik's well-known role as middlemen during the slave and palm oil trades. Expanding from his father's approach, Bassey Nsa has recently added side extensions to expand the number of items included. He further reduced the size of the canopy to appear more compact, creating the illusion of an overwhelming amount of “antiques,” and therefore wealth, flowing beyond the structure.18
His use of the latest shiny and metallic damask and polyester cloths, artfully wrapped, concealing the structural elements of the canopy, accent the other textiles and fabrics included in these mixed-media displays. Such an approach also connects to similar artistic strategies in his “traditional” marriage canopies and cloth masquerade costumes (Figs. 7–8.) Perhaps the greatest ability of Bassey Nsa is his keen understanding of the rules of color when selecting and hunting for materials for his work in Calabar's urban markets. This is best seen in his Ebonko costumes, a genre of masquerade belonging to Ekpe society. Ebonko is meant to symbolize the wealthy status and regal qualities of Ekpe. His manipulation of color combinations for Ebonko and other cloth masquerades promotes a simple yet smart visual harmony. Figures 2 and 8 demonstrate his preference for sticking to a simple code interested in balancing color schemes, usually only employing two or three colors and mixing in a rouge hue—a move most would not dare—all for a forceful visual punch.
Thanks to these innovations and his business acumen, in the last two decades, Bassey Nsa has successfully increased his patronage network. Even though he is of the Efik culture—a major source of his patronage—he also takes commissions from the other two long-standing ethnic groups of Calabar: the Efut, and to a lesser extent, the Qua-Ejagham.19 He has become popular among government officials, who have sought him out for private commissions as well as for the state-funded festival, Carnival Calabar. Beyond the city, his commissions are wide and far, including but not limited to other cultural groups in southeastern Nigeria, national festivals held in Abuja, and an Ekpe masquerade costume for a Cameroonian community. And finally, a number of his masks are in Western collections, some of which are on permanent display. It is safe to say that Chief Bassey Nsa has achieved notable recognition as a prominent traditional-based artist at a relatively young age.
Crucial to his success are his knack for innovation and business acumen instilled by his father. Bassey Nsa's keen understanding of fluctuating costs, market shifts, and close attention to overhead bring in steady profits for himself while still offering fair prices for his patrons, ensuring the best possible piece they can afford. This is important simply because traditional culture costs money, and there are ranges in prices depending on materials used and construction quality, especially when beautifully executed. Local patrons, and especially foreign researchers, however informed and educated about the culture they may be, are typically unaware of the high cost of culture and the materials used to make it. This often leads to arguments between patrons and artists. The reality is that, when looking at the economics of making traditional-based art in Calabar, artistic ability alone cannot ensure success. Indeed, the ability to sell one's work, provide ranges of prices, innovate for patrons, and skill, coupled with a firm understanding of the business that envelops cultural production in the increasing globalized world, drives success.
These financial aspects facing traditional-based artists have largely been ignored. As a result of my work with Bassey Nsa, I advocate we ought to be more aware of and conscientious about the way in which economics saturate the practice and concerns of traditional-based artists. It may be possible that our avoidance of the economic issues surrounding the study of traditional-based artists is one of the major reasons as to why long-term relationships between scholars and traditional-based artists are rarely forged, perhaps a major reason as to why indigenous artists are relegated to the margins of African art history.
TOWARD ETHNOGRAPHIC RECIPROCITY
The difficulties and economics realities of being full-time, and even part-time, artists, struggling to sustain themselves and their families, is real, affecting all aspects of their lives and artistic output, and not something distinctive to urban Calabar alone; nor is it only a phenomenon of the twenty-first century. Borgatti encountered similar issues in the early 1970s, when she sought out and commissioned cloth applique masks from the rural Edo artist Ajanaku, who was also thinking in economic terms and concerned with his gains in working with a foreign researcher.20
At the start of my fieldwork in 2008, I endeavored to collect the histories, styles, approaches, and training lineages of the traditional-based artists active in Calabar. Usually during the second interview, sometimes even the first, discussion often turned to how the artist would gain from such exchanges. For example, I failed to interview the well-known, full-time Qua-Ejagham artist and masking maker Otutong. He was very clear at the onset of our interactions, stating that only if I commissioned one of every single mask he made, for an exorbitant amount of money, would he show and teach me anything.21 Although I managed to have a few informal discussions with him later, in which he sometimes addressed his artistry, for the most part, his outlandish financial requirements prevented me from documenting his artistic profile.
In another example, during a follow-up, audio-recorded interview with Efik elder and artist specializing in wooden mask carving, Chief Bassey Eyo Edem, his demands were clearly recorded as he asked, over and over again, how he and his time would be compensated after answering my questions—to the extent that, at one point, the interview was stopped and only continued after the agreement to pay for his lunch and dinner and provide drink resolved the problem.22 As I left that day, he made it clear that I should not return unless a more substantial deal was to be struck.
It was clear from my early attempts in working with artists that they desired a more tangible gain beyond conversation and lunch. From the view of the field researcher, such requests for money and compensation might be viewed as crass, annoying, and even frustrating. However, perhaps we are looking at the issue through a biased lens. What about shifting to consider the perspectives of interviewees or traditional-based artists, who support themselves and their families from the very knowledge we seek to document?
In my early conversations with Bassey Nsa, while he was not as demanding as others, his gain from working with me was certainly on his mind, for he confidently told me so. When he posed the question to me as to how we would mutually benefit, like others I interviewed before, my response that his benefit lay in being part of disseminating his story to a broader audience, giving voice to his work and ideas, and helping to document Calabar's cultural history was interpreted as platitudes. His rebuttal was as smart as it was succinct: “Fine, but what will I get?” He further pointed out, “You will collect your research, write your dissertation, get a job from it, and feed your family from your career.” How does one respond to such a keen observation?
Scholarly discourse offers little help, as very few have engaged this issue. Instead of understanding why traditional-based artists or interviewees often ask researchers for money, the issue is too often swept under the scholarly rug.
Ethnographic researchers are likely well aware of the guideline of “fair return” in field research. Published by the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth (1999), this policy states that researchers should provide “fair return” to assistants, interviewees, and respondents. However, what is deemed a “fair” return is unclear, and who determines its fairness? With the rise of global economies and exchange, it is reasonable to ask if money is a viable, ethical option. Some anthropologists have disparaged those who give return in the form of payment for information (Das and Parry 1983). In contrast to this condemnatory view, social anthropologist Vinay K. Srivastava noted that money as a return should not be the norm, something with which I agree; however, he stated that when working with specialized individuals (those with local knowledge, beyond the general public): “If money is an expected category in the local exchange system, the ethnographer should have no moral hesitation in using it” (1992:19).
Srivastava's implication of the ethnographer working with expert individuals of specific skill-sets, similar to how local patrons seek out and pay for a specialized service, applies directly to this analysis. Traditional-based artists, especially those who are known as local masters, like Bassey Nsa, are certainly retainers of expertise for which they expect to be compensated when working with local patrons. Why would this be any different for the foreign or local researcher interested in collecting or learning from the knowledge of these specialists?
Indeed, returning to the early conversations I had with Bassey Nsa, this was precisely his point. Frustrated with his past experiences in working with local and foreign collectors, investigators, and researchers, who misunderstood or were outright disinterested in the financial nuances of being a traditional-based artist, he stated to me: “I am tired of getting burned,” a statement echoed by many other artists I met, especially those cited in the preceding paragraphs. However, his commitment to working with foreign researchers was not broken; he understood that a mutually beneficial relationship could be a means to achieve his father's wish of his son surpassing him. An inspiration for Bassey Nsa was his desire that his story, and that of his father, be told to Western audiences, with examples of his work on display in Western museums. In fact, even before I met him, one of his Ebonko masquerade costumes was already part of the Musée du Quai Branly.23
With his interest in being represented in Western museums, and of course being fairly and properly paid for his efforts, the prospect of patronage became our arrangement. I returned to Calabar for a third trip to continue my doctoral research (2009–2010), this time with a commission for Bassey Nsa from the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida. The Harn, under the guidance of African art curator Susan Cooksey, asked me to acquire a complete Ebonko costume (Fig. 8) for their permanent collection and the upcoming show “Africa Interweave: Textile Diasporas” (see Cooksey 2011, 2016:79). This led to a number of commissions from other institutions, such as an Ebonko ensemble for the Fitchburg Art Museum, for the installation of their “Global Africa” exhibition. More recently, I returned for a fifth field trip in 2016 with three more commissions for Bassey Nsa: a raffia Ekpe masquerade costume (Fig. 9) for my own institution, Miami University's Art Museum (Ohio), as well as two complete masquerade ensembles for the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (Figs. 2–3), a raffia Ekpe mask and an Ebonko costume.24
Bassey Nsa's level of satisfaction was confirmed when, after the completion of our first commission in 2010, we travelled to the bank, receiving the payment via Western Union together. In fact, after I competed the paperwork, I asked the bank teller to hand Bassey Nsa the money to count and confirm the amount for himself. Little did I realize, this went a long way for our relationship, as it eliminated any doubt that Bassey Nsa might have had. When we left the bank and climbed in my car, Bassey Nsa asked me how much I would like as a “dash,” a Nigerian term for showing gratitude or appreciation monetarily. In return, I said, “Nothing. This is your money, you earned it.” Bassey Nsa refused my refusal, indicating that a “dash” was customary; so we agreed that he could follow Ekpe protocol and simply buy me a drink to celebrate. In the end, he saw that my intentions were clear and that in no way was I skimming off the top or taking advantage of our agreement. This is precisely why I am not in favor of just paying for knowledge, but rather advocate for a patronage or commission model when working with traditional-based artists: There is no trust gained in just blindly handing over money. The recipient might be preoccupied with how much is being withheld or how much the researcher is gaining from the transaction. Without knowing the original amount both parties are working with, trust is hard to achieve when exchanging money in Nigeria. From these experiences, I learned that when handling money in this manner, it is best to be as transparent and truthful as possible. Bassey has been very content with not only our agreements, but also with the transparent manner in which he is paid: in person, seeing the original amount, and receiving that exact total, our relationship and trust has grown significantly.25
While many in our field have commissioned works from artists, few have transparently discussed it, and even fewer have done so over a longer period of time, with the intent to tell the story of a particular traditional-based artist and forge a mutually beneficial relationship for all parties involved. Borgatti's model of commissioning costumes from Ajanaku, which helped ensure his place as financial head of his family,26 is a rare example from which my approach builds. My experiences in commissioning works from Bassey Nsa developed a trustful relationship based on the premise of reciprocity between researcher and artist, one that still thrives as I continue to document the artistic biography of the Nsa lineage—and keeping in mind Bassey Nsa's goals and desired outcomes, possibly developing an exhibition about him and his father down the road.
Research detailing the larger picture and holistic contexts of festival, ritual, and other forms of African traditional-based culture has been the stronghold of the African art history. However, with this broader focus, the individual, while included, is often buried deep within the pages of publications, sometimes relegated to footnotes alone. The time has come to build from previous efforts centering on individual agency and privilege the stories of these unsung innovators, giving face to those traditional-based artists and collaborators fueling the mechanisms of cultural change.
Yet, in working with specialized individuals who “eat from their art,” like traditional-based artist Bassey Nsa, I have argued that we must be mindful of the economic contexts framing their work and livelihoods. We must be sensitive to the issue of “taking without giving back,” transparent with our methods and ways in which we endeavor to forge reciprocity. This is the future reality of ethnographic fieldwork in the increasingly globalized world and neoliberal economy in which we live. And with looking inward at our methods and means of collecting our data, we must also consider how our disregard of the economic issues facing traditional-based artists has indeed disrupted our ability to forge long-term relationships, ultimately weakening our ability to tell their stories and situate traditionally oriented artists within the foreground of African art history.
When I returned to Calabar for my fourth trip, in 2014, Bassey Nsa's outdated structure finally gave way; half of it collapsed, forcing his three children to move in with extended family some distance from their father. With his business on the rise and prominent local patrons donating money to help him stockpile modern building materials, he remained hopeful. When I returned again in 2016, the structure of his cinderblock house was finally complete—the kitchen and second bedroom still required finishing, but he was close to fulfilling the motivation driving much of his artistic career: providing a modern house for his family and honoring his father's legacy. The money earned from the three commissions I brought him in 2016 was used to install underground water pipes and hook up running water to his house, an amenity his family home never had before. Rushing water, my continued work with him, and examples of contemporary traditional-based masquerade costumes preserved in Western Museums are, I would argue, paths forging sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships between artist and researcher long into the future.
Fieldwork in Calabar and the Cross River State, Nigeria, was conducted between 2008–2016 as a Foreign Language Area Studies fellow (2008 and 2009) and as a Fulbright-Hays Scholar (2009–2010). My previous institution, Kendall College of Art and Design, Ferris State University, funded my summer 2014 trip. The Summer Research Award program, through the Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, from my present institution, Miami University, Ohio, funded my 2016 trip.
In presenting “traditional” in quotes, I refer to the traditional/contemporary dichotomy to which readers of African Arts and students and researchers of African art history are very well aware. Both terms are fraught with temporal generalization, especially as one considers how longstanding African art forms are indeed fluid and ever-changing, not a product of cultural stasis as the “traditional” label suggests. To avoid these generalizations, I employ the phrase “traditional-based.” The discussion of the place of “tradition” in urban Calabar as a recognized local category is a topic that demands attention. However, such a topic is beyond the scope of this essay.
In looking at the collection history of African art during the colonial period, one deeply entrenched in the colonial/colonized relationship, it was common that colonial anthropologists, district officers, and missionaries simply took what they wanted or destroyed objects that challenged their authority. This tendency no doubt inspired a more recent trend where some collectors specifically sought out anonymous “non-Western” artifacts, feeding an “exotic” characterization of an art form produced by a culture and not an individual (for more see Price 1989).
Fischer recently republished Dan Artists as a reformulated book, featuring more photographs, an epilogue, and DVD supplement (see Fischer 2014).
Some of these are a brief essay on Santigie Sesay, a caver from Sierra Leone (Richards 1977), an insightful comparison between the full-time Edo artist Chief Ovia Idah and the part-time Isoko carver Eture Egbedi (Peek 1985), a brief survey of individual Shona artists (Dewey 1986), a discussion of Mende carvers accompanied with autobiographies from six artists (Phillips 1989), and the comprehensive essay on the Idoma artist Ojiji (Kasfir 1989).
Ottenberg also commissioned several pieces from Okoro that are now found in US museums. Some years later, Ottenberg (1989) authored an article reflecting on his primary research and the impact his book had on Afikpo arts in Nigeria. In this article, he discussed a number of emerging artists and noted how his book sparked increased interests and commercial opportunities for Afikpo artists.
Other contributions included Mary Nooter Roberts's (1998) examination of Luba notions of artistic identity, compared to the constructed names of anonymous Central African master artists within Western contexts; Olabiyi Babalola Yai's (1999) discussion of how the Yoruba critic shapes the notoriety of artists; and Susan Vogel's (1999) questioning of the local importance of authorship, arguing that naming attribution is inherently different than what generally happens in Western contemporary art contexts.
Some significant publications since the late 1990s centering on traditional-based artists include, but are not limited to, Nevadomsky's work with contemporary Benin casters (1997), Strother's examination of Pende artists and masquerade innovation (1998), and Barbara Thompson's essay on Namsifueli Nyeki, a Tanzanian ceramic artist (2007).
See Fenton (2016a) for a broader discussion on the economics of African art.
Nsibidi is an imaged and performed esoteric knowledge system of the Cross River complex. For more on nsibidi, especially its role in the Ekpe society, see Fenton (2015).
Ekpenyong Bassey Nsa is a chief and titleholder in the Ekpe Society. Bassey Nsa took his title in December 2009; his title is Murua Okpoho. His father was also a chief of Ekpe, and he held the respected title: Mbakara. Both were confirmed at the Eyo Ema Ekpe lodge in Creek Town. While both spent their formative years in Creek Town, they lived majority of their adult lives in Calabar South.
Interviews with Ekpe chiefs Efiom Ekpenyong, October 22, 2009; Iyamba (Efik Ekpe lodge head) Efiok Ekpenyong Nsa, February 23, 2010; and Okon Etim Effanga, February 5, 2010.
Interview with Chief Ekpenyong Bassey Nsa, January 11, 2010
Informal discussion with Chief Bassey Ekpenyong Nsa, summer of 2016.
While this essay focuses on male traditional-based artists, the economics issues framing artistic innovation is not solely a masculine enterprise. In fact, in Calabar, many female artists compete within the traditional-based art market. Most are bead artists and embroiders. Some are also leaders and members of female dance troops that position themselves within the patronage of community or state funded festivals. For discussion of gender beyond Calabar, see Frank (1994, 2002).
Another example of artistic competition beyond the visual arts are Nyoro masking events, where Ekpe masqueraders train and compete in large public arenas for fame and cash prizes (for more see Fenton 2016c)
Discussion of Bassey Nsa's innovations on his father's technique, approach, color theory, etc., is based on interviews with Bassey Nsa as well as my own comparison and analysis of photographs and visual evidence of his father's work. Most photographs are located in Bassey Nsa's family photograph album; he has allowed me to digitize all examples of his father's work for my own collection.
Calabar is home to the Efik, Efut, and Qua-Ejagham peoples. Large populations of Ibibio, Igbo, and other Nigerians inhabit the city as well. It is also a city where many internationals live and work. It is safe to say that the ethnic makeup of Calabar is complex. Ekpe and Mgbe (the Qua-Ejagham equivalent) are deeply woven into the history of Calabar. Despite Efik and Qua-Ejagham (and to a lesser extent Efut), claims over the ownership of Ekpe/Mgbe, masquerade commissions across ethnic lines are not frequent but common. For example, the institution known as Calabar Mgbe was founded in the late 1990s as an attempt to provide cross-ethnic unity and a common voice for Ekpe/Mgbe affairs. It comprised various Ekpe and Mgbe members from Calabar and other areas of the Cross River region. Ekpenyong Bassey Nsa was the institutions' primary artist, taking commissions from a number of ethnic groups that sought out Calabar Mgbe for assistance acquiring masquerade costumes. However, since the passing of its founding member, Etubom B.E. Bassey, Calabar Mgbe's presence and activity has largely become defunct.
Jean Borgatti, personal communication, email, February 21, 2017. Borgatti worked with Ajanaku mostly in 1973 and also off and on until his death, commissioning a number of masquerade costumes now found in many museums including, but not limited to, the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Newark Art Museum, American Museum of Natural History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the British Museum.
Attempted interviews with Otutong, during the summer of 2009. In fact, he was unwilling to provide me with his complete name to properly document in this footnote.
Interview with traditional-based artist, Chief Bassey Eyo Edem, February 1, 2010.
During December 2007, Calabar Ekpe and Cuban Abakua members traveled to Paris and performed at the Musée du Quai Branly. The event was led and organized by Ivor Miller and the local association known as Calabar Mgbe. Bassey Nsa accompanied the group as the primary mask artist; his Ebonko was donated to the museum without his permission. The details surrounding the “donation” are unknown by the author. According to Bassey Nsa, he was never reimbursed for his labor and the materials he purchased to create the mask. Bassey Nsa further explained to me that the most profitable season for him is the end-of-the-year festival period. Not being financially settled for his Ebonko, missing the December masking season due to being in Paris, and not making any money from the trip economically crippled him for the first half of 2008.
I would like to thank Jean Borgatti, Consulting Curator of Africa, Oceanic, and Native American Art at the Fitchburg Art Museum, Robert Wicks, Director of Miami University's Art Museum, and Christine Mullen Kraemer, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, for their support and opportunity to continue to commission works from Bassey Nsa.
In terms of pricing and commission costs, I always accept what Bassey Nsa sets. However, at his request, I have given advice in determining fair prices while also considering his profits and net take-away.
Jean Borgatti, personal communication, email, February 21, 2017.