In cities, persons are shadows cast by places, and no generation lasts as long as a street.
Recent African incursions into Europe, Hanibal and Al-Andaluz aside, have tended to be of a more peaceable variety. The Andalusian artist Pablo Picasso, for example, was totally blown away by the West African sculpture that was being imported into Paris. These transformative encounters launched many European and American artists into unanticipated vision quests of their own. Frank McEwen, a British painter who had long been swimming against the current in the company of Picasso, Brancusi, Braque, Matisse and Leger, arrived in colonial Rhodesia in the mid 1950s to head the new National Art Gallery. This was incidentally just in time for him to support and assist in the rebirth Zimbabwe was initiating in its rediscovery of sculpture.
Joram Mariga had already begun sculpting independently and had formed a studio school of his own in rural Nyanga. With the help of a well earned and healthy antipathy for Western conventionalizing, McEwen encouraged Mariga and others away from tourist market stereotypes toward explorations of their own cultural and personal aesthetics. McEwen also formed the Studio Workshop at the museum, which provided classes, tools, materials, workspace and criticism for developing artists. Some of these participants later became prominent as contributors among the founding generation of Zimbabwean sculptors, which includes along with Mariga: John Takawira, Sylvester Mubayi, Joseph Ndandarika, Henry Munyaradzi. Bernard Takawira, Boira Mteki and Nicholas Mukomberanwa. Subsequent exhibitions at the Rodin Museum, the Yorkshire Sculpture Gardens and the Museum of Modern Art brought the work into direct contact with people in Europe and North America.
Such attention and exposure not only reconfirmed the vitality and authority of current African creative work, it also highlighted once again the parochial and narcissistic limits of Western art’s conventional timeline, a historical orientation that often recognizes and celebrates as serious, central or relevant only art that’s rooted in deliberate progression out of the European Renaissance (and if not, is at least positioned as loyal opposition). Within this mythology, art that emerges out of other dialogues and experiential contexts, whether geographically Western or from elsewhere, is peripherally iced out of full participation in the conversation, at best granted the gracious courtesies afforded important but temporary guests, and then ever so delicately treated to Plato's prescriptions for a Socratic republic's handling of poets.
To a great extent, this remains a vestigial habit from the centuries old European craze for an “evolutionary chain of being and culture” that pegs depth of artistic and intellectual insight to levels of technological development. But, living artists in the overdeveloped world of the late 20th and 21st century have likewise been often subjected to gatekeeper’s timelines concerning their own evolutions that confuse the unforeseeable character of genuine artistic growth with the certified careerist trajectories of investment bankers, police detectives or dentists -- as if the vital confirmations could be found other than in the art itself.
You can't find this style of artistic thinking in the U.S. Formal art classes are like being a rapper in the opera - for black artists, you're out of place. Over here, the artistic styles and way of thinking resonate inside you in a way that European-centered art doesn't.
In contrast with armchair bureaucratic speculation, an artist’s responsibility gravitates more often in practice toward effecting the complex syntheses of lived experience that eventually yield artistic conception and action. The apprenticeship of Detroit born sculptor M. Scott Johnson (1968) with Nicholas Mukomberanwa (1940 - 2002), one of Zimbabwe’s elder statesmen, demonstrates artists’ frequent disregard for such institutionalized policings of artistic value. Perhaps unsurprisingly, alongside the distances between their locations and cultural environments, their respective artistic evolutions share a meandering pattern of experiments, trials, errors and discoveries that convened in the potent and distinctive sculptural statements that they’ve both realized.
- M. Scott Johnson
Migration shaped early family life for Nicholas Mukomberanwa as it did for Johnson. Mukomberanwa’s parents moved from Buhera in Manicaland Province to live on an asbestos mountain in Midlands Province next to the mines in Zvishavane, not so far from Great Zimbabwe. Johnson’s Grandparents relocated from Oklahoma to the Detroit area during World War II to work for captain-of-industry Henry Ford, settling in Inkster. Inkster was Ford’s black company town analogue to neighboring apartheid Dearborn, site of the gigantic Rouge Plant. (The Rouge River, an area of play for the young Johnson and his friends, meanders its way through Inkster, Dearborn and Detroit en route to the Great Lakes and has been notorious for both its pollution as well as for tall tales of gigantic mutant carp.) An ambience of industrial labor and the wastes of manufacturing, with hints of the possibility of their recombination, flavored the early growth of both artists.
The Rouge Plant is, however, in no respect a Great Zimbabwe; but what is important is what that oversized edifice brought to Detroit. This historically e pluribus unum, “one company” boomtown (the “big three” automakers, with alternating busts) afforded a leveling, if not democratizing, opportunity for people with working class options. In the case of African Americans, work in the auto plants offered many a source of income rivaled only by the bygones of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street; and the pent up demand of deferred aspiration found some cultivation in the next generation’s access to solid public education for all. (Cass Technical High School, for example, has been justly renowned for even more than its high level music and art programs.) Detroit in many ways fulfilled its role as a northern Timbuktu for African Americans.
The promises of Detroit, however, have often resided under built in ceilings. The additional deferrals imposed by the automaton gruel of assembly line routine have also lubricated incentives for compensatory self medication. These object lessons, among others, galvanized for some a stimulus to do anything but ever, ever set foot inside a factory. While, this by itself might be more than enough to birth a creative community, add to this the restless scale of the city’s population, its tough industrial dynamism, its pangs of unfulfilled potential to Detroit’s autonomous distance from other urban centers, and the flavors of this specific brew begin to exude.
Detroit’s peculiar creative attitude resonates as more Eastern than Chicago but still Midwest to New York, and unlike either, is relatively exempt from the hustling imperatives of a cultural magnet. New York may revolve around marketing, but Detroit’s raison d'être has been production; and where Manhattan’s vertical compression may favor velocity, Detroit’s distances have stimulated acceleration. Yet, in contrast with urban transportation hubs, Detroit is not really en route to or from anywhere else. There’s a confluence of dense metropolitan vitality with a beautifully housed tree lined shade of country isolation.
Developing artists in Detroit have tended to grow less with one eye on fitting into trends than one might coming up in New York, and the prevailing industrial ethos learns more toward substantive creative production over the simple strategic effecting of appearances. A competitive, do-it-yourself attitude has instead fostered local innovation. The most obvious evidence of these Detroit tendencies shows in its prodigious vernacular music from McKinney’s Cottonpickers through its impeccable beboppers, idiosyncretists such as Yusef Lateef, Roy Brooks and the Jones brothers, the entire Motown contingent, Aretha Franklin, rockers such as the MC5 and Iggy Stooge, Charles Moore’s and Dan Spencer’s (et al) rhythmic avant-garde, Farouq Z. Bey‘s Griot Galaxy, Parliament Funkadelic, Derrick May, Anthony Shakir and Eminem. But part of this bias favoring substance over semblance is also that there really isn’t all that much to hustle after in Detroit. These limited options for expansion have driven another of this city’s most important exports: its artists, who however, take this Detroit attitude with them on the road, thank you.
As with many others in Zimbabwe, along with the search for better wages, the availability of schooling (not a very high British priority) was an important motive in the Mukomberanwa family move to Zvishavane. By his late teens, Nicholas found himself studying at the unique Serima Mission, where its director, a Swiss priest and architect named Father Groeber, included wood carving among its studies. Using West African carvings as models, Groeber organized and encouraged indigenous carving of Christian imagery. Mukomberanwa remained at the mission until he was expelled for sculpture that was deviating too far from the requisite Christian subject matter.
I still appreciate what I learned about tools at Serima Mission, but then, I began to find at Serima Mission (We) thematically were lost in the fixed imagination of Western Christianity, I didn’t value fear. I needed more.
- Nicholas Mukomberanwa
M. Scott Johnson’s first lessons in direct carving came from the hermit living in the backyard of his Afro-Creek grandmother in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. This is also where he first discovered what he calls “the ecstasy of resistance“, which is characteristic of a fundamental distinction between subtractive sculpture and the alternative procedures of casting or assemblage.
To arrive through taking away precludes the options of appropriating from outside one’s direct physical contact with the actual material. This also forgoes the luxury of abstracting a sculptural body into an afterthought of visuality or a whim of conceptual license. Proffering anything but a tabula rasa, wood or stone ferry personal histories and momenta to an intersubjective encounter. Carving negotiates potentially contrary wills, and the defining absences of subtractive sculpture is a body of human action. For the sculptor, however, these cavities are far from negations. These are where all knowledge must be reconstituted as dance.
Nicholas had such humility that he was able to become as pliable as the medium, and then he could allow the spirit to work with him. He’d start with a chasing hammer and the tool would find the path of least resistance in the stone. He made use of a lot of “not doing” in this way and would be working on a lot of pieces simultaneously. The whole process was really open ended and unplanned.
- M. Scott Johnson
Mukomberanwa moved on to the national capital and became involved in McEwen‘s Studio Workshop in 1962. But, like many contemporary artists, Mukomberanwa needed some kind of day job to keep himself and his family going. There not being many alternatives, he took on employment with the British South Africa Police, one of the few steady jobs available at the time. Mukomberanwa juggled this unavoidable conflict of interest for years, sculpting even on his lunch hours the way Coltrane practiced between sets until, finally, he was fired for carving on the job in 1976. Fortunately by that time, the current of international support for Zimbabwean sculpture had risen to the point that he was able to sculpt full time for the rest of his life.
Scott Johnson loved stones, holding them, collecting, understanding them -- a mineral affinity that prompted studies in geology alongside Dr. Warren Perry's African American anthropology courses at Western Michigan University in 1992. He began experimenting with conceptual installations, exhibiting in a space he opened and ran while still an undergraduate. But what eventually pulled his coat to where he might fly creatively was witnessing virtuoso Yoruba sculptor Lamidi Fakeye at work on a commission at the University, carving a bust while tossing Johnson an epiphany.
Ears opened to the imperative of finding and learning from an artist working at that deep a creative level, Johnson volunteered with Operation Crossroads Africa in 1994 and was stationed in the cradle of contemporary sculpture in Africa: Zimbabwe, thus initiating a back and forth shuttlle between the North American art world and his studies with a number of the local carvers working off of the endless alleyways of Bulawayo: all this in response to a powerful vision of something he was feeling but still could not yet see.
While in Zimbabwe I did a few things to support my studies. At one time, I went to work in a chrome mine, one of the most incredible experiences I had and probably a turning point in my career. During this experience my retinas were burned and I was blinded temporarily from the light of a welding machine. I didn't know whether I would ever be able to see again. After that I had the courage to approach Nicholas with my work.
- M. Scott Johnson
M. Scott Johnson had already met Nicholas Mukomberanwa at an opening at the Reece Gallery on 57th street in New York City, and Nicholas had invited him to visit. And in 1996, he arrived at Mukomberanwa's farm in Ruwa, about an hour out of Harare, hoping to be accepted as an apprentice. But first he had to respond to a direct challenge from Mukomberanwa, where Nicholas said, “I’ll give you 2 weeks to prove that you have a vision. Make one piece, and I’ll decide if you can stay.” By this time, world class prices had already begun to catch up to the level of his sculpture; and in a country that was savoring the deficit flavors of transnational finance, market incentives for bootlegging a Mukomberanwa were becoming quite understandably legion. Nicholas wanted no seasoned imitators anywhere near his farm. Johnson stayed three years.
With Nicholas Mukomberanwa, M. Scott Johnson was able to witness directly the skill, speed and deftness with which a master engineer, a master craftsman of balance, composition and weight could make his own way through any sculptural challenge and not confine himself in any way to a signature style. As Johnson was adopted into his mentor’s household, he also encountered firsthand the high stakes machinations of the art business and was futher able to observe a living model for integrating creative work with family.
“Why do you dig into the stone and dig into the stone?” Nicholas once asked his American apprentice. M. Scott Johnson may carve right up to the edge of cracking the marble, pushing exaggeration out into extremes. Reflecting on this, he contrasts a diasporan hybrid African American attitude with what he noted as more grounded, more integrated and confident continental African self conceptions. In America, where no single tradition, no inheritance can be so secure, identity has to be continually reinvented and even forcefully reasserted.
Freaking it is an American thing, a forte of tall tale provocateurs like John Henry and Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, which might be heard concretely in the excesses of Coltrane’s collapsing of massive pitches into a telescoped phrase’s single gesture, or sartorially executed in a cut of red pants against alligator shoes. Going further -- and going still further: to edge the brink is to unambiguously stamp one's work as one's own while simultaneously signifying to elders a strength and capacity to carry on the mantle. And in Johnson’s case, there’s inevitably just sheer, Detroit style, take no prisoners competitiveness – a competition as much with himself as with any and all comers.
From immigrants to confidence men to race traitors to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, America (Vespucci’s ersatz real estate moniker for Turtle Island) abounds with masks and reinvented lives and identities. And for those subjected to the one drop rule, continual hyper-accentuated redifferentiation is both application of a Pan-African aesthetic that activates the invisible and unheard through striking contrasts and an effulgent creative resilience that frustrates the pathological compulsion of those donning whiteface to erase them.