Show honors one very talented Fela

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 1, 2003 at 3:38 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- A wide-ranging museum show including art, film, and music by 34 African and black American artists memorializes the tumultuous career of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the charismatic Nigerian creator of Afrobeat music, political activist, post-colonial provocateur, and self-anointed "Black President" of all he surveyed.

The show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan's SoHo district, will run through Oct. 24 and travel next year to San Francisco and London. Titled "Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti," it is one of the most unusual shows to hit New York in several years, and should not be missed by anyone interested in international pop culture.

Fela, as he was known professionally, has a reputation that has kept growing since his death six years ago of an AIDS-related illness at the age of 59. He may not be a household name to non-black Americans, but in Africa and among the African diaspora he is as well known as Jomo Kenyatta or Nelson Mandela and shared their vision of a united Africa rejuvenated after long colonial suppression, a dream as yet unrealized.

A trip to the United States in 1969 drew Fela to the Black Power movement, whose counterculture he adopted along with its permissive attitudes toward sex and drugs. He returned to his native Nigeria, where he was a member of a prominent Yoruba family, to found the Movement of the People, which adopted the Black Power raised-fist salute as a symbol of its determination to overthrow the corrupt and oppressive military government.

Fela ran for office as the Black President but was not elected. He kept himself in the public eye not only by his anti-government diatribes, which landed him in jail several times, but with his music. Building on formal music studies in London and an early fascination with American jazz, Fela pioneered an African pop style called "high life" with a percussive Yoruban beat, a dash of rock, and a hint of Caribbean salsa.

He wrote and performed rhythmically propulsive songs with biting, anti-establishment lyrics, using as his main stage a ramshackle nightclub in Lagos that he called Afrika Shrine despite its erotic entertainment. He lived in a commune behind barbed wire with dozens of wives and declared it an independent state, Kalakuta Republic, which eventually was burned by government soldiers who raped several of his wives and caused the death of his mother.

Fela's career faltered, his music was banned from government radio, and his domestic and public life began to disintegrate by the late 1980s due to heavy use of drugs that appeared to have induced paranoia and caused him to be increasingly isolated. But that did not keep more than a million people from attending his funeral.

Most of these aspects of Fela's career remembered in the paintings, sculpture, drawings, photography, mixed media and sound installations, video, film, computer animation and music at the New Museum are positive, even though his megalomania is apparent.

The cover art for the show, a recent painting by Barkley L. Hendricks titled "Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen," portrays a slim, handsome Fela singing against a backdrop of African woven textiles. He is dressed in red, a microphone in his right hand and his left hand is tugging his crotch. He wears an emblem of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on his chest and a halo on his head.

There also is a painting by Moyo Ogundipe of Fela playing a saxophone and another by Moyo Okediji of Fela demonstrating his vaunted sexual prowess in an underwater setting. Sokari Douglas Camp's sculpture of a nude woman with the word AIDS written on her forehead in red refers to Fela's most fateful encounter. Almost surreal in their imagery are album covers for Fela's music designed by Ghariokwu Lemy.

There is a listening station where visitors can sample Fela's music, and a display of wonderful documentary photographs, many by Femi Bankole Osunla, a member of Fela's entourage. Also on view are three recent videos by Christophe Nanga-Oly, Pascale Marthine Tayou,and Moshekwa Langa that enlarge on Fela's musical and political legacy.

Trevor Schoonmaker, the independent curator who organized the show, said the show is just part of his Fela Project that includes a collection of essays titled "Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway" (Palgrave Macmillan), the exhibition catalog, and a website (www.felaproject.net). More documentary photographs by Osunla also are on exhibit at the Skoto Gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea.

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