Itís Personal, Sokari Douglas Camp CBE Aarti wa Njoroge
“[L]’histoire de l’humanité pouvait en grande partie se confondre avec l’histoire de la maîtrise des métaux…” La Carte et le territoire, Michel Houllebecq.
Even with the arrival of high precision engineering, metal, for sculptors like Sokari Douglas Camp (b. 1958, Buguma, Nigeria, and now living in England), simultaneously invites and defies, succumbing to extreme temperature or pressure.
Sokari cajoles her galvanized steel, coiling it into curls of hair that resemble much more fragile ribbons, like Harrison Mbiru, the mechanic who bends his into shapes such as the Horse-riding lady.
She beats it to resemble “Congolese effigy figurines, small wood carved sculptures”. Legs look like logs, the knees suitably bearing a resemblance to bumps on tree trunks that have not been smoothed away.
“What makes Sokari Douglas Camp’s […] sculpture distinctive is that it is made out of steel and fabricated rather than carved – manufactured rather than handmade,” Artnet wrote about Relative Pelican: An Installation of Steel Sculptures, Sokari’s 2010 solo exhibition in New York. (I have omitted ‘African’ as it is superfluous.)
What also distinguishes it is that traditionally “Kalabari women […] are not allowed to carve wood or sculpt in steel and their roles in masquerades are limited. Douglas Camp crosses the boundaries of male and female domains, just as she transcends geographic boundaries.”
Unlike Benin metal sculpture, her figures “are not welded together into a seamless whole […], but often made of fragments tenuously held together by small welds, suggesting they can fall apart at a moment, or are Humpty Dumptys that have been put together, and toughened by being made of steel rather than eggshell.”
Extrapolating from Houllebecq’s comments, you could think that Sokari’s sculptures are less sophisticated than, say, Osamede Obazee’s, but is it so simple? The resistant vulnerability Artnet found carries over into It’s Personal, Sokari’s recent exhibition at the Tiwani Contemporary Gallery in London. Sometimes what may appear to be crude in itself holds a message.
Similarly pointed is her use of the unwanted. Unlike artists who recycle found materials into aesthetic and sometimes utilitarian objects, creating a new life for plastic bags and bottles, bottle tops, flip flops, guns, car parts, redundant railway tracks and stray pieces of driftwood, for Sokari, the discarded is to be utilised as an accessory, a symbol. Cans (tomatoes, fizzy drinks) become breasts; buckets (original, fabricated), masks or a hat.
Less provocative than Chris Ofili’s elephant dung, less cluttered than John Odoch’ameny’s Mass Communication series.
In The Butterfly, Sokari returns to the theme in Close to my Heart (1998), where “Kalabari people generally display photographs in public when someone close has died. (The dead person is shown in good health in an enlarged photograph.”) The bespectacled female figure, whose dress is made of carved butterflies, seems to be reading a book surrounded by more such ephemeral creatures. Does the open book, propped on a standing body in place of a man’s head (instead, the back cover has the acetate of a young man wearing two watches, holding a comb, fingers in a victory sign, baseball cap to the side), signify that she can read him? That he cannot hide his thoughts or behaviour from her? The framed image as a memento is reminiscent of a silver necklace I have from the Gujarati/Rajasthani border, an empty frame waiting for a small photograph.
Sokari contrasts African colours with those of her adopted country, the United Kingdom, taking strings of black, red, yellow and green beads to form a waist chain on a female figure representing her in The Finger, one of a duo of angry sculptures.
The red, white and blue of the Union Jack similarly sit on the buttocks of Waka Shege (a northern Nigerian swear word, according to the exhibition’s press release), representing her British husband. His hands are in the air in attack. It is certainly not Peter Peri’s optimistic, forward-looking Man of the World (1960), holding an open globe. Husband and wife are “symbolic as holders of ailments and possessors of power”.
Perhaps the most poignant piece in the exhibition is the steel and acrylic triptych, Middle Age Middle Rage. On the left and right is the couple in traditional dress at the time of their wedding (his hand is missing, but the angle of his arm implies that they are holding hands), eyes lowered or even closed.
In the middle piece, Sokari is looking ahead, sad; her husband has his head turned to one side, the looser chin showing an older man. They are wearing matching pullovers. The red stripe refers to Manchester, his home town.
The Coca Cola Bird has red feathers, a red waist chain, a red bucket on its head… and two bottles, pointing like weapons, but held seductively, as if this were the invasion of polluting foreign drinks attempting an attractive disguise. Like Birds Extinct Birds, it could be “a memorial to the birds, more broadly animal species, that industrialization has rendered extinct and obsolete.”
Unfortunately School Run, the only piece not from 2011 and the epitome of the parent-child relationship in modern-day Britain, was not present at the time of my visit.
More positively, the women in Two Heat and ‘I’ Heat are red and the men blue, though some of the red has rubbed onto them, representing the warmth that Sokari’s daughters emanate to her. All are adorned by randomly placed gold leaf.
“Driftwood, defunct canes, dhow wood, flip-flops and all manner of jetsam and flotsam” (about Andrew McNaughton, Kenya Arts Diary 2011) turns into animal sculptures, mosaics and furniture.
Driftwood is transformed into bowls, with drinking birds sculpted on the edge, or oversized spoons.
Bottle tops are stamped into hangings (El Anatsui, Ghana) and elephant heads (Cyrus Kabriru, Kenya).
Plastic bags recovered from Kenyan waste dumps are ironically twisted into more durable baskets. Plastic bags and bottles are packed together to form a labyrinth in Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo; within this park is the Museum of Modern Art, where jewellery made from plastic bottles and hair grips is for sale.
Magazines tightly folded become coasters, bowls and trays sold in Lapa street market in Rio.
Mozambican Mabunda defuses guns into thrones, and converts car bumpers and other parts into masks.