By Nii B. Andrews.
Last week a woman was chosen as running mate by a major party in Ghana’s Presidential election scheduled for Dec 2020.
And of course, since then, there have been numerous public comments – a significant number of which have been totally unedifying and or undignified.
The whole affair has left some of us still, waiting to exhale.
Then this past weekend, while self-isolating and leafing through the exhibition monograph of 1983 from UCLA “The Art of Power: The Power of Art – Studies in Benin Iconography” lodged in our library, a 17th century architectural plaque arrested my attention.
As first pointed out by William Fagg in 1958, it is a unique plaque; it is the only Benin architectural plaque that shows a female.
As with other plaques that depict naked boys and adult males, there is extensive body decoration. This has been suggested as representative of body painting that was still evident within Benin in the 1950s.
The figure has a distinctive marking from the forehead down to the bridge of the nose. This aligns with the area where sacrificial blood was placed by the priests on participants during ceremonies.
The leopard resting on the figure’s left shoulder alludes to the power of the female; an uncontested truth in Africa from time immemorial.
The Oba of Benin was the ruler of the kingdom; his appellation was EKPEN N’OWA (the leopard of the house). Leopards were his kingly counterpart; he kept them as pets in the palace to symbolize his kingship over town, forest and beyond.
What is even more intriguing is that structural and aesthetic analysis of the figure by Fagg showed that the depiction of female morphology was deliberately done by the artist at the time the plaque was executed.
Was this an assertion that the Oba was both male and female?
Now, does all this not provide guidance for our current epoch? Does it not tell us that gender per se simply plays into identity politics and what is required is merit and ability?
The contemporary artist, Marcellina Akpotojor, dovetails all this into her mixed media work, EYES ON THE GOLD II; a striking depiction of another powerful poised female.
The piece depicts a young lady elegantly dressed – short modest dress with round low cut neckline, upswept coiffure, tasteful jewelry and sling back pencil heeled shoes.
She is confidently perched on an upholstered sofa, handbag at her side – and she looks straight ahead to the viewer across a checkered floor; her shadow plays over her left shoulder.
The 3D effect of the figures is accentuated through the use of Ankara fabrics which are revived pieces’ sourced from fashion houses who would otherwise discard them. They are layered with designs and symbols
Akpotojor’s technical virtuosity is seen by the subtle shadows also present on the floor.
By the lady’s right foot, a leopard sits patiently and fully attentive.
Has Akpotojor attempted to update the 400 year old architectural plaque for our generation?
Perhaps she has, while also deliberately leaving strategic gaps in her figures – the sofa, the neckline and face…..and the checkered floor.
Will we ever learn the real truths about Africa and about ourselves; when will we refuse to be lied to?
If and when we are able to do all that, then we should all be able to exhale, to breathe, for there is always a leopard of the house.
In a fore telling Akpotojor has rendered her leopard without any gaps.