African Landscape and Collages

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Traditional Concepts of African Landscape:

African traditional belief views the “countryside” as permeated with spirits.  In traditional sub-Saharan Africa, ancestral forces, nature spirits and other extra-human and powerful beings populate the landscape. These forces may be benevolent but they are easily the opposite: unpredictable and life-threatening. Thus, the “bush” or African forest is a source of great unease and anxiety.

In contrast, we in the West interpret the “view” differently, emphasizing its serenity, and harmony with the natural world, far removed from the confusion and frustration of human existence.

These paintings give expression to African belief: a forked shape as tree is home to the spirits, whose faces resemble those of the human and animal species, or sometimes a combination of each. Overlapping forces intermingle, transforming one into the other, thereby giving visual expression, as do African masks,  to the most formidable forces inhabiting the African forest. Ancestor, patron spirit, mischievous water spirit, or force of death?  What do you see? What is watching you? One does not enter the “bush” or forest without adequate spiritual protection… and great caution!




The Collages

express the vivacious quality of life in West Africa. The twins refer specifically to a longstanding Yoruba (of Nigeria) tradition of honoring twin births. They figure in the life, culture and art of Nigeria even today. The others point to abundance and fertility, so important to traditional societies, and to the Yoruba diety, Eshu-Elegba, famous for his impact on love, sexuality and fertility. I have done many others; they keep multiplying.

The collages are enjoyable to make: they are small in size, square, and the product of pure intuition. I begin with synthetic Yupo paper, usually wetting portions of it. Yupo allows for loose painting with virtually no overlays, creating a spontaneous and fresh work. (If you try to repaint, your surface will end up muddy and dotted with pieces of the paper’s clay-like coating). There is something satisfying, too, about the use of Japanese products — Yupo synthetic paper stock and origami paper — to create images about another world tradition. Globalization extends to the arts!

Subject matter will come to mind — usually an interpretation of sculptural forms from sub-Saharan Africa. These are old friends as they figured in my teaching for three decades. Occasionally an autobiographical theme makes its presence. In either case, I paint or “drip” pigment on the paper to achieve a rough shape(s). Yupo needs to be thoroughly dry before continuing; this gives me time to think about what is emerging. Then I play with the shapes, adding pieces of origami paper here and there. The image begins to take shape and I help it grow.

Handwerker Gallery, Ithaca College, one of several exhibitions of the African Landscape and Collage series

Having spent some 30 years involved in African art at the university level, I have been steeped in the uniqueness of Africa’s traditions in two and three-dimensional arts for the entirety of my working career.

I use traditional painting, a blend with “weaving” elements, and collage for these works. They all derive from my experience with the culture and artistic expression of West Africans, especially those living in Nigeria. An article in WATERCOLOR magazine expands on the background of these works and gives detailed information on their creation: “Rediscovering Africa,” summer 2003.

Floral arrangement by Irving, TX florist, inspired by “African Ancestors” Irving Art Center annual all-Texas show 2013.


Rich, dense oxides, brilliant reds and oranges, as well as gold leaf and irridescent metallic paints capture the colors of West Africa. The environment is lush along the coast, yet much of the tree cover and foliage has been compromised in the sprawl of urban settings, leaving an underlying hue of beige as the ground for color. This is true for the countryside as well as the towns where earth-formed dwellings (whether roofed with grass or corrugated metal) reflect the color of the soil.

In eastern Nigeria Igbo country, the soil is saturated with iron oxides, giving it a strong red cast wherever it is exposed. While Ithaca subject matter compels me to use a restrained and subtle palette, African themes provide the opportunity to let go with color and to abandon the soft greys and blues of that environment.

African design also emphasizes strong contrasts of shape and color, distinctive from the nuances of Western aesthetics. You can easily see this in African textiles, choices in interior furnishing, no matter how simple, and in the impact of the clothed individual. The drama of dress–whether on woman or man–never ceases to amaze this Westerner. Undoubtedly the collages are a tribute to these preferences. If I can’t wear them (without looking sallow of skin), I can paint them!