African artists reimagine the humble yellow Jerrycan

Because many in Africa lack access to formal water sources (in Lagos as few as 1 in 10), the yellow jerrycan is everywhere. Peruse any news article about girls on the continent and count the jerrycans, sitting beside a muddy pond, being filled underneath a water pump, balanced precariously by a child scarcely larger than one.

Originally designed by the German military, Allied forces eventually recognised their superior design and manufactured millions, helping to change the course of the Second World War, making a particular impact on the North African campaign.

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image courtesy of the artist kharumwa.tumblr.com

Since then the cans have proliferated across the continent, shipped to African ports filled with cooking oil and diesel and repurposed to carry water, local brew, petrol. Today they are manufactured locally in many places on the continent, but because of relative poverty and their enduring durability, most are recycled and reused over and over again.

In Ghana they are named Kufuor gallons, after the presidency marked by the 1994 water crisis. This history, as well as the omnipresence of the yellow containers in a landscape burdened by plastic waste, make them attractive options for artists who are interested in commenting on the political.

In the jerrycans Jeremiah Quarshie sees a symbol of the strength of Ghanaian women which he then represents in his hyperrealist portaits. In his paintings, the cans are a throne for women of diverse backgrounds. They are the great equalizer; during the water crises, rich or poor, everyone needed them.

“It always looks like African women carry a certain magnitude of strength.”

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Jeremiah Quarshie

Serge Attukwei Clottey’s Afrogallonism movement uses jerrycans to make large scale installations and performance art that comments on waste and the environment.

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Serge Attukwei Clottey via Contemporaryand

 

Deeply embedded in the community in which he works, Clottey’s expansive works ask people to consider alternative uses for the plastic rather than throwing them into the gutters and onto the beach.

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Photo of the artist via Griotmag

Other artists take advantage of human pareidolia to give life to the otherwise anonymous and identical objects. In his masks, Beninois artist Romuald Hazoumè continues a tradition of Yoruba mask-making, imbuing each with the symbols of the orishas.

He does this most effectively in his breathtaking work “La Bouche du Roi” which uses jerrycans to make the link between the transatlantic slave trade and contemporary black market petrol-runners between Benin and Nigeria. The work, which references the 18th-century print of the Brookes, a slave ship that was used by abolitionists, is a deeply powerful meditation on past and continued economic exploitation, in which the dehumanised petrol containers (slaves) are given back their identities.

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Romuald Hazoumé’s La Bouche du Roi

In Kenyan artist Cephas Mutua Muthini’s work the jerrycan becomes not the individual, but the everyman. Depicting scenes of protest that are common across the continent and the globe, the angry men could be anyone, anywhere. His work portrays both human capacity for war and and an innate desire for peace.

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image courtesy of the artist
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image courtesy of the artist

The jerrycans are a favoured subject for Ugandan photographer Martin Kharumwa. He’s a friend of mine, so I asked him to talk about why

“It is uniquely minimalist and beautiful which appeals to me, I tried to see if I can glamourize this mundane thing”

In one series, Kharumwa photographs the various objects used to seal the jerrycan after the red cap has long been lost.

“It spoke to these little everyday sculptures that we do.” His work has more to say about African ingenuity. Indeed the yellow jerrycans seem to be one item in an ultra-capitalist world that has escaped extreme branding, commodification and planned obsolescence.

“The brokenness of something doesn’t justify it not being used, like a lost piece doesn’t justify you getting a new one, you just find a creative way to seal the cap”

Jerrycans! Whether weighted by history or asymbolic and appealing in their anonymity, African artists continue to be inspired by their ability to be remade anew.

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Courtesy of the artist kharumwa.tumblr.com
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Reclaiming Lady

My current auditory obsession is this remake of Fela Kuti’s 1974 song Lady, by tUnE-yArDs, featuring ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo and Akua Naru. It is the first single from the second Red Hot compilation, (RED) Hot + Fela, which will raise funds for HIV/AIDS research.

My love for this version is so strong it is almost sexual. Angelique Kidjo is a goddess as always, her lead vocals are full of grunts and gymnastics that call to mind Fela’s energetic stage presence. ?uestlove, the biggest proponent of Fela in mainstream Western music is as ever, the cool backbone of the track. tUnE-yArDs quirky harmonies are just left-of-centre enough to stand on top of the amazing things the brass section, represented by Rubblebucket, are doing. This version manages to inject even more energy into the song, which if you know anything about Fela Kuti and his long musical reign at The Shrine, is quite an achievement. The climax of the vocal harmonies and brass at the end, will make your arm hair stand up and take notice.

Fela’s music was always political, and Merrill Garbus’ (of tUnE-yArDs) choice to populate this song with female vocalists is a political one. The original song was a criticism of what Fela saw of African women’s embrace of Western values.

If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be Lady o”

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“This house is not for sale”

A few things to love about this video

  • “This house is not for sale” #onlyinAfrica
  • “The only MC with an MSc”
  • The dude at the end with the diastema talking to Naeto C (you can’t hear what he’s saying but it still warms my heart)

Bobby Boulders directs this fantastic, proudly African music video

Link Africa

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“Whatever cry we cry is not heard outside of here.”

In the Gulf, a reporter jumps into oil-covered waters, in Washington a woman interrupts a hearing to pour oil over herself, and a BP executive is summoned to the White House. In the Niger Delta, half a world away there is only silence. Where children splashed and fishermen sang as they cast for shrimp and crabs there is now the kind of quiet you find in mortuaries, not estuaries.

Estimates say that up to 2.5 million gallons of oil could be spilling into the Gulf of Mexico each day. The Niger Delta has borne the brunt of some 546 million gallons over the past 50 years.

Let me type that again for you: five hundred and forty six million gallons of oil have been spilled in the Niger delta over the past five decades.

According to a New York Times article:

“The oil spews from rusted and aging pipes, unchecked by what analysts say is ineffectual or collusive regulation, and abetted by deficient maintenance and sabotage. In the face of this black tide is an infrequent protest — soldiers guarding an Exxon Mobil site beat women who were demonstrating last month, according to witnesses — but mostly resentful resignation.”

A third of the US’s crude oil comes from Nigeria, and though the Niger Delta region contributes nearly 80 percent of its government’s revenue, its inhabitants haven’t seen any benefits. Life expectancy there is the lowest in Nigeria and in addition to a loss of livelihood as most of the marine and bird life disappear, people of this area must deal with gas flares, polluted water, and government-sanctioned oil thieves.

“President Obama is worried about that one,” Claytus Kanyie, a local official, said of the gulf spill, standing among dead mangroves in the soft oily muck outside Bodo. “Nobody is worried about this one. The aquatic life of our people is dying off. There used be shrimp. There are no longer any shrimp.”

Where is the media attention?

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Music is the Weapon of the Future II: Arrest the Music!

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a Nigerian musician, the creator of Afrobeat, political activist, thorn in the side of six different Nigerian administrations and it is impossible to discuss African protest music without discussing him, his music and his politics.Of his music Tejumola Olaniyan writes in his book Arrest the Music! Fela and his Rebel Art and Politics,

“To listen to Fela’s music then is to listen to a kind of cultural, specifically musical, “biography” of the postcolonial African state: an account of the state’s crisis-ridden life so far as seen by oppositional music”

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