supported by the Norwegian Arts Council


A Show About How Things Gradually Grow Faint and Disappear







About two years ago, I started researching the possibility of a parallel painting history, an African painting history that differs from the dominant euro-centric one.


“African” as a concept may signal commonality, in the sense of a shared historical experience, but it is by no means a product of cultural similarities. Elusive as it may be, Africa is a complex intellectual construct that means different things to different people. For sure, Africa is also a diverse and highly complex historical entity. Due to slavery, colonialism and their resultant mass displacements and diasporas of African peoples and cultures, it is no longer possible to speak of Africa or African as a mere geographic entity or locale. In that context, whatever it is we mean by “African,” including of course African arts and culture, is the product of a historically complex1.


Looking into Ethiopian Church paintings2, I can't help it but to think that Ethiopian paintings are the root of all modern african paintings today. Obviously, this claim is hard to prove. But I

have my reasons to believe in it.


The history of Christianity in Africa began in the first century when Mark the Evangelist started the Orthodox Church of Alexandria in about the year 43. Which means Ethiopia came to be christian way before Europe and that they illustrated the same stories that was illustrated by the european masters later on. What's interesting is the huge difference in the way the Ethiopian painters told those stories, their paintings were simplified, almost cartoonish. It was similar to the Coptic version of Late Antique and Byzantine Christian art. It was also, very different. The people on those paintings were black, angels were flying faces, a black head with wings attached to it. The colors were also different, they were more vivid and lively.


Looking at other parts of Africa that has no direct connection to Egypt, like the Yoruba of south west Nigeria, you will find similar standards of aesthetics, to those used in Ethiopian church paintings. These standards are for precise qualities that describe a painting or a sculpture and indicates what is good or bad. Resemblance to a human being, luminosity, selfcomposure, and youthfulness. The same particularly well- articulated and studied set of standards seems recognizable to other West and Central African cultures.


One might think that the most important way to praise a figure sculpture is to comment on its resemblance to a human being. But, African artists seldom create likenesses of particular

people, actual animals, or the actual form of invisible spirits in their art. Rather, works were intended to be like their living subjects, recognizable for what they are, though not mirror

images or likenesses. On the other hand “Above the Mediterranean, what it looked like was more important than what it was or what it did”3.


Reaching this point makes my heart lighter, because it gives me a clear understanding of the intentional misunderstanding by the Euro-centric art historians that is still been taught in art

schools all-over the globe, even in Africa. The one that promotes terminologies such as primitivism and the like.


In this show, I will investigate the contemporary african sign paintings. A style that has flourished for decades throughout the cities, towns, and villages of Africa. Painted lorries, wall

decorations, bar paintings, political portraits and barber shop signs, have turned streets into veritable galleries of visual images. A practical, attention-getting art form, sign painting has

always been a commercial necessity, – an imperative for those with services or products to sell. By the 1940s, sign painters, motivated by this imperative, had created a genre of pictorial and graphic advertising and commercial decoration throughout colonial Africa.


One can easily find a link between the ancient ethiopian church paintings and this style. You could almost find the same distortions, as if there is a rule to make those “mistakes”. You can easily trace the choice of colors used as well to Ethiopia.


I will paint poems, stories and little personal secrets about love and music and other important things. This show is about how things gradually grow faint and disappear.


Fadlabi, Oslo, November 2013