Produced by Dr. Jean-Marie Jullienne and compile and edited by co-authors, David Jullienne and Nozomi Kitazawa, Oju Ona: Collection of the South African Museum of African Art is the first book in the planned South African Museum of African Art series. Billed as the introduction to a much larger museum project, the 140 objects presented in the book are a glimpse into a rather unique collection that comprises more than 1600 pieces in total. We interviewed the author to find out more about the project, the artifacts featured and what exactly went in to creating such a culturally-rich book. To read Part 1, click HERE!

Bamum Travelling Stool

You describe the book and this whole movement as a call to action, were you anticipating the results you have come by?
We have had some very positive and encouraging dialogues with Transnet, JDA (Johannesburg Development Agency) and various government officials who are all very enthused about the possibilities raised by a project of this sort and want to be a part of the effort to promote and preserve African art, culture and heritage as well as encourage South Africans to take a greater part in the on-going academic research and debate on the subject.

There will inevitably always be one or two detractors, usually with vested interests in the status quo or cynically warped and anachronistic attitudes that are better suited to by-gone eras but those voices are very much in the minority as far as the feedback we have received is concerned. Besides, we have not gotten to where we are now by paying attention to such myopic negativity.

Instead we prefer to focus on explaining and spreading the dream as far and wide as we can by getting as many champions for the cause on board as possible. We are very grateful and honoured to have the continuing support of several notable individuals who have offered advice, support and assistance in making this dream a reality.

Igbo Mmwo Helmet Mask Kongo Mangaaka Nkisi Nkonde

What separates your book from other collections of African art?
Oju Ona is an introduction and overview of a much larger collection and was conceived as the first in a series of books that will further expand on the collection and the museum. With Oju Ona we tried to avoid simply putting together a catalogue with basic descriptions and actually produce something that would give a bit of background and depth to the objects and their intended use, purpose and significance without going too far the other way and coming off as though we were trying to pass ourselves off as experts in the field producing a definitive handbook on African art.

Essentially we wanted to convey the sense of newly discovered wonder and appreciation that we had as laypeople investigating a subject that we were astonished to find was so obscured, exploited and misrepresented and yet was so utterly fascinating and revealing nonetheless.

This is why in parts of Oju Ona we allowed ourselves to take a few detours to tell some of the back-stories, histories and mythologies of some of the more influential cultures and individuals so as to try to ‘place’ the artwork on the page within a human narrative instead of divorcing it entirely from all context as seems to happen all too often in the African art industry.

Djenne Terracotta Figurine

Street artists and handmade crafts are a huge part of the African culture and are the stereotypical idea of African art; will street artefacts be featured in the museum as well?
One of the goals of the South African Museum of African Art project is to provide the right environment for a meaningful dialogue on the problems facing African art and the distinctions separating art from artefact. These are important discussions that are central to an understanding of African identity and vital if we wish to take ownership of the subjects that have a very real impact on us as a country and as individuals as well.

To create a developed and progressive society that is sustainable we have to step up to our responsibility as custodians of our own heritage.

We can only effectively do this by encouraging learning, facilitating academic research, providing a central hub for progressive dialogue and communicating this information and to the people of South Africa and the rest of the World. This is an important question and one that we touch on in the book only briefly as it is one that requires a lot of unpacking and deserves a much larger forum.

For our own part, we feel that without a broader awareness and support from all sectors of society it will be extremely difficult indeed to create the sort of vibrant and dynamic art industry that other developed nations enjoy. The exploitation of Africa’s collective cultural heritage has been as rampant as that of its natural resources but in South Africa this has seemingly been largely ignored – arguably in favour of more pressing matters associated with South Africa’s transition to a free and democratic society.

We feel that it is time that these issues got the attention they deserve and we believe that the time is right for us as a nation to exert ourselves as the responsible custodians and defenders of the heritage that in fact belongs to us all.

Bamileke Royal Throne Cameroon

Many popular museums feature Egypt separately from the rest of Africa in exhibits and contain many more Egyptian items of art, how are you going to make sure that all countries in Africa are fairly represented?
What is amazing to me is that if one goes to the Metropolitan Museum in New York the display on one side is of Egyptian art and on the other side of the hall are displayed the artworks of the major civilisations of the rest of the African continent.

We feel that one of the biggest problems we face is that much of the art that is available is not supported by contextual studies, as is evidenced in the example of the Metropolitan Museum, where the objects in the Egyptian half are accompanied by elaborate descriptions that give context to the work, whereas the art from the rest of the continent is furnished with only the most basic of descriptions and provides very little background.

The rest of Africa has received far less academic attention, which just goes to show how much ground we still have to cover. It is sad that many people today are not aware of any of the other great empires that once existed in Africa apart from those in Egypt – it’s not that they didn’t exist but simply that they don’t get as much academic or media attention.

To read Part 1, click HERE!

Purchase Oju Ona, here!

Bamileke Kwifon Masks Cameroon

interview by Sydney Chesnut, edited by Chanel Carstens