A contemporary perspective on an age-old African custom

In ‘Dancing Around the Fire’, Artscoops’ latest online show, co-curator Hyacinthe Kouassi draws on his childhood memories to explore the impact of new technology on traditional practices. 

Hyacinthe with a work by Jules Disso

Hyacinthe Kouassi is known for putting storytelling at the heart of his art projects, so it should come as no surprise that the online show he is co-curating for Artscoops, titled ‘Dancing Around the Fire’, has an intriguing backstory to it.

“If I’m honest, I can’t curate an exhibition without sharing an experience that resonates with me and I hope is enriching to audiences, and this show of contemporary African art is no exception,” he said.

With its roots in an age-old ancestral practice spanning the centuries and carried out across much of the region, ‘Dancing Around the Fire’ certainly ticks those boxes. The theme refers to the longstanding tradition of families and neighbours from villages and tribes gathering together outdoors in the evening to socialise and share stories around a fire. 

Janet Rady

It is explored and interpreted by five emerging artists from across the continent in this show, which represents a collaboration between Kouassi and co-curator Janet Rady, managing director of Janet Rady Fine Art, and runs from September 12 to October 3, 2023. 

The theme is one which resonates deeply with Kouassi, who recalls, firsthand, evenings spent fireside as a boy with friends and family in the village where he grew up on the Ivory Coast. He is also keenly aware of how drastically things have changed in recent years. 

“We had a television when I was a child, but I spent much of my time with friends outdoors exploring the world around us – having adventures and inventing our own games,” he said. “I can see that today’s younger generation spend much more time indoors, in front of screens, barely going out to explore the countryside. I’ve found myself reflecting on the huge attention we’re giving to technology, and social media in particular, thinking that it almost feels as if we’ve reached saturation point. It occurred to me that perhaps I’m from a generation that has passed through a time when there wasn’t enough technology to a point when maybe there is too much.”

These thoughts were at the forefront of Kouassi’s mind during chats he had with his father about times gone by during visits he made from Europe, where he is currently based, to the Ivory Coast.

“The talks around the fire were an important way of passing history down the generations in a warm, lit space, so in a way, we were continuing this tradition,” he said. “I was really keen to jog his memory about the topics, like customs, family and our community, and, through those conversations, the idea emerged for the exhibition.”

The show also reflects Kouassi’s passion for the contemporary African art scene and his desire to promote the work of emerging artists from across the region, which, in this case, explores a theme often embedded in their own ancestry, as he explained. 

“The passing down of ancestral stories around a fire is a tradition that is found across many different countries in Africa,” he said. “I felt that this shared experience of a common custom, together with other similarities, such as language and landscapes, showed promise for creating a show on a theme that overrode country divides.”

The artists featured provide diverse interpretations of the theme, reflecting their individual backstories and styles. Joshua Donkor is a Ghanian-British painter, who uses portraiture as a tool to challenge monolithic portrayals of black identity, while the emerging Cameroonian visual artist Jules Disso is known for narrating stories through the eyes of children. Muramuzi Johnbosco, a contemporary and graffiti artist from the Sheema District of Uganda, brings a different dimension to the theme, as does Affen Segun a self-taught Nigerian artist who began drawing aged 10 after being inspired by the popular national comic ‘Super’. The show also features artworks by Dusabe King, a multi-disciplinary, visual artist based in Kigali, Rwanda, who uses art as a channel to explore themes related to nature and scenes from everyday life, often challenging the status quo.

Turning to the rising popularity of African art, Kouassi describes this development as largely welcome, but also adds a note of caution. 

“For many years, the broader European view was that art from the continent was largely primitive – mostly masks and statues, for example – but that perception is changing and interest is growing, fuelled by a realisation that contemporary African artists have a lot to bring to the table, which is positive,” he said. “However, there is a risk that some of these artists could now be pressurised to come up with work that’s highly commercial.”

This, he added, would be disappointing, given that art is woven into the fabric of African life, encompassing the way people communicate and share their history. 

“What interests me is the stories African artists are telling and the messages they are sharing, not just the bold, bright colours or motifs,” he said. “It’s wonderful that we have this wave of popularity, but the experiential storytelling remains the focal point for me.”

‘Dancing Around the Fire’ is available to view online on Artscoops from September 12 to October 3, 2023. 

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