Sunday, October 2, 2011

Razia Said, musician and activist from Madagascar

Razia Said
Razia Said's CD, Zebu Nation was created to raise awareness and benefit the preservation of the rainforest in her native Madagascar, specifically the region to the northeast known as MaMaBay (area comprised of the Masaola and Makira forests, and the Antogil Bay). This region is protected through a WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) initiative, and several WCS team members were at the launch, including Lisa Gaylord, Country Director for WCS/Madagascar, who oversees WCS’s program activities in MaMaBay. 

New Yorkers and visitors to New York may know the incredible Madagascar! exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, inaugurated in 2008, in the former Lion House. The exhibit features an incredible mix of Madagascar endemic flora and fauna such as the ring-tailed lemur, radiated tortoise, giant crocodile and a unique mammal, the fossa. Madagascar is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth, and some animals can only be found there. Lemurs, for example, are primates found only on Madagascar and the Comoro Islands off the coast of East Africa. Unfortunately, over the years, deforestation has been intense and WCS is trying to preserve at least some of what is left.

Zebu Nation CD cover
Razia Said was born in Madagascar; she left at the age of 11, and attended school in Gabon (West Africa) and France. She started singing at the age of three. However, before becoming a full-time musician, Razia obtained a doctorate in Pharmacology, and worked in fashion. modeling, and acting, in France, Italy, Spain and Indonesia. Her first recorded songs were in an R&B/Jazz/Pop style, in English. During a family visit to her family in Madagascar, in the MaMaBay region, she met with members of Njava, a locally renowned band, and embarked on the path of using her native rhythms and instruments, and singing in her native language. While recording in the island, she noted the environmental damage occurring in Madagascar, because of climate change and the "slash and burn" style of agriculture. One of the songs in Zebu Nation, "OMama" is in tribute to her grandmother. In Razia's words: "The whole world needs to know and help;it's a common cause to the planet considering Madagascar represents 1% of the world's biodiversity."

Currently, Razia is once again in Madagascar as one of the organizers of a concert promoting a message against illegal logging. Ebony and rosewood are the most popular species that are stolen.  
Razia currently lives with her spouse, Jamie Ambler, in Harlem, New York City.
Notes: Listen to songs and see photos of Razia in Madagascar, along with Malagasy musicians, at You can hear a sample of Yo Yo Yo here
Razia Said is on Facebook.

Other members of the WCS team present at the launch were Edith McBean, WCS Board Member, Helen Crowley, former WCS/Madagascar Country Director, and Caleb McClennen. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Contemporary African Art Gallery, New York

The words "modern" and "African art" are rarely used together. African art as usually identified as traditional art: sculpted masks, statues, in the same style they were done for hundreds of years.
One of the galleries attempting to change this is the Contemporary African Art Gallery in ManhattanNew York City. Founder Bill Karg is an architect, and he lived and worked for over five years in Africa, working on low-income self-built housing, as a consultant for various organizations, such as USAID, the United Nations, the World Bank, and various African governments.
El Anatsui wall hanging
While he was in Africa, he started collecting the work of contemporary local artists, and in doing so, met them and learned about their work. He realized that many were well-known, well-collected, and often shown in Europe but were virtually unknown in the United States.  Karg felt that this situation needed to change, and this was the main motivation for the creation of a gallery specialized in the work of contemporary African artists. 

Karg and his spouse purchased a house large enough to house a gallery on 108th Street in Manhattan. The Kargs moved to their new home and had the inaugural exhibit 2 weeks after the 1987 stock market crash. The first type of art shown was 3-dimensional art: sculpture. The gallery collection expanded from there to include all fine art forms, including installation work. Karg has been careful to only show what is generally recognized as "fine art" as opposed to "curio art." This sometimes posed difficulty, as the art is generally more abstract and less evidently about Africa. The requirements to which Karg carefully adheres to be able to say with confidence that the artists and the work are African are the following:
- The artist has to have been born in Africa
- The artist’s work has to be inspired by Africa; this is usually determined after conversations with the artist.
- Karg must like the work!
Viye Diba: Kangaroo in Suspension

These requirements have been met in all shows. 
Who are the clientele? Their numbers have consistently grown from a small base of people who had a connection with Africa, having worked, lived, or traveled to the continent; to a far broader base, including museums: the gallery has sold to nine different museums and many of them are repeat collectors. 

Collectors within and outside, but especially outside New York, have found the gallery through its website. This has been especially true for European collectors. The website started out as a sampler of the work shown in the gallery. Three years ago, Karg invested in having all work, including his own extensive personal collection, professionally photographed, with links to all countries represented, all artists and all of their work. Some sold items may also be listed, albeit without the identity of the buyer. Collectors are now found in the United KingdomFrance (former colonial powers whose people are often knowledgeable about the artists from their former territories), and Denmark and the Netherlands

The Gallery currently represents over 30 artists from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan (Khartoum happens to boast an excellent arts school at the university), Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

For Karg, another important motivation is to show a positive and creative aspect of the African continent, aspects rarely discussed in the United States.

The question often asked is: are these artists "African artists," or “contemporary international artists”? The issue for Karg is that if these artists were placed on an already very long list of international contemporary artists,Africa would once again be marginalized. However, if shown as African artists or as coming from a specific country, the gallery can bring credit where credit is due, to a region and to the artist; thus the identity of the gallery as an African contemporary art gallery.

Gallery interior view
Galleries such as the Contemporary African Art Gallery are ground-breaking insofar as for many people, even people who know Africa, "contemporary" and "African" do not go together. Many would prefer to continue exploiting often fake "antiques," while Western designers and artists continue taking inspiration from Africa for modern design, art, music and fashion. It is good news that this gallery is expanding its audience, year by year.

Note: this blog post was originally published in More photos can be seen at

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Finger food in Cameroon

Cameroonian finger foods:

- boiled peanuts
- grilled peanuts

- grilled corn on the cob

Grilled plantain and "prunes" (seed to the right)
- grilled or boiled “prunes” - these are fruits that are savory rather than sweet, and as far as I know do not exist anywhere else than in tropical Africa. They do not travel well. You can now find them, for a high price, in Parisian African markets, but not in the United States, as far as I know.

Chicken, miondo and fried ripe plantain slices
- fried plantain slices, and/or plantain chips

- fried fish and/or spicy grilled fish

- fried chicken feet

- skewered beef, spiced with hot ground pepper (called “soya”)

- Corn flour and banana fritters

And of course: Maggi™ along with (very) hot sauce made from Scotch bonnet peppers.
Corn flour-banana fritters

Photos of these foods can also be seen at

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Vickie Frémont, New York - Update

Since the  October 2010 post about Vickie Frémont, jewelry designer and recycling artist of Cameroonian descent, much has happened. The blog post caught the attention of Columbia's Alliance Française, which took interest in her recycling work, as a sustainability conference was being hosted in Bogota; she has been invited for a residency in Peru in the fall. In the meantime, she exhibited at several fairs, including the Bastille Festival in New York City in July.
In the meantime, here are a few photos of her jewelry, modeled by Myriam Maxo, a designer herself, of Caribbean descent.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Fundraiser and art show at Casa Frela, NYC

Genita Ingram
greeting a guest

My friend Genita Ingram, PR professional extraordinaire, invited me to a fundraiser for Project Enterprise on Tuesday, May 17, at Casa Frela, an art gallery in New York City, at 47 West 119th Street.
It was a very nice event to raise funds for a nonprofit that provides entrepreneurs in under-served areas with loans ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
The art at Casa Frela was a mix of pieces by contemporary African-American artists and traditional art and artifacts from the African continent, and the gallery is housed in a beautiful historical Harlem brownstone. I recognized several items from the Bamiléké area of Cameroon, as well as many Nigerian and Ethipian pieces.
Soothing music was provided by a young Gambian Cora player, Malang Jobarteh. The gallery owner is Lawrence Rodriguez, himself the product of two cultures, Mexican and Native American.

Contemporary art

Amber beads in a wooden bowl
Malang Jobarteh
Playing Cora
Entrance to Casa Frela Gallery

Monday, April 4, 2011

Baa, baa, black sheep...

Sheep, gentle and meek not only in reputation!
(Link to Cameroon sheep photo here)
Barely a few months into my life in Cameroon, we went on a road trip to West Cameroon to see a business connection. 
Nkongsamba is one of the Littoral Province's larger towns, a commercial hub, about two hours' drive on the way  to West Cameroon, from Douala, where we lived.There we stopped for lunch at a local small hotel. I ordered roast chicken which seemed safe and familiar.
When the chicken was served, I tried to dig in--unsuccessfully. The chicken was as tough as leather. Little did I understand the reality of "poulet bicyclette" (bicycle chicken), i.e. chickens that were never fed anything, and had to fend for themselves, often pecking on dirt and running around all day, till they approach Lance Armstrong's musculature. I had to wait a couple of years till my American friend started a chicken farm to have tender chicken. That was that for lunch on that day!
We continued our journey to look for our contact, for whom we had no exact address, as these are rather rare in Cameroon, especially outside of major cities. When we reached his village we asked about his whereabouts, but were given the runaround. Everyone feigned ignorance. We finally found him, but it wasn't easy. Since the days of the struggle for independence, people, especially in West Cameroon which bore the brunt of the colonial power's harsh push-back,  are loathe to give up anyone's location.* 
Finally, we went to visit a small farm. At the end of our tour, as a gesture of courtesy to a "new wife," I was offered a sheep to take home. However, as the sheep was being dragged to our car, it looked so unhappy and scared that I started crying. The farm owners promised to keep the sheep at the farm, alive and happy, while probably thinking to themselves, "What a crazy foreign woman!" And when I returned home, my father-in-law was none too happy to hear that I had turned down a free sheep!

*Even further: real names were not used, and at one point children didn't even know their father's real name. For example, if a person's name was Joseph Happi, he'd just be called "Mister Joseph" which would become "Massa Yo," and his children would know him just as Massa Yo. Nowadays, I assume that this era is over, and everyone knows their neighbors' and relatives' name.

Link to the photo of a Cameroon sheep, less woolly than our North American counterpart.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bibi Seck, Industrial Designer in New York City

Ayse,  Bibi, and daughters 
Bibi Seck is an industrial and product designer of Senegalese and Martiniquais descent,  introduced from afar by Fatimata Ly, a Senegalese ceramics designer I wrote about last year. As a matter of fact, I had been hearing about him and his spouse, Ayse Birsel, for a while already: the New York African design community is not that large, and especially an African married to a fellow Middle Easterner (Turks are Middle Easterners as well as Europeans, with literally a foot in both worlds; and of course we had the Ottoman Empire for six centuries!).
Moroso-M'Afrique collection
Bibi’s stools, made in Senegal, of recycled plastic, are currently exhibited at the Museum of Art and Design’s Global Africa show.

I interviewed him last week to find out what his path had been to this point. Bibi was raised between Europe and Senegal.He had planned on studying architecture at first, but then found his true vocation in Industrial Design at the Ecole Supérieure de Design Industriel. After graduating, he spent many years as automobile designer for Renault, in France. During a trip to New York, he met Ayse, and after a few years he moved to New York to found a family, and the firm Birsel + Seck.

A few years ago Birsel + Seck was approached by an Italian firm, Moroso, to create designs for an upcoming show in Milan, M’Afrique which took place at the Moroso showroom. Bibi designed 9 items. The Bayekou chair was just featured in the New York Times Home section. 
Moroso-M'Afrique Collection

Moroso-M'Afrique Collection
At the Biennale of Dakar, he met an entrepreneur who dealt in recycling plastic for industrial use, and they formed a joint venture to make furniture from recycled plastic in Senegal.
The factory in Dakar-making the stools
The factory in Dakar-making the stools
Most recently, in 2011, the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in Long Island City, NY, inaugurated new cafeteria stools. This was the result of a not-for-profit fundraising effort, spearheaded by Herman Miller Furniture. The true adventure was in getting the furniture in time to New York from Dakar! Below are a few photos of the manufacturing process in Dakar (taken with Bibi's phone camera, so they are a little fuzzy), and the finished product in use at PS1.
Finished stools in use at PS1
Detail of stool
Double table at PS1