Art Seen: National

ALÁÀṢẸ: MESSAGES FROM THE CONJURER // GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER MUSEUM

By Hiba Ali

Austin-based artist Nailah I. Akinyémi-Sankofa describes her solo exhibition, Aláàṣẹ: Messages from the Conjurer as “living.” Amidst its run at the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, TX, the exhibition itself constantly transforms with works being added and rearranged. A nailed signpost at the entrance of the show announces the title of the exhibition—Aláàṣẹ—recalling the “koma nloka” Kongo ritual where nails are hammered into Nkisi Nkondi wooden power figures to activate a spirit and punish a wrongdoer.1 Aláàṣẹ is a meticulously researched term, coined by Akinyémi-Sankofa, which she attributes to the Yoruba language. She defines Aláàṣẹ as “one who possesses performative power, primordial force, and the ability to create change, and signified those who can manifest energy and power, not wholly good nor wicked, that serves and conjures Divine Justice.”2 Akinyémi-Sankofa, a participant in the Carver Museum’s first Visual Artist-in-Residence program, is influenced by the spiritual and cultural tradition of her Yoruba, Akan, Congo, and Edo lineages. The term Aláàṣẹ defines the inexplicable moments in Akinyémi-Sankofa life, and additionally signals the power of knowledge and vision to make things manifest and happen. As the artist says, “once you know, you cannot unknow.”3

As one enters Aláàṣẹ, the broad stature of the sculptural installation Mocko Jumbie (2019) emanates from the ceiling and greets viewers. Made of hand-dyed cloth, acrylic, wood, and raffia, Mocko Jumbie, also called Egunuu or Junkanou in the Yoruba practice, is a recreation of Akinyémi-Sankofa’s vision where a stilt walker spirit appeared on a street in her hometown of Chicago. The mythology of the stilt walker was brought to the Americas by enslaved Black people for their spiritual survival and often appears at special community events in West Afrikan and Afro-Caribbean communities.

Within exhibition texts and materials, the word “Afrikan” is used instead of “African.” This linguistic motif intentionally refers to the origins of the word, where sub-Saharan African languages adopt a “k” rather than the “c,” and a broader political view of the New Afrikan Independent movement in the 1960s. Marcus Garvey, founder of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, explains, “…The Afrika spelled with a ‘k’ represents a redefined and potentially different Afrika, and also it symbolizes a coming back together of Afrikan people worldwide..” 4 5 Akinyémi-Sankofa brings this revolutionary perspective into artistic action through ritual techniques of hand-dying cloth and draping it over the fifteen-foot-tall presence of Mocko Jumbie.

The height of the installation is complimented by several hybrid igi-minikisi staffs.6 7As a part of the Kongo tradition, these staffs symbolize close communication with ancestors and connection to spiritual energies. A large minikisi staff entitled The Dragon (2019) stands at the center of the exhibition, grounding Aláàṣẹ’s references to spiritual energy. Red hand-dyed cloth hangs off of The Dragon’s branches, while Mudcloth decorated with drawn vèvè and Vodun inspired symbols is placed at the base of its raised podium. While the large minikisi staff sits at the center of the exhibition, seven smaller igi-minikisi staffs draped with red, yellow, and blue hand-dyed cloths line the left wall of the galleries. The literal roots of West African culture are present in Aláàṣẹ—Akinyémi-Sankofa links igi (meaning stick or wood in Yoruba) and the process of dyeing Mudcloth. The ancestral staff term, minikisi, is plural for Nkisi, spiritual carvings from Kongo with nails driven into them. Akinyémi-Sankofa highlights their protective nature, “They are an armor that fight in the spirit realm for us—this is protection, this is juu-juu, this is power, and depending on which side of the line of justice, it is either for you, or it is for you.”

The igi-minkissi staffs sit as an audience to the painting Makossa (Nightcrawler masker of my dreams) (2019), in which a dancing figure wears a red and white mask. The mask refers to the figure of the Primordial mother, while its colors are a motif that represents the African diaspora. Makossa, part of continuing series of works by the artist, is the foundation of the show. In them, reverence, power, protection, and warning are embodied. For Akinyémi-Sankofa, these qualities relate to an unwavering connection to the Afrikan spirit realm. In the legend, Makossa carries ebo spiritual offerings—as the wife of Esu, cosmic protector and opener of roads, she brings important items through the realms of heaven and earth. The artist reminds us that women govern ancestral West African traditions and honors their presence by centering them in her work.

Inspired by Nigerian Nsidibi traditional script and Vodun vèvè symbols, an asymmetrically tiled series of black plexi-glass drawings, entitled Truths from Darkness: Asemic Writing (2019), adorn the gallery’s right wall. Upon the works in white oil marker, Akinyémi-Sankofa inscribes an asemic script that includes scared symbols from the religious practices of Yoruba, Fon, and Akan peoples. Framing these inscriptions as a “journal of catharsis,” the mirroring effect of the acrylic not only reflects the Afro-diasporic worlds Akinyémi-Sankofa works with, but due to the reflective nature of medium, places the viewer square within them.

This reflective effect is doubled in a warped mirror along the adjacent wall, where a series of paintings entitled Ɲàma-Bébra (Nama is Malinke for occult force) (2019) hang. Made of ink, acrylic, and gel paint on clay board, the long rectangles are covered in multicolored patterns that evoke Yorba deities: Esu, Ogun, and Obtala, the three primordial forces that created the earth. The triadic energies of these figures are present in the different patterns of the quad-sided paintings; script-like cloth patterns recall the cosmic writing of the Kongo and Dogon people, while other swirling pink textures recall the female Orisha spirit, Oya. Akinyémi-Sankofa considers the panels within the exhibitions as scared monoliths. The tri-colored textured slabs visually vibrate in the mirror as viewers approach them, signifying totemic energy whirlpooling through the exhibition.

In addition to being a fashion designer, culture historian, and ritual specialist, Akinyémi-Sankofa is a writer, choreographer, chef, healer, photographer, sculptor, metalsmith, and textile designer. Through her pioneering creative work, co-founding   in the 1990s and RunWay Underground Fashion Production Group and Networks in 2008, she has profoundly shifted the creative industry in Austin, Texas. In Aláàṣẹ, we see her honing these abilities. 8 Her rigorous study of material is evident in the processes her objects  undergo. Grounded through the depth of meaning suffused in this exhibition, Akinyémi-Sankofa is a force—she is Aláàṣẹ. Her installations serve as spatial cyphers and invite us into to the West Afrikan spiritual realm.


Aláàṣẹ: Messages from the Conjurer ran until January 11th, 2020

1. Yale University Art Gallery. “Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi).” Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi) | Yale University Art Gallery. Yale University. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/84444.

2. Harrison, Dr. Bonnie Claudia, “Aláàṣẹ: Messages from the Conjurer.” George Washington Carver Museu, 2019. Accessed November 18, 2019. http://www.austintexas.gov/carvermuseum/exhibits

[3. Akinyémi-Sankofa, Nailah I. Interview by Hiba Ali. Phone, October 31st 2019.

4. Garvey, Marcus, and Amy Jacques. Garvey. The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, or, Africa for the Africans. Dover, MA, U.S.A.: Majority Press, 1986.

5. Ricks, Johnny L. “The Resurgence of New Afrikan Identity.” HuffPost. HuffPost, March 19, 2017. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-resurgence-of-new-afr_b_9448640.

6. Wilson, Kbonsura A. “Nkisi.” Encyclopedia of African Religion . SAGE Knowledge. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://sk.sagepub.com/reference/africanreligion/n284.xml.

7. Art Institute of Chicago. “Headdress for Gelede (Igi).” The Art Institute of Chicago. Arts of Africa. Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/18762/headdress-for-gelede-igi.

8. City of Austin Economic Development. “Ɲàma Isé-Ọná.” Home. City of Austin Economic Development. Accessed November 18, 2019. http://www.austintexas.gov/page/nama-ise-ona.

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