Africa: An Interview With Ransome Stanley

14 June 2012

In his art, Ransome Stanley draws from his African roots as a London-born son of a German mother and Nigerian father to reflect on colonial clichés of exoticism and images of Africa rooted in Western concepts of rusticness and innocence.

To coincide with his current solo show at Jack Bell Gallery in London he talked to Think Africa Press about painting time, animal symbols and issues of authenticity in African art.

Your current show at Jack Bell displays a series of new paintings. Is there an underlying thematic that binds those works, and how do they relate to previous works?

This show is dominated by the colours black and white. There isn't a common thematic - it's more of a variation of different themes in different sizes. You will find elements like tin toys, monkeys, lamps and portraits that I also used in previous paintings.

What does the title Tumult Noir stand for?

In 1925, at the height of the jazz era in Paris, the sensational cast of musicians and dancers from Harlem assembled as La Revue Nègre and exploded on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées. Its talented young star Josephine Baker (1906-1975) captivated audiences with a wild new dance called the Charleston, and became the high priestess of jazz culture in Paris. Inspired by the tremendous popularity of these performers, French poster artist Paul Colin (1892-1985) created a portfolio entitled Le Tumulte Noir, which gave a name to the Parisian craze for African-American music and dance that Josephine Baker epitomised.

Africa lives further in the diaspora, for example in the Caribbean Carnival of Notting Hill. You find Africa in the etchings of D¼rer in Shakespeare's Othello, in the poems of Rimbaud and in the distorted picture of the novel Heart of Darkness by Conrad or in the novel Watermusic by Boyle. Tumulte Noir for me is a movement that influenced European culture.

Within the Jack Bell gallery space your work is displayed without titles or any curatorial information. In other exhibitions of yours this kind of information was provided. How do you prefer your work to be displayed?

To be honest, I did not realise that the paintings were not titled in the exhibition, [although all the paintings do have a title], but I don't think it would make a difference to have them titled because in my paintings there is no reason to recount a linear plot. For me it's more important to create questions and unclear formulations when looking at the paintings.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy most?

I love all aspects but most of all I love to work in my studio. Exhibitions are always very exciting for me. I do see my work differently in galleries than I do in the studio. At the same time I don't find it easy talking about my work because when you paint you don't think in words. It's not like writing; it's another form of language that I have to translate, which can be a tedious task.

As you mention above, you have persistently avoided bold colours in your work, opting for atmospheric blacks with soft-coloured accents. What are you trying to convey through this choice?

One of my main concerns is the issue of time. I was actually trying to paint time, which of course is impossible. So I started mixing colours to make them look as if time had changed them, as if they were bleached by the sun or washed out by the rain. I want to create a certain patina, but not in a romantic view of the past.

As for the colour black, it is heavy on cultural meaning. Black is the absence of all light yet painting on a black background gives me the impression of light. It doesn't matter if the colour is very bright or soft, you do feel it in an extreme way.

Monkeys are frequently used as symbolism in your work. How is the perception of those animals different in Western and African culture?

In ancient Egypt the monkey stood for wisdom, in India it symbolises courage, strength and self-sacrifice. In Hinduism it is a warrior, a healer and a fertility god while in Europe the monkey stands for uncivilised, materialistically-oriented and primitive humans without existential interests.

As an artist and in order to express the character of humans one frequently uses animal comparisons. In that sense animals can function as symbols for good and bad human characteristics. Due to its similarity to the human, the monkey is one of the most popular artistic motives. The Latin name for the monkey is Simius, which means "a similar". At the same time in the Greek and Roman antiquity the monkey was widely perceived as ugly, therefore the animal was used as an equivalent of morally bad humans.

The monkey as symbol of the artist himself is still another special aspect within the symbolism. As the German painter Jrg Immendorff noted:

"For me the monkey was and is simply a second I. Symbol for ambivalence of the artist's existence, the conviction and self doubts. He is stupid and points and stands for contrasts. The monkey seems seated on my back, and before me is the picture which I paint which he attacks and paints then paints something else or paints me."

The monkey is one of the polysemantically most charged animal symbols and shows sometimes the diabolical and the divine signature of the artist. The monkey is a mask of the ideal of artistic ingenuity and at the same time a symbol of our dominant animalistic urges. It is also a symbol of the brilliant dilettante and equally the self-ironic mocker and copycat of creation. Man as an artist is nothing more than a monkey imitating God's creation.

In a recent interview you mentioned that in your art you play with Western clichés and stereotypes of Africa. What are the most important clichés that need to be reconsidered with respect to art produced by African artists or artists of the African diaspora?

Contemporary art in Africa appears diversely. The differences are big between the more Western-oriented, academically educated artists and the autodidacts. Additionally, many cultural scientists have great difficulties with Africa's representation of itself. For example the picture of African culture that displays it in a state of enduring innocence is clearly anchored in Western culture. Consequently the infamous question of "authenticity" is also extremely argumentative.

Can art change the world?

I don't think art can change the world, but it can change our view of the world.

Could you give us some insight into your current projects?

At the moment I am working on a new series of collages using different materials, surfaces and images. By the end of July I will participate in a group show called "Black Germany" in Munich in the Haus der Kunst with about eight artists who all come from an African/German background. In autumn a new book should be released.


Natascha Chtena is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She spent five years working in the arts and publishing industry in Greece, and is currently studying for a master's degree in anthropology of media at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She is particularly interested in the relation between art and activism, the construction of knowledge through virtual environments and the use of social media in education and international development.

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