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  • Sustainable FuturesEkpenyong Bassey Nsa and the Study of Traditional-Based African Artists
  • Jordan A. Fenton
    all photos by the author, except where otherwise noted

Forcefully pointing to neighboring modern homes, constructed of cement and cinderblock, protected by sturdy, imposing compound entry walls, artist and chief Ekpenyong Bassey Nsa said to me: "This is what I work for" His animated answer came after a series of questions regarding whether he was a part-time artist, what inspired and motivated him to create, and if he had other jobs. As we discussed the social realities of being an artist, leaning on his Honda Civic hatchback, in July of 2009, we overlooked his own housing compound, located in the Local Government Area of Calabar South, a district of Calabar, urban capital of Cross River State, Nigeria. He went on to explain that a major motivation inspiring his work was to earn enough money to modernize and replace his father's outdated and dilapidated wattle-and-daub structure he and his family inhabited.

Bassey Nsa taught me an important lesson that day: the way in which money and economic sustainability play crucial roles in how he, his family, and broader society determine his value as a maker and custodian of Efik culture. As our conversation continued, Chief Bassey Nsa further articulated that his art was his career, working full-time, explaining how being an artist alone fed and supported his family. His work and artistry means multiple things to him, one of which, and perhaps the most important, is financial survival. In the course of the conversation, I quickly realized that my questions were based on assumptions from what I had read prior to fieldwork: Most "traditional" African artists were part-time, only active during the dry season, not necessarily financially dependent on their work.

Through my interactions with Chief Bassey Nsa, other artists, and cultural practitioners, I came to learn about the financial challenges of being a traditional-based artist in the city and how money and economics permeated all aspects of artistic practices, methods, and approaches. While Bassey Nsa passionately embraces his role as an artist preserving Efik culture and heritage in a postcolonial state, the motivation of renovating his family compound, coupled with later discussions we shared and my further ethnographic experiences in Calabar, affirmed how being a traditional-based artist in an urban environment is an economic enterprise, riddled with layers of financial implication as much as it is a cultural endeavor punctuated by creativity, innovation, and heritage preservation. In fact, the seemingly separate realms, preserving cultural traditions, creativity, and economics, are seamlessly interwoven.

In focusing on Chief Bassey Nsa, this essay provides a case study exploring the economic realities facing a traditional-based African artist. My approach follows William Fagg's almost obvious suggestion to forge relationships with artists over longer periods of time (Fagg and Pemberton 1982:36) and John Picton's call for more "writing about real people" how they interface with art, and more transparency in the way in which we collect our ethnographic data (1994:16-18). Drawing on my almost ten years of working with artist Bassey Nsa, and building from Jean Borgatti's work with artist Lawrence Ajanaku (1979), I propose a sustainable and mutually beneficial method in working with living traditional-based artists.1 This approach is especially important in the twenty-first century as the pressures of global commerce increase the challenges facing the economic livelihood of many artists in Africa as well as the broader world. The case of Chief Bassey Nsa may also have potential for broader relevance into an important question plaguing the study of African art history: Why are traditionally based artists left to the margins of our scholarly discourse?2


Why do so few nuanced studies about traditional-based African artists exist? Is this simply a result of the eventual fallout [End Page 34] from the emergence of a field formed shortly after colonialism, when turn-of the-century ethnocentrism and otherness defined the ways Africa was represented to the world? Zoë Strother, drawing on Johannes Fabian's critique of the "ethnographic present" blames the way in which writing...


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