For the past few months, the boards of London's National Theatre have shaken to a different groove. Between sobering performances of Hamlet and Ena Stewart's tragicomical view of 1930s Glasgow in Men Should Weep, theatregoers have witnessed the actor Sahr Ngaujah strut his way into an embodiment of Nigerian music's own "Black President", Fela Kuti.
Fela! began as a Broadway musical before heading to London at the end of 2010. This charged and fittingly audacious production tells of Kuti's rise to become one of the foremost names in African music and Afrobeat, the genre that he pioneered in 1970s Nigeria. It reflects something of the spirit of that time, and though the songs are played to a seated auditorium rather than in the humid, frenetic clubs of 1970s Lagos, Fela! reminds its London viewers of a very important reality: as the West quaked with the thrash of punk, Africa had its own vibrant anti-establishment movement going on - typified by scores of thinkers, musicians, writers and artists.
It is difficult to come into contact with African expression, not just in music but also in visual art and theatre. Despite the occasional work making its way into the UAE's art fairs, African art remains remarkably under-represented in galleries here and in the rest of the region.
Making some headway to redress this, Dubai's The Mojo Gallery hosts As It Is!, a four-part exhibition that draws in some of Africa's most dynamic artists working today. Wole Soyinke, Nigeria's Nobel Laureate (and, incidentally, a cousin of Kuti), has put himself firmly behind the project, and is expected to jet into town when the exhibition culminates in its final outing in March to coincide with Art Dubai. At its root, this series of shows, running monthly until then, may only tease at the breadth of expression coming out of the continent, but it does offer an inroad to a scene that can often appear too vast and diverse to penetrate for newcomers.
"We need to get away from what we expect from African art," says Annabelle Nwankwo-Mu'azu, the curator behind As It Is!, who earned her stripes working on several noted festivals of African art in the UK. While unspecific about the expectations that she feels are currently placed on African art, Nwankwo-Mu'azu has forged a curatorial direction that promotes artists with work that demonstrates a defiantly contemporary slant.
As It Is! launched in December with a collection of photographers working in the continent and in the African diaspora. Artists ranged from Nigerian photographer Uche James Iroha, who creates startling shots of tradesmen in the markets of Lagos - butchers, for instance, standing in a line with machetes drawn and a stream of entrails congealing in the mud behind them - through to Kenyan photojournalist Antony Kaminju, who has documented the importance that food plays among fans at football games across Africa, used as a form of ritualised intimidation to fans of the opposing team.
In the diaspora, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is an American-Ugandan photographer and actor (perhaps better known as Usutu in the US television series Heroes), who presented a collection of images from a recent trip to Uganda. A baptism, a marriage and a funeral are infused with a sense of epic rawness: an unknown figure is seen cycling beside tall grass with a coffin strapped to the back of his bike; two newlyweds are laurelled with a live chicken.
"We wanted to hit Dubai with a true essence of what it's like to be working on the ground in Africa," says Nwankwo-Mu'azu.
As It Is! continues now with a roundup of influential African artists from an older generation. Ancestral Spaces - Translated Identities features the work of Tola Wewe, arguably the most celebrated painter in Nigerian art in the past 30 years, and sculptures by the Nigerian sculptor Kehinde Ken Adewuyi, who uses the lost-wax technique to cast diminutive human figures in bronze - each of which have been left immobile by an exaggerated foot, thigh or belly.
"Pélagie Gbaguidi is an installation artist from Benin," says Nwankwo-Mu'azu, as we watch several huge canvases covered in scratchy, abstract markings being unzipped and folded out to be draped along the wall. "Each of these works are about emphasising the sacred progression from life to death that is found in the spiritual life of Benin."
The show seeks to identify those who have played an "Elder" role in the evolution of African art over the past 20 years. Furthering this idea of ancestors, and the transmitting of ideas across generations, a number of works draw on folklore and visual traditions from across the continent. Tola Wewe, described as being to Nigerian art what Chinua Achebe is to Nigerian literature, is emblematic of this idea. He was one of the founding members of the Ona movement in late 1980s Nigerian art: "Ona is a Yoruba word that means 'design,'" says Wewe, an exacting figure in his 50s with a bushy white goatee.
"If you're from an artistic family in Nigeria, your name will start with Ona. So we started to recognise some correlation between Ona and the idea of ornamentation in Yoruba culture." The group assembled an archive of the many decorative aspects in the Yoruba's visual language. "We looked at facial markings, tattoos, and I was working on my thesis then, which focused on masks found along the Niger Delta. I began photographing the animals found along the Delta; crocodiles, tortoises, and looking at how these evolved into motifs on these masks."
Wewe has since etched out a career that draws heavily on such iconography. He has synthesised his findings into something distinct, contemporary and exploratory. "I came to know the visual traditions all along the coastline of Nigeria, and so when I would paint, these forms and motifs came naturally into my paintings. I was churning out paintings at that time - sometimes 20 a week - and the forms in my work were simplifying more and more. People began comparing my work to Picasso, but he didn't figure at all in my inspiration."
Despite these assertions, it's hard not to be struck by the cubism - itself a genre whose development was influenced by African art - that filters into Wewe's latest works on show here. Working for the first time with ceramics, Wewe has embarked on a process of "painting with clay".
"I began to use an open-firing technique on the clay, with sawdust, wood and charcoal to create a simple fire. This has given each of the works differing degrees of tones and a more painterly effect." Wewe's style translates perfectly into the etchings he has made on the fragments of clay. Spend some time with them and the abstracting, intuitive eye and sense for composition that defines Wewe's work is clear. We see solemn figures, with moulded funnel eyes, whose faces are distorted by segmenting lines. Around them, the motifs of the Niger Delta float in and out of view; intermingled between scarification patterns, hints of tattoos and line-drawn, archetypal animals.
Charting his influence on subsequent generations is an element that this show hopes to bring out. "Young artists complain to me about needing funds to practice and to work," says Wewe. "What I am doing is an inspiration to young artists because you don't buy clay, wood is all over Africa, and sawdust for the fire is free. I tell them, as long as you are creative, you don't even need a brush."
Nwankwo-Mu'azu seconds that: "Often, it's not easy to get access to materials, or to the internet, but there's a hunger to create something, and that stands for the whole continent."
Nwankwo-Mu'azu talks about getting beyond the label of "African artist", and it's hard not to think about the process of transgression from a similar pigeonhole that artists in the Middle East have been pursuing for some time. "When I was choosing the title for As It Is!, it was imperative that it was clear this was first and foremost about the artists, and about the tone that comes across in the works. We have to give ourselves a label because we are coming into a new arena, but none of the ideas here are just about Africa. This show is very relevant, wherever it travels.'
As It Is: Ancestral Space - Translated Identities continues at Mojo Gallery, Dubai until January 31, after which the third instalment of the show opens in February. For more information, visit themojogallery.com