Nick Hackworth

Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Barbican Curve

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

The Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti was a legend. “Music is the weapon,” he said. From the Seventies, when he found a rhythm developing his Afrobeat style, which fused jazz and African traditions, until 1997, when he died from an Aids-related illness, Fela took his weapon around the world.

He travelled widely, preaching his agit prop-cum-hippyish gospel of spiritual liberation, pan-African unity and resistance to political repression. In his idle moments he found time to aggravate numerous African despots, stand for the Nigerian presidency (hence his self-description as Black President) and, on one memorable occasion, in Lagos in 1978, marry 27 women simultaneously .

The Barbican is the location for a music, film and art festival celebrating Fela’s life and legacy. At the core of the festival is an exhibition that brings together more than 30 international artists, many of whom were Kuti fans and some of whom knew and worked with him.

Inevitably the show is mixed in style, content and quality. Several artists have produced rather laboured political works, such as the Nigerian artist Odili Donald Odita, who has parked a wheelbarrow full of Nigerian banknotes in a simulated puddle of oil to bland and obvious effect.

Others are dismal in more individual ways. Yinka Shonibare, nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, has clothed 27 headless dolls with his motif African textiles and placed them on a huge wooden table, in a strange tribute to Fela’s 2 wives. Overall, however, the show is engaging and entertaining, managing hectically to communicate something of the vibrancy of its subject. The Kenyan- born painter Wangechi Mutu contributes an engagingly odd portrait of Fela’s mother, a famous feminist, decapitating a phallic serpent in a psychedelic, disco-influenced landscape.

RCA graduate Senam Okudzeto presents an amusing and tongue-in-cheek video piece, The Dialectic Jubilation: Afro-Funk Lessons.

Most interesting are the pieces directly related to Fela, in particular the original album covers and related drawings by Ghariokwu Lemi which unpretentiously capture the spirit and music of the man.

Until 24 October. Information: 0845 120 7550.