In the 4th century, Koumbi Saleh was the flamboyant capital of the kingdom of Ghana. It was a trading town on the west coast, located along the road linking North Africa to sub-Saharan Africa, which is said to have served as a salt and gold depository. Koumbi Saleh was destroyed in 1240 by the Malian emperor Soundiata Keïta. Archaeological excavations undertaken at the beginning of the 20th century confirm that it was located in the south of present-day Mauritania.
However, we are talking about it today because the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto has just acquired a phantasmagorical representation of the city, in the form of a 3m2 model. A model? Not really, actually. More like a work of art. The creation is called Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE and is by Ghanaian-Canadian artist Ekow Nimako. What’s so special about it? The fact that it was made entirely from some 100,000 black Lego pieces!
The sculpture, commissioned by the museum, was part of the exhibition Building Black: Civilisations by Nimako, and was linked to another exhibition – an archaeological one – held at the same museum entitled Caravans of gold, fragments in time. For curator Michael Chagnon, acquiring the piece “strengthens the museum’s ability to tell global stories about the contributions of Islamic civilisations through time.” For Nimako, it is an opportunity to make his work on identity and black civilisations more well known.
Androids and cyborgs
Representing the town of Koumbi Saleh as it would look like a thousand years from now, the work acquired by the museum gives an initial idea of the motifs that inspired the artist. Nimako approves of using the term “Afrofuturism” to describe his works, given his fascination for robots, androids and cyborgs!
Using exclusively Lego pieces, a passion he has had since childhood, naturally reinforces this. Their cube-like dimensions make it difficult to reproduce curves and give his creations a definite robotic aspect. But that hasn’t stopped Nimako from creating birds, jellyfish, masks and even characters with braided hair.
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One of his most famous works is the Black Knight. This two-metre sculpture is made up of 80,000 pieces of Lego and depicts a young African woman riding a black unicorn. Created in 2018 in Scarborough, where the artist grew up, this work was born out of a question: “If Scarborough were to honour its own heroes, who would be depicted?” The artist’s answer, and his choice to use only black pieces, offers an obvious reading.
All too often in North American and European cities, statues pay homage to white men on horseback, whether they were notorious slave owners or unscrupulous colonisers. His rider is a black heroine, proud and dignified.
Since 2013, Nimako has been asking himself: “Who are our heroes?” He creates his own works based on African mythology from a typically Western material generally known for its polychromy.
“When we talk about Lego, the collective unconscious associates them with play, with all these colours mixed together,” the artist told Vice. “ (…) People often say to me: these are not Lego! Or: what’s it made of? And when I answer that they are indeed Lego, there is a surprise, a shock. And I’m delighted because in many ways it evokes the cultural polarity of Lego, which, despite being so successful all over the world, is still something that is never associated with black culture or identity.”
He adds: “It’s also simply a way for me to express who I am in a way… I don’t mean accessible, but I believe that Lego is a medium that allows you to understand things immediately, and that’s something I appreciate.”
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Building bridges between the future and the past, an idea reminiscent of the film Black Panther, Nimako’s creations also retain a very narrative dimension: they tell us stories, other stories. Just like in the not too distant past, when we used to happily spend hours on the carpet creating imaginary people and places out of plastic bricks.
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