Material: The Body Of Art

By Okang’a Ooko
© 1997. All rights reserved

ALL WORK of art need material support. But material is more in design than only a support. It is part of the work of art. It is not an added quality, but an essential part of it.

In music, for instance, the rhythm or tone quality of every different instrument is the material the composer has to deal with and we know that once a piece is composed for a certain instrument, it is always awkward and impractical to transcribe it for another instrument. Just won't work. In music the artist's ( in this case the composer) task involves the formation of order and effect through use of different instruments and vocal accompaniments. This is known as “arrangement”. This is done in the studio after conducting players and singers through an ochestral score first through rehearsal then recorded performance. This concerns the finest example of teamwork in performance art - different players of different instruments and singers all have one goal: to create a unified piece of art through the manipulation of sound. Through arrangement perfect sound that communicates music as an art form is created. My deeper understanding and appreciation of contemporary African music gives me a reason to believe that nowhere is this fact more evident than in the transcription of the late Congolese master, L'Okanga La N'dju Pene Luambo Makiadi (popularly known as Franco) and his insufferable orchestra, Tout Pouissant OK Jazz. In his finest compositions, recorded in the late seventies and the first three years of the eighties, the vibrant impeccable poetry that depict scenes of social life in Kinshasa (and, indeed, Africa) are neatly put into an orchestral score with varieties of voluminous instrumentation, interlaced with the sweet melodious solo guitars. The incessant and harmonious rhythms, the neat and variant array of choral vocal arrangements, the tingling and restless misolo (second solo guitar) the immaculate saxophones and trumpets that fall sharp like needles defined the influencial TP OK Jazz’s big band sound that functions well with the usage of a variety of instruments. The material with which we construct the music does not fit the design of the composer. In our African music as with all the other forms of music, we are familiar not only with the timbre (characteristic quality of sound produced by a particular voice or instrument) of one kind of instrument but with the four main families of similar timbre in which they are grouped: the strings (guitars), the horns (saxophones), the reeds, the percussions (drums, shakers etc), and (to a lesser extent in some later fusion-style African compositions) the keyboard.

So much for music, the same is true about the material of architectural design. In his art, the architect uses all kinds of building materials, including stone, iron and steel. Stone is widely used in construction with cement as a binding material and steel used to provide extra strength and support. The design is composed for a certain material, or a certain association of materials. If we decide to change the material, we may have to change the design also - and this is not a question of detail but part of the structural design itself. Architecture is an art that thrives on precision, calculation and detail. The design is designed to fit within the designer's dimensions and specifications and an inch makes elephant difference.

In painting, the material used is coloured pigment. My choice of colour normally has to be completely different if I use one or the other medium of expression. In the use of pigment we are familiar with at least three main families of materials; oils, water colours and pastels. I know how differently I, as a painter, express myself whenever I change my medium. The material here is such as integrated part of my life that I will rarely express myself well in all media: as an artist, I will naturally develop a preference for one of them as more fitting to my temperament, and the rest of my life will not be too long to fully master this medium.

In the fleeting art of the stage (commonly known as performance art), the material is costume fabric and coloured lights. We know that art is achieved here by means of various fabrics from families of silks, linens, nylons, cottons, gingers, e.t.c., either textured or printed – even metals, leaves, furs or feathers. The dynamisms of choice of materials to suit theatre art is quite boundless – and most varies with the requirements of a particular plays’ text interpretation. Discussions are normally held between the director and the designer, but the latter’s suggestions and decisions are of paramount importance. More than once in my experience I’ve worked professionally at various stages as an artist at the Kenya National Theatre, Nairobi, where I’ve served as theatrical designer. I have worked chiefly as a set designer where I have had opportunities to head design departments of productions – I have been fully responsible for set design where I have worked with set construction crew after which I have had valuable opportunities to sit down with not only the production team but the whole cast and put forward my convictions in clear lingo regarding the art of theatre - that more than fifty percent of the possibility of a play’s success depends on the design of the set, the design of lights and the design of costumes. In a production, actors are pawns – they are performing artists. The living power of the set design, coloured lights and costumes together with their ability to use their bodies and voices to the director’s satisfaction is the sole hope of the success of a production. I have had valuable opportunities to explain and interpret my drawings, offer guidelines for the lights and make the right decisions to the costume design team – normally tailors and stitchers who have to follow my directions. Of course I have seen irresponsible directors who have messed up their productions after they have overlooked my requirements and instead put in theirs for reasons of malice or minimizing costs or for just the common attitude problem, feeling in themselves a kind of ability to take upon themselves the designers role, but; of course, forgetting the designer’s creative and artistic sense and the sacrificing heart and also the strong will and patience that is only to be found within the living depth of the artist. Only an artist in his quest for perfection truly knows how hard his work is. In production of our lovable African plays, I had to discourage the African designers’ from choosing, for instance, silk, because I knew the design of the costume will be radically different from what I would compose, had I chosen linen as a medium of expression. Not forgetting the aspects of “African colours” – the warms. We also realize that it may be awkward to mix different families of materials in the design of a single costume, unless used as well chosen and carefully planned accent. The dissonance thus created can increase the interest, like a pinch of paper in a fish – or kill it if the dish is too hot.

We know that as far as good cooking is concerned, the most successful dishes are not the most complicated, whether made of beef, greens, chicken or fish, keeping in mind the principal of unity, we are again led to the conclusion that the less different materials we use in a building, the better the building will be, atleast in regard to consistency. By consistency, I mean the close union of material and design so that one seems to be the necessary result of the other to such an extent that it becomes difficult to design if the design of the result of the material or if the material was chosen because of the design.

An instance of perfect consistency in design is the Maasai shelter known as the Manyatta : the whole story is told in two single materials: twigs and mud. Another instance is given by the papyrus reed huts of conical design among all the indigenous tribes who live very close to the Lake Victoria regions of Uganda and some Parts of Tanzania. Papyrus reeds, and nothing but papyrus – even down to the pegs and strings that tie the reeds together – is used through out the whole building.

We can find similar instances of perfect consistency in stone design, we find nothing but stone used in building floors, walls and even roofs.

In my present occupation as a product designer in development occupation, I have had to observe perfect consistency in furniture design and metal products. I have had to design and produce a chair that is wood and nothing else. In such cases I have mostly relied on good joints to do the trick for me, and mortise and tenon joints go very well, and where I cannot use it I have always gotten away with employment of dowels. Why not? I want perfect consistency and I’m not using any metallic nails but wooden dowels for my chair. Wood glue works very well too. Perhaps perfect consistency works even better in design of metal or plastic products. In metal products I have always had basic fabrication and welding engineering techniques largely at my disposal.

So much for perfect consistency.

In music (again) the unique quality of the orchestrated sound comes from a perfect consistency. The same feeling of perfection comes from a small “acapella” choir. The best examples may be the Zulu vocal harmonies known as Mbaqanga. This was successfully brought to the attention of the world by Paul Simon through his 1986 Graceland project that featured the Zulu acapella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In painting, it is a tacit rule that materials should never be mixed: only in recent years have a few painters ventured out and mixed all sorts of things (mixed media or experimental art) on the same canvas with rather doubtful results as far as art is concerned.

Art is not achieved by addition but by a process of subtraction that we can call selection or choice. The use of a great and many materials in the same work does not show the imagination of the designer, but the contrary. The poor designer desperately clings to a rainbow of materials to hide his unimaginative design, like a dishonest cook who covers the bad taste of a piece of meat under a shower of spices.

This tendency to associate art with quantity is shown today in our overlarge orchestras, and fantastic ensembles composed of dozens of cellos, e.t.c. The result is on weight, a far cry from anything that characterizes beauty.

The true and living depth of an artist is best understood through his choice of materials.