ART: American artist brings African masks to life

Saturday February 15 2020

One of Teddy Mitchener’s pieces.

One of Teddy Mitchener’s pieces. PHOTO | COURTESY 

RUPI MANGAT
By RUPI MANGAT
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When the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi announced an exhibition of African masks from around the continent, I expected to see some of the famous looted Benin Bronzes. However, on show was a presentation by Teddy Mitchener who was painting a Benin Bronze mask.

“I grew up in Washington DC and Brooklyn around family and friends who had African art in their homes. The masks intrigued me,” he said.

Mitchener graduated in 1992 in visual arts from Duke Ellington School of Arts in Washington DC. In 2006, while on a break in the Bahamas, he met Sharon Mugambi, a Kenyan whom he married in 2008 and then they relocated to Kenya. It is here that he honed his skills. However, it took a long while before Teddy was recognised as a photographer of note.

“We created a digital magazine to showcase photography that seeks to capture and amplify the voice of the African photographer. It gives them a platform to tell their own stories,” said his wife Sharon. The publication is called African Photo Magazine and can be viewed on their platform www.TheImageFoundry.org.

“I wanted to do a story about an original Black Panther for the magazine,” tells Sharon.

The Black Panther Party was the militant arm of the American civil rights movement that began in the 1950s up to the 1970s. They fought for equal rights alongside Martin Luther King’s movement and the Nation of Islam Movement of Malcolm X.

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They had heard of an original Black Panther, Pete O’Neal, who had been in self-exile in Tanzania since 1963. They met his wife Charlotte, who took them to the Arusha Cultural Heritage Centre.

“The minute we entered, l was overwhelmed by the hundreds of African masks,” said Teddy.

Teddy has been invited to international art fairs. In 2019, he exhibited in Dubai at the Gulf Photo Plus and in Venice. This year he has been shortlisted for the Photo Basel in Switzerland — showcasing the real masks alongside the photography prints. There are two things that stand out in his works identity and a strong background in the visual arts. “My art comes from my training in visual arts in everything from sculpting to photography,” said Mitchener.