“Cultural exchange is a radical act. It can create paradigms for the reverential sharing and preservation of the earth’s water, soil, forests, plants and animals. The ethereal networker aesthetic calls for guiding that dream through action. Cooperation and participation, and the celebration of art as a birthing of life, vision, and spirit are the first steps.”
When Chuck Welch, an American artist and a writer popularly known as the Cracker Jack Kid, wrote this in his book, ‘Eternal Network: A Mail Art Anthology,’ he spoke a larger truth about the power of art, and its radical impact on the mankind if made available to everyone.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the consumption of ‘art’ in its conventional sense has been the elitism associated with it, its high-brow-ness in museums and art galleries and its general inaccessibility to the less privileged and marginalised sections of the society, which inevitably makes art less diverse.
The latest study by Arts Council England is a testament to this. According to the report, ‘art by BAME artists makes up less than a third of the Tate Modern’s permanent collection, and non-white artists are visibly absent from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern/contemporary art section.’ It further suggests that the ‘most commonly reported barriers to arts and cultural participation among women and minority groups are the cost of attending or participating, inability to find funding and concerns about feeling out of place.’
With the cultural production of art being controlled by the powerful, art emerging on the fringes has either been conveniently sidelined or heavily censored. This has led to the emergence of a lot of protest art — radical in expression – that has found networks on the outside in which to be distributed, consumed and be inspired. Perhaps one of the most interesting of these has been the ‘Mail Art’ — ‘a populist artistic movement emerging in the 1960s in New York; centred on sending small scale works through the postal service’.
Also known as ‘Post Art’ or ‘Correspondence’, Mail Art involves using art to creatively enhance envelopes and postcards using stamps, paper, recycled images or objects and paint as elements in the composition. The ‘art’ can also be textual — conveying a strong message in the form of prose, poetry, song etc. usually derived or based on certain themes or topical matters. This art is then sent through ‘regular mail’ as free art to friends, family and even other institutions.
The distinguishing characteristic of Mail Art is its ability to circumvent and operate as free art outside commercial networks away from exhibition spaces; thus questioning and commenting upon the traditional and elitist artistic consumption. Mail Art has encouraged collaboration and interconnection with other artists, growing into a strong artistic movement that thrived in South America and Africa and reached its peak in the 1990s, becoming an alternative way of cultural expression to circulate ideas often not accepted in mainstream discourses.
Given its unique cultural identity, networks of distribution and ways of self-expression, Mail Art has (ironically) been under the scope of several exhibitions, academic and research projects and archives to further understand its signification. SOAS too has a rich, vibrant collection of an eminent Sudanese Mail Art artist, Hassan Musa; whose mail art holds an instrumental position in understanding post-colonial, contemporary Africa.
Born in 1951 to a cattle-trader, Hassan Musa grew up in Sudan, charmed by Arabic calligraphy, visual imagery of Chinese cultural magazines and cinema at large. This fascination led him to pursue an education in Fine and Applied Arts, thereafter which he worked in the media in Khartoum. Later, earning a doctorate on the topic ‘The Shift in Cultural References to people in Central Sudan’ from the University of Montpellier, France, Musa went on to become a successful textile artist and art teacher for about 20 years in France. His engagement with Mail Art began in the 1980s. Most recipients of his Mail Art have been his family members and Sudanese artists and friends.
A striking orange-coloured paper pasted on a brown paper envelope, with the image of a soldier, juxtaposed with that of a malnourished child dotted with several stamps and some text. Its French title, ‘Dans charité il y a char’ employs wordplay in that charité contains the word char: ‘tank’. ‘The imagery in three sections makes a critique of development aid, food aid for starving children, utilizing collage and drawing; on the right is a double ‘Marianne’, a symbol of the French state, as a puppeteer in the aid game.’
Two women on far corners of a white envelope drawn by hand in blue ink that corresponds to one in the strewn hand-written address. This image features representations of two iconic women who symbolize liberation, Marianne and Josephine Baker, the famous American entertainer during the 1920’s Paris. According to the archive description of this art, in his portrayal of Marianne, Musa ‘uses the body of Matisse’s Blue Nude with a stamp head of her wearing a bonnet rouge from Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People while for Josephine, he draws the body to a collaged stamp of her head and iconic pose.’
Another vibrant postcard with a grid drawn in yellow and orange Mail Art, titled ‘In Jail with my Dutch Friends’ that depicts Musa with ‘self-portraits of Rembrandt and Van Gogh inside a minimalist grid that references Modernist Dutch artist Mondrian, using collage and drawing’.
These pieces of Mail Art, with their interesting and wildly creative imagery, are just three of the 58 items of art that have been catalogued in the Hassan Musa SOAS Special Collection. His work remains satirical and has often been described as absurd yet innovative. Self -portraits are a common pattern observed in his visual art alongside his ‘appropriation of cultural and modern icons; e.g. the Last Supper, St Sebastian, Van Gogh etc. The collection states that “his practice demonstrates how new imagery transcends the canons for African, Islamic and western art to represent a plural identity.” Some of his works also feature imagery of Ava Musa, the artist’s daughter.
Musa’s art has not just been influential in taking the complex and diverse African imagery to the rest of the world but also eroding artistic conventions that for long have ignored people of colour. It has served as a commentary on colonialism and has widened the reach of unconventional art as such through his illustrations, teachings and critical commentaries.
In several ways, Hassan Musa’s Mail Art is an embodiment of the SOAS spirit. Musa has long-worked with Elsbeth Court, an academic who teaches African Art on the IFCELS course at SOAS, with whom he performed a ‘graphic ceremony’ in the old Assembly Hall, SOAS in 1992 alongside a mini-exhibition of his Mail Art during the opening week of the Africa’95 season. His Mail Art was donated to the SOAS Library, by Court in June 2018.
With the onset of the world wide web, Mail Art has come to acquire several digital forms of production and consumption; yet its identity and purpose remain the same. It is for anyone and everyone to indulge in, create and distribute — especially as most of the world, now seeps into isolation in a pandemic that has starkly exposed the inequalities of the world.
This digitized artistic archive of Hassan Musa is an insightful and inspirational resource to delve into — to decode complex historical and contemporary narratives of Africa, or simply understand the innovative yet simple frameworks of visual imageries that Mail Art boasts of, to convey a powerful message.
Devyani Nighoskar is a 24-year-old SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo
For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please visit our Covid-19 page.