Liberian Golden Image Awards


Last Tuesday Rabbie and Ja-Rock, our guides to all things cultural, took us along as they performed at the nomination ceremony for Liberia’s first annual Golden Image Awards. The awards are designed to showcase those who have contributed to the post-conflict growth of peace and arts. Accompanying the nomination ceremony was a small art fair, which, aside from our friends’ performance of course, was one of the highlights of the day.

It is difficult on a visit to Monrovia to find Liberia’s art scene. Some craftsmen find you randomly on the street; today for example a young man stopped on his motorbike to tell us that he makes chess sets from the war’s spent bullets and to give him a call if we’d like to buy one. Some, like Manfred who is featured on this blog, we hear about through the grapevine. But there is no central place to see Liberia’s fine arts, or to experience traditional song and dance. At least, not one that is easy to find.

This is what made the arts fair so exciting. As soon as we arrived we sprinted over to the tents with colorful canvases stretched out under blue tarpaulins. We were super early, so had time to carefully pick our way through. I spotted an ink and watercolor sketch of Uncle Sam, urinating on the UN and swatting Africans like flies. (I foolishly pointed this out to Ken and he bought it out from under me! Boss’ prerogative I guess). Our Liberian friends explained the significance of traditional dress and symbols. The art ranged from intense black and white ink sketches, to bright abstract market scenes and heavy oils. One painting in the red, white and blue of the Liberian flag was a stylized swirl of screaming mouths, symbolizing the peoples’ yearning for peace and stability according to the artist. Some work was done in sand, which I had never seen before, and some were collages of found objects. All the artists seemed to relish the opportunity to show off their work and to interact with an interested audience. We weren’t able to buy as much as I’m sure we would have liked, but we frantically collected the artists’ business cards for the next time we come to town.

I love art, but I find interesting craft fascinating. My very favorite booth of the day was a little company called Amazing Grace beads. They take broken glass bottles and crush them. The dust is then put into little moulds and fired online casino in the oven to make glass beads, and strung together in pretty designs. The pamphlet calls Amazing Grace “jewelry with a purpose”, as they are made by women and youth as a post-conflict recovery project. I plan to buy many bracelets and necklaces for friends and family. Other stalls were selling bags and wallets made from discarded “Mamma Liberia” brand water bottles, bush honey and wood carvings.

But after shopping, it was time for the show to begin! Rabbie and Ja-Rock disappeared into the Hipco music crowd while we filed into the assembly hall. In between speeches by US Embassy and Liberian Government officials were truly magical performances by local troupes. Unfortunately, the organizers had placed award nominees on the stage and had the performers strut their stuff below them so most of the audience couldn’t see. Luckily, most performers were so energetic that we saw them as they flung their fellows high above their heads, somersaulting back to the ground. There were singers, drummers, artistic dancers and dancers who told story through movement. I’m not sure when we might have had the opportunity to see so much in one sitting. The performers came from all over the country, and had obviously put a lot of time and care into their costumes.

But not only traditional art forms were represented. There was a fashion show to shine a spotlight on the Liberian textile industry. Tyra Banks should get herself to Africa to talent hunt; every single woman in that show was six foot tall and absolutely stunning. Of course Liberia’s youth music scene was given some love, and our boys were some of the last to take the stage, closing the ceremony with a bang. Unlike other times where singers have lip-synced to CDs, Rabbie sang live with the band picking up the reggae rhythm as they went along. The female MC was quite flustered as he left the stage, muttering something about wishing she could see more of that “sexy rasta man” before realizing perhaps that her mic was still on!

All in all it made for an extremely memorable evening, and unfortunately, a unique one. Arts and entertainment are crucial in any society, and perhaps even more so in a community recovering from conflict. Liberia has a lot to offer to the creative world, and we hope that the country’s artists are given more opportunities to showcase their talents.

About Ken Harper

I'm an Asst. Professor in the Multimedia, Photography & Design Dept. at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.