Ndema’s Last Supper Painting Immortalizes Pan-Africanism

By Dominic Muwanguzi

The Last Supper is a subject that has been reproduced in art severally. Leonardo Da Vinci’s 15th Century mural painting of Jesus Christ and his disciples seated at table having a meal of bread and wine that came to be immortalized in early Christian literature as the Last Supper has since become a source of inspiration for many artists. The present day production of the Last Super however does not involve a figure of Jesus Christ and his twelve disciples at the holly banquet. Its composition otherwise is made of familiar figures who either may be politicians or aristocrats. The wine and bread is sometimes represented with a menu of favourite alcohol brands and sumptuous exotic foods that connote an element of sarcasm and satire.

Paul Ndema has painted the Last Supper. The painting features familiar figures of African politics and its maverick patrons like Fidel Castro. Like Da Vinci’s classic painting, the latter painting has a central figure that plays the role of Jesus Christ. Ndema’s Jesus is Fela Kuti, a renowned Afrobeat and World music artiste who is remembered as a strong advocate of African unity and a critic of despotic governance on the continent.

The Last Supper - by Paul Ndema
The Last Supper – by Paul Ndema

Fela the Messiah is holding a slice of bread that overshadows a “joint” of Marijuana he deftly holds between his figures. A top his head is a nimbus, a geometric shape inform of a ring that represents a radiant light around or above the head of a sacred person. The nimbus is often used on images of saints in Christian faith. Attaching saintly status to Fela is controversy in itself owing to the controversial sentiments the polygamous artiste had on the faith.
The artist preferred being identified as a spiritual person and not religious. He went on to blame Christianity and Islam for the problems of Africa.

Ndema with curator Elise Atangana at his studio.
Ndema with curator Elise Atangana at his studio.

The drama and satire employed by Ndema in crafting Fela’s noble character in the painting imbues an intelligent visual narrative between artist, art work and audience. Christians will interpret this painting as blasphemous, close to Swedish cartoonist, Lars Vilks drawing of Prophet Mohammad as a dog! Yet Ndema’s depiction of an eccentric character like Fela as Jesus Christ is not an affrontation on the religion and its followers.
The artist is immortalizing the good deeds of the artiste like his open attack on the military regime in Nigeria, the fight against Whiteman dominance of the Blackman in his on his own land and his fervent love for his Motherland, Africa.

“Fela Kuti did a lot for Africa. He fought against corruption, greed and segregation between Blacks and Whites using his music. He encouraged every black man to use his talent to promote the Pan African ideology,” says Ndema.
Sharing the audience with Fela are revolutionary leaders like Thomas Sankara, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Haile Selassie. These protagonists of African Independence are figuratively the twelve disciples that play the role of spreading the gospel of Pan-Africanism.

Pan- Africanism was a central terminology in the vocabulary of these African leaders that every time they stood up to speak at any international forum, like the Organization of African Unity and United Nations they evoked it to the chagrin of Western powers who viewed it as a threat to their control of the continent. In fact, it was because of this rhetoric that many were ousted from the Presidency of their respective countries and assassinated in cold blood.
A gathering of these luminaries does not only imbue the Pan- Africanism spirit, but conjures the strength of solidarity. Despite being fragmented by territorial boundaries imposes on them by colonial masters, these figures acted as one to promote a single ideology. This is evident in the presence of characters like Marcus Garvey, a black civil rights activist in the United States of America in the early 1920s who advocated for the return of blacks to their Motherland if Whites did not stop segregating them. Similarly, Fidel Castro’s involvement in the fight against western imperialism on the continent through funding socialist governments in Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Ghana was a blatant sign of his belief in the fight of Blackman emancipation.
The background of the painting is decorated with a pattern of Ghana national flag, one of the birthplaces of Pan-Africanism on the continent. This attribution reverberates a sense of African pride carried through out in the art work. The flag of any community hoisted for public viewing is symbolic to pride and honor that community enjoys. Ndema’s infusion of these former heads- of –states with the flag succinctly communicates this message.
In painting the Last Supper, the artist has probably achieved one of his artistic goals: to create local relevance of art. The painting is going to be a subject of discussion by both local and continental art scholars and critics. One question though that will be carried on everyone’s lips is if any of the present day African leaders can dine and wine with these immortal souls in the painting.

Ndema is part of the Indigenous Expression Movement.