Hot wheels

The art of mammy-lorry painting offers keen insights into the politics of ordinary Africans

Let us visit the realm of a specialised art form that some might refer to as "naive art". It is certainly not the kind of artistic production that attracts much criticism, deriving from the stress and strain of proletarian existence. It is an art that is familiar to the African continent, west, east, or central, and a genre that I have always considered more profoundly political than much of the art that is born of western middle-class radicalism. While post-colonial ideologues argue over what is committed or uncommitted in art, these artists appear never to have been in any doubt.

I often describe this genre as "mobile murals", or travelling illuminated manuscripts - to borrow from the work of those medieval monks of Europe who spent their lives decorating divine manuscripts for the edification of the faithful and seduction of unbelievers or sceptics. Most Africans have certainly seen them; several more have even travelled in them. I assume that you have never been knocked down by one of them or you would not be here reading this today. They exist also in Latin America. Often brash, crude, exhibiting an untutored draughtsmanship and flaunting bizarre colour sensibilities, they are nonetheless statements of great political astuteness, pithy comments on day-to-day realities as well as aspirations.

I am not the first to have remarked upon the trenchant politics of these popular art forms. The Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah constructed his scatological narrative, including his choice of a title, around one such inscription in his famous novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Those who have read that novel, or have simply travelled on West African roads, will certainly have deduced from that final clue the kind of mobile mural I have in mind. Ayi Kwei Armah's title was taken from an inscription on one of the locally built transport lorries that are variously known in Ghana as "trotros", or in Nigeria as "mammy-wagons", "bolekajas" or "danfos".

Their inscriptions have formed the subject of quite a few monographs on culture and social mores, as well as coffee-table publications. The inscriptions on these trucks are often taken from proverbs, expressions of traditional wisdoms, soundbites from the most unlikely sources, wrenched from their original contexts - which may vary from Shakespeare (one favourite is Julius Caesar) to the Bible or the Quran, not omitting Indian, western or kung fu films, or even a commercial jingle heard on television. The Quranic inscriptions sometimes appear in Arabic, the Arabic script being a favourite not only for what it actually says, but for the attraction of its calligraphy. But it does not matter in what language it is written - Ewe, Twi, Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa; the calligraphy is, literally, a blinding piece of art. The more complex pieces have accompanying illustrations which help the illiterate to understand immediately what social comment is being made.

A favourite and eloquent image is of David routing Goliath in single combat with a reinforcing inscription: "Ewe nla ko ni ru wewe", which translates as "The big leaf shall not crush the small". We shall return to that saying in a moment, though not much comment is necessary to grasp its political message: the championship of the "little man", the powerless citizen, with whom the painter clearly identifies. The idioms of action in some of these paintings are as fascinating as they are unpredictable; these are artists of the modern world. Don't think David armed with a slingshot - no, you are more likely to encounter our diminutive champion directing a Bruce Lee flying karate kick at the neck of Goliath, with that unfortunate giant buckling at the knees and staggering backwards.

I have always considered these murals as instructional, open-air panels on sociopolitical ethics. I have proposed in the past that African leaders should be compelled to ride the length and breadth of the country over which they exercise power in one of those mammy-wagons, with a booklet of the inscriptions, preferably changing conveyance every twenty kilometres or so. Not only would they acquire a very real lesson in "how the other side lives", they might begin to understand that these crude inscriptions express the world-views of their companions in the rickety, tumultuous, and often fatal, contraptions. They would experience the environment over which they preside as "the other side" does, with all the bumps, corrugations, filth, edge-of-survival commerce, raucousness, uncertainties, real-time tragedies and petty triumphs, but, above all, a resilience that is often the sole surviving element as society itself collapses. In short, they would experience not only "how the other side lives", but how it dies.

Sample a few of these inscriptions: "No Telephone Line to Heaven"; "Chop [eat] small, no quench [die]" - or its variant "Chop small, quench small; Chop big, quench big". There is the fervent prayer to the responsibility of elders (this might have a special resonance for European and American Green campaigners for clean air and pro tection of the ozone layer): "The young shall grow." This is a direct admonition to those with political and economic power to remember that there are generations after them who also deserve a place in the sun.

I wish to pause over the saying "Ewe nla ko ni ru wewe" - "The big leaf shall not crush the small". You have to concede to the anonymous originator of that saying a gift of observation and the political wit to transfer the lessons of nature to the social arena. It is utterly graphic and trenchant. The phenomenon of creativity, we know, is closely related to the ability to yoke together separate, and even seemingly incompatible, matrices. This is the essence of satori, the moment of illumination when a mundane event unveils profound truths of the nature of things.

Here is my own fictional reconstruction of the political satori that led to the extended poetic image in that Yoruba saying, "Ewe nla ko ni ru wewe". I picture a farmer, taking his rest under a banyan-type tree. A broad, fleshy leaf detaches from its moorings and zigzags gently down. Unlike Newton's apple, it does not smash against his head but, indeed, settles down on a smaller leaf without so much as dislodging or bruising the latter. Cut to some power tussle in the community, perhaps his feudal chief using his position, influence and resources to smother the aspirations or appropriate the entitlements of another peasant, perhaps of that very observer. His thoughts are: "Look at that leaf. Yes, it is larger, heavier than the other, higher up in the hierarchy of leaves, but look at the way it simply occupies the same space, settles on the smaller one gently, protectively."

In that moment, he espies the ideal in governance, the responsibility of the more powerful towards the weaker: to protect it. The immediate yoking of two matrices, nature and politics, offers us a good example of the creative tension that is the true nature of art. It may extend into other creative modes, as it is appropriated by the urban transport worker as the motto of his own existence, painted on his rickety truck - which is how you and I, travelling along the coast of West Africa, first encounter it.

Easy to understand why it remains my favourite, maybe a neck-and-neck rival of that other inscription, "No condition is permanent." These two vie for primacy in my political reckoning. Some African leaders actually dare to suggest that democracy is a concept alien to traditional African society. This is one of the most impudent political blasphemies I can think of. You can debate, analyse, reify or mystify that ideal called democracy as elaborately as you wish. But, simply place your average citizen in a Nigerian motor park with public transportation vehicles decorated with dozens of these inscriptions, and ask that worker or peasant to point out a single item that accurately defines democracy for him. The odds are he will point at that lorry bearing the inscription: "No condition is permanent." No condition is permanent. The unparalleled Shakespeare played numerous dramatic variations on that theme, yet even he did not quite transmit its essence to us in those memorable words. But then, there were no trotro lorries in the Elizabethan age.

© Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka will be participating in the Freedom and Culture International Creative Forum at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, on 10 November, as part of the "Passage of Music" season marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. For more information, log on to:

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered