Stamps Out of Africa
by Chuck Welch, USA, 2019
No survey of global artistamps is complete without a tour of Africa, the second largest continent with the second sizable population base. But the question remains, are there stamps out of Africa or is Africa out of stamps?
The answer is a strange paradox in which mail artist postage stamps are non-existent while fake African philatelic stamps flood the collectors market to the extent that serious philatelists see no sound investment in owning them. African countries such as the Republics of Bénin and Burundi, Botswana, and the Central African Republic issue such stamps by contracting printing companies in Europe. Philatelic stamps in these African nations are considered “fake” because they serve no genuine postal use by their population. Instead, these stamps are a form of commercial revenue catering to stamp dealers and hobbyists. Such “wallpaper” stamps are deemed by serious stamp collectors as excessive and exploitative. There are legitimate claims emanating from African postal authorities that their postal agencies cannot afford the personnel or space to service printing operations. The Central African Republic (CAR), for example, has mail delivery in it’s capital city, Bangui, but elsewhere mail delivery is non-existent due to poverty, crime, civil unrest, and kidnapping. The former French colony also has the lowest level of human development in the world.
Tanzania, unlike CAR, is a safer place for mail delivery. Situated south of the Equator, the former British mandate borders eight countries in Eastern Africa. Tanzanian post is reliable for letters and its delivery rates are reasonable by African standards. But what is the late Rock ’n’ Roll star, Jerry Garcia doing on a Tanzanian commemorative stamp issue? In 1995, the Estate of Jerry Garcia approved a fully licensed, limited edition of Garcia’s portrait stamps accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and a statement,
Because of his (Garcia’s) notability, the country of Tanzania in East Africa, has immortalized his image on a government issue postage stamp.
If ever there were a testing ground for the launching of commercially inspired “mail art wallpaper stamps,” it would seem that the African continent postal authorities would be willing patrons, but an online philatelic stamp enthusiast commented,
I doubt there is a single (stamp) collector in Barundi. The only people I have seen buying stamps at the main post office for ‘collector’ purposes are the odd tourists who use them on the postcards they send home – and Burundi does not get too many of them.Toschka, “Crazy Wallpaper Stamps/Illegal Stamps of Today,” (Accessed June 12, 2019, <https://www.stampboards.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=38713&start=200>
Mail art postage stamps failed to find a footing within the African continent even though international mail artists boast of contacts on five continents. Despite today’s improved internet accessibility, little evidence can be found before or after the millennium about artistamp shows or projects originating from within Africa. In a 1979 published criticism of mail art, English writer, Georgette Munday observed,
the network, despite claims of being worldwide, really isn’t. It excludes Africa, the Middle East, Asia. and the USSR.Georgette Monday, “A Note on Mail Art,” The Agent, (England), 1(1): 25, July 1979.
Since the millennium, mail art has made inroads within the Middle East, Asia, and Russia. Many reasons account for the lack of an African mail art presence today and in the last century. Some explanations were encountered in 1985 when Ayah Okwabi, Volker Hamann, Kim Burman and Crackerjack Kid collaborated to establish connections in Ghana and South Africa, places where mail was often non-existent and communication was still occurring through talking drums between tribal communities. Among these artists, German mail art networker and activist, Volker Hamann organized two of the earliest African mail art shows in Accra, Ghana, and Lagos, Nigeria. In 1985, first efforts to establish mail art connections inside Africa were politically dangerous. Other proposals such as Crackerjack Kid’s successful Flags Down for World Peace mail art and stamp project at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, were out of context in Africa. When Kid suggested bringing the large project to Ghana where villagers would submit pieces of their clothing to be sewn into a peace banner, Volker Hamann informed him,
Your peace flag project found interest, but to sew a peace flag is not appropriate for a country where some people in the city have to walk naked because they have no clothes.Volker Hamann in a letter to Chuck Welch dated September 15, 1985.
Mail art flounders in Africa because of famine, poverty, and an undeveloped communication infrastructure. In seventeen African countries there is a 50% illiteracy rate. In the sub-Saharan Africa, illiteracy was 65% in 2017. Jas Warren Felter, a Canadian artistamp pioneer, offered other explanations citing “the lack of knowledge of the medium (Mail Art) and the high cost of postage.” He added, “In 2007, Emile Künsch organized a mail art exhibition in Ghana, but it fell through due to electrical problems in the exhibition hall. It was cancelled.” Given these cited reasons, a chapter in African artistamp exchange has yet to be written.
Oddly, there is a seeming reticence on the part of most mail artists to acknowledge, define, or engage upon the subject of mail art absence in Africa. When the opportunity to initiate change arose during the 1992 networker congress year, only Peter Küsterman, Angela Pähler, and Ayah Okwabi made progressive attempts to link Africa to the network through projects and exhibitions like Okwabi’s exhibition, Women in Africa (1994). In 1995, Ghana mail artist Ayah Okwabi wrote Networking Activities: An African View, an inspiring text citing his (1987) African mail art exhibition, Africa Arise and Talk with the World. Okwabi’s seminal essay, on the request of editor, Chuck Welch, was published widely in the University of Calgary Press edition, Eternal Network Mail Art Anthology (1995). In his closing paragraph, Okwabi predicted the future of mail art networking in Africa while offering these suggestions which to this day remain relevant:
Colonial barriers of language differences and communication patterns are big obstacle in the way of organizing a Pan-African Network. The rising cost of sending international mail is yet another problem. It is possible, however, that more people will become involved in mail art and in time a stronger bond of cooperation will be forged between Africa and the global mail art network. To achieve this end mail art will need to address themes that are interesting and relevant to an African perspective.Chuck Welch, ed. Eternal Network, op. cit., Eternal Network, 183.
 The glassine printed certificate includes an email address for more Rock ’n’ Roll collector stamps, but the website is an insecure URL.
 Georgette Monday, “A Note on Mail Art,” The Agent, (England), 1(1): 25, July 1979.
 Crackerjack Kid is Chuck Welch’s pseudonym.
 Volker Hamann in a letter to Chuck Welch dated September 15, 1985.
 Jas Warren Felter in a message to Chuck Welch dated June 11, 2019.
 Chuck Welch, ed. Eternal Network, op. cit., Eternal Network, 183.