Arts: Africa

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Arts: Africa

Between 1520 and 1521, the famous German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer (14711528) purchased two African ivory carvings in the Netherlands. He was so impressed by their craftsmanship that he noted in his diary:

all sorts of marvelous objects for human use much more beautiful to behold than things spoken of in fairy tales. And in all the days of my life, I have seen nothing which rejoiced my heart as these thingsfor I saw among them wondrous artful things and I wondered over the subtle genius of these men in strange countries. (Fagg, p. 9)

The Myth of Primitivism

Although stylized carvings from the kingdoms of Sapi, Benin, and Kongo were popular in Europe in the sixteenth century, scholarly interest in African art in general did not begin until the nineteenth century, when European colonization of Africa increased the number of examples arriving in European museums. But by this time the European attitude to the arts of other cultures had changed drastically, having been influenced by ideas of Enlightenment and evolution. Both ideas placed European culture at the apex of human development, using its naturalistic representations as the benchmark for the arts of other cultures. And since most of the sculptures and masks from Africa were stylized or conceptual in form, European scholars looked down on them as "primitive" and a failed attempt to imitate nature.

Although naturalistic representation turned up as early as 1910 in Africa, such as the terra cotta and brass figures of Ife, Nigeria, they were dismissed as the works of foreigners. In fact, Leo Frobenius, the German anthropologist who first brought Ife art to world attention, attributed the portraits to the ancient Greeks, who, he speculated, might have settled among the Yoruba before the Christian era. According to him, if a full figure in the Ife style were to be found, it would almost certainly reflect a proportion similar to that of classical Greek art. Fortunately, a full figure has been found and dated to the twelfth and sixteenth centuries of the Christian era. Contrary to expectation, its proportion is completely different from that of Greek art but closer to what is found in the generality of African figure sculpturethe head being about a quarter of the whole body, notwithstanding the naturalistic treatment of body parts.

By and large the myth of primitivism is no longer taken seriously. First, its assumption that naturalism was a late stage in the progressive evolution of art from the conceptual to the lifelike has been debunked by the occurrence of naturalistic images in the prehistoric rock art of Africa, Europe, and Australia. Some of the examples from Africa were created about twenty-five thousand years ago. Second, from a close study it is now known that the disregard for naturalism in African art is deliberate, not the result of a technical deficiency. It has been influenced by different cosmologies that not only trace the origin of art to supernatural beings but also identify the human body as a piece of sculpture animated by a vital force or soul. In other words, art makes the spirit manifest in the physical world. The time-honored ritual still associated with the creation of sculptures and masks today clearly shows that art in precolonial Africa was not so much concerned with imitating reality as with evoking its essence. Thus stylization hints at the interrelatedness of the physical and metaphysical. Ironically, the same so-called primitive art of Africa contributed significantly to the birth of modern European art at the beginning of the twentieth century, inspiring prominent artists such as André Derain, Maurice Vlamnick, and Pablo Picasso, among others, to abandon naturalism in favor of stylization and abstraction.

Functionalism, Structuralism,
and "One Tribe, One Style"

The pre-nineteenth-century European distinction between "art" (the nonutilitarian) and "craft" (the utilitarian) also contributed to the prejudice against African art, given its use in ritual ceremonies. This distinction turned African sculptures and masks into ethnological specimens and a gold mine for anthropologists interested in the relationship between art and society. Some applied the functional theory developed in the 1920s by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917) and his followers, emphasizing the interconnection of ritual, religion, language, social practices, and symbolic expressions. Others employed the structuralist model popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) to search for deeper meanings or a concealed order in symbolic or language systems. In both approachesoften combined in the same studyart was treated as part of an organic whole and as an aspect of myth, religion, or kinship system. Little attention was paid to aesthetic factors, individual creativity, and the historical factors affecting form and style (for a comprehensive review of the literature, see Gerbrands).

Between 1935 and 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized major exhibitions of African and Oceanic art to familiarize the public with their influence on European and American modernism. By the 1950s some American art historians such as Robert Goldwater (New York University) and Paul Wingert (Columbia University) had started offering courses in African art. The emergence of many newly independent African states from the 1960s onward resulted in a worldwide increase of scholarly interest in African affairs.

Most of the early surveys of African art focused on style areas, inaugurating what Sidney Kasfir (1984) calls the "one tribe, one style" conceptual model. Its underlying assumption was that the styles and iconographical elements that define the art of a given group had been fixed for centuries, untouched by outside influences. It thus encouraged the study of African art in the "ethnographic present." A sea change occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the arrival in the field of new scholars who combined art-historical and anthropological methods in a more critical way. Apart from focusing on the art of specific African cultures, they took cognizance of individual and regional variations within a major style area. In addition, they documented artistic exchanges between contiguous and distant groups due to military conquest or centuries of trade, migration, and/or social interaction.

Unlike their predecessors, who focused mainly on art objects and ignored the artists who created them, the new scholars and their students recorded names of artists, possible dates of objects, and contexts of use, among other data. Since then there has been a shift from an emphasis on the religious significance of art to its implications in the realm of politics, psychology, gender, mass communication, and performance. Such was the involvement of art in all phases of life in precolonial Africa that scholars began to use the term art for life's sake to distinguish African art from the European idea of art for art's sake.

In the early twenty-first century the more rigorous approach of a new generation of scholars is shedding new light on old problems and assumptions. For example, previous scholars paid little attention to the interaction between Islam and African art or simply concluded that Islam had had a totally negative impact on African sculpture, given its injunction against image-making. Late twentieth and early twenty-first century scholarship provides evidence to the contrary. Field studies by René Bravmann (1974), Labelle Prussin, Frederick Lamp, and other scholars demonstrate that Muslims in some areas of West Africa have not totally abandoned their ancestral art and religion. By emphasizing the recreational function of African masking, they have succeeded in preserving it in an Islamic context. It is therefore not unusual (among the Baga of Guinea and the Dyula of Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ghana) to see masked performers in the early twenty-first century during important Islamic holiday celebrations, such as the end of Ramadan or the birthday of Prophet Mohammed. Non-Muslims are also known to attach Islamic talismans to altar sculptures so as to make them more efficacious. Arabesque motifs also abound in masks, wood carvings, and fabrics all over Africa. Thus the idea of "tradition" in African art has been modified. Whereas it was once regarded as a strict conformity to forms handed down from the past, in the early twenty-first century the idea is understood as a process of continuity and change (for an overview of the major paradigms in the study of African art up to the 1980s, see African Art Studies [1987], Adams, and Ben-Amos).

Beyond Sub-Saharan African Art

Admittedly, the influence of African sculpture on modern art has virtually eliminated the evolutionist prejudice against its conceptual form. Yet it has encouraged a scholarly bias for figure sculpture and masks from West, Central, and Equatorial Africa, marginalizing the equally significant artistic expressions in other media within and outside the region. Until the turn of the twenty-first century, this bias isolated the study of sub-Saharan African art from those of northern, northeastern, and southern parts of the continent, where the decorative arts predominate.

It is gratifying to note, however, that in the early twenty-first century scholars are beginning to correct this anomaly. Surveys cover not only the entire continent (including Ancient Egypt, Nubia, and the Swahili civilizations of East Africa) but also previously neglected art forms such as body adornment, weaving, pottery, calabash decoration, leatherwork, beadwork, and architecture. Thanks to new data from archaeology, prehistoric rock art, various eyewitness accounts by Arab and European visitors to the continent between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries, and works of African origin that found their way to Europe from the fifteenth century onward, it has become possible to attempt a more comprehensive and reliable overview of the artistic developments in the continent from the earliest times to the present, though there are still gaps in knowledge.

The Paradox of Modernism

As is well known, European colonization of a good part of Africa between the late nineteenth century and the mid-1970s resulted in the imposition of European values. It also disrupted the social order, precipitating metamorphic changes. Having discredited African art as "primitive" and as "fetishes," colonial administrators introduced a new art education program, stressing naturalism and art for art's sake. At first talented Africans were encouraged to go to Europe for further training, but by the late 1930s European-type art departments had been established at Achimota College, Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Makarere College, Uganda. Others were introduced in the 1940s and 1950s in Senegal, Nigeria, Republic of Sudan, and Congo-Leopoldville (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The paradox is that colonialism foisted European-type naturalism on Africa, touting it as "modern art" at the same time as the leading modern European artists were being inspired by African stylization. Conversely, "modernism" had different implications in Africa and Europe during the colonial period, denoting naturalism in the former and stylization/abstraction in the latter.

Dissatisfied with this paradox, some European expatriates in Africa initiated an alternative modernisma conceptual art that would evoke the spirit of African art without necessarily imitating its forms. They established informal art workshops where individuals without previous art training could create freely, emphasizing genre and folkloric themes. These workshops include L'Academie de l'Art Populaire Congolais, Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi), Democratic Republic of Congo (founded in 1946 by Pierre Romain Desfosses); the Poto-Poto School of Art, Brazzaville, Peoples Republic of Congo (founded in 1951 by Pierre Lods); the Central African Workshop, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) (founded in the late 1950s by Frank McEwen); the Lourenço Marques Workshop, Mozambique (founded in 1960 by Amancio Guedes); and the Oshogbo Workshop, Oshogbo, Nigeria (founded in 1962 by Ulli Beier). The graduates of these workshops created images ranging from the realistic and surrealistic to the expressionistic and abstract. Some were very original while others were derivative, reflecting influences from European modernism, or what Marshall Mount describes as "a rather condescending Western stereotype of what African painting should be" (p. 75).

The Traditional, Neotraditional, and Authentic

As mentioned above, many Africans have not totally abandoned their cultural heritage despite conversion to Islam. This is also the case with Christianity. During the colonial period, many converts venerated their ancestors secretly. Those living in the urban areas frequently returned to their villages to participate in initiation ceremonies and annual festivals featuring masks. Thus artists trained in the traditional or the so-called classical styles continued to receive commissions, though the number of their local clients had declined considerably.

However, these artists found new clients in the international market created by the interest in African sculptures and masks as a result of their influence on modern European art. The huge demand led some artists to move from rural to urban areas, forming cooperatives such as those of the Bamana (Bamako, Mali), Senufo (Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire), Edo (Benin City and Lagos, Nigeria), Ibibio (Ikot Ekpene, Nigeria), Okavango (Rundu, Namibia), Wakamba (Nairobi, Kenya), and Makonde (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania). These cooperatives were still flourishing in the early twenty-first century, creating what is popularly known as "neotraditional," "tourist," or "souvenir" art. They specialize in copying and mass-producing the art of the ethnic groups to which they belong, in addition to occasionally replicating popular images in exhibition catalogs from other groups. Their products are sold wholesale to traders who then distribute them across Africa and overseas, making them available at hotel lobbies, supermarkets, boutiques, and duty-free shops in local and international airports. Other artists specialize in beadwork, leatherwork, jewelry, weaving, dyeing, pottery, and calabash decoration, among other arts.

This revival of interest in African art during the colonial period encouraged the Catholic Church in Nigeria to explore the possibility of adapting the art to a Christian context. So between 1947 and 1953 the church established an experimental art workshop in the Yoruba town of Oye Ekiti, Western Nigeria, where it employed the services of Yoruba artists. Two young British priests, Kevin Carroll and Sean O'Mahoney, supervised the project. They supplied the themes and encouraged the artists to render biblical characters in the Yoruba style, though without the rituals that sometimes preceded or accompanied the production of images destined for local shrines. The workshop produced madonnas, crucifixes, nativity sets, altarpieces, baptismal fonts, carved doors, and other works with Christian motifs. The finished objects replaced imported artworks in Catholic churches within and outside Oye Ekiti. The reception of the images, however, varied; it was positive in some areas but so negative in others that they had to be removed because they reminded some Yoruba Catholics of the "pagan" shrines of their ancestors (Carroll; Picton, 2002, pp. 100101).

Thus a distinction is now made between "traditional" and "neotraditional" African art. The former refers to a work in the so-called classical style originally created for and actually used in private rituals or public ceremonies by the same society to which the artist belongs. The "neotraditional," on the other hand, refers to a similar work created outside its time-honored context for the tourist/souvenir market or to function as "art for art's sake." And because most Western scholars and curators regard the used image as "authentic" and the unused as "fake," the carving cooperatives in the urban and rural areas have devised various ways of artificially aging replicas to enable them to make the grade. In fact, such is the demand in the early 2000s for "old" or "authentic" art that a well-executed contemporary work may be passed over in favor of a damaged mediocre piece if the latter appears to be much older.

Sidney Kasfir (1992) has criticized this Western "antiquarianist mind-set" because it tends to ignore formal quality, an important yardstick for judging a work of art. According to Christopher Steiner, because "authenticity" is defined by Western patrons, those who sell both ancient and recent African art "are not only moving a set of objects through the world economic system, they are also exchanging informationmediating, modifying, and commenting on a broad spectrum of cultural knowledge" (Steiner, p. 2).

Pan-Africanism, Negritude, Decolonization,
and the Search for a New Identity

It is easy to understand why art historians ignored modern and contemporary African art for a long time. First, they were preoccupied with the so-called classical African art, which had influenced the birth of modern European art. Second, some of them assumed that the belief system that inspired the best of African creativity was on the wane due to the negative impact of colonialism, Western education, industrialization, urbanization, and mass conversion to Islam and Christianity. That African creativity has not only recovered from the ordeals of colonialism but has in fact been rejuvenated is apparent in the early-twenty-first-century rise in the number of mainstream museums and galleries collecting contemporary African art as well as in the spate of publications on it.

Although it is customary to trace the beginnings of this recovery to the period after World War II when the products of the colonial art schools used their art to critique the colonialism as part of local agitation for political independence, the roots lie much deeper in the Pan-African movement of the nineteenth century. Spearheaded by George Padmore (19021959) and Henry Sylvester Williams (18691911) of Trinidad, Edward Wilmot Blyden (18321912) of the Danish West Indies, and W. E. B. DuBois (18681963) of the United States, among others, the movement organized a number of international conferences of black leaders from Africa and the Americas between the early 1900s and the 1940s. There were two principal objectives. The first was to inspire all blacks within and outside Africa to be proud of their color, history, and cultural heritage; and the second, to unite all blacks in their struggle against racial discrimination and toward the decolonization of Africa.

These conferencesalong with Marcus Garvey's (18871940) ideology of "Africa for Africans," which promoted a millennial vision of decolonized Africa as a future superpowergenerated many debates and publications on different aspects of black history and culture as well as the political, economic, and creative potentials of blacks. In the United States, the quest for a distinct black identity in the arts gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s during which African-American artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and intellectuals experimented with their African heritage. In France, Pan-Africanism, along with the Harlem Renaissance, inspired the Negritude movement in the 1930s among a group of African and Caribbean students.

Apart from celebrating the richness of their African past in their works, the Negritude writers and poets also questioned the "civilizing mission" of Europe in Africa, in view of the impact of African art on European modernism. Besides, they claimed that black people all over the world share certain cultural and emotional characteristics that constitute the essence of blackness and called on artists to capture this essence in their creations. The journal Presence Africaine was founded in Paris in 1947 to serve as an organ for disseminating the Negritude manifesto to the black world.

In short, these black-consciousness movements culminated in the political agitation that spread across Africa after World War II, motivating artists to explore the potentials of their African heritage and synthesize them with Western elements. The situation varied from one country to another, however, depending on the degree of the artistic commitment of the political leadership. For example, when Ghana gained political independence from Britain in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah (19091972), an active member of the Pan-African movement, became its first prime minister and, later, president. He urged contemporary Ghanaian artists to research into their ancestral legacy and to cultivate an "African personality" in their works. To this end, he made funds available for public art projects.

Léopold Sédar Senghor (19062001), one of the founders of negritude along with Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léon Damas of Guyana, became the first Senegalese president when Senegal became independent from France in 1960. During his twenty years in office, he promoted negritude as a national artistic philosophy, becoming the patron of the "École de Dakar," a group of artists manifesting this philosophy in their works. Having been influenced by negritude while studying in Europe, the Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu (19211994) returned home to become his country's flag bearer in the search for a national identity in the visual arts, especially after Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. As the special art adviser to the government, he received a lot of commissions to decorate public buildings.

However, the most significant attempt to decolonize the visual arts in the country was initiated by the Zaria Art Society formed in 1958 by a group of students at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria, whose art department was dominated by expatriate art teachers. To counter the naturalism being forced upon them by their teachers, these students (now known as the "Zaria Rebels") organized private sessions to formulate strategies for evolving a Nigerian identity in their works. Space limitations will not allow a survey of artistic developments in all African countries. Suffice it to say that political independence inspired a cultural and artistic reawakening throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It led to a drastic review of the colonial art education program. New art schools, museums, and national galleries have since been created to promote an African consciousness in the arts, although not everybody agrees with the premise of Negritude that all black people share a common emotional characteristic.

There were similar post-emancipation reactions in northern and northeastern Africa (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and the Republic of Sudan) where there are large Arab populations, although Egypt and Libya attained political independence before World War II. The academic realism introduced to these countries during the colonial period has been modified. In the early twenty-first century, their contemporary artists experiment with different materials, forms, and ideas, seeking inspiration from diverse sources ranging from Islamic calligraphy and crafts to Pan-Africanism and different Euro-American styles. In Egypt some artists also draw on ancient Egyptian and Coptic sources in an attempt to relate the past to the present.

While Ethiopia has been exposed to Orthodox Christianity since the fourth century, it was never colonized except for a brief period of Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941. For a long time, the Ethiopian Church was the chief patron of the arts, commissioning metal crosses, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and murals. Most of the artists were priests trained to work in the Coptic-Byzantine or modified Italian Renaissance style. But in the early nineteenth century, the nobility and members of the royal family started commissioning secular paintings from freelance artists. Modernization commenced in the 1920s with the introduction of European-type art education. Some Ethiopians later studied in Europe, returning in the 1930s to popularize new forms and styles. A school of fine arts was created in 1958; initially the school encouraged students to focus on Ethiopian history, culture, and political aspiration, but by the start of the twenty-first century the school's program stressed experimentation and individual creativity.

South Africa became a Dutch colony in the seventeenth century. The British took it over in the nineteenth century, granting it political independence under white minority rule in 1910. The notorious apartheid system that disenfranchised the black majority was introduced in 1948. Until recently, most of the well-equipped and state-sponsored art institutions were reserved for whites. Blacks had to be content with informal art workshops or craft centers run by churches and philanthropists. Black art focused mainly on black suffering under the oppressive apartheid regime between 1948 and 1994. Much of white South African art, in contrast, reflected the prevailing trends in Europe. However, by the 1980s some concerned white artists, no longer willing to be silent while the rest of the world condemned apartheid, had started using their art overtly or covertly to critique it. Since the end of the apartheid system in 1994, contemporary South African art has been charting a new course, reflecting on the past and projecting the collective aspirations of a new nation now ruled by a black majority.

The Postcolonial, Postmodern, and Transnational

In the early twenty-first century contemporary African art is no longer confined to the works of black artists; it now includes those produced by artists of European, Arab, and Asian descent. That it has come of age is evident in the creative ways it often combines ancient African elements with new and frequently Western materials, forms, and techniques to reflect the peculiarity of the continent's history and the complexity of its encounters with other cultures. No wonder that contemporary African artists have been receiving more invitations to participate in international exhibitions and biennials. Africa itself has become the site of major expositions such as the Cairo International Biennial in Egypt, first held in 1984; the Dakar Biennial (Dak'Art) in Senegal, first held in 1992; and the Johannesburg Biennale, South Africa, first held in 1995.

The strong visibility of contemporary African art on the world stage was reflected in the inclusion for the first time in a 1996 major textbook on world art (Stokstad) the works of two contemporary African artists, Magdalene Odundo of Kenya and Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire. In 1998 curator Okwui Enwezor of Nigeria, the founder of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, was appointed the artistic director of Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germanythe first time an African would be trusted with such a major responsibility. A year later, the Egyptian artist Ghada Amer won the UNESCO Prize at the Forty-Eighth Venice Biennial in Italy. As Barbara Pollack aptly observes in the April 2001 issue of Art News: "While the political upheavals in [African] countries serve as a backdrop to their work, many of these artists struggle to make individual statements that transcend politics and nationality. By so doing, they are transforming our very definition of African art" (p. 124).

As the postcolonial period in Africa coincided with the postmodernist deconstruction of the Eurocentric hegemony in the visual arts, the question has been raised as to whether the two phenomena are related. They are, insofar as the multiculturalism promoted by the postmodern movement has opened new doors for contemporary African art, enabling it show the world that the creativity formerly associated with its past has been rejuvenated. Yet, and as Kwame Anthony Appiah points out, much of the so-called postcolonial African art is not as independent as implied in the rhetoric of decolonization. For despite an increase in local patronage, contemporary African art still depends largely on the European-American market, which in turn exerts a considerable influence on its materials, techniques, form, and content as well as on what is produced and where it is exhibited overseas. In other words, elements of the colonialnow neocolonialstill lurk in the postcolonial like an old masquerade in a new costume. No wonder some critics see a kind of "neoprimitivism" in the emphasis on self-taught art in major exhibitions such as "Magiciens de la Terre," organized in 1989 by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and "Africa Explores," organized in 1991 by the Center for African Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (Oguibe and Enwezor, p. 9; Picton, 1999, pp. 120125; Hassan, 1999, pp. 218219).

Lastly, it is significant to note that many African artists have been living permanently abroad wince the middle of the twentieth century, if not earlier. Many have become naturalized English, French, Belgian, or American citizens, yet they retained strong ties with Africa. This has produced a "double consciousness" that often resonates in their work, transcending racial, geographical, and national boundaries while at the same time identifying the black self in a largely Caucasian ambiencea new home away from home in the global village that the world has become.

See also Aesthetics: Africa ; Ancestor Worship ; Masks ; Modernism ; Negritude ; Pan-Africanism .


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Babatunde Lawal