by Elizabeth Adekunle
“Yes indeed there is an entity called “Africa”, but the creative entities within its dark humus – fecund, restive and protean – burst through the surface of the presumed monolithic reality and invade the stratosphere with unsuspected shapes and tints of the individual vision. And there, we know, the ancestors join in the festive dance to rhythms that we have always lain, latent in the veins, awaiting the solar eruptions of new harmonics from their uninhibited, space-turned offspring”.
Wale Soyinka 1990 Changing Traditions
There are many popular perceptions which influence our many views of Africa, for example, “The impression of sub-Saharan Africa, beset by war, famine, HIV and AIDS or a place of exotic wildlife, colourful rural markets, drumming and dancing and whose culture history and traditions are frozen in time” The British Museum African Art in Detail Exhibition.
What strikes me most about African art is that it marks the first significant art we have. Stone hand axes used for cutting meat, sharpening wood and cleaning animals were found approximately 1 million years ago at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. These tools are arguable the first works of art and mark the gradual evolution of creative intelligence. Alongside these ancient tools, the most ancient forms of painting known to us are Cave paintings found in Southern Africa dating back to the oldest religion of the Sand bushman from Botswana. Other impressive art works include life size cast brass heads from southern-western Nigeria which show accurate 3D depictions of the human head and all its detailed features dating from the 12th-Century. (PIC insert benin bronze head) The insert shows a cast brass head of an Oni (King) of Ife in Nigeria wearing an elaborate tiered crown decorated with rosettes, beads and feathers. The original faint traces of the red pigment can still be seen around the head.
African art is significant for being first and foremost a pioneer in the realm of the visual. It marks the beginning of the exploration of our understanding of the world and our place in it. In African art we begin to see links to the visible and the invisible, the practical and spiritual.
Easel painting is an art form that is more apparent in the west and it is relatively recent art discipline in Africa compared to other socially interactive forms of painting such as body paint, mask and bark painting which is still practiced today, although not as frequently. Although easel painting still has a western association, contemporary African artists practice easel painting and are slowly becoming integrated into the international art world, through continued efforts for exposure.
Over ten years ago leading contemporary African artists mainly from Nigeria put on a cutting edge exhibition at the Brunei Gallery in London; this was just before I went to SOAS. From its inception many of the artists feared what the critique and reception of the exhibition would be. The concern was tied to European colonialism, through to post independence and how African art had been perceived post independence and the subsequent changes in Africa that might create discomfort.
What emerged from the exhibition was the discovery that reconceptualising African art is necessary and the exhibition was the start of that dialogue. The idea that art from Africa was ‘frozen in time’, belonging to a different time was what the exhibition was trying to shift.
When we deconstruct the idea of African Art, what emerges is that the term African art itself is a construct. Museums in Europe and America have collectively the biggest collections of African objects in the world, therefore our perception of African art is somewhat removed.
In Europe in the beginning of the last century artists like Picasso, Giacometti, Matisse and Brancusi began to show interest in the formal aspects of African masks and sculpture. This led to what was to become known as the ‘primitive’ art movement, ‘L’Art Primitif’. ‘Western artists embraced the perceived simplicity of African Art and the commercial aspect of African art became incredibly significant. African Art became big business in both Africa and Europe. Camilla Hetland says, “The western concept of art is broad and encompasses many things, but ruled and carefully controlled by art critics”. The anthropology of art was once established as a sub-discipline within anthropology and has gradually shown an interest in the functional and aesthetic aspects of these collected objects in the original context from which they have been taken’. The depiction of African art that became so popular was based on a reconstruction of how things might have been before colonial administration and new forms of technology, education and religion, like stepping back in time. “An abundance of glossy and richly illustrated books were written on traditional African Art with the intention of saving traditions from the destruction of western influence” says Hetland.
Perhaps recognizing that objects of art are not merely objects, however inaccurate at times our representation of certain objects, they have the power to become hugely significant and influential symbols.
How African is Contemporary African Art.
The exhibition ‘Accident and Design’, gathered a mixture of artists from among the students and teachers work at The Ahmadu Bello University in Zaire for Arts, Sciences and Technology. The exhibition resembled modern western art and some would say a cheap imitation. However not all contemporary African art is imitation, the relationship between inspiration and creation is often complex. These artists were living in Africa at the time and experienced dual influences, having studied or lived in Europe for a time. Many of the establishments for art schools and workshops in Africa were initiated by western expatriates and artists, for example Ulli Beier established his workshops in Osogbo Nigeria in 1961. Frank McEwen started a workshop within the national Gallery of Zimbabwe in 1957. These workshops were mainly designed to encourage African artists to find their own expression of modern art. Many artists came from formal or informal training schools.
Women artists were often ignored and as a result fell into the category of self taught. The art that emerges from women therefore is a lot more experiential, the art work of South African women for example focuses heavily on development and the role of carer and nurturer of the people and of the land pre and post apartheid. Artist Magdalene Odundo was commissioned for the opening of the Sainsbury galleries at the British museum in 2001. (Pic insert vase) Her ceramic objects remind me of movement and dance. Her object takes on a shape that is familiar, but slightly distorted, African and yet universal. In this way the art transcends the place it came from and moves into the realm of shared experience.
Today there are many schools and colleges in Africa that play an important part in exploring new ideas and raising questions in the world of the visual, in nation building, global enterprises and politics.
Through the help of new exhibitions we are moving away from the idea that art should reflect the uniqueness of African art history and therefore remain in a timeless case, towards recognising the value and the possibilities that individual artists could bring, particularly in relation to the way in which African art is seen globally.
One wonders whether the connection to Africa needs to be made explicit within an art work for it to be African for example, using concepts and materials which make it authentically African. Unlike many other mediums of communicating, contemporary art is always changing and it is able to cross barriers if and when it chooses, it is able to blur the lines between what is mine and what is yours, what is owned and what is shared, it is by its nature available for us all to admire. This does not suggest a distillation of Africa art but rather proclaims the emphasis on the extraordinary diversity, cultural, ethnic and geographic history of Africa and its immense global impact which can be communicated through art.
Rather than represent Africa as an external influence on the continent; it is much more helpful to begin to understand the living oral history of Africa that lies in the appreciation of works of art both of the present and the past and the multitude of stories that make up their history. Art in this way is attempting to create a balance between African identity with the various global demands of the moment, including the demand represented by western technology and popular culture and explores how these methods are being integrated and ideas developed to suite local demands. Needless to say we all share fundamental experiences and so there are bound to be crossovers in our understanding and exploration.
Where to now?
The African Diaspora and the question of identity were the overriding themes in this year’s CinemAfrica Film Festival. One of the movies on this subject was the documentary “This is My Africa” by the Nigerian-British filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa. It’s a film that sets out to change the way people in general view Africa using the intimate memories and opinions of twenty people.
One of the questions was “what would you like Africa to be in 2060” elicited responses that, just a few years ago, might have been looked upon as a joke. But many of these projections may not seem so ridiculous. Artist Yinka Shonibare provided a lot of amusement when he said (rather tongue in cheek) that in the year 2060 he would like Africa to have their very own Bono organizing a Make Poverty History concert to aid Europe.
Artists Chris Ofili studied at the Chelsea School of art and has been able to incorporate experiences in Africa with his experiences in the UK. In his painting entitled No Woman No Cry (1998) Ofili mounts his painting on two dried, varnished lumps of elephant dung, a third is used as the pendant of the necklace. (Pic insert painting women) In this way Ofili takes from the ritual tradition and creates something new in a different context, while still alluding to his own heritage. Ofili reorders our perception of what constitutes contemporary art within an African world view. Ofili won the Turner Prize and in 2003 he was selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale of that year, where his work for the British Pavilion was done in collaboration with the architect David Adjaye.
El Anatsui is another beacon in contemporary African art. He graduated from Kumasi University of Science and Technology with degrees in art and art education that focused primarily on European traditions. El Anatsui later turned his attention to African aesthetics. Anatsui is Professor of Sculpture and Head of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and strongly support the artistic freedom and promotion of the role of arts in local development. In his piece Taago (2006) (Pic insert men holding large fabric tapestry) he suggest a kind of cultural pluralism, a total art to which people throughout the world can respond in many different ways. In his sculptures El Anatsui experiments with local symbolic vocabularies, forms and materials and as a result has developed an open busy and eclectic approach to African Art. At the core of his work is an understanding of the strength, beauty and dynamism of African oral history. His work examines the notion of kingship, leadership, power, politics, religion, history and trade and these areas are touched upon in almost every way. The suggest is that there is so much more at state here, so much more to share than we perceive at first glance.
Author Ben Okri in his best seller The Famished Road describes “a wonderful spirit word embedded in the beginnings of time”. It is this sense of history that still has importance and yet so much has changed since then which brings new voices and new stories. Artist Dennis Morris a British born photographer in his exhibition for black history month in October 09 explored in his work what it was like for him growing up in Hackney, East London. Morris’s work could be said has its roots in traditional Africa in the form of storytelling, experiences that have passed down through the generations, which are retold and remade in different contexts as time goes by.
Since there is no ‘one’ African Art, but many, perhaps the solution is that we need more exhibitions from distinctively different voices. Art should involve movement, growth and a readiness to engage with new ideas as well as the confidence to draw upon the traditions on which art was founded. We can in this way begin to appreciate the creative god given gifts each has to offer.
Elizabeth Adekunle is Archdeacon of Hackney