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African art.

How it thrives on its own terms.


ART HISTORIANS – FROM Europe and North America – have documented and discussed the influences of traditional masks, woodcarvings and house decorations from North and West Africa on notable French and German visual artists in the early twentieth century. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, explorers, traders, colonising emissaries signing “protection agreements” with tribal chiefs, missionaries and plundering military fortune seekers, among others, brought many artifacts back to metropolitan centres — Berlin, Madrid, Lisbon, Paris and London. Some of these were placed in ethnographic museums, usually presented as primitive art, their grotesquerie of form and colour a source of shock and awe about wilder human life in distant continents. The Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris included some African masks, for exotic decoration and as trophies of expanding French territorial influence rather than as admirable art en-soi.


Books were written, with attractive photographs and pencil sketches, by German and other authors. Ethnographers and memoir writers published their writings. A couple of pioneering anthropologists got serious and began to probe below the surface of artifacts for skills, meanings and spiritual symbols. Anthropologist Franz Boas, in Primitive Art (1927), disputed evolutionary theory that asserted different societies evolve mentally and technologically according to ethnic traits. Claude Lévi-Strauss, having done pioneering ethnographic field research in Brazil, declared in 1943, “The day is surely not far away when collections from distant parts of the world will leave ethnographic museums to take up their rightful place in art museums.”

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The attempt of Europeans to understand and appreciate African art happened slowly. Before all that, shapes, forms, colours and materials from around 1905 began to ‘influence’ artists who later achieved renown in the Euro-American art world. Paul Gaugin went to Oceania and painted his fauve figures. Picasso and Matisse collected African art; Matisse travelled to North Africa in 1906. The German-Danish expressionist, Emil Nolde, painted a few Masks canvases, but it didn’t last long and he went on to explore luminous colours with no African reference.

In 1907, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avig­non, de­picting in cubist form the erotic respecteuses of the notorious rue d’Avignon in Barcelona. The African masks on two faces to the right of the dramatically large canvas intensified an erotic concern that later in his career led to highly erotic Freudian cubist interrogations. The women’s faces on the right of the canvas have been painted as masks inspired by African artworks Picasso observed on his trip to the Trocadero Museum in Paris in 1907. But this large canvas was not about Africa – it was a wry comment on the rue d’Avignon with its ‘red light’ reputation. Art historians often say that Picasso’s cubism was influenced by African masks, but the great celebrity himself in later life said that Iberian art, with its Moorish-Arab traditions, was his inspiration, which incidentally is Afro-Arab. Picasso in fact was born in Andalusian Malaga, noted for Moorish associations. In a Parisian climate of African interest in the first decade or so of the twentieth-century Picasso looked temporarily towards African artworks as inspiration for some of his work; his interest was sparked by Henri Matisse who showed him a mask from the Dan people of Africa. Picasso and others moved on to other, innovating modernist phases of art creation. African life and world views held no abiding interest for most artists in Europe.

Africa is a large continent, with complex geographical and ethnic diversity unknown to innovating western modernists. There is Maghrebian Africa along the south Mediterranean, Egyptian Africa, Nubian Africa along the Upper Nile and sub-Saharan Africa – all with diverse traditions of visual creation.

Alberto Giacometti of Swiss-Italian identity (d.1966) was friends with Carl Einstein, author of a seminal book on African sculpture, Negerplastik (1915) and Michel Leiris, who would become a specialist in Dogon art. The Dogon ethnic people nowadays are found in Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa. These and other West African territories fell under French political influence and came to the attention of French metropolitans in the early twentieth century. In the mid-1920s Giacometti experimented with African shapes in his sculptures and drawings, but his real interest was in surrealism, modernism and other styles. After the Second World War he created tall, thin angular figures in bronze and other metals. I have seen fine examples in Tate Britain, which was called the Tate gallery back in the 1960s during my youthful visits. The angularity is often said to resemble African facial abstraction.

Twenty years later on, in Malawi, I did see vendors on the roadside offering attractive wood carvings, the heads and faces with a tall distorted-mirror appearance and I thought, yes, maybe African art of this kind influenced Giacometti. Interpretation of the later Giacometti is complicated by his existentialist paring down of the human figure to its bare vulnerable essentials – a philosophical attitude of no interest to Malawian woodcarvers. Africa as such was not the concern of many famous European modern artists. They took facial angularity and geometrical abstraction briefly as stepping stones for moving away from European mimetic traditions, then moved on to other preoccupations such as surrealism, expressionism, post expressionism and the dramatic leap into abstract expressionism.

It would be easy but simplistic to attempt a litany of twentieth-century artists who were influenced by African art:  Braque, Matisse, Cezanne and Amedeo Modigliani are often mentioned among numerous others. The big problem with adding names to historical litanies is that most of these artists ignored the spiritual and social context of African art as they encountered it. The Dogon in West Africa made cave sculptures and wood masks for ceremonial purposes, to honour the spirits of the ancestors. They brought masks into a village public sphere only for solemn dancing and then put them away safely for other occasions. Their art was totemic, not for mounting on walls. It was sacred and inaccrochable, besides. Not-for-public-display in the European sense can be said about much visual art from North and West Africa collected, sometimes seized, by nineteenth-century European explorers, colonisers, traders and others.

Contemporary Art Creation in Africa

The art scene across the continent of Africa today is vast, varied and impossible to summarise succinctly. Just a few glimpses will suffice for insight. Firstly, there is burgeoning ‘studio art’ by men and women who have completed fine art courses at third-level institutions in major cities. They try to get exhibited in city galleries and are on a winner if metropolitan art promoters in Europe, North America and elsewhere notice them and invite foreign exposure. This foreign attraction may lay aesthetic and thematic traps for the ambitious. A talented African artist can forget his or her country origins and become captivated by non-African requirements of untramelled innovation and aesthetic experimentation. Metropolitan saleability shades Africa’s continental authenticity.

Promotion of innovative and experimental contemporary art is facilitated by Biennial expositions in several cities throughout Africa. Really big cities have a continental open submissions policy while others are satisfied with a regional focus. In Britain and other countries specially-created foundations promote art education in Africa and the promotion of work by emerging and already established artists.

The romantic longings and identity cravings of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in the metropoles can also tempt aspiring young artists to avoid modernity and stick to traditionalist painting and sculpture.

In the ‘sixties, in post-independence Africa, artists began catering to a new market of middle-class urban Africans and foreigners, especially tourists. New art-making practices developed. Self-taught and academically trained painters, for example, began depicting their experiences with colonialism and independence; as fine artists, their work is often free of traditional animist aura and aimed at display in galleries or modern homes.

One of the earliest artists to receive international attention was the Kinshasa-based Chéri Samba. Like the painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, also from the DRC Congo, Samba had no formal training, and his style was improvisational and mixed. Many of Matulu’s paintings focus on the capture and death of Congolese political leader Patrice Lumumba, a Congo patriot murdered and buried in an unknown forest by Belgian mercenaries in 1962.

In coastal Tanzania and along the north coast of Mozambique African wood carvings are generally said to be made from ebony wood, with a deep brown and black colour. Many such carvings are actually honed with skill from the African blackwood tree. Known locally as mpingo, it is found widely in East Africa. Carvings are made from a single block of wood in different sizes. Large pieces are sold for export at upmarket prices.

Stone sculpture of high quality and elegance is found in several parts of Africa. It thrives in Nigeria, notably from the Akhwanshi tradition. In Egypt works in alabaster, depicting Queen Nefertiti and other pharaonic entities, are sought after by tourists.Tourists can visit factories that mass produce cheap minatures in different colours, but in the factory shops they can also buy large high-end vases, birds and pharaonic figures in decorated white, yellow and black colours. Art museums in North America, Europe and elsewhere display elaborate alabaster works, some taken abroad from the colonial nineteenth-century onwards.  Mashona stone sculpture in Zimbabwe is spectacular. Works in soapstone, marble and granite are highly prized. Commercial galleries in England, Germany, France and North America import Zimbabwean sculpture continually and sell to high-end art buyers.

Female artists, some of them active feminists, are painting in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Their works are being included in Biennial exhibitions in Berlin or contemporary African art exhibitions in Britain. South Africa, the most urbanised and racially diverse country in Africa, is vibrant with literary and visual art innovation. Women artists are focusing on women-relationships, trying to raise awareness of patriarchical injustices against women and their children exacerbated by drunkness, tribal hierarchy and male dominated power politics. Women artists, like men, are going to North America where they enjoy the freedom to experiment visually and ideologically – but maybe they should consider the temptation of losing contact with art expectations in African societies.

Airport Art in Africa for Tourists

International tourism has created a demand for the exotic in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Drum makers, wood carvers, batik makers, weapon makers and graphic artists have responded to the consumer demand for exotica. Airport shopping areas around Africa commonly display and sell cheaply produced Africana. I sympathise with the wish of mass producers to earn a living and support extended families.

The tourist trade, including ‘airport art’, downtown curio shops in capital cities, and displays of mass produced works near popular spots like the Victoria Falls (Mosi-o-Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’) in Zambia and Zimbabwe, continues to encourage production in ‘traditional’ forms.

It’s not just a third-world thing. Mass-produced art using cheaper materials satisfies tourists everywhere. Just visit an Irish craft shop in central Dublin and admire or be repulsed by the array of Celtic mass-produced clothing and artifacts being offered to tourists. Some Celtic souveniers are tasteful, with other overvarnished shillelaghs and lavishly decorated bodhráns leaning towards kitsch.

Much airport art in modern Africa is quite pleasant and inexpensively priced, but the vendors who sell on city streets and on dusty roadsides get a bigger proportion of the selling price by cutting out the retail shops. I have seen roadside traders in Malawi displaying handmade wooden toys such as helicopters and aeroplanes made with industrial timber from packing cases and warehouse pallets (how modern) and trucks made of local light wood and plastic rubbish bags, capable of being rolled along the ground with bamboo sticks. In Zambia, I have met travelling Congolese art vendors hawking rolled-up canvas paintings – trite or spectacular – and softwood varnished masks and figures. Entrepreneurial artists depart from the Congo with their baggage, travel cheaply through Zambia by bus and on the back of trucks down to Botswana and Zimbabwe, even as far as tourist spots in Namibia, to ply their wares among foreign tourists — then make the long return trip to Lubumbashi in Katanga when their stock is sold out.

In Côte d’Ivoire today art vendors likewise trek to nearby English-speaking and francophone countries on selling journeys, patchwork and needlework cloth creations a specialty because of easy packing and carriage. Museums around Europe and America display the best examples of Ivorian wood carved masks, totemic human figures, paintings and cloth creations – some of them ‘acquired’ by European explorers. Today’s indigenous travelling vendors trade in lighter woodcarvings and folded-up colourful patchwork quilts and paintings. They know what fits into suitcases and sells easily.

Nigerian Yoruba art, Tanzanian Makonde dark ebony wood carving, Ethiopian embroidery, woven tapestry and Coptic Christian art all have their high art admirers who visit museums. Zimbabwe stone sculptures have in recent decades been acquired for art museums worldwide. African art with a Christian dimension thrives in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Contemporary mass production artists draw on old traditions but often exaggerate the exotic wildness to pander to passing tourist tastes, including erotic allure. Inexpensive paintings of dancing tribal warriors – Masai, Zulu, Ashanti – are best sellers to tourists from America, Europe or Japan who want to decorate bedrooms, bathrooms or sitting-rooms with works that accentuate male physique or female voluptuousness. Box ticking international tourists are generally not fazed about fine distinctions between Kitsch and Kunst. If objects are brightened up with colour and varnish, all the better to brighten a sitting-room mantelpiece.

During my working time in East and Central Africa, on volunteer or professional income, I spent disposable income modestly. In my Irish home, small drums, cheap wood carvings, paintings, batiks and handmade jewellermade from plastic beads and dried beans adorn shelves and walls. I bought some from vendors on city streets or dusty village roads. Others were presented by thankful employers when my contracts ended. Whether these objets d’art are middlebrow or reaching higher, they were created attentively by people who earned a living from the effort.

GARRETH BYRNE, an Irish citizen, spent more than twelve years, in the 1970s, the late 1980s and the early 1990s in Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi. He lives in retirement in North-West Ireland.


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