12 September 2012

Africa: The African Art Struggles


When Europeans started trekking south a couple of centuries ago in search of new frontiers and with an apparent intent to "civilise" Africa, they came across several types of artworks. From what they saw, they made a clear distinction between the African products and Western art by categorising the two into "low art" and "high art" respectively.

This distinction had already been made in Europe to delineate the difference between the work of accomplished artists and, well, the rest.

The implication of such a classification is there is a gulf of class between one artwork and another, making the difference between "high" and "low" art similar to that between "good" and "bad" art.

The old African art may have looked rudimentary, unfinished and somewhat revolting to the unwelcome visitors, but the categorisation of the work was done using foreign methods by people oblivious to the uses of the art they found.

African art was classified as low art solely because the "civil liberators" were of the impression that they were superior beings on a mission to enlighten the inferior.

The early forms of systematic racial stereotyping were bent on discrediting the African masses and the emergence of theories on who built the Great Zimbabwe walls is a clear testament of the contempt attached to the continent's artworks.

The difference between functions of early African art and European creativity discredits assertions that what the white visitors found here was low art.

African art was for centuries used mainly for religious, decorative and ritual purposes. The close-knit structure of the African culture meant that art belonged to a whole society as opposed to individuals.

The artist was only key to his society when bringing an image to life, but thereafter, the work would be owned by everyone and used for specific purposes in accordance to the lifestyles within that civilisation.

Art was less about the individual and more about the society and that is why none of the work is signed or attributed to the creator in any way.

The cave paintings are an equivalent of today's commentary art such as graphic novels, editorial cartoons and comic books.

The only difference is that cave and rock paintings were not about the individuals involved in creating them but about the wider society's beliefs, aspirations and the general way of life.

And even without other types of history records, the paintings succeeded in informing both visitors and future generations of their lifestyles.

African art may have had the "low art" tag attached to it, but in reality there was nothing low about it.

For starters, most art scholars concede that the work of Pablo Picasso, the eminent Spanish, was wholly inspired by African art from 1905 to 1907.

His earlier visit to Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, a French museum, had exposed him to an African art collection dominated by masks. He said that visit significantly changed him and his work showed traits from African art.

How then can a plagiaristic art form be inferred with the "high art" tag when the original work is condemned to a lesser class?

The answer can be found in Picasso himself. Despite obvious and irrefutable evidence suggesting that the man was simply stealing African ideas and making them his, he downplayed its influence.

The African people were during that period viewed as inept, uncivilised and uncultured. Anything good, sophisticated or advanced was never credited to these people. And when their art was exposed to a wider audience, the people's made-up reputation preceded them and all that was there, according to the foreigners' eyes, was "low art". If there was a classification lower than that, chances are African art would have made the grade.

Back then when Vincent Van Gogh was cutting off this ear and other prominent Western artists were living in abject poverty, African art was kicking in the direction that we now find modern art.

It was African art that showed that creativity without a purpose is meaningless.

Though initially not profitable, art on the continent was attached to some form of life activity. It was made for a particular purpose.

Nowadays, as was the case back then with African creativity, art must mean something to be relevant. There might be several scribbling in the sketch book, but if they do not lead to some finished work with germane attributes, there is no point.

African artists of today have continued to attach psychological, emotional, religious, ritual, political and social meanings to their work.

But present-day "Picassos" are lurking everywhere. So-called art collectors from foreign lands are flooding the continent in search of places and people to exploit for personal gain.

Unfortunately, there are many among Africans willing to sell off their work and dignity for a penny.

The undeniable truth though is that African art was and remains an aesthetically correct, societal-based, rich form of creativity whose quality remains despite being downgraded, discredited, vandalised, copied and sabotaged.

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