The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Colonialism Taints Contemporary African Art

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WOULD it be possible to discuss African aesthetics in contemporaneity without addressing the effects of colonialism, post-colonialism vis-à-vis occidental modernist and post-modernist art trends of the last century?

The encounters and embroilments advanced by the colonisation in Africa have produced complex issues of appropriation and commodification of African visual expressions.

Persuasive post-colonial research by Africanist scholars made known the close association between aesthetic conventions and capitalist incentives and agendas.

This has been evident since the colonial conquests of the 19th century, and earlier with the Portuguese exerting influence upon the late 15th century kingdoms of Benin in Nigeria, Kongo and in Angola. As well as the impact of Christianity in Ethiopia from the 4th century; some African aesthetic styles have been adapted to meet changing economic and political circumstances, to satisfy dominant foreign Western expectations.

One of the most compelling cases of aesthetic colonisation is evident in the art of the Mangbetu people of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, whose aesthetics transformed to a European-influenced naturalism following colonisation; a trend which is still prevalent today, in the 21st century, in many parts of Africa.

Those who study contemporary African arts today, define modernisms as being overlapping and yet in variance from the European models. Early in the 20th century, expatriate teachers opened fine arts schools in numerous African cities, many of them in concurrence with their Christian missions, introducing new techniques and aesthetics.

Often these synthesised existing frameworks produced hybrid forms of African art, as in the workshops of: Cannon Patterson of Cyrene, Father Groeber of Serima Mission, Driefontein Mission (and others) of Zimbabwe, and Ulli Beier in Nigeria.

Suffice to say, the present time may be the most exciting era to study African aesthetics, as the artistic landscapes of Africa are extending in many innovative directions. Academic curators such as Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, and the Documenta-11 in 2002, and Salah Hassan, editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, are transcending the boundaries of aesthetic discourse through their introductions of captivating works of emerging African contemporary artists.

Africa is a continent of richness and opulence of cultural material and resilience of creativity. Its traditions readily adapt to new circumstances.

Despite an increase in indigenous patronage throughout Africa, contemporary African art is still mainly depended on the European-American market, which in its turn has over the years exerted a considerable influence on its materials, techniques, form, and content as well as on what is produced and where it is exhibited overseas.

This dependency raises important questions for the practice of contemporary art forms such as the stone sculpture in Zimbabwe, Tinga-Tinga paintings of Tanzania, Makonde of Mozambique, and the township printmaking of Namibia; How are these images mediated by dealers, curators, critics and Western scholars? Whose visions do these works represent? And whose interests do the works serve?

For the first time in 1996, the visibility and fortitude of contemporary African art on the world stage was reflected by its inclusion in major textbook on world art.

The book featured the works of two contemporary African artists: Magdalene Odundo of Kenya and Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire. Art curator Okwui Enwezor of Nigeria, who in 1998 founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, was appointed the artistic director of Documenta-11 in Kassel, Germany. It was the first time an African was entrusted with such a major responsibility in the world arts.

More recently, the 54th Venice Biennale 2011 included African pavilions and featured works from several African countries. For the first time, Zimbabwe featured as a nation at the biennale.

The Zimbabwean pavilion showcased the visual installations and artworks of Tapfuma Gutsa, Berry Bickle and Misheck Masamvu.

Given the small, and at times marginal and unimportant role afforded to African artists on the world stage over the years, it is no wonder that some Western critics still define post-colonial African art as "neo-primitivism".

Several art curators and critics from the Occident and African Diaspora have chosen to ignore educated and enlightened African artists who are critical of the Western hegemonies and art establishments and instead have opted to choose "self-taught" African artists in the hope of perpetuating their romantic archeological colonial perceptions of the self-taught "savage geniuses".

Such terms should be rendered obsolete by any forward-thinking, progressive curator, especially those of the motherland.

Major exhibitions promoted and "staged" during the late 1980s and 1990s in the West showing African art such as "Magiciens de la Terre", organised in 1989 by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and "Africa Explores", organised in 1991 by the Centre for African Art, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, erroneously alluded to the notion of African art being defined as the work of "untutored neophyte artists", despite years of contemporary art practice in pre and post-colonial Africa.

Such deliberately calculated curatorial misconceptions of contemporary post-colonial African Art have proved to be detrimental to perceptions and receptions of our art.

Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Post-Modern Art Theory, a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) in Post-Colonial Art and Heritage Studies and a Law and Art Diploma from Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA. He represented Zimbabwe at the Documenta-2007, Germany and at Africa 95 Art Critics Conference in UK as the first indigenous Zimbabwean art critic. He is also a practising artist, author, designer and corporate image consultant.

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