Speak Out: African Art of the 20th Century and Beyond
By Olga Spencer
ART TIMES May/ June 2011
WHEN WE REFER to “African Art”, what exactly comes to mind? Is it sub-Saharan or African-American art? Does it consist of art from Africa only or any artist using African motifs? Or is it an umbrella for all of the above?
My interest in the accurate definition of what represents African Art was reactivated by an unexpected experience. Several years ago, a local library inquired if I would be interested in lending them some of my African paintings to exhibit during African Pride month. A committee came to review and select the artwork. However, a few days later I was notified that they would not be using the artwork in the exhibit because a few local African-American artists protested the inclusion of art from Africa.
This dichotomy reflects the deep rift and confusion in the field of African art. Currently, the label “African Art” does not require identification of the country of origin. It can represent artifacts from equatorial or North Africa, as well as works by Africans living in Europe, USA or elsewhere, that produce art using African motifs. For example, recently I saw a replica statuette of an African tribesman, made in China.
The confusion surrounding African art is not alleviated by the expertise of professional appraisers. To the best of my knowledge there are no certified or licensed appraisers of 20th century African art. In 1998 I made a donation of African paintings to a museum and could not locate an expert in the New York area to provide a written opinion on the origin, history or date of the paintings and/or the background of the artists.* One would expect that an expert would recognize “airport art” from the genuine old masters who started the golden era of sub-Saharan art in the 20th century before WWII and that blossomed during the forties and fifties.
While African artists rightly claim the concept of “African art” as a copyright for their territories, modern critics and dealers are divided on the subject.
From a historic perspective, all art originated from the universal archetypes that were identical in its symbolism, whether they were produced in the caves of Alta Mira, South Patagonia or other paleontologic locations. It would be difficult to deny their universal connectedness just because the were created on different continents. The need of primitive people originated in the urge to capture meaningful events or pictures of local heroes as a message for future generations. It was their testament that they had lived there. It was their “veni, vidi, vici” statement, long before writing existed. Artwork, as produced in the “Cave of hands” in 9,000 BC in Southern Patagonia assured the artists immortality. Regardless of the continent and site of the art, the fundamental archetypes bind all arts with symbolic expression of artists about their world.
In former Portuguese colonies, idiographic images were already seen in the 17th century when Africans imitated pictures of saints and religious motifs brought by navigators and traders. In Ethiopia, paintings were produced by local artists since the 13th century. They learned the art of painting in Jerusalem where they had workshops producing copies of the bible and pictures of holy persons.
The indigenous imageries evolved later during the 19th century on the West Coat, as well as in various parts of Equator Africa, after H.M. Stanley crossed the unexplored continent from Zanzibar to the Atlantic Ocean. As the traders, missionaries and administrators from Europe colonized the territories, Africans were exposed to non-religious works of art that the colonists brought from Europe to decorate their homes. Suddenly there was a market for artwork by Africans expressing their vision of life and nature for arts’ sake and not for ritualistic purposes.
Some of the artists were inspired by the continental art form; however, others developed their own unique style. European connoisseurs visiting the colonies soon recognized the talent of local artists and provided the young African artists with needed tools and occasionally instructed them on traditional techniques.
The influence of the Western art form on African artists was not always welcome or integrated by local masters. Some westernized their style, while others adhered faithfully to their own techniques and vision of African life that greatly differed from western culture. For example, Bella, an uneducated bushman, painted with the tips of his fingers, refusing to use brushes or change his vision of life and death and the struggle of African nature. Koyongondo, Futa, N’zita, and Pili-Pili were talented men that have grown to be recognized as African artists.
In the early 1960’s Albert N’Kusu won the first prize during the Intercontinental Art Exhibit in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Koyongonda, N’zita and Bomolo exhibited in New York under the auspices of the Monaco art show.
After the dissolution of the colonies and the sub-Saharan territories proclamation of independence, many young artists developed skillful techniques, but were not truly dedicated to art. These artists imitated the old masters and flooded the market with cheap reproductions that were known as “airport art”. During the 1960’s and later, so called “African Art” could be bought for less that 50 U.S. dollars. However, the works of the old founding fathers became difficult to obtain after the artists’ death.
While living in Paris in the early 1950’s, I frequently saw an artist painting the Sacré Coeur Church, a favorite tourist monument. The painting was a very good imitation of Utrillo’s style, known for his sceneries in Montmarte. In 1954 the artist was selling the painting for 3,000 francs, then the equivalent of $6.00. There are many experts who can recognize an original Utrillo from an imitation. However, who can distinguish an old African master from an imitation?
As art becomes part of the global market and economy, it is time that universities, galleries and other art-related institutions focus on African art and shed some light on this new field of creativity that is still, to a large degree, a “terra incognito” to the general public.
I wrote this article with the hope that increased attention to the definition of “African Art” will help clarify all the various art forms currently falling under the broad umbrella of “African Art”.
*I had purchased the painting in the early 1950’s in Zaire, Congo Republic.
(Olga B. Spencer, Ph.D, is an author and lecturer living in Southport, CT).