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African Art

By OLGA B. SPENCER
March, 2003

For many years, I have been a satisfied subscriber of ART TIMES. As I am aging, art is becoming even more important as I have more time to enjoy it.

Your art magazine covers a broad and versatile range of topics, yet one area has not been covered and that is the "terra incognita". African Art has been missing not just in ART TIMES, but also in most other art publications.

Increasing numbers of financial corporations as well as private collectors (such as Bill Cosby), are investing in recent and past works of African or Afro-American artists. Yet there are more questions than answers regarding the area that African art covers, its developmental phases, the value range, and the artists themselves.

I own several African paintings, so I contacted one of the best-informed institutions of African art, the Royal Museum of Central Africa, in Belgium. The curator, Sabine Cornellis clarified that "Art africanist" is a terminology that "puts under the same umbrella the Western artists who worked at home or in Africa, as well as the African artists who worked particularly in the sub-Saharan part of the continent." In the USA it also includes artists of Afro-American origin.

One can hardly imagine Western art without tracing its origins to the paleological treasures in the caves of Altamira or elsewhere. In order to understand the African art, one has to follow its evolution from the pre-colonial roots to present. It is generally known that pre-colonial art is bound to only carved utensils or ritualistic statuettes for ceremonies. In a booklet, "Les Arts Plastiques", published before WWII, an art connoisseur, Count D'Arcshot indicated that the first Europeans that reached the unexplored territories of sub-Saharan (Equatorial) Africa, noticed drawings on mud huts of some chiefs and notables picturing deeds of courage or scenes of hunts performed by the dwellers.

With the arrival of the missionaries, the Africans were exposed to pictures of biblical scenes and saints. This seems to have some similarities with the evolution of Western art which also progressed from drawings of hunts, wars and ceremonies, to religious scenes of Roman and Greek gods painted on vases and amphora.

The development of "modern" African art was a spontaneous reaction of African autodidacts to the availability of new materials and decreased importance of the "taboo" prohibiting the painting of people because their spirit would be "stolen." The following story told to me in Africa in 1956, enlightens the awakening of the dormant potential of one of many African artists.

While buying a painting from an indigenous artist, I asked if he ever imitated Western artists. His answer was surprising: "I didn't copy your artists but I have heard that a certain Picasso copies our 'art negre'." The name of this artist was Bela.

Bela was born in 1920 to a pagan bushman of the Sara tribe in the region of Port Archambeau. He was hired as a kitchen helper by a French Lieutenant, Pierre Desfosse, who in his free time painted. Bela observed his boss and was fascinated by his art. He acquired discarded tubes of paint and since he didn’t have brushes, he started to paint with his fingertips. One day Desfosse saw Bela's work and recognized the potential of great talent. So was born Bela, one of the outstanding African artists, whose work is reflective of genuine life in African men and nature. His paintings, with his unique fingertip technique, express his vision of life around him with such vitality that his achievements place him among the most recognized painters of African art in the 20th century.

Most colonial artists evolved from autodidacts, abandoning their more profitable jobs as cooks, soldiers or custom functionaries, because they couldn't bear to live their life without art. African art, during the colonial era, was more prolific in some areas, such as Bas-Congo or Katanga, because it was determined by the economic wealth of the region, where officials could afford to purchase art. African artists came from varied regions and to listen to their stories of development as artists was as fascinating as to follow the footsteps of Gauguin or van Gogh.

Many artists emerged from the untapped masses of African people during the colonial era that ended with the declaration of independence in Zaire in 1960. The independence delineated a new state of the arts in Zaiire, known as post-colonial art. At this time, Zaire, empoverished and torn between the tribal wars, did not provide the atmosphere for creativity. Economic imperative was more powerful than the need to live for the arts. The old masters died out and the new wave was more interested in fast cash than in art. Imitations of the old masters became more prevalent and less valuable.

Currently, African art is in a nebulous stage that is calling for definition. The "Zeitgeist" is here to record history and facts before the contemporaries disappear, making it even more difficult to identify the roots of African art.

(Olga B. Spencer, C.S.W., Ph.D., lives in Westport, Ct.)

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