If you thought African art is merely a curio you buy at a shop then think again. The belief that Africa is the cradle of the history of mankind is virtually unshakeable. The origins of African art history lie long before recorded history, preserved in the obscurity of time. Rock Art is centuries old, while shell beads fashioned for a necklace have been recovered and dated to be about 75,000 years old. Rock art is the earliest art form in Africa. We know from human evolutionary science that modern Homo sapiens began in Africa. It stands to reason therefore that Africa would contain both the oldest and greatest amount of rock art on this planet.
African art is so important that it influenced the likes of Derain, Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani at the start of the 20th century; these artists became enthralled by African art and began to visit the Trocadero museum in Paris to gaze upon the unique forms, absorbing all that was presented before them. They saw in this art a formal perfection countered by abstraction, asymmetry by balance, and primitivism with the sophistication of design. They responded to this raw expressive power with all their faculties, not only with sight but with imagination and emotion and experienced a mystical and spiritual encounter. This absorption exploded in a fascination for abstraction, organization and reorganization of forms, and the exploration of emotional and psychological areas that had not been investigated before. It helped them move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art up to this point. Now, the status of visual art was changed forever influenced by the African sculptor’s simplified use of planes and forms and the rearrangement of the human form that was based, in fact, on disproportion.
Picasso and the other group of elite artists from the ‘School of Paris’ began to collect tribal sculptures and artefacts that were beginning to appear in great numbers in Paris as a result of French colonization in Africa. Picasso incorporated the ceremonial masks of the Dogon tribe into his groundbreaking work like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, (1907-1909) and the influence of the Gabon masks he acquired is also seen in his white sculpture, Head of a Woman (1929-1930).
This shows the credibility and the creative mind of the uncelebrated African men and women. Art did in fact begin in Africa and it can be assumed that the most creative and fascinating art is found in Africa. This is by the simple fact that African art did not only inspire one of the greatest artists in the history of time but that it caused a revolution in the arts in the Western world early in the 20th century. Art became something that was enjoyed by all the five senses and not just by sight. However, it is important to note the confines of the Western world view which is what has defined who the ‘best artists’ are and have left out the great anonymous African artists whose work is found in high-end art galleries in Europe and America.
African art should not be limited to sculptures and paintings but also literary arts such as poetry and music. African art was so integral in the African lifestyle that it was the very fabric that interconnected all the elements of the African’s life; the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, the religion they followed, and the tools they used were all inspired by African art. Unlike the western world art was not merely and primarily aesthetic, but was also a true medium for philosophic and intellectual discourse, and hence more truly and profoundly aesthetic than the visual art of the western world.
“In Podor in Senegal, the place where I grew up, everyone is an artist because art in Africa is not a commercial enterprise but is part of life itself”; this is a quote by a famous Senegalese designer OmouDesy a great advocate of the significance of African Art. Art was such a prevailing and vital part of the African lifestyle before colonialism that it is a great phenomenon as to why African art is not the principal and most important part of the African education system. If you were to rifle through the music, literature and fashion history of the world today you would never guess that Africa is the second-largest continent on the planet. There’s a distinct lack of African stories, characters, and art represented in the world and even Africa itself. It is highly controversial considering how rich African art and culture are, from its language to its people to its tradition.
The reason for Africa’s absence is obvious: the education system does not place great value on African art and history. Little mention is done here and there and even in primary school in Kenya, art is a choice subject instead of being a core subject. The African story and art is in fact being told more in the Western world. Its true value is undeniable it is what made African people unique and it is even a great inspiration to history’s greatest artists.
The debate about the “image of Africa” seems to be reaching a consensus. The starving African child represents a reality that is rare and local. We must clear our minds of that image as representative of Africa, all of it and always. Some people have tried to say that the image of the starving child was “wrong”. But it wasn’t invented. This image simplifies Africa as a continent reeling in poverty and malevolence. That Africa has nothing to offer the world and the world should sympathize with and help it. These are some of the great reasons African art needs to rise and give a true and holistic African story.
In recent years, computers have become more accessible across the continent, smartphones especially.
Kibui Karita a student and head of Daystar Theatre and Arts for two years running believes that technology, especially through video games which are famous with youth, can be used to advance African art education and build careers for the tech-savvy generation of Africa. He articulates that, “Video games are hardly the only guilty party in spreading this negative portrayal of Africa in its fiction. Hollywood movies also play a big part in this. It’s a portrait of the continent that seems to be born from international news, which is probably the only place most of us hear anything about Africa”. Africa is embracing technology, and in turn, its people are gaining a voice that has the potential to spread across the planet. It is Kibui’s goal to not only unite a pan-African digital art but to also bring it to the rest of the world so African culture and creativity can be seen and appreciated internationally.
Watch E.X.O. the trailer for a Nigerian superhero animated movie that tells an African story.
One of the things we need to reclaim as a people is our own definitions of beauty. Beauty is expressed within a people’s culture and just like cultures are diverse, so too should the definitions and expressions of beauty be. Fair skin and long soft hair has become the standard which has led even some African men and women to be so largely influenced by it that they feel naked if they do not costume in these promulgated styles. The issue is not that African women wear weaves more often than their natural hair, the issue is that they cannot go anywhere without them. Variety is accepted and African hair is not the easiest to deal with but it is important that African people especially women chose to love their natural beauty more.
In the recent year, African hair has highly been embraced especially by African celebrities, which is a very encouraging sign of how African people are starting to view themselves. Talking Angela Wanyiri a student at Daystar University whose afro hair stands out says, “I love the African culture and my heritage as an African and I find African hair beautiful because it is diverse and differs with every individual. It is the crown of an African, perfect for the black person in every bit of way”.
The first African Nobel peace prize winner Camaus Albert an Algerian man received the award in 1957 due to his contribution to the literary world, he told the world about African literature in a way so great he could not be ignored even though back in 1957 more than half of the African countries were still under colonization and African arts were highly misunderstood by the Western world which in essence were the very people that awarded him. Other Africans who have received this similar award because of literature are Mahfouz, Naguib, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, John Maxwell Coetzee, and Dorris Lessing. African art is clearly of great value to Africa and the world. From history, we can conclude that every African is an artist!
Beidelman, T. (1997). Promoting African Art. London: Royal Academy of Arts.
Blackman, M. (2001). A History of Art in Africa. New York: Prentice Hall.
Blier, S. (1994). Africa Art and History. A History of Art, 15-19.
Enwezor, O. (2010). Events of Self: Contemporary African. Lagos: Gotting Steidi.
Flemming, J. (1982). A World History. London: Macmillan.
Murrell, D. (2008). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: New York Publishers.
Richard, J. M. (2012). The Dilemma of African Manhood. Touchstone, 56.
Roy, C. (2006). The Art of Burkina Faso. Art and Life in Africa, 56.
Angela Wanyiri – student of Daystar with a distinct African fashion sense
Kibui Karita- student and head of Daystar Theatre and Arts in Daystar University