forms appear in every aspect of the African landscape today. Change
and surprise are constant. Energy, urgency, and excitement are
a nourishing presence. As old ways die, new voices are born in
sub-Saharan Africa: an area of the world with the earliest record
of human life, the ancient ways of a rural countryside, and modern
cities with high-rise office buildings. These juxtapositions shock
and strengthen. On one hand, the loss of great traditions creates
a vacuum. On the other hand, because boundaries and restraints
are few, new possibilities arise. However, the past and its wisdom
are often close at hand, and like the rivers of Africa, run deep
many instances classical traditions provide a background against
which to appraise the present expression. For many African artists,
a commitment to traditional values is a fundamental element in
the alchemy of creative genius. Some synthesize allusions to the
past with contemporary content; others create imagery with mythical
or ritual references. But the artists, though rooted in tradition,
use materials, methods, and images foreign to traditional art,
and their art is usually based on a personal aesthetic.
artists, who have emerged throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the
last forty years, and who are working in new ways with new materials,
address their art to a wider public. in the past their relationship
to a community gave them structures and styles. Now, often separated
by thousands of miles, the artists are linked in a network of
the literary, performing, and visual arts by conferences, festivals,
exhibitions, and literary movements. Despite problems of great
magnitude - many of them attributable to colonialism - the artists
continue to redefine Modern African Art, reflecting the changing
social, political, and cultural environment.
have been a number of beginnings: some artists have had academic
art training in art schools, colleges, or universities, others
have had alternative or experimental workshop experiences. Many
have developed without the help of either. The earliest of the
academic efforts took place in the thirties with the founding
of two colleges: Achimota College and the School of Fine Arts
at Makerere University College. Achimota College, near Accra,
Ghana, was established in 1936. The art department was later moved
to the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana,
with a formal arts and crafts program. In Kampala, Uganda, the
School of Fine Arts at Makerere University College was founded
in 1939. It was a technical college when Margaret Trowell came
from England to begin teaching. Trowell advocated the use of African
subject matter but practiced conventional European teaching procedures,
thus producing easel painters.
1943 outside Kinshasa, Zaire (formerly Belgian Congo), Frere Marc-Stanislas,
a Catholic priest, created the Ecole St. Luc (later renamed Academie
des Beaux-Arts). This school adhered to Belgian educational methods
and taught classical European art. In Sudan three years later
a school was founded, which eventually became the most important
focus for contemporary African art in northern sub-Saharan Africa:
the Department of Arts and Crafts, now the College of Fine and
Applied Arts, of the Khartoum Technical Institute. This school
is now the center of an impressive movement.
activities included the establishing of two institutes in 1951
in both Zaire and Congo (then the Belgian and French Congos).
One school, the Academie des Beaux-Arts et de Metiers d'Art in
Lumbumbashi, was run by Laurent Moonens, a Belgian artist. it
later incorporated a workshop school established in 1944 and headed
by Pierre Romain-Desfosses. The Desfosses school took an experimental
approach, but work produced was routinely decorative. The other
institute, The Centre d'Art Africaine, also known as the Poto-Poto
School, was founded in Brazzaville by Pierre Lods. Lods attempted
to foster an "African" approach, but much of the resulting
art was also highly decorative and repetitious. The style took
hold as a fad, spawning tourist art, which sold throughout the
markets of West Africa.
training of some of the finest contemporary artists in Africa
occurred at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology
(now the Art Department of Ahmadu Bello University). Founded in
1953 in the northern city of Zaria, by 1960 it had graduated artists
who strongly influenced artistic developments in the country,
and who became known throughout the continent. Nigeria's other
early art school, the Department of Art, Design, and Technology
at the Yaba College of Technology, established in the Lagos suburb
of Yaba in 1955, also produced prominent painters and sculptors.
years later in Ethiopia another important center of contemporary
art, the Fine Arts School, was established. its graduates have
produced some of the most original work in Africa. Finally, as
late as 1966 the last of the seminal institutions, a school now
famous for the production of tapestries, was created: the Manufactures
Nationale des Tapisseries at Thies, Senegal.
significant efforts to encourage expression occurred in unconventional
settings. While workshop schools in Zaire and Congo had emphasized
the value of indigenous art forms with results that were often
romantic, later nonacademic or experimental approaches pioneered
in the fifties and sixties generated exciting and imaginative
works. The most important of these workshops were in Harare, Zimbabwe
(then Salisbury, Rhodesia), under the direction of Frank McEwen;
in Maputo (then Lourenco Marques), Mozambique, under Pancho Guedes;
in Oshogbo, Nigeria, under Susanne Wenger; in Oshogbo and Ife,
Nigeria, under Georgina Beier; and short workshops organized by
Julian Beinart in Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, and South Africa. In
these workshops, creativity was encouraged and formal teaching
methods were scorned; the artists who developed exhibited originality
and consistency of direction.
missionaries ran workshops too, but often with mediocre results.
For example, Father Kevin Carroll's workshop in Ekiti, Nigeria,
utilized an apprentice system, and, carvers became technically
astute. But because they were no longer carving for the original
cults, but for Christian purposes, creating madonnas and crucifixes,
their work lacked intensity. Modern potteries in Vurne, Ghana,
and Abuja, Nigeria, established by Michael Cardew became known
abroad for the results of the work there. Clerics of the Swedish
mission at Rorke's Drift in South Africa had more successful results
with the development of artists who created strong black and white
number of artists sought training in Europe and in the United
States. Some found their experience irrelevant. Others produced
some of their finest work abroad, adjusting to new situations
and reflecting their adjust- merit to foreign lands in the syntheses
African artists have faced difficult struggles, especially when
confronting prevailing Western misconceptions and prejudices about
Africans and Africa. The use of the word "primitive"
and the anonymity accorded indigenous art by foreign institutions
have worked in subtle ways to the artists' detriment, denying
them respect and recognition. These stereotypes are further fostered
by pervasive efforts to categorize African art in conformity with
Western aesthetic criteria. Every aspect of African culture is,
in some way, stamped by others. While setting traditional art
apart in museums and books has value, it can suggest that it is
complete and finished. The reverence accorded it is sometimes
construed to suggest that change is a travesty.
obstacles imply that whatever the direction of the new artists,
danger lies ahead. They are criticized both for leaving traditions
behind or for embracing traditional elements. Holding up past
achievements as the epitome of artistic endeavor is a heavy burden
for any creative artist. Africans who study abroad and avoid African
subject matter or employ a style that is not recognizably "African"
are sometimes considered betrayers of their inheritance. Clearly
this attitude is unnecessarily limiting.
attributes of some contemporary African art, which critics suggest
are influenced by cubism or German expressionism, relate to the
traditions of African art that motivated those modem European
movements. The older, indigenous arts, as author-critic Ulli Beier
points out, contain the seeds of every modem movement.
variety encountered in indigenous cultures makes the task of creating
canons to define either traditional or contemporary African art
a difficult one. Although traditional elements - the frequent
use of symbolism, metaphors, organic forms, inherent rhythms,
and (much of the time) religious contexts - do link cultures on
the continent, they also connect the continent to the diaspora.
traditional elements are often present in the works of contemporary
Africans who, like other artists, select qualities appropriate
to them; but the variety of approaches, styles, and forms among
Africa's artists today demonstrates their openness. Like other
artists, they respond in their work to political and social change,
and to momentous processes or events, such as the inroads made
by Christianity and Islam, the Nigerian Civil War, the altered
political system in Ethiopia, and apartheid in South Africa.
spite of their topical subject matter, they need more local patronage.
Government support, in the form of commissions, purchases, or
exhibitions, is gaining ground - especially when it recognizes
that an artist's work can be used to express the country's identity.
Foreign businesses have commissioned works as a way of cementing
relationships with host countries. Nevertheless, because much
of the work of modern African artists exists outside religious
contexts, they are denied the traditional constituency of the
community. Now, however, their accomplishments have commanded
attention around the world, and more of their compatriots are
becoming their clients.
"New Currents, Ancient Rivers: Contemporary African Artists
in a Generation of Change" - Jean Kennedy