Friday, 24 July 2009

The African View of Art and Some Problems Facing the African Artist

I would like to yet again return to essays and texts written over 40 years ago by the writers such as Ben Enwonwu and Okwui Enwezor. The articles written in the 1960's seem to have as much relevance today as they did years ago pressing the constant question, why does African art seem to be asking the same questioning and posing the same problems over half a century of contemporary artistic development?

1968 - First Printed in Paris

Paris: Editions Presence Africaine


Author Ben Enwonwu

The role of Art in Negro-African society is an important one for all who are concerned with the advancement of African Culture, African Thought and The African Personality. It should also concern the present generation of Africans whether they are interested in Art for art`s sake or not. In fact, no emergent African State today, can afford to ignore the urgent role of Art as we march towards renaissance. The Art of Africa is no longer looked upon as fetish, as it had been during the early days of European exploration of the Continent. It is no longer treated with the patronising attitude that was the case when the first missionaries, anthropologists, and travellers collected old pieces of objets d`art and mixed them up with what was genuine nor does African Art only enjoy the reputation of its influence as a result of its historic impact upon modern art. The terms African Negro Art, African Traditional Art, Primitive Art, Tribal Art, and all such aesthetic cliches which have become the currency of aesthetic evaluation of works of African Art must now be reconsidered in the light of the present African view. These cliches, together with the influences they exert on the critical mind, should now be regarded as part and parcel of the evangelical, educational, social, economic, and even the political chapters of the Colonial past. Art in present day Africa is seeking a new role, and this role that must be given to it by Africans themselves, will determine the form that it should take as the mirror of the aspirations of Independent African peoples.

Art is not static. Like Culture, Art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back, to expect that the art form of Africa today, must resemble that of yesterday otherwise, the former will not reflect the African Image. African Art has always even long before western influence, continued to evolve through change and adaptation to new circumstances. And in like manner, the African view of Art has followed the trends of cultural change up to the modern times. But it now appears that the young African painter and sculptor distorts his work deliberately so as to achieve Africaness, or else, that if he does not do so, his work will be imitative of European art. The craftsman-cum-artist on the other hand struggles between reality only with what he possesses of the old technique. This situation represents the psychological effects of Colonialism. It has no African Directive.

In the passing African social context, the African view of his Art was a view which was identified with other aspects of the African life. It was not an objective or an analytical view of Art. The realities of life were expressed in the symbolic structure of the work of art, Image, being the link. Artistic view did not spring from Art itself but from the totality of religio-social significance of the art functioning in the group-mind. For this reason, the African view of Art was an inner knowledge, and a spiritual participation rather than a result of a critical or analytical attitude. One is inter-related with Art, while the other is detached from it. A Western art critic writes of Art, of which he may not be a participant in the creative process of representational Image but the African is an observer as well as a participant or even the creator of his Image for the group. What we accept as Art in the western sense is not the same as what Art is in the African sense.

As a result of Western contact, those most keen as well as most influenced by the works of African Art adapted their own view and centred it mainly on the features of African traditional sculpture particularly, the images of ancestral gods, and went on to press and exploit the Image-Form which has become an enviable revitalising primitiveness sought after by the highly developed civilisations.

It seems absurd that present-day African painters and sculptors should support and sustain this psycho- logy of the Western view by imitating an attitude derived from the influence of African art works upon the Western aesthetic tradition.

Many books have been written about the type-form of African Art as acceptable to the West. Although this view has the highest respect for African Sculpture it is also in itself the central focus of Western aesthetics of African Art and, furthermore, has remained unchallenged in spite of the rapid developments in Africa today. In the most part, such books together with articles, journals, magazines and illustrations, have followed more or less the trend of thought engendered through the memoirs and the reports by some explorers, travellers, and missionaries, in thus stabilising an aesthetic cannon for Art in Africa which is alien to the realities of African Culture. Except for the more erudite and scholarly writings of such men as Leo Frobenius and some protest African writers of today, it might have been very difficult to challenge even the writings by such men as Levi Bruhl who treated the subject of the African Mind as though it was a strange question of homo sapiens. While others like Burton carried the colonialist theory that never the twain shall meet much too far. The rest were blind to the unique differences that do exist. I believe in the difference between Black and White, but it should be complimentary and not opposed to each other.

No books to my knowledge have appeared on great issues about the Art of Africa by Africans. The reason may be due to the problem of thought translation of such an abstract subject as Art, from one language to another. Or else, that the question of writing on the subject of African Art by Africans is a subject of writing about Creative Imagery. African Art is so identified with socio- religious concept that it spontaneously exercises the fullest measure of its viewpoint through recreative activities. Even story telling in a family group was socio-educational. It was handed down orally rather than written. But until the necessity for the African to write fully about his Art made itself felt, it would amount to forcing an analytical approach in a cultural milieu that does not require it. But to speak about the Art of Africa today automatically means The Traditional The Ancient The Tribal and The Primitive as characterized by the Western view of African Art. This must not be the African view today.

The first time that we Africans received the word ART as applied to the Creative Imagery of our Ancestors, was at the beginning of European colonisation of the African Continent. Through the teaching of the English language by the British, the word ART was adopted, as were indeed many thousands of other English words, by use of the language. The word ART has its limitations when defined, to mean the same sense as for instance, the Ibo word NKA. Art is defined in the English Dictionary as human skill as opposed to nature skilful execution of an object in itself skill applied to imitation and design as in painting etc. thing in which skill may be exercised certain branches of learning serving as intellectual instruments for more advanced studies as Bachelor, Master of Arts, one who has obtained a standard of proficiency in these black magic practical application of any sciences industrial pursuit, craft, guild company of craftsmen Fine - s. those in which the mind and imagination are chiefly concerned knack cunning stratagem. Art so defined, provides divergent meanings none of which is the same thing as the world NKA.

NKA may be understood to mean making of which doing the making of doing of a particular kind the object of which is specifically artistic and making is personified i.e., the professional of NKA and so particularised the object of NKA is specific, and so does not refer to any other kind of making, or doing it is strictly art, only by professional competence again. NKA bears a traditional significance as an art handed down from generation to generation - thus it is inheritable of family or even village groups such as in the known case of Benin NKA does not mean human skill as opposed to nature, but does imply identification with the nature of doing, or of Image. Art is subjective and therefore infinite. NKA is an objectification of Image more through the senses than through cunning of hand. Such definitions of Art as the art of running, swimming, black magic, of photography, stratagem, or as the art of doing anything do not refer to NKA.

The prefix OME further explains the identification of a second person i.e., OME-NKA – he is the maker of Nka. Both the maker of, and the art of what is being made. NKA, strictly speaking, has traditional and religious associations. Thus the field of so-called African Art is really the realm of the Ancestral world of Images so confined as it were to creativity in a spiritual sense. In terms of reference then, African Art is not really Art in the Western context, but an invocation of ancestral spirits through giving concrete form or body to them before they can enter into the human world. An illustration of this idea can be summarised in a short story, but which may be taken from the end of it. Juwa took away the spiritual body of his dead father with which the father performs the traditional act of transforming his spiritual body into the human body and vice versa. When his father returned on his way to go back to the spiritual world in which he dwelt, he could not find his spiritual body. Then he sang a song - Juwa Juwa Oh, Nyem Ofo Mo, Ofo`n ji eje Uwa, Onye eji mia elu Mmuo, Uwa dede! - his father calling Juwa, to give him his spiritual body, the body with which he comes into the human world because he who has not got it, cannot return, to the spiritual world.

The word ART is therefore only a classic term. When we Africans speak of Art, therefore, we are thinking of its manifestations from the Western view. We are not thinking of NKA, and what it includes. NKA, which is an Ibo word, satisfies the African meaning and the purpose of ART.

The problem of translating the term ART into a neo-African concept is primarily a linguistic one. So that some research and study are necessary into the diverse African languages and dialects to collect from every region or tribe the words that can mean the same thing as NKA with the prefix, OME. Depending of course on the tribal groupings, and the possibility of unification, we can begin to translate Art into an African term as signifying more, or less the same thing. Since those of us who have come under British rule have become accustomed to the use of the word ART, so have those of us who have come under France, Belgium, Germany and other European countries, become accustomed to their equivalent term for Art. So, at least, we can begin by laying the foundation upon common regional linguistic translations. However, this is mainly a problem for the students in languages to tackle first.

It is necessary therefore that the creative art of Africa today, should be practised with well defined means and aims so as to reflect, not the spurious effects of the very vital qualities of the old vision and cunning of hand of our OME-NKA but the trends of African changing situations as a result of our assimilation of Western culture. This means that more than a synthesis of old and new is to be achieved if a new concept is to follow.

It is to be regretted that the African painter and sculptor today are not facing the realities of the African situation in their artistic expressions. While they must derive inspiration from the old art or NKA, they must also make use of the inner knowledge so as to arrive at the meeting point between inspiration and ideas. They should neither imitate western Art, nor copy their old Art.

The opinions expressed by European anthropologists, collectors of old African sculptures, and the critics may be valid aesthetic considerations. But the concept and philosophy of these opinions are so remote from the African concept that they can no longer serve as the aesthetic cannons or judgement of what Art is, or should or should not be, in the present African situation. Nor can much of European interpretation of African Art today be valid anymore. The colonial status imposed such authority as civic or educational, which are conditions for the existence of art in any country. The Independence of African countries should now remove such conditions even by exercising political power.

Self-appointed art critics whether they are Europeans or Africans by either political or civic authority can influence the trend of artistic change in African countries. Their opinions matter, and can encourage or discourage artistic output, and even artistic thought, that may depend for its growth upon Government generosity. The press serves as a medium of publicising the works of the present-day African painter and sculptor as oppose to the communal use of the masks and figures of ancestors in the dance and the shrines of the old society. This borrowing of Western media of publicity can be highly effective as a means of communicating as well as disseminating artistic thought and appreciation of the functions of art in contemporary African society, but at the same time, it can, and has been misused to play politics Art. Where artistic opinions are fallacious or prejudiced, this medium of the press can only do great harm. Dennis Duerden, an English art critic of African modern art, who was once Art Master in Norther Nigeria, writes a great deal about the current trends of aesthetic manifestations in the art works of Africa today. In the Times Literary Supplement of September 13th. 1965, Mr. Duerden described Art in Africa Today as Art That Does Not Conform. He did not explain further as to what the art does not conform with. Mr. Duerden writes from London without keeping in close touch with the rapid social, economic, educational, and even religious changes that have been taking place in the African countries since he left Nigeria. Valid artistic criticisms must be based on philosophical ideas. For this to be feasible, speculative methods of approach must precede what contentions an art critic may hold, upon the appearance of works of any kind in Art since the appearance of art works must serve as what the eve can see, the perception of which depends on many social, economic and other cultural forces. The critic must know the mind of the artist whose works he writes about. If we should take such art critics as Mr. Duerden to task, we would first be reminded of Levi Bruhl`s contention, when he wrote that the Mind of the Primitive -- meaning the African Mind -- was incapable of logic. That it was pre-logical, meaning that the African mind works in a different orbit from that of the European by arriving at conclusions illogically. Research in the science of biological evolution has since proved that, the races of mankind are basically the same. The African Philosophy of Negritude, with due deference to President Senghor and Aimé Césaire, has defined the kind of knowledge that characterized the African spirit and mind. It is a capacity to identify self with object which has advantage in the -- preservation of the mystique, or the vital force in the creative exercise of Art -- especially in NKA. This has nothing to do with Mind in so far as the human mind is free to exercise action by receiving and giving its attributes in the process of analysis of matter and objects, or of identification with these. The integration of many aspects of the African life made co- existence of mind and matter possible, in the preservation of the vital force of the inner mind or the Inner Klang. That does not mean that the human mind, of any particular race of man is so characterized to be capable of doing only one kind of exercise on matter, but incapable of extending into other things outside its orbit. Analysis of matter depends on objectivity or a detached outlook, and time is one of the means of effecting change, in the human outlook whether in the early stages of the human existence or now. Once the human mind is involved in emotional problems of expression, whether in sorrow, grief, or joy, the reaction is spontaneous. Spontaneity carries with it the spiritual force with which man is endowed by the divine power. Change can only affect the human mind, and at all times, whenever objectivity is a necessity for self-preservation, the preservation of history, of Art, or of any matter as a result of the manifestation of the human Mind on things of the outer world.

The identification of persons with inanimate objects particularly in the creative exercise of Art or NKA gives to the art works the mystique and vital force otherwise known as Magic. Such great African scholars as President Senghor have explored the subject of African Negro Inspiration, Religion, and Ontology that this subject must be left to particular fields of studies in African Culture.

What concerns the African artist today who is facing the dual responsibility of his needs, is to find a new aesthetic creed or philosophy as a guide to his revolutionary ideas. Artistic revolutions do not occur merely by the capacity to adapt one form of art to another, but through revolutionary ideas. First, there must be a protest period, when the artists of a generation reject an aesthetic principle as a guide to their creative exercise. Then speculations and arguments. A revolution must be an intellectual rather than a practical solution. The well sought after synthesis between the old and the new, between the indigenous and the effects of western civilization in African Art today must depend for its realisation, not upon imitating works of any kind that come to the mind of the artist, but through discussions of ideas. In this way, a new school which will allow for individualism can emerge. At the present stage of change in African Art, it is a common experience to find that all so-called progressive African artists are expressing, not a concept of the African advancement and situation, but a concept of the European school of thought which resulted from ideas as well as the influence derived from the old African works of art. Practically every progressive African artist today has a tendency towards abstractionism. And this looks more like modern European expression both in ideas and technique. It is not African.

African art of today does not have to conform to non-representation in order to maintain the name African. It should, in fact, become a startling realism since the problems of the African locale today are realistic and are faced from the most logical and realistic manner. Political meetings in African countries reflect the state of the African mind. They show a balance of thought and a maturity that are typical of an old people. When African countries are described as young, it can only mean in the sense that science and technology have just begun to find their way into the schemes for rehabilitation and advancement along modern lines. This does not mean that what had existed in Africa had not reached stages of advanced sophistication it would also be wrong to condemn African aristocracy because it does not resemble that of Europe. Alien concepts must be sorted out and analysed before they can be acceptable in our new societies. The African must find a solution to the economic problems facing his present- day art, for that has a tremendous influence on the process of change. If art is not used, it cannot go on. The educated or the intellectual African today must equate the financial value of art to the monetary system of the West. To say that a work of art is too expensive is not only to give a higher value to mass products of Western science, such as motor cars having more importance than Art, but also to negate the very intellectual assessment of art of which he is either convinced, or else dabbling in, so as to appear highly educated. If the comparison of money and art presents a difficult problem to the African intellectual, then his convictions are no realistic or honest. Here the importance of the economic aspect of African art today must also be considered along the civic importance of art. African Independent Governments must seek the proper place for artistic manifestations, not merely by the use of art or the teaching of it in Colleges, but by realising the connection between political Independence and Cultural Freedom. Political Freedom in Africa particularly must clothe itself with the colours of culture so as to present the true Culture of the African peoples in pagentry, buildings, and other means by which the prestige of Government makes itself felt.

Apart from the problems of the African artist today being primarily connected with artistic matters and their dependence on outside forces, which means that he must first retain some of the ideas of the old art namely, the sub-realism of Image, Rhythm and Form - African Governments must see African Art as part of the political matters which concern them. To do nothing about imitating Western or colonial pageantry inherited by the African Independent Governments is to perpetuate Colonialism. Since no African Government apes Western democratic systems, it should now be possible for them all to carve out a place of honour for the African Art of today so that it will mirror our political, social, civic, educational, religious, and cultural aspirations and in this way serve the artists of Africa with some of their greatest needs for the solution of these problems in independent African countries.

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