Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Time To Give African Art Its Due Respect

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21st ⁄ April ⁄ 2015 
Knowledge Mushohwe Correspondent

Since the days of the Renaissance art movement, art historians and critics have sought to use theory as a form of classification for artworks. Though theories have given the art world a way to organise works into different categories, no one theory among scores of them is considered the most accepted or appropriate. There is no universally accepted theory or method of understanding art, therefore the area surrounding the aesthetics of artworks has been a tricky one for centuries. Some theorists have categorised art into two distinct groups – high art and low art. Depending on who is classifying, the two contrasts can never be clear-cut. African art, for example, has been termed “low art” by many when compared to European art simply because it does not have the history and legacy of the latter as documented in Europe. But is African art “low art” only because it was created by Africans who, by some European standards, have lower intellectual capacity? Or is it considered less sophisticated because it historically functioned largely as a religious or ritual tool as opposed to a symbol of beauty? Whatever the case, it would appear African art has been unfairly treated as belonging to the bottom half of art in terms of quality. Yet, for centuries, prominent visual artists including Pablo Picasso have continuously used African art as the very basis for their production. How can a kind of art that is disrespected and even ridiculed be considered a form of inspiration by those regarded as the embodiment of perfection? African-made masks have made it onto international fashion shows, exhibitions and into European museums.

Their quality is marvelled at in the same foreign lands that try to downplay their significance. When Europeans first came to Zimbabwe and found the Great Zimbabwe monuments, they just could not come to terms with the fact that it was Africans responsible for creating a mind blowing structure.
The artworks the structure contained, including the world famous Zimbabwe birds, were initially thought to have been developed by foreigners. The verdict passed by the Europeans on Zimbabwean art shows that African products of creativity are prejudged based on the foreigners’ perspective of black people in general. The Europeans must have wondered how people they rated so lowly would create such sophisticated artworks. By calling African art “low art”, European art observers were evaluating not the products, but the people themselves. Rating works of art as either high or low will always be problematic. Every artwork is presented to a variety of audiences that have a wide range of aesthetic tastes who will certainly disagree on whatever classification criteria that categorise art as high and low. Comedy, for instance, a performance art used primarily as a stimulus for laughter, has always been cast in the realm of lower art. The philosopher Plato relegated comedy into the “low art” category by suggesting that because, as he put it, it appeals to certain human weaknesses. However, comedy is regarded by its followers as just as important and valuable as other more “elevated” performance or writing. If African art is as “low” as the foreign critics purport it to be, wouldn’t their looting of it and their reluctance to return it be a mystery?

The aesthetics of African art is no doubt different from that of European art. While Renaissance painters and sculptors such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo emphasised realistic depictions, African art, particularly ancient rock paintings such as those at Domboshawa, were abstract from the very beginning. How can African art be “low” when the abstraction that European art strived to achieve during modernism and post-modernism was in motion in the “Dark Continent” well before the Renaissance era? African art is also looked down on in part because it was not as well documented and its creators well unknown. But African art was never meant to be documented because its use had nothing to do with legacy. No one cared who created it because African art was developed for the community and by the community. When analysing African art, European critics have not made an attempt to identify different types within the wider realm. They have instead given the umbrella verdict of “low art” to the entire genre based on the false premise that Africans are not sophisticated enough to develop quality products. Sure, there are some African artworks such as roadside and airport art that look underdeveloped and trivial. But every society has such artworks.
Ancient African art does not belong to this group because when we look at rock paintings, they form urbane creative narratives that no other art of that era can match. Failing to understand a whole people’s concept is no licence to downplay or even reject African art’s significance. The route that African art has taken for centuries is no doubt different to that taken by other societies. Its unique route and its treatment of the subject matter is unrivalled. It is high time that African art is treated with due respect.

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