Thursday 28 February 2008

Ben Enwonwu | Problems of the African Artist Today, 1956

I wanted to post this article today at the end of Feburary 2008 and ask the question how have things really changed in the last 50 years...?

1956 - First Published in Paris
Paris: Editions Presence Africaine

Author Ben Enwonwu

The problems which face the African artist of our generation are many and difficult. They may be classified as political, cultural, educational and social, and even emotional problems. I should, however, like to introduce a few thoughts on some aspects of these problems that may throw light on the inevitable causes, in the hope that some solution can be found.

Perhaps, the most pressing among these problems and therefore one which I feel personally, should be given first attention is the political. The cause of the political aspect of these problems can be envisaged and considered by the extent to which Art has been accorded its proper place in the political life of the African peoples.

It is a common assumption that Art has nothing to do with politics. That this human activity, is not a biological necessity and therefore, it is an isolated phenomenon which has no political context or mission. This common attitude to Art is an under-estimation of its useful and practical purpose, as well as of the basis for its existence. For, it is not even so much what Art has to do with politics, that has created such difficult problems today, as how political situations affect Art and the artist.

In fact, every true artist is bound by the nature of the traditional artistic state of his country, to express, even unconsciously, the political aspirations of his time. And for expressions to be true, they must be an embodiment of the struggle of self-preservation.

The epochs of high artistic achievements of any country, have been those of comparative political stability, and of great national pride. It is in such a period in the life of a country that Art assumes its role of great national importance. Then the artist is able to devote his energy freely, to the creation of national art such as memorials, and monuments, to the glory of his country. The political function of Art can therefore be determined by the subject matter of Art which can be differentiated from its aesthetic beauty.

Benin is known throughout the world today for its Art. Certain types of the art of Benin can be characterized as essentially civic, by the descriptive motifs and patterns of the sculpture. The bronze plaques that depicted scenes of each succeeding Oba and the grades of chiefs of the old Kingdom the decorated maces the carved staffs of office by which the order in the hierarchy of chiefs were graded the armour and embellished weapons, these works of art were almost essentially inspired by political ideals. It was to the political function of the State that they were directed.

Unlike the old days when the African artist did not have to face problems of political nature, the transition period that we are passing through therefore presents new artistic problems. The present political situation in Africa affects the artist, and has tended to divide artistic productivity into lesser and greater kinds, by the conditions which it has created for the artists.

We now have artists who live in villages, and because their mode of life is not unaffected, they continue to maintain the old vision and traditional craftsmanship. They still carve masks in old style, which are used in the dance they still carve ancestral figures for the sanctuary of our fathers, and their fathers` fathers. In fact, they are struggling under new social, religious, and political systems, to maintain the lamp of continuity of our spiritual values and indigenous culture. The art they create is a living art, and their appreciation of art generally is genuine, simple, direct, and sincere. Their emotional reaction to all kinds of art works is vital, and therefore important to note.

We also have artists who are moving into big towns from the villages, and who are the makers of tourist art whose objets d`art are sought after by most European visitors and settlers in Africa. These artists are nonetheless interested in what they produce, but it is of equally great importance to them to find a market for their art pieces. The economic necessity is caused by political situation which is beyond their control. They have to live, and their art affords an economic solution to their means of living.

Then we are now having artists among the young people who have been to school, as well as those who are educated. These artists are using western techniques to express themselves as individual artists. I think that the problems of this group are the greatest and most difficult of the others, because they bear the burden of having to bridge the gap, between the ancien and the modern in art. Besides this fact, it is they who have to evolve a contemporary art that will, for political reasons, prove to the world that African Art can be preserved and can be continued. In my opinion, the preservation and continuity of the characteristic quality of African Art, depends largely, on how modern African artists can borrow the techniques of the west without copying European Art.

It would not have been necessary for the African artist of today, to prove to the world that he can create objects of great beauty, had the political problems that he has had to face, not affected him so deeply, and his art as well. I need not mention the problems that Africans face both at home and abroad, as we know what they are, and there are experts who deal with such sociological, educational, and economic problems, and soon, I would group these problems within the political heading.

An artist can create while in a state of mental worries or when he suffers. Sometimes, his suffering can bring out the genius within him through emotional strife to externalize his burning desire, or say, as many people say, that an artist does his greatest work when he is suffering. This may be true, but it depends or what kinds of sufferings, and the causes of the suffering. But I know that when a country is suppressed by another politically, the native traditions of the art of the suppressed begin to die out. Then the artists also begin to lose their individual and the values of their own artistic idiom. Art, under this situation is doomed what follows is an artistic vacuum that may be prolonged for even a century. By this of course, I do not mean that no more art can be created by the artists, but much of what they could, and did do in the past, can be denied them and those who follow them.

The present generation of African artists therefore has to face their political problems, and try to look at Art through politics the kind of picture that the political aspect of African Art shows is one of intense strife and pity.

One, it is a pity that while the historic influence of African Art on European aesthetic traditions and Art has created a healthy revitalization of decadent art-form and traditions of Europe and America, the influence of western ideas and technological system, as well as that of education has, politically speaking, not proved, and can never prove, the best means of keeping alive the native genius of the African peoples. And while Europe can be proud to possess some of the very best sculptures from Africa among museums and private collectors, Africa can only be given the poorest examples of English Art particularly, and the second-rate of other works of art from Europe.

The preservation of the old art in certain regions of Africa is, of course being carried out particularly in Nigeria. But it is strange - strange because I would like to put this point to you – that those in supreme authority for the preservation of what is left of African Art, as well as what can be bought or brought back home, are not the Africans whose ancestors created the sculptures but Europeans, whose predecessors were responsible for the disappearance of numberless African art works from their country of origin. I would admit though that this disappearance, also had its good results. It has resulted in the world-wide admiration and an aesthetic evaluation of African Art. It has also won a place of honour for African Art in the aesthetic traditions of the west. Yet, the African himself seems to have so little to do with these either through his own lack of interest in his past, or through not being given the opportunity to participate in the development of his native art.

The African intelligentsia considers this aspect of the problem an academic one, for which he claims that few Africans except himself, were qualified to examine scientifically. The science of anthropology has therefore, and for a long time, been used to create an intellectual barrier which makes it extremely difficult for most Africans to be considered qualified to play an important part in the development and preservation of their native art. Even those intellectuals who know very little or nothing about art, and African Art, are the authorities in whose hands lie the future of African Art. In the educational and social activities that have political support, the African artist of today is subordinated to instructions of persons whose opinions are biased uninformed, and fallacious.

In some parts of Africa, the problems of the modern artist, are more politically involved, and therefore more difficult, than others. In more advanced parts where political consciousness had culminated in the desire for political independence or self- government with all this implies, the artist`s function and duty to his country as an interpreter of the group-political ideology, have not yet been fully realized, even by those Africans in political power. At least, they have not realized that art should develop simultaneously with political growth and freedom.

It is, in fact, in these regions that African Art has not only come under the pressure of modern industrialism and the machine age, but it is also in danger of being forgotten. The artists are not being fully used either by the government in power, or by the public. Nor is any serious attempt being made to see that the African artist is given priority when commissions for works of art of national importance are being given. For instance, in Nigeria, postage stamps commission was offered to a free-lance European artist without any Nigerian artist being considered. In Benin, the city of ancient art, stands a bronze figure of EMOTAN. No Nigerian artist was considered for the commission. Perhaps, the Benins themselves wanted a sculpture made or manufactured in England.

Intelligent Africans and Europeans who have failed to look at the problem essentially from the political aspect of its involvement, but who are not themselves artists, have argued that since art is international, it is justified to give commissions for art works that will live in Africa for all time, to whoever that is qualified to undertake them. The assessment of the right person and his qualifications having been based entirely on western standards is decided, not by Africans but by Europeans.

I am not saying that the European authority whoever he may be, is not sometimes kind enough to offer a commission to an African artist, but the fact is that the African artist must be humble enough to apply for, or receive from the benevolent European something that belongs to the African. The emotional strife involved under such conditions can be a hindrance to free creative energy being directed into its right channel.

This regrettable factor has thrown the field of African Art open to the monopoly of the powers that be, and sometimes to the philistines, as well as to fallacious standardisation on foreign basis an art that is best known and understood by the people who create it. While Europeans are the best judges of their own art, and no one argues about this fact, the African does not even have a chance to play an equally important part in judging his art, let alone his justifiable claim if he chooses to make one, that he is the best judge of his own art.

Another instance that I would like to give in reference to this is that in Nigeria Annual Festival of Arts are held in all regions, namely, the three regions, the east, north, and the west and also, in the colony of Lagos. The sole judges of the Arts Festival are Europeans. They organize the show, run and judge the works of art. Of course, I was not welcomed as a member, because of my criticisms of the way in which they are run, and who run them. But I attend the Festivals and give lectures and exhibitions when I am invited to do so.

I have stated some of the political problems which the African artist faces in his own country, but outside of his own country today, he faces the humiliation of having to listen to lecturers on African Art in foreign art galleries and museums. He visits foreign museums in order to see a collection of the art of his own country and very often European curators show him round the museum.

This aspect of the problems is cultural, emotional, a political and there are many other problems in which politics and culture as well as education enter into the life of the African artist`s life and his dilemma.

I have only mentioned the political aspect so far, although the other aspects are important, I would prefer to leave them to an open discussion.

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