african masksreconceptualisation
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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Reconceptualizing African art

The paper is in part somewhat controversial, but we all go on learning. David Norden

Trevor Getz, Historian, an Asst. Professor of African history at San Francisco State University.
His work is generally in socio-political history of Africa. He has written books and articles on Ghanaian and Senegalese history. He gave a number of talks on African art to Bay Area museum groups, including the San Francisco Museum Docents. Additionally, he worked closely with several artists and art dealers in West Africa.

He is also an active member of our discussion group


by Trevor Getz, 25th February 2005 

In the modern African art market, four worlds intersect:
1) the ‘art’ world that looks at a piece stylistically and aesthetically
2) the ‘antique’ world that evaluates a piece in terms of authenticity and age
3) the ‘craft’ world that assesses craftsmanship.
4) the ‘academic’ world that asks: what is the meaning of this piece, and how was it used?

So, often we look at a piece of African art, perhaps an antiquity, and ask:
Q: Is this a ‘genuine’ artifact?
Q: Was this created to be useful, or just beautiful?
Q: What ethnic group (or tribe) does this come from?
Q: What is the meaning of this piece?
And we try to assign them a value, either:

aesthetically, in terms of ‘beauty’
qualitatively, in terms of ‘skill’
monetarily, in terms of ‘price’
or ethnographically, in terms of ‘contribution to understanding a society’
we also assign ‘personal’ values related to our own relationship to the piece.

I don’t think any of this is wrong. Despite some knee-jerk reactions to the western system by dissident scholars, the truth is that Africans also ascribe different values to different pieces of art. The way in which they set these values is central to the way in which each item is produced, used, and maintained. Like westerners, Africans also value these items in terms of their beauty, the skill that went into making them, and their intrinsic or extrinsic value as tools or currency. But research has shown us that Africans often give different values than westerners - even western experts - to individual items.

What I’d like to do today is to try to use a number of familiar and not-so-familiar artistic pieces to gain some insight into the way in which one large group of Africans - the Kwa-speaking peoples that inhabit much of the West African rainforest - perceive the world around them. I’m going to argue that:

the value they ascribe to the products they make and use is in fact an important aspect of their WORLDVIEW,
and that by seeking to understand the relationship between the ART, ARTISAN, and CONSUMER, we can begin to understand a lot more about both the pieces of art we’re looking at and the societies from which they come.

Art and Society

The first suggestion I’d like to make, is that we acknowledge that for African producers of what we call art, the product itself is not segregatable away from the rest of society. To try to put it in a discrete pocket, away from economics, social systems, religion and cosmology, is to commit a grave error. Written analyses and understanding of African art are aimed at certain sub-sets within modern western societies that read them. Groups that are used to phylogenies and taxonomies, etymologies and hierarchies. For the African producer, as perhaps for artists elsewhere, art is part of society. It serves a function.
Jan Vansina, the famous Belgian scholar of pre-literate Africa, does not even see ‘art’ as a valid category. What we call art is merely a decorated object, he argues:
“All social activity uses objects, and not only as symbols but as objects in the true sense necessary to the life of social groups. Hence activities of daily life such as farming, fishing, hunting, cooking, even walking, use objects and not all of these are tools in the narrow sense. Charms for insuring success in any activity, for example, are not tools, but they are utilitarian. All passages from one condition of life to another use objects to mark these occasions and the resulting statuses. Birth, initiation marriage, and fuenerals are often surrounded by special objects used in special action. Crises such as war, detection of witchcraft, or curing use their own objects. Courts of law, assemblies, spokesmen for communities and rulers all have theirs. Games and entertainment had their own objects. Social status thrives on distinctions of dress, finery, furniture, transportation, and housing. Objects not only distinguished between social categories but also social roles. The headcover of a Muslim judge is not that of the reader of the Quran in the mosque. The emblems of the woodcarver are not those of the smith. Objects were made for use, had social meaning and cultural value. They were almost never made, however, only to be an expression of art for art’s sake. As tools and as symbols, objects reflected every facet of the community. An inventory of all the objects used by a society is a description in filigree of that society itself.” (Art History in Africa, p.41)
I do not intend to get embroiled in a ‘functional’ vs ‘beautiful’ debate, but I do want to suggest that it is helpful to reference religion, ritual, occupation, language, social and political systems when describing an artistic object, rather than to try to separate each out.
Art vs. Craft vs. Power/Magic vs. Souvenir
In fact, part of the problem we westerners have in ascribing ‘value’ to art is that Africans themselves see art as having a complex set of inter-related values.

Certainly one of these is beauty: just as all humans, Africans like objects that appeal to their senses of aesthetics. Otherwise why decorate at all?
Another is skill: Certainly we know that Africans, as humans elsewhere, specialize individually and that the work of especially skilled craftspeople and artists was and continues to be in high demand. Even when a certain occupation is commonly practiced by large numbers of individuals, there are experts whose work is highly sought after.
A third value is monetary: Money African societies discovered money and even arbitrage as early as the earliest in Europe and asia. In fact, some of the most sought after African crafts in the western market are metal currency from earlier periods. Art products are also often the livelihood of individuals or entire communities, and this should not be scorned:
Tools, implements, and decorations for internal use cost money, and are often designed on commission.
Large states historically designated entire communities as ‘weaving’ villages, or ‘metalworking’ clans, or ‘leatherworking’ families.
Finally, products for export or sale to tourists are money-making affairs... and the product is often of very high quality.
A fourth value is power: Many of the most difficult to make and highly valued pieces of African art are imbued with powers: to speak to ancestors, to protect, to give fertility, to harm, to connect with the gods. Just as religious art is so powerful a force in Europe’s art history, so too in Africa. In fact, many antiquities are sold by communities to western collectors precisely because their power is now gone, and so is their value.
Finally, artistic objects, often personally owned, can often have supreme sentimental and personal value to the owner.

Art and individuals

All of this can lead us to only one conclusion: that the crux of understanding African art, just as the study of art anywhere, is the appreciation not only of community context but of individual taste and accomplishment.
One of the first scholars to explicitly recognize this was the father of African art studies in America, Melvyl Herskovits, who wrote:
“What is unique about the recognition African Art has enjoyed is that it is the first art of a ‘primitive’ - nonliterate - people which has established itself for Europeans and Americans as a valid artistic tradition, exhibited in our art museums, and prized by collectors.... As one looks back [upon the 1960s] certain points of view, certain standards of evaluation can be discerned that, taken together with this search for new modes of expression by the artist of the day, help explain why African art proved acceptable [in this period]. The mask and the human or animal figure are familiar forms in the Euro-American convention. Such forms, even though of African origin wrought in a different stylistic tradition, yet fall within the category of pure art, in contrast to so many of the handicrafts of nonliterate folk, such as their painted pottery or decorated tradition. Again, the work of the good African artist, like that of all good artists, is the result of superb control of technique, which gives the African carvings a quality similarly congenial to our patterns of fine art.” (Backgrounds of African Art, p.45)
It is axiomatic that African societies are highly communal, that art is communally produced, used, and consumed. Experts and dilettantes alike obsess about ‘ethnic group’ of origin, and stylistic continuities. Yet part of what is so exciting about some pieces of African art is that they are innovative, inventive, and often fantastic.
African artists span a range from ridiculous to sublime, from “doodle” to “Degas”, if you will. It is unfortunate that innovation is not often rewarded in the western marketplace. “Authenticity” and “Age” are everything. African arts are relegated to stagnancy. Artists are supposed to replicated and reproduce cultural norms. Consider, for example, tourist arts: the most profitable wing of modern African art production. In Dakar, there are streets full of artisans reproducing the famous Bambara Chi Wara.
Their work, ironically termed ‘true’ or ‘correct copies’ if they adhere to established norms, is generally far more valuable on the western market than that of innovators who products are called ‘fantasies’ or ‘incorrect fakes’.

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