A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Reconceptualizing African art
by Trevor Getz, 25th February 2005
So, often we look at a piece of African art, perhaps an antiquity, and ask:
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:
|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:
|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.|
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’.
Give also your opinion and join our discussion group
African masks from Known Collections
Free African Art Authenticity Report
Discover the African Art books I like or join me on facebook
African Antiques is the archive and not growing much anymore but still updated.
Visit African Art to join our free newsletter and read recent African Art News.
For the last news about reconceptualisation you should join our African Art Club and become an insider of the African art market.
And if you are a collector of African Art, have a look at our exclusive African Art Collection for sale.
Mail David Norden
Call us at +32 3 227 35 40
Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart
read also :
mail David Norden phone +32 3 227.35.40