Adversities of African Art

November 14, 2011

Adversities of African Art

‘Just as casting African art in an ambiguous ethnographic present denies its history, insistence on the anonymity of African artists denies its individuality1Sidney Kasfir

The subject of African art and cultural identity has long been controversial and fiercely debated; the fragmented Western perception of African art could be attributed to the misunderstanding, misinterpretation or past dismissal of other cultures that coincided with Colonialism. This particular perception however is startling when considering Africa’s undeniable influence on Western art and culture. From literature to Cubism, Parisians even developed their own term for appreciation of black culture: la negrophilie in the early 20th century. Despite the apparent interest the West had in Africa, African artists and critics today are still struggling with demeaning stereotypes that do not only repress any sense of individuality in the art works, but that generalise the creative practices of a whole continent.

‘To hell with African art: I don’t give a toss about Africa! I am an artist who paints for human kind and just happens to come from Africa…’2

These remarks collected by Chris Spring, the author of exhibition catalogue Angaza Africa, reflect a growing impatience among contemporary African artists today. While European exhibitions such as Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa and Africa Remix have tried to reshape Western views of African art in the last few years, ‘for the vast majority the definition that immediately comes to mind is that of masks, woodcarvings, ceramics, and metalwork…’3.While it is possible to consider loose similarities of traditional African art styles, this generalised Western ideal is not applicable to the creative practices of a whole continent.

The intention of this essay is to explore adversities African artists have faced since the colonial period, often the result of Western interference. One will challenge stereotypes of African art, and highlight problems of African identity using contemporary and historical contexts, considering the Makonde carvers of Mozambique and Tanzania as primary case studies. Equally one shall consider the fact that many sources of occidental origin are tainted by Western ideology, a biased art history with no room for further interpretation. Prior to examining these issues, it is crucial to question ‘African art’ and thus outlining its definition; not only to Westerners but to Africans as well.

Africa has long been a curator’s graveyard. Big, dangerous, impossible to pin down, this vast continent has dwarfed any attempt to contain it’4.

This question is problematic not only because it requires a synchronised definition for such a culturally, socially, and geographically varied landmass, but also as the ideologies of both continents are so dramatically different.

In Sidney Kasfir’s African Art and Authenticity one’s attention is drawn to traditional African art practices, highlighting how the involvement of the West is detrimental to artistic identities. As a result of Colonialism the art of the Makonde people, the like art of many other African cultures was influenced, the narrative nature of their work inspired by the new surrounding social climate. In the 20th century, Portuguese Colonial figures gave the Makonde an opportunity to create their art as a commodity, eventually leading them to the position they are in today; one of the most prolific producers of contemporary tourist art.

One must analyse the impact of Western consumerism on African art: to what extent does this market have upon what is created half way across the world? While consumers in the West encourage mass production of Makonde sculpture, the production of new sculpture is barely acknowledged. Ironically, the style of the Makonde people has been in constant evolution for centuries, this ‘traditional’ sculpture preferred by Western buyers is in fact a very young tradition. By creating what foreign audiences want, Western stereotypes are fulfilled;

Africa’s classical masks and figures…not to mention a worldwide business of copied and faked art objects, all tend to block sight of modern African creation simply by making Africa look like an eternal past’5.

Although today the Makonde create tourist art for an international audience, they nonetheless ‘regard themselves as having a deep cultural connection with their work, regardless of its intended audience’6 .They are ‘rooted in their African heritage’ and ‘simply absorb influences from anywhere, adapting and moulding them to their own uses…’7.

Despite the staunch cultural independence of the Makonde, and their multitude of non-Western influences, their works were scorned at London Grosvenor Gallery exhibition Makonde Sculpture in 1970 by art critic Dennis Duerden. The critic described the post-colonial carvings as non modern art tourist art, ‘the kind of art which could be used for amusing after dinner jokes…’8Judgements from high art critics often leave Makonde art excluded from Western museums and establishments, resulting in a lack of creative recognition. These issues of canonicity raised in Kasfir’s ‘African Art and Authenticity…’ were illustrated persuasively by the New York Africa Explores 1991 exhibition. The exhibition while including some examples of Makonde art, included no carvings created later than 1940, ignoring many of their new styles. ‘Contemporary Makonde genres were omitted from the exhibition, and only mentioned dismissively in the catalogue as fantastical’9.

If the Makonde people in their own eyes are working under the same traditions, how does one decipher which art is ‘authentic’ or ‘valid’? The innovative nature of their transitional works did not coincide with ethnographic ideals of the western visitors. Today the Makonde are carving in many different forms, but the continuation of specific styles relies somewhat on Western popularity and consumerism. Since Makonde traditions are dictated by the West the Makonde cannot progress. These issues are all the more perplexing when considering British collaborative work The Last Night of the Shop by Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. The conceptual piece presents a selection of handmade badges originally sold by the artists for an income. This collection of Western merchandise was suitable enough to hang on the wall in Tate Britain, while at the same time enough to grant both Western artists recognition.

Makonde modern mawingu carving, and images from online Makonde shop.

The Last Night of the Shop, 1993, Fabric and paper badges, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas

Left: Makonde mask with traditional face modification imitation, late 19th-early 20th century

Right: Image of Makonde costume from 2007 Revolutions: A Century of Makonde Masquerade in Mozambique exhibition Columbia University, New York

Modern day Makonde Carvers in Dar es Salaam

Kasfir’s reference to James Clifford ‘ further reminds us that prior to the 20th century African artefacts were not ‘art’ in either African or Western eyes10It is therefore striking to consider how both African and Western attitudes have changed throughout the last century, and how they are still in constant maturation. While the Western definition of art has undoubtedly become broader since the birth of Modernism, the ideals the West attaches to African art are still often confined. Truthfully there is no universal definition of art, even within groups of people of the same social stratosphere.

In his essay Some Problems Facing the African Artist, Ben Enwonwu describes how the word ‘art’ is a new edition to African language ‘the first time that we Africans received ART as applied to creative imagery…was at the beginning of the European Colonisation’11 African art forms traditionally were very spiritual, not created in the Western sense as ‘art for art’s sake’, but as an integral part of African Society. Before creating colonial sculptures, the Makonde created carvings, figures, masks and costumes for rituals and spiritual ceremonies; in which the performance was just as important as the creative processes. Socialist leader and former President of Mozambique Samora Machel stated ‘Culture is created by people and not by artists12. This common notion throughout African creation was misunderstood by Colonial figures because it conflicted with Western Renaissance ideals. Westerners labelled the works as craft, a prejudgement that has been difficult for Africa to prevent ever since. ‘To prise apart such terms as painting, sculpture, craft and masquerades damages the holistic nature of arts of Africa’13. The poor translation of ‘art’ is one aspect that puts Africa into an ethnographic present, although theoretically as observers of contemporary art expansion, such definitions should be easy for Westerners to comprehend.

Moreover, one can distinguish Western and African art through six fundamental roles. Firstly, the Renaissance artist (who creates naturalistic forms), the Avant-garde artist who drew inspiration from African art, the post-modernist (who theoretically encourages a broader definition of art), the creator (a traditional part of African culture), and the African tourist artist (who creates and reproduces ‘African’ style pieces for an income). Finally, once can include the contemporary African artist who finds themselves without an artistic identity, such as the Makonde. This amalgamation represents artistic qualities from each role without fully immersing within one defined definition.

‘Whereas in the Western ideal the artist is fiercely independent, even rebellious, the African artist aims to please his public14

This quote from Unpacking Culture voices a particular Western view of the African tourist industry. This view clearly influenced by Avant-garde ideals of individualism does not seem to consider factors leading the African artist towards public appeasement. While it has been made clear that African and Western definitions of art greatly differ, the assumption that any artist who creates for commodity lacks individuality is not founded.

Europeans who first came into contact with African arts through Colonialism called the works ‘primitive’ and ‘suggested that artists had not yet mastered the skills for producing naturalistic art for aesthetic contemplation15‘. During the early 20th century, modernists Picasso and Braque found the very same sensual qualities of stylised African sculpture refreshing. This was perhaps because the indigenous art forms were contradictory to Western Renaissance based ideology. While they viewed African arts in a more appreciative light, their understanding of the works was based on foreign contexts. Museums at this time often included collections of ‘exotic’ objects that Westerners found aesthetically similar, but had little in common historically. The same view that ignored the diversity of African arts was illustrated 60 years later in the controversial exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art at MOMA in 1984. European Avant-garde works were presented alongside African sculpture; while the modernists were glorified for taking from ‘primitive art’, the ‘primitive’ examples remained anonymous. Both cases show that the Western label of ‘Primitivism’ ignored the true history of such works, while also denying their individuality.

 Primitivism in 20th Century Art Exhibition Catalogue.

 Les Demoiselles D’avignon, 1907, Oil on Canvas, Pablo Picasso

A definition of primitivism can be outlined as follows;

Characteristic of early ages or of an early state of human development…unaffected or little affected by civilizing influences16.

Although the term ‘Primitive art’ has become largely abandoned due to its negative connotations, an ingrained ignorance remains within society towards African art. The idea of the non-trained artist, even in Western culture, needs to be segregated with specific labels. Within Western art, movements such as ‘Naïve art’ and ‘Outsider art’ are labelled as such movements do not require the same academic training.

Many African artists today mimic the general styles that inspired Western modernists, believing it part of their culture, heritage, and identity. In effect, African art is not just made of simplified and stylised forms. The Makonde have carved more realistic representations of the form for centuries through the medium of body masks. The masks below were used for ceremonies, and show very considered proportionate representations.

Taking previous misconceptions into account an even more convincing example of naturalistic forms is that of the Ife sculpture of Nigeria, a collection pre-dating the Western Renaissance. The British Museum exhibition Kingdom of Ife held in 2010 amazed British critics, to the point of them making comparisons to Greek Classicism.

The artist who in the 14th century created the naturalistic bronze seated figure… had an understanding of the musculature of the human body that would not be seen in European sculpture until Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti more than a century later’17. The works are ‘so different and unexpected, so un-African18.

The uproar created by the Ife sculpture was a result of the insistence of anonymity, or a lack of occidental awareness of African art. This suggests that even today the general public are unsure about the true diversity of African art, not just geographically but also historically. These sculptures which are equally naturalistic as Renaissance art challenge the Western belief that the ‘rebirth’ of refined art was a European occurrence.

British Ife sculpture book cover, and example as seen in the exhibition.

Crucially, this raises an important question: Who defines what ‘defines’ African identity? If the European Renaissance is so globally acknowledged, why are equally amazing African works surprising to Westerners who consider themselves educated worldly individuals? It seems unjustified that these sculptures are not a part of our African perception.

These examples of naturalistic African sculpture challenge Western views that stem from colonial views. While old stereotypes and links with Western views of primitive art obscure ideas of Modern African art, there is no denying that the amount of internationally exhibiting African artists today (such as Chéri Samba, Tracey Rose, William Kentridge, Marlene Dumas, and Jane Alexander) has increased. Does the inclusion then of African art on an international scale mean that previous stereotypes are no longer the universally accepted truth?

Evidently, this question cannot be easily answered; while the inclusion of Africa in the contemporary art world contradicts the Western enforced ‘ethnographic present’, African traditional art is denied through Western high art criteria. Due to its labelling in the past and attitudes towards tourist art, the West recreates Africa’s image by only accepting works that do not look stereotypically African. ‘It appears that people in Africa can never win, for if they remain attached to traditions of the past they are innocent and exotic, and if they move into the present they are merely foolish’19 .

Not only is the image of African art still decided by the West, but Africa’s right to African Modernism is also dictated.

Africa has been used as a source of inspiration…while being denied its majority right of cultural appropriation. The world has refused to recognise its twentieth-century art as the conquest and natural growth that it has in fact been, and insists on considering it a Western implant’20

Westerners see contemporary African art as ‘a response to the bombardment by alien cultural forms or as an outcome of Colonialism, pure and simple: Africa digesting the West’.


Through the research of this essay and the analysis of the subject matter one has illustrated the impossibility of a universal art term across the West and Africa. Problems and issues faced by African people, and the Makonde people in general were addressed. Initially, one focused on two issues: firstly the ethnographic present created by Western ‘modern traditions’ and expectations of tourist art, and secondly as a result of this the refusal of African traditions in the First World contemporary high art scene. Conflicting ideals emerged when discussing the artistic roles of the Makonde carvers, questions of art as a commodity; consumerism, authenticity and individuality. While opinions of Westerners were brought to attention suggesting the African artist only cared about reproducing, critics such as Dennis Duerden claimed the Makonde artist was removed from global modern art. Western opinion seemed quick to criticise when it was Western influence initially that created these ‘new traditions’ One discovered that the openness shown towards conceptual and contemporary Western art was discarded by critics when looking at African art.

One discovered that the refusal of African tradition within contemporary African art has created a new stereotype. Modern artists chosen for international exhibitions by the West in almost every case contradict old Western stereotypes.

If African artists continue to follow their own traditions, they lose their identities as it seems they are obeying Western consumerism. Alternatively if they change their style they are obeying Western high art critics. It seems then that in any case their actions are reactions to the West and not of their own accord.

If certain Makonde sculptures were explained to a Western audience with hidden origins, the works would be labelled as subjective, self-analytical and conceptual. Collaborative work by Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas further illustrated this point when it received critical acclaim and acceptance. Despite the shifting definition of art through Modernism and Post-modernism, the definition is still one dictated by the West with evident boundaries.

The African continent has experienced much adversity as a result of Western ideology and perception, therefore if Africa is to progress and reassert its identity, the West must first learn to appreciate the vast and deep beauty of African art within its indigenous context.

1Kasfir, Sidney, 1992, African Art and Authenticity: A Text With a Shadow, African Arts, 25, p44

2Spring, Christopher, 2008, Angaza Afrika: African Art Now, p6

3Angaza Afrika: African Art Now, p6

4Njami Simon, Lucy Duran, 2005, Africa remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, p24

5 Deliss, Clémentine, Malmö Konsthall, 1995, Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa, p35

6Kasfir, Sidney, 1999, Contemporary African Art, p109

 7 Harry G. West, Stacy Sharpes, 2002, Dealing With the Devil: Meaning and the Marketplace in African Sculpture, African Arts, 35

8Dealing With the Devil: Meaning and the Marketplace in African Sculpture

9Kasfir, Sidney, 1999, Contemporary African Art, p110-111

10African Art and Authenticity: A Text With a Shadow, African Arts, p4

11Enwonwu, Ben, 1968, The African View of Art and Some Problems Facing the African Artist,

12Museum of Modern Art, 1989, Wooden Sculpture From East Africa, from the Malde Collection, p23

13Arnold, I Marion, 2008, Art in Eastern Africa, p15

14Bliss Phillips, Ruth, Steiner Burghard, Christopher, 1999 Unpacking Culture, p3

15Art in Eastern Africa, p16

19Olu, Oguibe, Enwezor, Okwui, 1999, Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, p118

20Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa, p7

21Kasfir, Sidney, 1999, Contemporary African art, p9


3 Responses to “Adversities of African Art”

  1. Who are the “Westerners” to judge what African art is authentic and not? The Makonde shouldn’t be excluded from museums because of critics views. From their point of view they’re making the art that they want and have for decades.

  2. Beautiful
    pieces here.

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