By Aarti wa Njoroge
Does African art exist? One could argue we would not have 'African art' were it not for Europeans first looting, then buying, ceremonial masks, statues, even the occasional obelisque.
For Africans, these objects, while carrying an aesthetic value, were typically functional, and not destined for a wall or shelf, and certainly not for the public display of a museum.
Indeed, when I visited the 'Africa: The Art of a Continent' exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1995, I witnessed a careful, academic display of pieces spanning many centuries.
Yet the names of the quite often private collectors were typically foreign. Does this mean that only westerners view African tribal objects as art?
"In the 1480's [?], Charles the Reckless, Duke of Burgundy, bought an African "idol" from a Portuguese nobleman. This is the first record in history of an object of African Art being collected by a non-African."
Browsing through a Western Artists/African Art catalogue for an exhibition which artists living in the west had lent one or more African pieces to, I started wondering why I, and people I know, collect African art.
For me, discovering and acquiring art is part of travelling, like tasting a local dish or visiting a monument, except that you get to take it home with you.
The tam tam West African drum made from a kola tree trunk transports me back to an early morning Douala market while switching on the lamp made of calabash and bone leads me to a busy, eclectic biennial arts festival in Dakar.
Road To Exile By Barthelemy At The Dak'Art Festival
Sometimes I come across art that moves me, but that I am unable to purchase. I once saw a Daliesque painting by a Togolese artist depicting female genital mutilation, but it was too powerful an image for my walls.
When I acquire a head rest or a mask, I refer to African art books to learn about the origin, the significance of the posture, the headdress or beard.
Having been brought up in Europe, where the artist is often revered as much as his or her work, it is strange not to know these artists' names.
I am fascinated by a 7cm tall old man, arms holding a rotund belly almost as if to offer it to me, a square mouth about to talk, almond-shaped eyes, rope amulets and matted grass skirt. But I will never know who created him.
Do other collectors opt for anonymous 'traditional' art or 'modern' art with identified artists?
Jeff Koinange, Chief reporter/anchor and host for K24 and a Kenyan, has built up his own collection during extensive travels throughout the continent.
Jak Katirikawe At His Studio
His reasoning is simple: "Because it's art I can relate to. Our history, our everyday is documented in the eyes of these artists."
The Ivorian Augustin Kassi, for Jeff, blends realism with the contemporary, "a rare and difficult thing to do, but he does it amazingly well."
Kassi's style is generally referred to as art naïf, which was surely created for Africa, and particularly the African woman.
'Awoulaba' is the epitome of this, with Kassi's dispensation of proportions indulging her curvaceous figure which draws immediate attention to her ostrich egg-sized breasts.
In contrast, Vijaya Kalyan is an Indian-born artist whose paintings often depict the leaner silhouettes of the Maasai.
Jeff feels her work reflects her love of the Kenyan people and scenery, "a pseudo-realism reflection of African culture and everyday life?"
Can African create its own movements and trends which could even be adopted by the northern hemisphere rather than the other way round?
We know that Picasso, "the first to intuit what aspects could be extrapolated from the plastic concepts of the blacks of Africa [?], introduced these aspects little by little into his painting, an action that led to the creation of a movement thought to be revolutionary in art: Cubism" (Michel Leiris and Jacqueline Delange, Afrique Noire).
Moora By Fitsum Woldelibanos
Now, whenever Vijaya Kalyan or Toyin Loye paint oversized eyes, we think of Picasso. A Kassi painting reminds us of Henri Rousseau. Can the tables be turned?
Like Kalyan, Jeff's favourite artist Jak Katarikawe often features cows, "a sacred animal from his native Uganda", in his paintings.
Jeff draws messages of kinship from his "famous elephants traversing the plains of Africa".
Family seems to have mostly disappeared from modern western art, just as it has from many western societies. Perhaps this could be Africa's contribution.
We welcome your thoughts on the destiny of African art. Can Africans appreciate and patronise their artists? Will tourists eventually think of visiting African cities for their art galleries? Are galleries the only places to display African art? Let us know.
Posted By: Andrew Njoroge
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