Just before the recent sale of African art in London in May, under the auspices of the African Art Now show, there was a charity auction of Ugandan contemporary art in aid of the East Ugandan Arts Trust, which promotes the remarkable and almost untapped potential of the visual arts scene there. The proceeds of this auction also went to the Child’s Foundation, helping to support an estimated 40,000 children growing up in orphanages in Uganda. Appropriately, Bonhams did not take their usual percentage from the sales.
The auctions came at a time when African artists are increasingly becoming impatient with the term “African art” or “African artist” foisted on them by Western commentators. “I’m an artist who paints for humankind and who just happens to come from Africa”; “To hell with African art”; “I don’t give a toss about Africa”, remarked artists Owusu-Ankomah, Hassan Musa, and Yinka Shonibare MBE.
Their views were shared by two prominent women artists, Houria Niati, and Sokari Douglas-Camp, both of whom rejected the consideration as “African” artists, let alone as “ethnic”. It is significant that all five these artists live and work in Europe, reflecting a growing impatience among “African” artists with such labels.
However, artists working within Africa are generally not so concerned with such issues. “The fact that most of the well-known curators of African art are now African, shows the picture becoming more positive,” writes Chris Spring, curator of the Sainsbury African Galleries at the British Museum. Olu Oguibe, artist and curator, said: “People must begin to show confidence in the ability of individual African artists to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers on the global stage.”
However, many artists do acknowledge that such labels as “Africanness” may still be necessary in order to give their work visibility. Despite a growing global appreciation of the genre, it remains remote from a far wider potential audience.
Ekpo Eyo, the former director general of Nigeria’s Museums & Monuments, wrote: “Although I was involved with ancient artworks, it was impossible to ignore the creations of emerging artists. The works of those without formal art training attracted my attention first because I believed they were purer in form and content in relation to the works with which I was familiar.
“With time, however, I could not ignore the creations of artists who received training in art schools in which the teaching methods and aesthetic criteria were based on European models. My initial difficulty in accepting their works lay in the fact that I was always looking for the “Africanness” in their works and when I failed to find it, I distanced myself from them.
“But the varied types of contemporary art thrive with incredible success in all parts of Africa. This development is not unexpected in a society that is open to influences and striving to maintain and realise its own identity, with a resulting pluralism of styles”.
Spiritual traditions and the cultural heritage run deeply through African art, but are able to coexist in vibrant synthesis with the present, due to that critical constant in African life – the acceptance of change. The star of the recent London sale was undoubtedly the New World Map by Ghana’s El Anatsui, which sold for £541,250, a jaw-dropping price for a work by an African artist. And why not? It is a masterpiece, huge in size (11ft x 16ft) and magisterial in achievement.
Its reference to traditional pattern (Kente cloth) is hauntingly rich, its materials and reference intrinsically a contemporary statement. Composed of flattened, crumpled bottle caps, linked together, it forms an undulating wall sculpture, which took many months for El Anatsui and his team of assistants to achieve.
Born in Ghana, but since 1975 head of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, El Anatsui is particularly concerned with the erosion of African traditions by external forces, and the nature of their continued transmission.
During his illustrious, world-renowned career, he has used many materials, including wood, metal, clay and paint; but more recently recycled and repurposed components like aluminium bottle caps transformed into a shimmering tapestry. El Anatsui studied in Kumasi, Ghana, during the late 1960s when a European art school curriculum was taught. He and Nigerian artists like Bruce Onobrakpeya (whose work was also recently auctioned), became the “Zaria Rebels”, interpreting inherited cultural traditions through modern materials and techniques.
Onobrakpeya’s artistic eclecticism is legendary; his work globally exhibited. Originally from the Niger Delta, he spent his childhood in the city of Benin, whose cast brass plaques are often referenced in his work. He then studied at Zaria, giving him insight into the cultures of the Hausa and Fulani peoples; then moved to Lagos, familiarising himself with Yoruba culture.
Always experimenting with new technologies, particularly in print-making, he is a passionate defender of the environment, from the relentless desertification of the Sahel to the exploitation of oil and other natural resources in his homeland, the Niger Delta.
African artists’ education straddles at least three genres – “academic” art schools, colleges and universities; experimental, “alternative” workshops; or no “training” at all for people who mash up tradition and popular culture.
El Anatsui, Onobrakpeya and several other “senior” West African artists represented in the African Art Now show, like Ben Enwonwu and Yusuf Grillo, studied at Western-style art schools. Enwonwu studied in London, where it was remarked that he should be put on the first plane back home, since he was imbibing too much of the Western aesthetic.
Also hung in the show were two of the “First Generation” of artists from Osogbo, Nigeria – Jimoh Buraimoh, Twins Seven Seven and Yinka Adeyemi. They attended experimental workshops run by Europeans, where they were given art materials and encouraged to freely express themselves. Though the content of their work almost always drew on their Yoruba culture, including their orishas, their gods and goddesses, they chose materials and styles almost invariably completely different from traditional Yoruba art, and not Western either. Second and third generations of artists in this rural town, and also in neighbouring Ile-Ife, are still producing groundbreaking art, whose patronage has become increasingly Nigerian.
Other Osogbo artists are also still creating – this time an extraordinary genre of sacred art, restoring and renewing ancient shrines in a wildly expressive way, in part influenced by the angular style of the Austrian artist Suzanne Wenger, who, having arrived in Osogbo in 1950, lived there and worked with local artists until her death recently, and who became a priestess of the Yoruba cults of Obatala and Osun. One of her oil paintings was on display in London, titled Man & Leopard I – not an animal native to Nigeria!
An audible 21st century beat rocked from the work of several of the younger artists in the show, responding to apparently overwhelming problems of government corruption and mismanagement, poverty, AIDS and other illnesses, as well as ethical dilemmas. The artists served up a cornucopia of styles revealing their perceptions of the realities around them.
Just as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus said: “Out of Africa always something new”, the artistic descendants of people whose culture dates back millennia, continue to challenge the world with their dynamic images and urgent messages. Contemporary African art, like a river that never rests, opens the doors of our perception with vigorous energy, vision and brilliance.