We have all seen the Nok sculptures and the Benin Bronze figures, and many of us have come to recognise African tapestries and hangings. These were the earliest forms of African crafts that came to be defined as art by colonial masters.
On this side of the continent however, these pieces were purely regarded as functional – either as symbolic representations of the gods, or as functional talismans linked to our lineage and our heritage. It was only with the Western appreciation of our local artefacts that we began to define these cultural staples as artistic pieces, capable of delighting the senses and creating pleasure when viewed.
Our lack of appreciation was due perhaps to the strong spiritual relevance we associated with these artifacts; however, this spiritual impact was not lost to the great Western artists of the time.
These early sculptures, tapestries and artefacts eventually had a huge impact on the Western culture of art during the colonial era. After being transported across the seas as spoils from colonial plunder, the great artists of the time found themselves drawn to the intricacies of the works. Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh; prominent artists from the revered “School of Paris”, found inspiration in them, recognising – and even being drawn by – the “spiritual” lure of the works. Eventually, they developed art that mimicked the abstraction and cubism identified in the pieces.
Since then, there has been cross-pollination of influences from Africa to the rest of the world and back again. Even as our ancient tapestries and artifacts influenced art in the West, the practice of the visual art grew less relevant to Africans. As the practice of polytheism was overridden by modern religions, the role of local craftsmen relating to creating sculptures and figurines was rendered obsolete. As the West grew increasingly inspired by the experimental new forms they were exposed to, we grew increasingly distant from our crafts. This is until times changed, and seasons turned; local African artists began to refer to Western culture for lessons in craft and skill. It’s safe to say that as Picasso was inspired by us, we too were inspired by him.
More recently there has been an increasing boom in the art industry in Africa. The last few decades has seen a regeneration of form and style in the works of African artists, and we have seen the prominent rise of Africans in the international Art scene.
Yinka Shonibare put the continent on the map with his larger-than- life Trafalgar Square installation, and Okwui Enwezor is keeping the flag flying as the curator of the Venice Biennale. From Professor El Anatsui, Cheri Samba, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Abdoulaye Konaté, to younger artists like Victor Ehikhamenor, Julie Mehretu and Sokari Douglas Camp, the contemporary African art scene has developed a distinct identity of its own. But where did this increasing appreciation for the “finer things of African art” come from? We may need a wider lens to properly identify who to thank for this boom.