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New forms appear in every aspect of the African landscape today. Change and surprise are constant. Energy, urgency, and excitement are a nourishing presence. As old ways die, new voices are born in sub-Saharan Africa: an area of the world with the earliest record of human life, the ancient ways of a rural countryside, and modern cities with high-rise office buildings. These juxtapositions shock and strengthen. On one hand, the loss of great traditions creates a vacuum. On the other hand, because boundaries and restraints are few, new possibilities arise. However, the past and its wisdom are often close at hand, and like the rivers of Africa, run deep as time.

In many instances classical traditions provide a background against which to appraise the present expression. For many African artists, a commitment to traditional values is a fundamental element in the alchemy of creative genius. Some synthesize allusions to the past with contemporary content; others create imagery with mythical or ritual references. But the artists, though rooted in tradition, use materials, methods, and images foreign to traditional art, and their art is usually based on a personal aesthetic.

These artists, who have emerged throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the last forty years, and who are working in new ways with new materials, address their art to a wider public. in the past their relationship to a community gave them structures and styles. Now, often separated by thousands of miles, the artists are linked in a network of the literary, performing, and visual arts by conferences, festivals, exhibitions, and literary movements. Despite problems of great magnitude - many of them attributable to colonialism - the artists continue to redefine Modern African Art, reflecting the changing social, political, and cultural environment.

There have been a number of beginnings: some artists have had academic art training in art schools, colleges, or universities, others have had alternative or experimental workshop experiences. Many have developed without the help of either. The earliest of the academic efforts took place in the thirties with the founding of two colleges: Achimota College and the School of Fine Arts at Makerere University College. Achimota College, near Accra, Ghana, was established in 1936. The art department was later moved to the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, with a formal arts and crafts program. In Kampala, Uganda, the School of Fine Arts at Makerere University College was founded in 1939. It was a technical college when Margaret Trowell came from England to begin teaching. Trowell advocated the use of African subject matter but practiced conventional European teaching procedures, thus producing easel painters.

In 1943 outside Kinshasa, Zaire (formerly Belgian Congo), Frere Marc-Stanislas, a Catholic priest, created the Ecole St. Luc (later renamed Academie des Beaux-Arts). This school adhered to Belgian educational methods and taught classical European art. In Sudan three years later a school was founded, which eventually became the most important focus for contemporary African art in northern sub-Saharan Africa: the Department of Arts and Crafts, now the College of Fine and Applied Arts, of the Khartoum Technical Institute. This school is now the center of an impressive movement.

Other activities included the establishing of two institutes in 1951 in both Zaire and Congo (then the Belgian and French Congos). One school, the Academie des Beaux-Arts et de Metiers d'Art in Lumbumbashi, was run by Laurent Moonens, a Belgian artist. it later incorporated a workshop school established in 1944 and headed by Pierre Romain-Desfosses. The Desfosses school took an experimental approach, but work produced was routinely decorative. The other institute, The Centre d'Art Africaine, also known as the Poto-Poto School, was founded in Brazzaville by Pierre Lods. Lods attempted to foster an "African" approach, but much of the resulting art was also highly decorative and repetitious. The style took hold as a fad, spawning tourist art, which sold throughout the markets of West Africa.

The training of some of the finest contemporary artists in Africa occurred at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (now the Art Department of Ahmadu Bello University). Founded in 1953 in the northern city of Zaria, by 1960 it had graduated artists who strongly influenced artistic developments in the country, and who became known throughout the continent. Nigeria's other early art school, the Department of Art, Design, and Technology at the Yaba College of Technology, established in the Lagos suburb of Yaba in 1955, also produced prominent painters and sculptors.

Four years later in Ethiopia another important center of contemporary art, the Fine Arts School, was established. its graduates have produced some of the most original work in Africa. Finally, as late as 1966 the last of the seminal institutions, a school now famous for the production of tapestries, was created: the Manufactures Nationale des Tapisseries at Thies, Senegal.

Additional significant efforts to encourage expression occurred in unconventional settings. While workshop schools in Zaire and Congo had emphasized the value of indigenous art forms with results that were often romantic, later nonacademic or experimental approaches pioneered in the fifties and sixties generated exciting and imaginative works. The most important of these workshops were in Harare, Zimbabwe (then Salisbury, Rhodesia), under the direction of Frank McEwen; in Maputo (then Lourenco Marques), Mozambique, under Pancho Guedes; in Oshogbo, Nigeria, under Susanne Wenger; in Oshogbo and Ife, Nigeria, under Georgina Beier; and short workshops organized by Julian Beinart in Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, and South Africa. In these workshops, creativity was encouraged and formal teaching methods were scorned; the artists who developed exhibited originality and consistency of direction.

European missionaries ran workshops too, but often with mediocre results. For example, Father Kevin Carroll's workshop in Ekiti, Nigeria, utilized an apprentice system, and, carvers became technically astute. But because they were no longer carving for the original cults, but for Christian purposes, creating madonnas and crucifixes, their work lacked intensity. Modern potteries in Vurne, Ghana, and Abuja, Nigeria, established by Michael Cardew became known abroad for the results of the work there. Clerics of the Swedish mission at Rorke's Drift in South Africa had more successful results with the development of artists who created strong black and white graphic prints.

A number of artists sought training in Europe and in the United States. Some found their experience irrelevant. Others produced some of their finest work abroad, adjusting to new situations and reflecting their adjust- merit to foreign lands in the syntheses they created.

Contemporary African artists have faced difficult struggles, especially when confronting prevailing Western misconceptions and prejudices about Africans and Africa. The use of the word "primitive" and the anonymity accorded indigenous art by foreign institutions have worked in subtle ways to the artists' detriment, denying them respect and recognition. These stereotypes are further fostered by pervasive efforts to categorize African art in conformity with Western aesthetic criteria. Every aspect of African culture is, in some way, stamped by others. While setting traditional art apart in museums and books has value, it can suggest that it is complete and finished. The reverence accorded it is sometimes construed to suggest that change is a travesty.

Such obstacles imply that whatever the direction of the new artists, danger lies ahead. They are criticized both for leaving traditions behind or for embracing traditional elements. Holding up past achievements as the epitome of artistic endeavor is a heavy burden for any creative artist. Africans who study abroad and avoid African subject matter or employ a style that is not recognizably "African" are sometimes considered betrayers of their inheritance. Clearly this attitude is unnecessarily limiting.

Indeed, attributes of some contemporary African art, which critics suggest are influenced by cubism or German expressionism, relate to the traditions of African art that motivated those modem European movements. The older, indigenous arts, as author-critic Ulli Beier points out, contain the seeds of every modem movement.

The variety encountered in indigenous cultures makes the task of creating canons to define either traditional or contemporary African art a difficult one. Although traditional elements - the frequent use of symbolism, metaphors, organic forms, inherent rhythms, and (much of the time) religious contexts - do link cultures on the continent, they also connect the continent to the diaspora.

These traditional elements are often present in the works of contemporary Africans who, like other artists, select qualities appropriate to them; but the variety of approaches, styles, and forms among Africa's artists today demonstrates their openness. Like other artists, they respond in their work to political and social change, and to momentous processes or events, such as the inroads made by Christianity and Islam, the Nigerian Civil War, the altered political system in Ethiopia, and apartheid in South Africa.

In spite of their topical subject matter, they need more local patronage. Government support, in the form of commissions, purchases, or exhibitions, is gaining ground - especially when it recognizes that an artist's work can be used to express the country's identity. Foreign businesses have commissioned works as a way of cementing relationships with host countries. Nevertheless, because much of the work of modern African artists exists outside religious contexts, they are denied the traditional constituency of the community. Now, however, their accomplishments have commanded attention around the world, and more of their compatriots are becoming their clients.


source: "New Currents, Ancient Rivers: Contemporary African Artists in a Generation of Change" - Jean Kennedy


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