The African art world has struggled to be recognized and respected on a global scale. Historical events such as slavery and apartheid have given people the confidence to address contemporary issues such as their identity and sexuality and art has proven to be a viable platform to do so. As African art gained recognition, it brought with it, new perspectives within the art world, giving art lovers a breath of fresh air. Artists expressed themselves using different mediums, which in turn kept the outside world interested because there was always something new being created.
African art was not really recognized till the 20th century. Museums like the Victoria and Albert in London, had them in storage as they considered African art too primitive and were of the opinion that such pieces had been used solely for rituals. This created a lot of negativity surrounding artifacts found in Africa and as a lot of them were collected or stolen during the colonial era, no recognition was given to the artists thus reducing the value of the artifacts.
According to Porto Novo based artist, Romuald Hazoume, Europeans were ignorant because they called ancestral African art primitive. Hazoume believed that if they had taken their time to understand the culture then they would have realized that Africans understood the meaning of art before they did. Europeans claimed contemporary African art did not exist when in fact it had, still does and always will. Their ignorance thus prevented the appreciation of Africa pieces. Africa’s low socioeconomic status also emphasized the idea that art from Africa was primitive because it didn’t fall into the category of what was deemed artistic by Western practice.
By the 20th Century, Artists like Picasso and Matisse created pieces that were thought to be influenced by African art. Picasso’s painting’s such as ‘Head of a Woman’, 1907, seemed to have been highly influenced by African masks and he was also known for collecting them but when asked in 1920 about art from Africa, his response was apparently “Negro art? Never heard of it”. One can guess this was for political or patriotic reasons. It seems as though the Western world is now highly influenced by this so-called, ‘primitive’ art as small sections of African Art has been taken and used in the development of post-modern art. It is safe to say that African art can be considered the cornerstone of 20th century art.
Andre Magnin, a Paris based curator played an important role in creating awareness of contemporary African art. Magicians of the Earth was an international exhibition at Pompidou Center and La Villette in Paris that was created in 1989 to celebrate contemporary art from all over the world. It created a space where there was no hierarchy; it was a platform for equality and value. Through this exhibition, contemporary African artists were recognized and celebrated and most importantly their work begun to acquire value in the art world. The value of contemporary African art is rising due to talented artists like El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare, David Goldblatt, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Sokari Douglas-Camp and Mary Siband to name a few. With pieces being sold for up to $500,000, it is safe to say that the African art world is on the rise. Mary Sibande is the first black South African woman to exhibit work at La Biennale di Venezia in Venice, which is one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the world. With Artists like her gaining recognition worldwide, African art is gaining it share of global recognition.
South Africa’s art world is thriving; Johannesburg can be considered one of Africa’s hubs for contemporary art, fashion and music, with galleries like the Goodman Gallery and GalleryMOMO, which focuses on contemporary African art from South Africa and other African countries. Just one visit to the Goodman gallery can make one fall completely in love or at least appreciate the talent that resides in Africa. There are a lot of art spaces in the continent that are aimed at supporting and encouraging new artists by giving them studio spaces at a low rate where they can create and sell their work. In Nairobi, the GoDown Arts Center is internationally recognized as an institute that nurtures young talent such as Cyrus Kabiru who uses junk to create his art. He is known for his avant-garde style eyewear called the C-Stunners. In Lagos, Bisi Silva set up the Centre for Contemporary Art to provide a platform for the development of visual art.
The global interest in African art has also increased the interest in the continent. The Progress of Love is an exhibition that was created to explore the idea of love in and for the continent. This exhibition seeks to ask what part of love is universal and what is a cultural construct. The project is co-organized by Kristina Van Dyke, former curator for collections and research at the Menil Collection, and Bisi Silva. The exhibition has helped to put Africa at the forefront but also encouraged non-African artists.
Support is still needed from the African continent to promote the work of its people as well as support from the global community, but one thing is for sure, the passion for art in Africa together with its growing recognition is thriving and with the abundance of talent in Africa ever present, a sustainable future for African art may have finally been secured.
Picasso Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907
Cyrus Kabiru, C-Stunners
Mary Sibande, Her Majesty Queen Sophie, 2010