Art is Art

From the arrival of the first Portuguese on the shores of Africa in the mid 15th century,  African art, like Africa’s people and resources have been exploited, stolen and appropriated by Europeans.  European and American museums are full of African art and archaeological material stolen over the centuries such as Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes the most famous of which is the Queen Idia  ivory mask.   In the Kingdom of Benin alone, British colonial officers stole some 3000 pieces of art before burning down the Oba’s (King’s) palace.   As Johnathan Jones writes in the Guardian, “producing great art is no guarantee of winning anyone’s respect”.

As the construction of racism was used to justify slavery and colonial subjugation, so it became necessary to disconnect the art of the continent from its people.  After all how could an “uncivilised bunch of savages” produce such glorious pieces of art? “Respect my art, respect me!” did not apply to Africa.

One way of acknowledging African art whilst at the same time maintaining Africa’s cultural inferiority was to label  it  “primitive”.   Another way was through imperialist literature which was at the forefront of the construction of race and white supremacy in Victorian Britain.  Africa, its people, its culture were all commodified and sold as the “exotic” other.

This view of African art   continues as despite attempts to approach African art simply as art in the sense that art is a cultural and personal expression of everyday and spiritual life there is a tendency to revert back to some other explanation for the role of art in Africa.  Jonathon Jones’ piece  tries to use a different approach by exploring the art “that enriches the lives of ordinary people”.

And this is what I found myself inarticulately trying to explain
earlier this year after it was proposed that I go to Africa as an art
critic. I wanted to get away entirely from the art that might be
presented at the Hayward, and to try to see how art fits into, and
perhaps even enriches, the lives of ordinary people. It seems to me
that, as African poverty continues to scar the world’s conscience, it
doesn’t really matter whether African art makes it in London. But maybe
art – the form of creativity that human beings have been addicted to
longest – might have a function in the lives of the poor. I didn’t want
to know what was hot in Johannesburg galleries, I wanted to know what
forms of visual culture might actually be of use to those who have

Unfortunately he falls into his own trap by perpetuating the very thing that he began by criticising.  Quoting from an art review of an African sculpture in 1920:

“It seems unfair to be forced to admit that certain nameless savages have possessed this power not only in a higher degree than we at this moment, but we as a nation have ever possessed.”

Jones responds

Fry’s language shocks us so much we miss the point – he is saying that
African art is greater than anything Britain had ever produced. He is
able, simultaneously, to acknowledge the world-historical achievement
of African art and to caricature it as the work of “certain nameless

What Jones fails to realise is continues in the same vain albeit far less offensively but the core remains.

For example he is not interested in African art which is displayed in the “Hayward Gallery” but wants to see “how it fits into” the lives of ordinary people….I wanted to know what forms of visual culture might actually be of use to those who have have nothing”

He goes back to Robben Island prison only to find out that the “art” on the walls of the prison is not that of the political prisoners but of common criminals who like prisoners around the world use the walls of the cells to “draw in” their resistance to confinement. His next venture is to the National Gallery in Cape Town where the rock paintings made by the San people are on display –

I have never seen more beautiful art. The rock paintings of the San
connect us with our earliest ancestors if you accept, as contemporary
anthropologists do, that their shamanist culture resembled that of the
early artists who painted caves in the Ice Age. This miracle of
survival earned its makers nothing but contempt.

Another example of “Great art whose perpetrators were despised”.  Nothing problematic here. However he goes on to say that African art that makes it to the galleries of London is “not, by definition, the culture of Africa’s excluded millions”.

If we follow this line of thought then the recent exhibition in Europe  of Arms into Art – “sculptures made from old weapons by Mozambique artists” is not art of the “people” which is what he means. Art is created out of  experience, culture, tradition, circumstance and so on. It is both a personal and communal  experience.   Whether it be  art that is ascetic or whether it be functional art it is created out of life.   I find Jones’ desire to look for the art of those “who have nothing” patronising and voyeuristic.   Furthermore those whom he selects as having nothing are not in fact people with nothing.   He chooses as examples of “functional art”  the “Coffin carvers” of Ghana who carve coffins as fish, cars and everyday objects painting them in bright colours.  Of course the coffins are beautiful however carving coffins is not a uniquely African thing.  Coffins are carved in all sorts of designs throughout the world.  The whole piece is full of awe over simple things and maybe that is the point – in the West life is more complicated as everything is commodified packaged and sold to people as passive receivers. He reports on the story of how the idea of fantasy coffins began – a story that excites Jones – the exotic African that constructs art out of dreams!

Kane Kwe, he says, “slept and dreamed”, and the image of a fabulous coffin “came from his dreams”.

Returning to reality he writes

Obviously Obviously, the people who can afford these coffins are among the
better-off members of the community. On the other hand, funerals are
collective occasions, expressing a shared attitude to death. Everyone
possesses the fish and eagles as symbols carried through the streets.

Not only are the purchasers “better-off members of the community” but the coffin makers are not “people who have nothing” – they are artisans, craftsmen and traders.  However he still feels the need to defend the art form.

Another example he gives is dyeing of textiles.   Somehow he manages to separate the dyeing of textiles from the everyday lapper and gowns worn by West African women which he describes as “exquisite robes” and informs us that in order to get “closer” the easiest thing is to work with an NGO, and in Ghana in west Africa, I was helped by the charity Action Aid.” He then embarks on another trip into the exotic world of traditional African dyeing techniques.   Again these women can hardly be described as  “people who have nothing” and frankly this is quite insulting!

Jones’ trip into African art is a voyeuristic trip into the ‘exoticness’ of the other and not a trip into the creative and functional art of Africa as he  claims.  His language and approach tell us that he cannot view African art from any other position than the wonder of beautiful art forms living in the “dark continent”.