Who says there was no African art?

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By Dr Tony Monda

IN 1957, a new national gallery – the Rhodes National Gallery in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) – was inaugurated.
Frank McEwen (1906 – 1994), its first director, on his own volition and despite fierce opposition from the white Rhodesian establishment, followed his instincts and encouraged a group of aspiring indigenous African artists to bring their work, albeit clandestinely to the National Gallery of Rhodesia, now the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.
McEwen trained at the Sorbonne and the Art Academy in Toulon, France.
While in Paris, he studied African traditional art (mainly West African and Congolese art); an interest that led McEwen to examine traditional art in Zimbabwe, in the same context, particularly among the majority Shona people.
He went on to create the National Gallery Workshop School (which became the BAT Mbare Art Workshop School) to support the young emerging untaught Zimbabwean artists; on a criterion based simply on ‘raw talent’, enthusiasm and personal achievement.
His association with indigenous artists did not gel with the Rhodesian establishment.
After independence in 1980, modern sculpture of Zimbabwe propelled the nation onto the world’s art stage.
McEwen, who asserted in his time that: “There was no such thing as African art,” said of his workshop school: “My first workshop was only begrudgingly recognised and accepted over a year later (by the Rhodesian authorities).”
Given both the visual evocation of Africanness and the popularity of the art form, particularly in Europe, North America and East Asia, it is hard to consider the tradition of Zimbabwean modern stone sculpture is scarcely 60 years old.
Indeed, since it has not yet been critically adopted locally in the national academic curricular as an art form, it has raised the question: Is Zimbabwean stone sculpture indeed African art?
In my persuasion, Zimbabwe stone sculpture is the best visual transposition of Zimbabwean philosophy, orature, indigenous language, historical imaging, combined with inherited cultural beliefs and an indigenous design symbolism and configuration.
Visual art has been part of the human endeavour and African experience for many millennia.
Some archaeologists contend the ability and desire to make art are essential human characteristics.
In fact, some go as far to say, art helps define what it means to be human.
Foreign perspectives have spawned the extensive discussions on African art that are relevant to our exploration of Zimbabwean stone sculpture.
In order to better understand the differing interpretations of Zimbabwean stone sculpture, particularly relating to the question of how this important art form relates both to Zimbabwean traditional forms of cultural expression and to the larger contemporary cultural and the socio-political context in which it is produced, it is essential to place this discourse within the debate on art in Africa.
The varied ways in which Zimbabwean stone sculpture has been understood and interpreted by both Zimbabwe and external collectors as well as art critics has been influenced by a Western interpretation of African societies and cultures over the preceding centuries.
From the outset of Western contact with sub-Saharan African societies in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, African art was characterised as representing primordial cultural beliefs.
As such, indigenous African art, in its many manifestations of objects, music and performances, was culturally determined by the individual people who created them and not as expressions of the individual, but as a group creativity.
Consequently, the idea of groups of people creating art led to the assumption that individual African artists had little, if any input in the work they produced.
As a result, occidental archaeologists, curators and art historians deemed it unimportant to ascribe the African artist credit for the work produced.
Therein lies the paradox of Western interpretations of our indigenous art and artists.
By definition therefore, works of African art were deemed anonymous.
This view is consistent with the colonialists’ widely accepted opinion that African societies had no history and were thus not affected by the creative actions or intentional design, but by communal consensus; or as McEwen stated: “There was no such thing as African art.”
African societies were thought to be static, lacking in innovation and technology. Fortunately, this perspective, while still present, has been thoroughly challenged and discredited in the past decades by Africans, Africanist anthropologists, art historians and the evidence in our modern art.
This outlook has also influenced the debate on Zimbabwean stone sculpture’s authenticity as African art which is based primarily on the prominence given to the celebration of the creativity of individual Zimbabwean sculptors.
Moreover, while some art analysts and critics applaud the aesthetic power of Zimbabwean stone sculpture, others challenge its Africanist pedigree, asserting that as an art form which developed in the 1950s, encouraged by a small number of European art promoters, the art cannot be considered a ‘traditional African’ art form.
Despite the fact that early European analysts considered ‘primitive’ art, societies and cultures fascinating and stimulating to study, the indigenous societies and the art produced were considered lacking in sophistication and governed by restrictive socio-cultural structures that influenced their cultural life and artistic development.
This perspective, however, did not prevent the West from admiring African artistic aesthetics.
In fact, African imagery, particularly West and Central African masks, influenced the works of several early 20th Century European artists; most outstandingly demonstrated by Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973), ‘Le Demoiselles d’Avignon’, (1907), New York, (MOMA), in which there is a striking form and affinity between certain African mask styles and the mask-like faces of two of the five women who are the subject of this famous painting.
For several decades, unfounded Western perception was that African art was not produced by trained professionals, but by anonymous individuals without formal training and artistic status within their society.
For the Western-trained academic, the ideology and concepts were strange and removed from the Euro-centric culture.
However, more recently, African art historians and anthropologists who have studied works by African artists have discredited these assumptions, proving that art is produced by individuals who have undergone rigorous training and have status and respect as artists within their communities.
Certainly, this goes without saying in Zimbabwe, where most contemporary stone sculptors have undergone apprenticeships lasting up to four years and now make their living solely as artists.
While many Western writers and academics argue Zimbabwe’s stone sculpture has not been adopted by its country as a national-traditional art form, it must be noted the previous administration, partly because the art form did not auger well with the Rhodesian system, did not include it in the school curriculum.
Zimbabwean stone sculpture, however, cannot be excluded from our new curriculum.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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