29 August 2012 at 3.29pm | Comment on this article
After his encounter with African art in Paris in 1907, Pablo Picasso was a changed man. He later described the moment in terms of a religious conversion. He used words like ‘shock’, ‘revelation’ and ‘charge’.
Like many European artists of his generation, Picasso saw something exciting in African art. He identified with its craft and imagination, but he also saw different considerations to those that drove Western art of the time. African art hinted at a conceptual space that was worthy of real attention.
Watch Gus talk about the impact of African art on early 20th-century Paris:
Most of the carvings and masks collected by men like Picasso were created by artists whose names are now lost. Traditionally, African artists belonged to guilds supported by wealthy patrons. Over centuries this system of patronage drove innovation in wood-carving, textiles, metalwork and ceramics, while ensuring stylistic continuity. It produced great centres of excellence, like the foundries of southern Nigeria, the calligraphic studios of North Africa, the wood-carving schools of central Africa and the textile-producing towns of Ghana. It developed the tastes of visually literate populations who demanded art that was complex and challenging.
For the most part, this traditional African art had clear functions. It built cultural cohesion by carrying the narrative of peoples and, like art the world around, it was created to be visually arresting. African art was often not just a record of change, it could also be the necessary ingredient to spark change.
After World War II the first generation of named African artists began to come to the attention of Western art markets. A handful of this pioneering generation, like Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, used Western materials while maintaining African subjects and iconography. Bruly Bouabré drew on exhaustive research to create a manifesto for life, death and the universe.
Others like Uzo Egonu, who trained in London, created work that straddled an African art sensibility and a European one. Egonu was involved in the avant-garde scene of 1960s London and the city was a major influence on his work.
A new generation of African artists emerged after decolonization. Their work had a changed focus from that of their forerunners. Universities, art schools and galleries had replaced the old systems of patronage and international art markets began to have an impact. There were powerful continuities; many West African artists found ways to integrate weaving and metalwork into their work, while many North African artists continued using calligraphy in theirs. African art continued to focus on transformations, but it now also inspired and mapped change in national politics, global environmentalism and gender relations. These were themes that were more accessible to an international audience. It seemed to herald a new moment, a new kind of art for a new African continent.
Years after his initial encounter, when Picasso was asked how much he was influenced by African art, he rejected the very idea. He allegedly said that the African sculptures in his studio were like witnesses to his genius rather than inspirations. Anyone who has seen Les Demoiselles d'Avignon knows that African art was more influential on Picasso than that. I have always felt that his reaction mirrored a common lack of recognition of the distinctive genius of African art.
Thankfully over the last century African art has come a long way, and has begun to gain the acknowledgment it deserves. In 2012, a tapestry woven by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui sold for a million dollars – its title: New World Map. Anatsui is one of the few artists who has had works displayed in both the British Museum and the Tate galleries.
Watch El Anatsui talk about the studio process behind his work:
African art: key facts
- Africa rivals East Asia for the oldest ceramic traditions.
- The oldest surviving flecks of paint were excavated from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. They date to the Lower Paleolithic period more than 300,000 years ago.
- African art has been called primitive, yet it was a critical catalyst in the development of modern art.
- The last decade has seen the final museums in Europe remove stuffed Africans from their display cases and the first million-dollar African art sold in European auction rooms.
Gus Casely-Hayford is in conversation with Yinka Shonibare on Friday 31 August as part of Deloitte Ignite Africa Weekend. Find out more about Deloitte Ignite 2012 – a celebration of traditional and avant-garde African art and culture.