What is African Art?

It's a vague question. It's also a problematic question, since the answer depends on which region or country of Africa and who is doing the defining.

Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, an art history professor who specializes in the arts and visual culture of Africa and its Diasporas, explains the difficulty of defining authentic African art and evaluating its value in the age of globalization. He argues that the canonicity of African art is defined based on the artwork collected during the colonial era and now in the museums outside Africa, which makes it harder to establish the authenticity of African art found in the African continent. (It's ironic and unfortunate!) Ogbechie also says African art has been misdirected by Western aesthetic preferences, which give more visibility to figurative or abstract sculpture and less to textiles. 

But here is a great news! Many contemporary artists of African heritage such as El Anatsui are shedding light on Africa's rich textile heritage.

Black River, El Anatsui. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Black River, El Anatsui. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

El Anatsui is a Ghanian sculptor who has been active for much of his career in Nigeria. His recent work includes "metal" cloths whose style resembles the pattern of a traditional Kente cloth from Ghana where he is from. These metal cloths are made with aluminum wrappings from the tops of the bottles that once contained spirits from local distilleries in Nsukka, Nigeral, where he is currently based.

What we are especially fascinated by in his metal work, like Black River as shown in the photo above, is that it has many different interesting elements. Black River is a metal cloth, but it is also a unique landscape. The work is composed of different shapes like circles, squares, and rectangles, but they are all woven together seamlessly. Even though the cloth is made of metal, his finished artwork looks organic and soft. 

In fact, his background is also a fusion of different culture. According to an interview in The Phoenix, he is a product of two traditions, “the Western one, which I acquired in art school, and the African one, which I started acquiring on my own.” And he found his unique voice as an artist in-between these two traditions.

At Maki & Mpho, we also believe that everyone should find their own unique voice, and your personal voice doesn't necessarily need to come from a particular culture. We may be able to interpret what African art is with an eye on the past (and more specifically with the perspectives of the colonial history), but we can also define the future without referencing the past. It is up to young artists from the African continent to find their own voice and shape the future discourse of what African art is and can be. (Oh, in case you have missed it, our very own Creative Director, Mpho Muendane, shares her story as a young African artist in our previous blog post!)