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Mike Omoighe: Art Criticism, Cultural Context and Transmission of Aesthetic Values in Africa

Omoighe Michael Osebhajimete (aka Mike Omoighe) reflects here on ‘Art Criticism, Cultural Context and Transmission of Aesthetic Values in Africa’ in this paper published in Eastern Art Report and Art Criticism Today in March 2007.

‘Art Criticism Reloaded ‘– the idea of redesigning, repackaging, renovating or rebuilding – is very timely and highly welcome. The effulgence of art criticism since the mid-twentieth century has dwindled, with the passage of time, and it is to be hoped that this occasion will address some pertinent questions, left unanswered over the years.

One wonders if it is really possible to do an analytical critique of artworks without any clue whatsoever, as to the environmental or contextual issues involved, or circumstantial knowledge of the people or societies they address – in other words, the end users at whom the work is, presumably, directed. Christian Chambert (2004), President of AICA Sweden, believes that art critics have to be open to outsiders’ art, women’s art, and art from non-Western countries.

Does alertness to semiotics (signs and symbols), with a view to deciphering or interpreting meaning, play an important role in art criticism? What is meant by ‘consciousness’? And if we remain alert to the colonising effect of the mass media, how do the media affect reality or truth? How can attitude or bias not affect one’s understanding of the creative philosophy that guides the people? These questions, and many more, call for immediate answers.

The central focus here is not that of majority – minority or privileged – under-privileged; nor is it that of advantage versus disadvantage. Rather, it is an issue of misrepresentation, due to an imperfect understanding of the meaning and use of artworks and objects within an African social, cultural and political context. Perhaps, when art criticism is fully reloaded, AICA shall be sufficiently energised, with broader key concepts relating to the skills and apparatus of service delivery systems, both in the art schools curriculum and for professional utilisation in Africa, worldwide.

Within the context of this paper I shall use the term ‘African values’1, without prejudice, as being synonymous with popular perceptions in predominantly black, sub-Saharan African countries. This is not necessarily in line with what Filani (2004) refers to, as a section of the continent occupied by a particular race, and not the entire geographical entity from which it derives.2 This research simply does not cover the Mediterranean, or countries in southern Africa. This geographical delimitation implies a shared emphasis on object-making in creative art and a broad cultural understanding of the main issues in philosophy, socio-economics and the ‘spiritual-materialistic’, in this broad geographical area. The African philosophy of birth – life – death and the life thereafter forms a basis of common understanding.3 The rite of passage at birth or age group initiation in the forest region should expectedly be different from that of the Sahellian climate. African art is an extension of the life of people.

If art criticism is to serve its purpose in society, it cannot do so in isolation from general expressions of acceptance or rejection, or in denial of issues of identity, since it must serve as a tool for cultural growth. A society that can recognise, identify with, criticise, accept, or reject the materials with which it is presented, is an enlightened one. In a traditional African setting, one of the functions of art criticism is the measurement of social values – creative codes, morals, etc.

Art Criticism: No Future without a Past

Art criticism must look out for activity, the effects of that activity and, perhaps, the audience, or society. Also, if the functions of art criticism are supposed to be deeply rooted in the consciousness of the society in which it is located, or which it serves (though not in isolation), it may automatically be expected to mirror what that society’s position and expectations should be, and to capture and project its viewpoint, as it sees and interprets this, with a view to digesting the issues raised. If art criticism is a kind of guide to educate, enlighten and improve the individual and society, at large, one wonders how much artistic and criticism potential is still available in Africa, at the end of the cultural invasions and unbroken imperialist exploitation. This is so, because the imperialist invasion of Africa affected its rich traditional values, and an educational curriculum that was all-inclusive. However, the recent work of scholars has brought to the fore the uniqueness of the indigenous African model of art criticism.

Very many art works were destroyed in Africa, in the name of idols, just as they were in Hitler’s Germany.4 These actions were merely the extreme expression of one mode of art criticism. Incursions of this nature have contributed to creating an illiterate modern society in Africa that can no longer read or consume traditional arts and culture. In a typical traditional African setting, visual poetry in communication is expected to live and grow, first and foremost, within the consciousness of society, through native vehicles of thought and ideology, before going on to make a contribution to global culture. Hence, the level of the relationship between art criticism and the society it serves should be the correct guage of its value. Since the role of the Divine Spirit in creation, and its sustainability, are recognised through an understanding that all of life is a continuous process of purification, art criticism is a conscious move to strike a balance, even when it takes the form of critical analysis. Clear examples in history are the cases of the Impressionist painters in the nineteenth century and the artworks in Africa, which were condemned as idols by early missionaries posing as experts in art, anthropology, etc. The irony of European missionaries criticising African holy men lies not only in the contradiction of terms, but in this concrete example of the known being used to assess, or criticise, the unknown. It is on this basis that Adepegba [2002] observed that, in the eyes of the Western art world, traditional African arts were part of a material culture, placed at the service of traditional religions. He went on to say, ‘But in Africa on the other hand, abstraction was conservative while anything European was modern.’ These views were further compounded, when colonialism was put in place, and expansion served as the ideal and model for all aspects of life, while Christianity, in its discouragement of the traditional religions for which most of the traditional abstract sculptures of Africa were made, could hardly make abstraction attractive to early modern artists in Africa.

Up until now, the roundedness of art and life in Africa has been deeply rooted in religious philosophy, preoccupied with the survival of the ‘soul’.5 The traditional religions and deeply rooted philosophical attitudes were not individual creations, though they were given their initial impetus by the individual alone. They grew from the gems of creative ideas, experiences and visions. For better or worse, they evolved into their present form through many generations, in accordance with their own, inherent laws, just like a tree or any other living organism. They are like any other natural event of life. But growth, development (unfoldment) and maturity take time – these things do not happen in a hurry. ‘Just as the seed has the potential of a tree, it requires time to transform itself into visible shape’.6

Art, in any place, has a meaning that can, perhaps, best be decoded by those who are versed in the language of the substance of expressive communication, or those who grow up in it, and live with it. One is tempted here to ask what we have all made of the Saussurian theory of semiotics, popularised by Roland Barthes.7

In most African societies, from childhood to adulthood, criticism is deeply rooted in the culture of the people – hence, all citizens enjoy the hereditary right to a collective body of artistic knowledge. A child is brought up through the communal effort of society, drawing on the collective pool of knowledge, in which all must be immersed; the transmission of such knowledge is structured and measured out in doses, according to age. This progression from one ‘age grade’ (stage) in life to the next is often marked by an initiation rite.8 The rite ensures that, at a particular age, a child knows what he or she needs to know, at that moment, from the lesson of life – trade, commerce and industry, inclusive. Each rite goes with specific codes of conduct, in which freedom and responsibility are the key words. Dale (1998) shared his views on the transmission of artistic knowledge in an African context, when he observed that ‘Africans are not indulgent with their children. They are often sent on errands, even at night with embers from the fire, whose flickering light serves as a torch. In the process, they are initiated into the realities of life in the physical world. This makes them learn more about the Cosmos.’ Also, Roy Sieber (1976), in Rites Of Passage, argues that human life becomes a succession of such stages, with a similar end and beginning – birth, social puberty, marriage, further hard advancement to a higher class, occupational specialisation and death. For each one of these events there are ceremonies, whose essential purpose it is, to enable the individual to pass from one clearly defined position to another, which is equally well defined.

That was in the days when people had a common language of communication, and African idioms, proverbs, symbols, etc., were all woven into the training curriculum. However, the situation has changed, and the rules are now different, since the introduction of Western education. The chequered situation in art and art criticism overrules all the above expectations – both of the individual and of society. There is a complete disconnection from past traditions; and western ideas or standards are not even brought into play. While most African artists mimic the West, both in concept and style, they completely resent Western ideas or standards in art criticism. Having lost the indigenous sense of art criticism, almost every artist in Africa poses as a ‘Master’, of some sort. For example, a Nigerian artist may not see anything wrong in painting like a New York minimalist, 9 but hates to be critically analysed, in these terms. Such is the situation in modern African society, where most artists mimic the West, but have a deep loathing of Western art criticism. They prefer to hang around famous curators currying favours and seeking the recognition that they hope will earn them tickets for scholarships abroad and inclusion in exhibitions in Africa, and elsewhere. Therefore, art criticism barely exists in the artistic landscape of Africa; even though art critics come down heavily on their governments, the artists seem to get away scot-free, and not even traditional forms of criticism are practised any longer. At best, we find only expressions of sycophantic adulation. Though adulation and worship are also inherent to notions of patronage and socio-economic survival in Africa, art criticism is very comparable to the zealotry of religious converts, who run to seek the assistance of native clinics, when there is the slightest threat to their health.10

Art Criticism and the Apprenticeship System

Though there were art critics in the traditional African context, it was not the specialist discipline that it has become today. Any knowledgeable person in the field practised criticism, not as a profession but as a social responsibility to the community. Otota 11 in Edo speaking communities, or Ewi among the Yorubas, are well-known vehicles for such criticism. According to Filani (2003), the concept of indigenous art criticism, which was embedded in apprenticeship training schemes, is typical for the Yorubas of south-western Nigeria and called ‘Atowodowo’, meaning ‘from hand to hand’ – in other words, something that might be considered as a kind of ‘hand-me-down’ method of teaching.

Apprenticeship training systems ensured that the child trainee received a rounded exposure to all aspects of artistic knowledge. The system ensured that the child was not only taught art, but art criticism, as well, by a process of self-assessment, often conducted in the presence, and with the participation, of the Master. Repeated performance, based on the role model of the Master, was the basis of domestic training12, as self criticism was seen to be fundamental to the process of growing up.

Under the traditional system, apprentices were given a high standard of education, both from the point of view of the curriculum and on account of the knowledge that they acquired. Apprentices’ minds were trained; and their abilities to study, learn and hone their skills were fully developed. Such an apprenticeship system involved the training of a young person within a particular society, under the direct tutelage of a Master. This structured system set limits or standards derived from known collectives, norms, cues, techniques and materials, within a sociocultural context. This was a literate society, of the kind in which everyone could see, recognise, understand and know the meaning of the message, and could respond to effective communication with the right kind of feedback. Such a society was a visually literate one that knew the difference between what was created – generating new ideas, concepts, etc. – and made – such as the repetitive processes used in industrialised art forms. According to Ola Oloidi (2003), it is a critique of creative mediocrity, when a traditional critic describes a work, like an image meant for ritual, as made and not created. This means that the work has not been given the correct formal interpretation, and that its form is too familiar, and its subject, too artificial. This critical attitude is understandable, if one also understands that to be creative is to bring out, or produce, something that was not there before.

Since there was a common language of understanding, extremist tendencies were judged to be out of context. They were not ostracised, but society had names for them within the unusual range or orderliness. Such art works are often used as reference points, in a society engaged in dynamic expansion. Similarly, in pre – nineteenth century Europe, works were specifically executed, to meet with the requirements of the state or organised religion.

At the point of graduation, an apprentice must be able, without supervision, to develop a concept, choose an objective, and carry out the task, from beginning to end. The training had to be both physical and spiritual, to meet the transcendental needs of the wider community. The trainee must gain mastery over limitations and manifest a superior ability to create the necessary forms of expression. He or she was expected to be able to answer any kind of question about why a given work had to assume a given form, or serve a particular purpose; if the candidate succeeded in dealing with all these issues, he or she was eventually, in turn, accorded the status of Master. While on one hand, it might be argued that inescapable limitations were placed on such an artist by the standards and expectations of society, it is also true to say that the new ‘Masters’ were given the creative freedom to do what they liked – especially, in the knowledge that their creations were guided by the hands of the gods. In other words, any form they generated was conceived with a particular occasion in mind, in the knowledge that it would receive popular backing and benefit the community, as a whole.: ‘Therefore forms acquired by all art pieces are gifts from the gods’.13

However, such creative instincts diminished, when Western notions of education were imposed on the African continent. It the beginning, early Christian anthropologists preached against such works, which were dismissed as ‘idols’; later, when they realised they could make money out of them, they stimulated a market for copies of existing forms. The creative aspect of such art works was then sacrificed to the new requirements of the market that no longer insisted on observing the self-imposed standard of the original intent.

African philosophy is learnt by the apprentice, both in visual communication and written form, in the guise of traditional idioms, icons, proverbs and symbols. Typically for African art, organisational symbols, abstractions and ornamentation have a specific functional significance. Likewise, symbolic colours and iconological motifs give creative expression to the artist’s intentions. Ola Oloidi (2003) posits that:

‘When it comes to criticism, therefore, in Africa, one must take into consideration, the intellectual, symbolic and highly conceptual basis for the production of art. One must go beyond what is physical to penetrate the spiritual and functional attributes, to understand the language of reality.’

Art criticism is not separated from the course content under the apprenticeship system, but it is the prerogative of the Master to determine the department which each student must join, and the moment when he or she is ready to graduate – the length of time being, of course, determined by the level of intelligence they display. This kind of training may even be more difficult than the Western system of schooling that was later introduced. Abstractions condense the internal structures and the spirit of the subject matter, as well as its physical appearance. Such are the characteristics of African art works, that one needs a degree of in-depth knowledge, to be able to subject it to critical analysis. The artist is empowered to become his own critic, as a result of the holistic training he receives. Such in-depth knowledge makes it possible for the artist to practise a form of analytical criticism, through the priority he or she gives to certain forms of expression. Perhaps the clues given here will fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of African proportion or perspective. For example, emphasis or exaggeration in shape, size, etc. is dictated by the work’s functional meaning. At times, there is a complete distortion or deformation of the expressive figure or object. Such abstract work conveys a meaning that may not be apparent, from its physical appearance – for example, the image of a deformed Oba in a bronze plaque conveys a specific message.14 The reading of such forms must be situated within the cultural context, when it comes to analysing their aesthetic or functional values. How, then, can an untrained outsider,15 who is uninitiated in the visual literacy of such forms within a particular society, undertake a meaningful critique of the work? This is the bane of African art and criticism, in our pre-eminently global art world. The situation is made worse, because most Western-trained art critics and historians (where they are not ‘born again’ (born against)16 fundamentalists) lack a true understanding of conceptual art in Africa. Many people are unfamiliar with the concept of obeying the instinctive dictates of the higher self, in a creative systematisation of work processes. For instance, the academic process of making sketches, before transferring to the actual medium of execution, has proved to have a deleterious effect on any attempt to capture the vividness of the moment, or the essence of a creative thought pattern. Hence, sketches made for paintings or sculptures are far more interesting than the actual, finished work.

Art Schools in Africa

Although colonial rule dated back to early nineteenth century, art schools were introduced only in the twentieth century. The oldest schools in Africa where art was taught and practised were founded in the 1930s. The gap between Westerners’ first contact with Africa and their deciding it would be necessary to establish schools was over a century. There is no doubt that the principal value of this early contact was perceived to be in the discovery of economic wealth – people and raw materials, for the new industrial revolution in Europe and Americas. The first schools were set up for a number of selfish economic reasons, rather than, primarily to educate people for the development of Africa. These schools were affiliated to ‘home schools’17 in Europe, where students were expected to go and complete their training. Some graduates from these schools became European ambassadors in their home states. For example, Kofi Antubuam of Ghana. Marshall Mount [1973], in an exhibition brochure of 1954 and an unpublished manuscript, Principle of Arts and Crafts, made two important statements that reveal his attitude towards traditional African art. ‘There is the first period of archaism featured by spontaneous expressions of disproportions and abstract symbolisms due to ill knowledge of the natural rules about things in their environment distortions that spring from an almost fanatical belief in magic and superstition crude execution resulting from the use of primitive implements and conservative attitudes in art….. art to the primitive man must always have a purpose, and art for art sake as a slogan was unknown to him. In his drawings and paintings he only sees two dimensions. Sculpture which becomes his principal form of expression, tends to be static and crude in execution, his tools being to simple in conception and setup for detail work……’18 Some of the oldest schools were established between 1920s and the 1960s – Makerere University College in Kampala (Uganda); Yaba Higher College, Lagos; the School of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria, Nigeria; the Schools of Science and Technology, Kumasi; Achimota College; the Teacher Training College in Winneba, Ghana; the School of Art and Applied Arts, Kinshasa, Zaire; the Fine Art School of Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia; the Teacher Training College, Freetown, Sierra Leone; Poto – Poto School, in Brazzaville, Congo; and other art schools established in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Dahomey, Benin Republic, etc.

Over time, some of the notable artists who graduated from these schools include: Kofi Antubuam, Vincent Akwete Kofi, Oku Ampofo, Gebre Kristos, Nitro and Macobar, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Mensah Shibrum, Skunder Bogossan, Festus Idehen, Felix Idubor, Yusuf Grillo, Irein Nwangbaoje, Erhabor Emokpae, John Noserime Thomas, Jimoh Akolo, Papa Ibra Tall, Christein Lattier, N’diaye, Afewerk Terkle, Adetayo Aiyegbusi, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Malangatana, etc. By way of digression, it is important to note that traditional forms of painting existed in Africa before the arrival of Western-style art schools. Some of the more notable of these are the Dogon of Mali, the Mangbetu in Zaire, the N’debele of South Africa, the Igbo, Yoruba and Edo in Nigeria, the Fon of Dahomey (now Republic of Benin) the Ashanti of Ghana, and so on.

The newly introduced schools included only art appreciation, excluding art criticism in their curricula, in contrast to the traditional apprenticeship system. However the indigenous peoples were massively critical of the Oyinbo’s (white man’s) political arrogance, air of superiority and assurance in the way he set about doing things. A respect for the status quo has subsequently dominated educational thinking throughout Africa. We are still stuck with these old curricula, that do not seem to provide us with the survival skills or tools that we need today. Even when we are told the curricula have been reformed or overturned, the same underlying philosophy prevails.

The Place of Art Criticism in the School Curriculum

Art criticism is a vital tool for assessing development and growth in the arts. Art critics analyse, evaluate, interpret and study works of art, articulate them and translate the intangible into the tangible. Hence, there is a need to take a critical look at the content of what constitutes an art curriculum in most African schools, universities, colleges of technology, polytechnics and colleges of education. The complexities of the management problems in schools in most parts of Africa are based on the lack of funding. But should we ascribe the same reason to the shortcomings in our schools curricula and do nothing about it?

The oldest Western-style art schools in Africa were founded in the early twentieth century. It is amazing, that most of these art institutions, to date, still parade the same old curriculum content (with very little changes) that served the needs of the founding colonial masters. Though African art has long had a reputation for vibrant conceptual or abstract forms of expression, thanks to the traditional apprenticeship system of education, western scholars and the representatives of modern African societies still have difficulty in understanding these works, and what they mean. Thus, there is a lot to be done, in our educational institutions, to unravel the mystery of these forms of artistic expression.

Since art criticism basically consists in interpreting meaning and passing critical judgement on specific works of art, one would expect higher institutions of art education to prioritise instruction in these skills, alongside other elements of the curriculum.

In Nigeria alone, there are around 150 institutions offering art and art-related programmes, but almost every one of these repeats the same system of education laid down in the colonial era. New schools are fashioned after the old, existing ones that take little initiative to experiment or undertake research. Moreover, while it seems that attempts are now being made to review and modify the art curricula in the higher institutions, the foundation classes and entire educational system are not properly synchronised to meet a common, agreed goal. The chain of learning is a stale repetition of the same old, Western art school ideas. Hence, almost all schools in every African country have a tendency to use the same techniques and materials for expressing identical subject-matter. The overall situation in the art schools is appalling. The infrastructures are in decay, the same old ideas are being recycled. Very often, the majority of lecturers are not practising art or – in the case of art historians, writers and scholars – writing books. Most textbooks in use are imported from overseas, yet we have so many professors without a chair or publications. Most lecturers, artists, historians, writers and scholars have lapsed into a state of inertia. There is a general dullness and slowness to act, resulting in very low productivity level, both in studio practice and theory. According to Yerima (2006), ‘the slow pace of the development of western education in Africa led to the slowness in the development of the written art or literature’. The environment and socioeconomic life of the average African compound the difficulties surrounding the issues of patronage and sponsorship of art programmes. It is art institutions in conditions such as these that are expected to produce both the artists and the art critics for our time. If the foundations in education are as weak as this, how can we expect anything better than what we already have? We can only expect to see flashes of the naturally brilliant, self-motivated few, who struggle to make themselves heard. As Ery Camara (2002) put it, in an on-the-spot assessment of an average African artist: ‘The working conditions of our African artist are most often not the best, because of lack of infrastructure, namely, lack of proper space, promoters, collector or sponsors committed to turning the work of artist to something of a higher value than a trophy or a mere luxury article.’

Another significant problem in Africa is that we are using parameters set by the West to measure our progress. The comparable schools established during the same period in the West have since evolved new educational systems, in line with today’s realities and needs. But why is Africa not learning form her own experiences and sticking to her ideologies and indigenous pace of technological development? There is nothing wrong with our creative processes in Africa. Now that we know that African art works or ‘weird objects’, as they used to be called (i.e. the works of our forefathers and mothers, which had initially been termed ’idols’ by Westerners) adorn their museums and galleries, it is clear that what the ‘Oyinbos’ (Europeans) do not understand they called ‘names’, ‘magic’, ‘idols’, ‘evil’, etc. Art curricula in the West have been redesigned and packaged, to help students to develop their writing skills, to express the interpretation of art through structured exercises that emphasise the three basic structural elements – form, content and context. The condition of art schools in present-day Africa is pathetic, and completely at variance with the apprenticeship system, which guaranteed a modular programme of training and skills acquisition. There are very few schools in Africa offering the following programmes, that are common in other art institutions, all over the world – art theory, administration, leadership, book arts, ceramic design theory, lighting design, packaging design, multimedia, website design, typography, computer art, art criticism, glass, digital design, visual culture theory, visual culture, costume studies, electronic design, toy design, transportation design, industrial design, interactive media, design theory, interface design, folk art, etc. Some Western-style art schools in Africa are, however, quite unlike this. Almost ritualistically, they still offer repeats of the same archaic curriculum, based on a Western educational philosophy that was introduced at the very outset, in the period between 1930 and 1960. At best, these kinds of art school offer uncoordinated, disjointed courses that are scarcely angled at the collective development of the students or helping the nation along the road to self-sufficiency. This is in marked contrast to the traditional African setting, where anyone seeking creative, challenging and rewarding experiences is easily directed to a particular, renowned, Master in a particular discipline. The sharp difference is that, while art schools in Africa concentrate religiously on studio practice, critical thinking research and writing skills, without first establishing a policy for art education or an infrastructure for disseminating artistic production, the West not only have the necessary structures in place, but have developed strategic policies for art, and a market to cater for the graduates from their schools. ‘Art Criticism Reloaded’ should consciously set an agenda for investing in awareness programmes and, through helping to investigate the meaning and content of African art, make a positive contribution to empowering the African region of the Association. Art critics seeking employment in schools system should be careful not to short-circuit the growth of students or be stifled by a rigid bureaucracy. Otherwise, art critics in the schools system should be able to provide a robust experience for both the artist and society. Since art criticism is an instrument for gauging cultural development, through direct involvement in the school system, art critics will help a great deal to shape a vibrant art culture, worldwide. If art, in itself, is a major tool for social criticism, this role can only be best fulfilled if graduates from art institutions are well-equipped, with an adequate training and a rounded critical apparatus, as was the case with the traditional apprenticeship system, that produced the great works from Africa. If we have knowledgeable art critics, well grounded in semiotics, it will be easier to discover that the traditions of Africa are still one and the same: though there have been superficial changes, to embrace the new move to replace, abandon or colour traditional ideas, the traditional concept of creativity still forms the essential background of many African people, in varying degrees.19 Conclusion

In conclusion, this paper has examined the impact of cultural signs, symbols and other parameters on aesthetic values, within the context of Africa’s contribution to global culture. Westerners’ inability to decode these signifiers (cultural codes) that are at play in most countries in Africa has led to the exclusion of African artists from the majority of international, juried art shows. In cases where there is an African representation, it is usually in the form of African artists who are resident in the West or of African artists who have trained in the West. Their viewpoints are hardly representative of the culture to which they claim to belong. They are a ludicrous species, who muddle Western standards and the African sense of judgment up.

While ‘Art Criticism Reloaded’ is a stimulating enough topic for addressing the issues raised above, about a continent whose culture is being violently raped, the problem of art criticism in modern African society is enormous and, as such, demands the institution of a dynamic, consciousness-raising programme. Perhaps, we need to plan for the location of a new common ground and of new structures, to promote art from the African continent, if we are not to continue to rely on the system of entry into the power system of biennales and triennales and other big shows, such as Documenta, that are always a pole of attraction to the critics! The standard biennale no longer guarantees quality. If you successfully expose any lunatic to a number of these shows, he or she will gain sufficient scholarship to become a star and receive invitations to other, still larger shows. Big-time connoisseurs run after such artists, so why should not artists play to the gallery and hang out around curators and critics to curry favour? Should this continue, the seeming limitless power of art curators and critics will have been sacrificed on the altar, in the ’search for the most unusual phenomenon on the globe,’20 in celebration of the different cultures of the world. The direct impact of this on the African continent will be that all the weird side of life, that could have come from elsewhere in the globe, will be the only attractive ‘art’ event from Africa. Perhaps this was Rasheed Araeen’s experience, when he asked, in 2003: ‘What then can Africa do in this respect? Of course Africa alone can not do everything to deal with what is a vast problem beyond its own recourses, both material and intellectual. However big the problem Africa has no choice but to do the ground work itself. It will have to take the first step itself to lay the foundation for an institute that is fundamental to this pursuit, which is of both artistic and philosophical nature.’

When African art schools, institutions and artists mimic Western civilisation, this is not out of conviction, but for several other reasons, deriving from the economic situation in Africa. They expect, in this way, to open up access to easy patronage and scholarships, whilst displaying their pure ignorance of the intrinsic values of African art, in its proper context. African artists who have their minds set on western values and standards eventually reject their own immediate country and culture since these appear to have failed them. Thus, the functional art of Africa loses out to Art for Art’s Sake!


First and foremost, art critics must see the need for an open heart, in assessing, or re-assessing, African art; they must discern the underlining principles, ideologies and values. Such an obvious necessity may have motivated Kawaguchi, when he suggested that ‘There is also the need to widen the narrow scope or stream of thought about Africa and all that emanate therein must be free from misunderstanding and prejudices. For example until recently in Japan, African sculptures were still called CURIOUS DOLLS’ 21. A hesitation to call them sculpture is supposed to suggest that they are not art works. Such a Eurocentric approach to presenting African art is common practice. In undoing the chain of logic, according to Kawaguchi (1992), we may be on the right course. Though it is difficult, fully to disentangle all the western propaganda against Africa in films and novels for adults and media animation for children, that have conditioned the average person in the West to see Africa through the eyes of Hollywood films, it is possible to turn a new leaf and embark on a new course of awareness, though ‘’the jungle savage beast, naked men and women playing with lions or elephant are mind set images difficult to erase as more versions of animation are still in production till date’. Modern African societies are now also producing a new breed of people, who have grown up, and been educated, with the aid of these electronic media.

Art criticism workshops for art schools, museums, and galleries should be organised in different parts of the world. Direct participation in training should take place at all school levels.

The purchasing of artefacts from Africa has become a fashionable occupation and is symptomatic of a passing fad. There is seemingly a mad rush to consume African art rather than to study, digest and understand it in context, and treat it with respect. There is hardly any communication between the traditional and the modern artist in Africa. Let us not mistake the materials and techniques that are employed, and that are common to everyone, for meaningful signifiers of content! Those artists in Africa who mimic the ideological values and styles of the West can scarcely justify their creative achievement. Thus, at best, they copy from the numerous art publications available to them, and the result is art made.22

This is where AICA needs to turn its back on ethnic discrimination, in the way in which it has sometimes, in the past, promoted fraudulent art criticism, though that seems already to be part of the package.

AICA needs to make a conscious move to create awareness, through workshops or talk shops in most third world countries, that it is determined to seek out a common ground for understanding art criticism, tools and apparatus for critical analysis. While the insider position needs to be strengthened within Africa, it is obvious that commercial interest seems to be the driving power in promoting the bizarre new phenomenon of Africa art – a story of discovery?

Notes & References



1. Sub-Saharan Africa as a geographical entity. Further reading, See Kunle Filani in AICA Taiwan

World Congress Publication 2004.


2. Cycle of life belief system in Africa. Further reading see Rite Of Passage by Roy Sieber


3. Idols: words used by the early missionary in a negative sense to describe African works of art-sculptures


4. Survival of soul: Soul is a DIVINE spark of God [that you are]. It is eternal. Futher reading see Ancient Wisdom for Today.


5. Transformation of potentials into beautiful visible shape: fulfilling a dream, concept must take shape for physical appreciation in manifestation


6. Saussaurian theory of semiotics- Further reading see John Fiske et al in Key Concepts In Communication


7. Read more in Rite Of Passage Initiation: significance and meaning


8. New York minimalist modern art- Abstract expressions currently in vogue in Lagos. Most artists in the style have often used Christianity themes to cover up this act of plagiarism


9. Surface change- ibid


10. Known critic within the community-Such persons were not full time critics. It was done on part time basis as service to the community. This is different from the occidental approach.


11. Apprenticeship system of education ensured a rounded training for all


12. The artist occupied prominent positions in the society. He takes decision on any creative art jobs. He is a communication expert to decide the best form to visually represent the inspiration of the moment. However, he (usually) protects his creative liberty by alluding to the gods as the provider of the concepts he interprets


13. see Oba of Benin in plaque- Egharabha 1983


14. Outsider here means the untrained in the reading of both the external and internal structures in a work of art from Africa.


15. Most born again religious converts are against art works and objects. They classify them as idols. They use the ten commandments in the old testaments (in the case of the Christianity) which is a contradiction, because the same religion believes that the new testament has taken dominion over the old [Jewish history and way of life]


16. Most schools were intermediate training (see Adepegba)


17. Some artist who trained in Europe after their intermediate school in Africa were European converts seeking to teach what they learnt. e. g. Aina Onabolu, kofi Autubuam, etc. They preached prospective and what they were made to believe are true challenges in art and civilization. However, majority were stronger in their Africanist position on their return to Africa. eg Lattier, Demas Nwoko, etc


18. This is the position of Mgiti a Kenyan philosopher quoted by Roy Sieber – See Rite of Passage for further reading.


19. The reason for most curators presenting the unusual to be able to show something different- Good or Bad doesn’t therefore exist, it is simply another experience.


20. Refers to Kawaguchi position on what he experienced in Japan as a Curator.


21. The modern urban artist in Africa engaged in this act, either does not know the difference between making and creating art works or they want to belong at all cost, so they dance to the west, blindly.


Ahmed, Yerima 2006: The Living Stage As Art Criticism, And The Society. A Paper presented at AICA Nigeria Forum. Unpublished.

Araeen, Rasheed 2003: Dak’art 1992-2002 The Problem of Representation Contextualization, and Critical Evaluation in Contemporary African Art as presented by the Dakar Biennale. Third Text 62 volume 17 Issue1 pp93 – 106

Camara, Ery 2002; Essential Undertakings In The Field Of African Art; Dakar 2002 5th Biennale de I’Art African Contemporain. pp11-19.

Cornelius, Adepegba 2003: Past In The Present: “A Misleading Expectation In Modern African Art” in Creative Tradition In Nigerian Art. Ademuleya, Onipede and Omoighe eds. Lagos: CCAF, pp1-9

Dale, David 1998; The Zaria Art Society: A New Consciousness, National Gallery of Art Nigeria, ed Dike and Oyelola Introduction, p14

Fiske, John et al 1983: Key Concepts In Communication, ed Tim O’Sullivan, John Hartley, Danny Saunders and John Fiske. London and NewYork: Methuen, pp210.

Haftman Werner 1986: Banned and Persecuted Dictatorship of Art Under Hitler. Holcombe, Bryce, ed. Cologne: Dumont Buch Verlag.

Kawaguchi Yukiya 2000: In Japan and From: A Historical Overview on African Art In Japan. A paper presented at PACA event in National Gallery Of Art, Lagos, Nigeria.

Mount, Marshall Ward 1973; African Art, The Years Since 1920 David and Abbot Newton Abbot.

Olakunle, Filani(2004: The Question Of Identity In Contemporary African Art and Art Criticism. Background to The Study Of African Art And Criticism, pp81-94

Omoighe Mike 2003: Negotiated Out Of Position: Artists in the Nigerian Modern Society, unpublished paper.

Oloidi Ola 2003: African Art and Roots Of Creativity; A paper presented at AICA Regional Symposium and Workshop in Dakar, Senegal.

Michael Akhaine Osebhajimete Omoighe (born 1958) is a Nigerian painter, curator, art critic and teacher of art.


Author: Editor

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