Are Africans interested in their art?

By Iba Ndiaye Diadji

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A provocation? Should Africans’ desires be taken into account when discussing the reception of African art? Is there any correlation between what black writers, painters and sculptors produce and what the men and women of Africa really want? An African art critic’s point of view.

The hypothesis that the African public may not in fact be interested in African art seems provocative because common sense tells us that the first people concerned by an art work are the very people who socially, culturally and politically nurtured the artist. The Senegalese who saw the sculptor Moustapha Dimé emerge, grow, and die, or the Burkinabè who look on as the painter Ferdinand Nonkouni develops should logically be the people who love and understand these artists’ output the best.
But, when you take a closer look at recent art history in Africa, you realise that things are neither as simple nor as logical as one might think, no matter what the artistic field. Going back only to the colonial era, you realise that the African poets and novelists who claimed to represent their subjugated compatriots as they dealt « pestle blows » to denounce the « cruel towns » and propose « myths that galvanise » were only read and appreciated by the elites whose social and political mores they attacked. After the « rains of independence », the dialogue of the deaf continued between black writers and their peoples who remained illiterate in the languages and art forms in which they conveyed their thoughts and moods.
One might legitimately think that African artists’ works get a better reception as sculpture, painting and film involve the image. This notion has indeed been all the more reinforced by allusions to the clichés about « Africa, a continent without writing, but rich in statuary », or by the repetition of certitudes about the universal power of the film medium. Writers have adopted this argument to adapt their novels to the screen in the hope of « reaching a wider national audience ». But the facts speak for themselves here too. Local audiences continue to view such works with amused curiosity or total indifference.
Coming back specifically to the fine arts, you only need to recall one anecdote that took place in the little Congolese town of Poto-Poto. It is said that Pierre Lods caught his house employee, Félix Ossiali, in his studio one day, paintbrush in hand. Lods took pains not to disturb the man, who, after seeing his boss working on his paintings every day, had decided to imitate him that day out of curiosity. As soon as he realised that his boss was there, Ossiali tried to run away, but his boss reassured him, delighted to have at last found what he was looking for – a semi-literate man, who knew nothing about the techniques of painting, instinctively expressing himself. Lods was delighted with the work his servant had just produced, the servant becoming his first pupil.
But you don’t have to have be a genius to realise that only Lods and his Western friends « understood » something in these doodles, which were light years away from Ossiali and his brothers’ preoccupations. Other Ossialis similarly emerged to produce a black art that suited the tastes of the colonial masters.
The atmosphere of the World Festival of Black Arts also illustrated that the works that seduced Malraux and Senghor corresponded much more to the theoreticians’ theses than to the aspirations of the masses. What African opinion really remembers about this event today is the music that announced the event and the personality of the art-loving poet-president.
It may indeed be too early to draw the same conclusions about the various editions of the Dak’Art Biennale of Contemporary African Art. What is certain, however, is that the event has practically no popular following, drawing just the artists themselves and an elitist public of experts, collectors, and art-lovers.
All this seems to imply that Africa is not interested in this art that continues to arouse the curiosity of the West, but that still doesn’t express the profundities of the continent’s soul, its own dreams and deceptions. How many Africans visit galleries and artists studios? For that matter, who can translate the terms « gallery », « private view », or « installation » into the African languages? How many Africans buy and hang black art works in their sitting rooms? Can the bare walls of the houses in Dakar, Accra, and Lomé’s working-class neighbourhoods be explained by the cost of living and the price of art works alone? Is it part of local culture to decorate one’s house with art works?
These questions unequivocally show that the problem of the Africans’ own reception of African art is less a primarily aesthetic question than a question of civilisation. If the real Africa does not want its artists’ works yet, it’s because they address a Western public much more than they do a local one, it’s because its artists try to cater to the tastes of the Paris, Brussels, London, or Montreal galleries much more than they do those of Man, that superior animal that prefers harmony and equilibrium to time and space.
For Africa has in fact had its own strong plastic and aesthetic civilisation for centuries. There is no need for artists who know this both in theory and in practice to bow to the pleasures of the albeit generous masters in the hope of being « sought-after ». People paint Wolof or Malinke, sculpt Yoruba or Vili not to be modern Malinke, Wolof, Yoruba, or Vili, but to be artists and Men. Inversely, « the African artist » who lacks aesthetic and ethical markers will simply remain an occasional plaything and a creative machine, to the complete indifference of his or her brothers.
The aim is not, of course, to get the artist to wall him or herself into a local and folkloric ghetto in which his or her black creativity be a vulgar commodity on sale in the airports. Art is live human tissue, not a museum of exotic curiosities. Instead, the fine arts need to meditate on the example of African music, which has its own sounds and constantly growing local audiences. Senegalese Youssou Ndour, or Cameroonian Manu Dibango’s secret is to have managed to fully drawn on the black artistic storehouses of the past and present whilst at the same time making use of the tools of modernity to win people over to « mbalax » and « soul makossa ».
We can also cite the world of fashion design to show how black creativity can be proud of its identity, gain Western respect, and continue a harmonious dialogue with local audiences. There is no question that Africa is increasingly dressing the world. From Ivorian Alpha Sidibé’s Baoulé cloths, to Beninese Agnès Hekpazo’s weaves, to Senegalese Oumou Sy’s ensembles that blend silk and traditional dyes, the African fashion designer’s personality is incontestable. And it is no secret that the Italian designer John Galiano has shown himself to be very keen on African woven cloths in his recent collections.
To conclude, Africans can want and like their artists and their works provided that their artists stay themselves – that is, men and woman who paint and sculpt their quotidian experiences for what they are and not for what people would have them believe they are.

Iba Ndiaye Diadji is an art critic and lecturer in aesthetics at the C.R/E.N.S. Université Cheikh Anta Diop University de Dakar, BP/13065 Dakar. E-mail: ibajaaji@hotmail.com///Article N° : 5580

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