TRAILING PATHS: From Modern to Contemporary African Art
Evolution of African Art from Modern to Contemporary: Key Artists, Styles, Influences and Themes
In this section, we explore the evolution of African art from the 19th century to the present day -
looking at a few key artists, styles, and influences that have shaped this journey as well as the themes that have been explored by African artists throughout this time.
What is modern and contemporary African art?
The terms "modern" and "contemporary" are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings in the context of African art and the art world.
Modern African art refers to art that was created during the colonial era and the early post-colonial era, from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. This period was marked by a major shift in the way art was created and perceived in Africa, as artists began to experiment with new materials, techniques, and styles.
Contemporary African art is art that is created in Africa today. It is a diverse and vibrant art form that reflects the experiences and perspectives of African artists living in a rapidly changing world.
In order to appreciate the contemporary manifestations of African art, it is important to understand its history - to see how contemporary artists are building on the traditions of the past. This foundational understanding can help us to appreciate the diversity of African art and the different ways in which it has been interpreted and expressed over time. This is mainly because African art is not a monolith, but rather a multifaceted and ever-evolving field. It can also help us to understand the social, political, and cultural contexts that have shaped African art.
This resource touches on some key subtopics such as:
The rise of modern African art in the late 19th century
The development of contemporary African art in the post-colonial era
The intersection of tradition and modernity in African art
The use of symbolism in African art
The role of art in reframing narratives and addressing social and political issues within local and global contexts.
The challenges facing African artists today and pointers to potential opportunities.
Defining Modernity in African Art (1860-1970)
The modern era in African art began in the late 19th century, in response to the colonial encounter. This was a time of great upheaval and change, as the world was transformed by industrialization, urbanisation, and colonialism.
African art was also undergoing a period of change during this time. Traditional art forms were being challenged by new ideas and influences from the West. Some artists began to experiment with new styles and techniques, while others sought to preserve traditional forms.
Artists like Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu (Nigeria) and Ibrahim El-Salahi (Sudan) embraced Western techniques while incorporating their cultural heritage, birthing new forms of expression. For example, Enwonwu's "Tutu '' epitomises this fusion of culture and innovation.
This period saw a growing interest in African art from Western collectors and scholars, and it also led to the emergence of a new generation of African artists who were influenced by both Western and traditional African art forms - many African artists began to incorporate new styles and techniques into their practice..
An important figure in the development of modern African art was Henri Matisse. Matisse was a French painter who was fascinated by African art. He travelled to Algeria in 1906 and fell in love with African art after studying it. He employed many of the same styles and techniques seen in African masks and fabrics, African art started to influence a lot of his work. His paintings, such as " Dance" (1910), helped to popularise African art in the West.
It’s also important to note the influence of the Négritude movement. This movement was founded in the 1930s by a group of African writers and artists who sought to celebrate African culture and identity. Négritude artists often drew inspiration from traditional African art, but they also experimented with new styles and techniques.
Another important modern art movement in Africa was the Renaissance of African sculpture. This movement began in the 1950s and 1960s, following the independence of many African countries. Artists associated with Négritude, such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, often used their work to critique colonialism and advocate for African independence.
This was a time when African artists began to reclaim their cultural heritage and to create new works of art that reflected their own experiences and perspectives. The movement also had a significant impact on African art, and it inspired many artists to explore African themes and styles.
Other Notable Movements include:
The Apartheid art movement - founded in the 1970s by South African artists who opposed apartheid. The Apartheid art movement used art to protest against the system of racial segregation in South Africa
Renaissance of African art: This movement began in the 1960s and 1970s, following the independence of many African countries. It was characterized by a renewed interest in traditional African art forms and a desire to create art that was relevant to the African experience. The work of El Anatsui (born 1944) is a contemporary example of the Renaissance of African art. Anatsui is a Ghanaian artist who uses recycled materials to create large-scale sculptures. His work often explores themes of consumerism and waste, and it has been exhibited in major museums around the world.
How These Movements Challenged Traditional Notions of African Art
The modern art movement in Africa challenged traditional notions of African art in a number of ways. First, it rejected the idea that African art was primitive or lacking in sophistication. Second, it showed that African artists could be just as innovative and experimental as their European counterparts. Third, it helped to promote the idea of a pan-African art movement that transcended national boundaries.
Evolution of African Art Post-1970
The contemporary era in African art began in the 1970s - a time of immense political and social change in Africa after waves of independence swept through the continent and these changes were reflected in the art of the period and the themes the artists touched on. As we transitioned into the contemporary era, we see African art evolve alongside global shifts. Artists like El Anatsui challenge conventions with works like "Gravity and Grace," employing discarded materials to comment on sustainability and consumerism.
A pioneer worthy of note is Aina Onabolu, (b. 1882-1963) Aina Onabolu was a pioneering Nigerian modern artist and teacher. He is acclaimed as the "father of Nigerian modern art" for his role in promoting and developing modern art education in Nigeria. He is credited with helping to establish modern art as a legitimate form of expression in Nigeria and inspiring and training many of the country's leading artists. His work continues to be exhibited and studied today.
Onabolu's paintings are characterized by their realism and their focus on everyday life in Nigeria. He painted portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes, often influenced by his interest in traditional Yoruba culture. He was a highly respected artist and teacher, and his work continues to be exhibited and studied today.
This evolution showcases the adaptability and resilience of African artists in navigating new creative landscapes.
This period saw a renewed interest in African art, and it also led to the emergence of a new generation of African artists who were experimenting with new styles and techniques.
Many contemporary African artists have continued to explore the themes of identity, culture, and history that were central to modern African art but they have also experimented with new styles and techniques (like digital art and new media such as photography and video.), and they have been influenced by a wider range of international art movements.
An important trend in contemporary African art is the use of mixed media. Artists are increasingly incorporating materials such as textiles, found objects, and photography into their work, also seen in their experimental practices are new ways of presenting their work, such as through performance art and video installations.
We also see focus on social and political issues, with many artists using their art to address issues such as poverty, corruption, and conflict. Voicing out calls for social change and awareness on relevant issues using their expressive practice.
Themes in African Modernity
One of the most striking things about African art, both modern and contemporary, is the way it often bridges the gap between the past and the present. Artists often draw inspiration from their traditional cultures, but they also use their art to explore contemporary issues and concerns. Artists explore this by using traditional symbols and motifs in their work. For example, the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui often uses kente cloth, a traditional Ghanaian textile, in his sculptures. The kente cloth is a symbol of Ghanaian culture and identity, but Anatsui also uses it to explore themes of consumerism and waste.
Another avenue artists explore the past in their work is by recontextualizing historical contexts. For example, the South African artist William Kentridge often uses animation films to explore the socio-politics of apartheid. Kentridge's animations are often based on archival footage, but he uses them to create new and often disturbing narratives about the past.
The themes of colonialism, independence, and identity are also common in African art. A number of artists have used their art to examine the impact of colonialism on their cultures. Like the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez who created a series of miniature cities representing the utopian vision of an independent Africa.
Cheri Samba, (Congolese artist, born 1956) uses his paintings to satirise the political and social conditions in his country. His work often features powerful images of African leaders and politicians. Samba's paintings are a powerful reminder of the challenges that African countries face in their quest for independence, self-determination and advancement..
Across Africa, artists are using their work to explore the past and present, crafting vibrant and diversified layers that mirror the continent's rich and complex cultures. African modernity is reflected in a wide range of artistic expressions, from the traditional to the avant-garde, each offering a balanced perspective oo the rich and complex cultures of Africa.
Some other notable examples of artists and artworks that illustrate the themes of African modernity:
Yinka Shonibare MBE: His work often uses brightly colored fabrics and costumes that reference traditional African dress. (Known for presenting figures, sometimes headless, dressed in traditional Yoruba clothing.)
Wangechi Mutu: Her work explores themes of gender, race, and violence. Mutu's sculptures and installations often feature female figures that are both powerful and vulnerable. Her work explores themes of gender, race, and violence. Mutu's work is a powerful reminder of the challenges that women face in the world today.
The themes of tradition and modernity, colonialism, independence, and identity are all important themes in African art. These themes continue to be explored by contemporary African artists, who use their art to reflect on the past, present, and future of Africa.
Artistic Renaissance and Cultural Identity
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in African art. This is due in part to the growing global recognition of African artists and their work. It is also due to the increasing importance of cultural identity in the world today. This has been driven by a number of factors, including the growing global art market, the rise of new art institutions in Africa, and the increasing visibility of African artists on the international stage.
This renaissance has also been accompanied by a renewed focus on cultural identity, artists are increasingly using their art to celebrate their cultural heritage, values and to challenge stereotypes about Africa. Works like Yinka Shonibare's "The Swing" engage with cultural symbols, exploring postcolonial identities while shedding light on the complexities of globalisation.
There are a number of factors that have contributed to this artistic renaissance. One of the most important is globalisation. The increasing interconnectedness of the world has made it easier for African artists to reach a global audience.
Another important factor is the rise of the African middle class. The growing affluence of Africans has led to an increased demand for art, both traditional and contemporary.
Global Influences and Local Context/Cross Cultural Connections
African artists have always been open to global influences, but this has become even more pronounced in recent years, due to the increasing globalisation of the art world, and also to the growing number of African artists studying and working in the diaspora.
One prominent way that African artists have navigated global art trends while maintaining cultural authenticity is by working with traditional materials and techniques in new and innovative ways. For example, the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui uses recycled materials to create his large-scale sculptures. His work is inspired by traditional Ghanaian textiles, but it also speaks to the global issue of waste.
The use of Western materials and techniques in African art can be seen as a way for African artists to assert their presence in the global art world. However, it is important to note that these artists are not simply copying or recreating Western styles, they are using these materials and techniques in their own way, to express their own unique cultural perspectives.
The collaboration between African and Western artists can also be seen as a way to bridge cultural divides and to promote understanding between different cultures. These collaborations can help to challenge stereotypes, to break down barriers and push the boundaries of artistic possibilities.
Some examples of influential facilitators of cultural exchange include Artistic Residencies across the world, Organizations and Foundations like British Council, Goethe Institute, Alliance Francais and Projects like Black Berlin Biennale, the Dakar Biennale (Dak’Art).
Some more artists that further illustrate the themes of global influences and cross-cultural connections in African art:
Ndidi Dike - The Nigerian artist, Ndidi Dike creates paintings and sculptures that explore themes of gender, sexuality, and power. Her work is often inspired by traditional Igbo culture.
Lubaina Himid - Tanzanian-British artist Lubaina Himid is known for her paintings and installations that explore themes of race, identity, and colonialism. Her work has been exhibited in major museums around the world.
Ibrahim Mahama: The Ghanian artist’s practice frequently involves the transformation and reinterpretation of found objects. Ibrahim Mahama examines how labour and capital are expressed in everyday materials in his installations and wall-based artwork. Mahama, who was exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale, is best recognised for his usage of jute sacks, which were originally used to transport cocoa but are now used to hold coal - presenting covering structures with used jute sacks, which he then sews together with a group of collaborators to make patchwork quilts. Mahama's immersive installations, which are put up in both public markets and art venues, call attention to the transnational movement of goods.
Thematic continuities that bridge the gap between the "not so far" past and the present:
The use of symbols: Many African artists continue to use symbols that have traditional meanings.For example, the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama uses symbols of trade and commerce in his work.
The exploration of social and political issues: Many African artists continue to explore social and political issues in their work. For example, the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu uses her art to address issues of gender and violence.
These are just a few examples of the many African artists who are exploring global influences and cross-cultural connections in their work. It's an evolving field, and it is exciting to see how African artists are continuing to push the boundaries of art.
Beyond Aesthetics: Art as Social Commentary:
In addition to its aesthetic beauty, African art has also been used as a powerful tool for social commentary. Artists from both the modern and contemporary eras have used their art to protest against injustice, raise awareness about social issues, and promote peace and reconciliation.
The use of art to protest against colonialism and apartheid
One of the most common themes in African art is the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. Artists have used their art to depict the violence and oppression of these systems, and to call for their end.
For example, the South African artist Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi used her paintings to depict the harsh realities of apartheid. Her work often featured images of poverty, hunger, and segregation. Sebidi's art was a powerful indictment of apartheid and helped to raise awareness of the injustice of this system.
The use of art to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and other social issues
African artists have also used their art to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and other social issues. For example, the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu created a series of sculptures that depicted the human body ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Her work was a shocking and disturbing reminder of the devastating impact of this disease.
The use of art to promote peace and reconciliation
In recent years, African artists have also used their art to promote peace and reconciliation. For example, the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui created a series of sculptures made from recycled materials. These sculptures were a powerful symbol of hope and renewal, and they helped to promote a message of peace and unity.
The Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe created a series of public art projects that explore the themes of peace and reconciliation. His work has been installed in countries all over the world, and it has helped to raise awareness of these important issues.
This is just a glimpse of the many ways African artists have used their art as a tool for social
commentary. African art is more than just a feast for the eyes. It is a potent weapon against injustice, a clarion call for awareness, and a catalyst for change.
The Impact of Collective Action by Individuals and Institutions in Fostering the Movement of African Art
The growth of the African art movement has been supported by a number of individuals and institutions. Galleries, museums, and other cultural organizations have played a vital role in promoting African art and making it more accessible to the public.
Individual artists and collectives have also played an important role in the movement. These artists have organized exhibitions, festivals, and other events to showcase African art and to raise awareness of its importance.
The collective actions of individuals and institutions have played a significant role in fostering the movement of African art. These actions have taken many forms, including:
The work of collectors and dealers - who have helped to bring African art to the attention of the international art world.
In the rise of African art, collectors and dealers have played a pivotal role, investing their passion and resources to promote this vibrant and expressive art form
Drawn to its beauty, power, and originality, they have helped to bring African art to the forefront of the world stage.
For example, the collector Jean Pigozzi has amassed one of the world's most important collections of African art. Pigozzi's collection has helped to raise awareness of African art and has inspired other collectors to acquire African art. He has donated works from his collection to museums and has supported African artists through his collecting and patronage.
Another notable patron and collector of African art is Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon. His art collection is Nigeria's largest and the heart of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum. Prince Yemisi Shyllon's collection is one of the largest in Nigeria, with over 7,000 artworks of all genres and more than 55,000 photographic images of Nigeria's fast-disappearing cultural festivals.
Galleries and Dealers
Galleries and dealers have played a major role in bringing African art to the attention of the international art world. They have helped to organize exhibitions, publish catalogs, and promote the work of African artists on a extensive scale.
One of the earliest and most influential galleries to focus on African art was the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris. Ratton was an important dealer who helped to introduce African art to a wider audience and played a major role in shaping the taste for this art form.
Another important gallery that has promoted African art is the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City. Zwirner has held numerous exhibitions of African art and has helped to bring the work of many African artists to the attention of collectors and curators.
Museums and Art Institutions
Museums and art institutions have played a vital role in promoting African art. They have organized exhibitions, acquired works of art, published catalogs, offered educational programs, and conducted research on African art, helping to introduce it to a wider audience.
For example, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City has been a major supporter of African art, organizing several major exhibitions.
Other prominent museums for African art include:
The British Museum in London - with a collection of over 350,000 works of African art, making it one of the largest collections in the world.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, with a significant collection of African art.
The Tate Modern, London, which has also held major exhibitions of African art.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, which is the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world.
African art has been nurtured by many passionate individuals who have dedicated their lives to its promotion. These visionaries have written books and articles, curated exhibitions, and collected and patronized African art. Their efforts have helped to raise awareness and appreciation of this vibrant and diverse art form.
Mary-Louise Martin. curator and writer who has specialized in African art for over 40 years.
Sylvia Nadel, a British art historian who was instrumental in promoting African art in the West.
Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian curator who has curated major exhibitions of African art around the world.
El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor who is known for his large-scale sculptures made from recycled materials.
The collective actions of individuals and institutions have played a major role in promoting and fostering the movement of African art. These actions have helped to bring African art to the attention of a wider audience and have helped to raise the profile of this art form.
Additional examples of institutions promoting African art:
The Rockefeller Foundation established the Museum of African Art in New York City in 1964.
The Ford Foundation funded the publication of the catalog "African Art in Motion" in 1984.
The British Council has organized numerous exhibitions of African art around the world.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened in Cape Town in 2017.
On challenges and opportunities facing African artists:
Visibility: African art has traditionally been underrepresented in the global art world. This is due to a number of factors, the lack of representation of African artists in major galleries and museums, the lack of critical attention to African art, and the lack of access to international art fairs and markets.
Market access: African artists often face challenges in accessing the global art market. Due to the lack of financial resources, connections to galleries and dealers, and the high cost of participating in art fairs and exhibitions.
Cultural appropriation: African artists also face the challenge of cultural appropriation. This is when non-African artists use African art and culture without giving proper credit or compensation to the artists. Misrepresentation of culture also falls under this category.
Limited funding and infrastructure: African artists often lack access to the necessary infrastructure to support their work. This includes things like art schools, artist residency programs, and funding opportunities.
Political instability: Political instability can also be a challenge for African artists. This can make it difficult for artists to travel and exhibit their work, and it can also lead to censorship and suppression of artistic expression.
Global platforms and digital connectivity: The rise of global platforms and digital connectivity has presented new opportunities for African artists. These platforms have made it easier for African artists to reach a global audience and to connect with galleries, dealers, and collectors.
Growing interest in African art: There is a growing interest in African art among collectors and institutions around the world. This is due to a number of factors, including the increasing visibility of African art, the growing appreciation for African culture, and the search for new and exciting art forms.
Support from governments and institutions: African governments and institutions are increasingly supporting African artists. This support can take the form of funding, training programs, and exhibition opportunities.
Growing number of African artists gaining international recognition: There is a growing number of African artists who are gaining international recognition. This is due to a number of factors, including the increasing interest in African art by collectors and institutions, the growing number of art fairs and exhibitions dedicated to African art, and the increasing number of African artists who are studying and working in Europe and North America.
Despite these challenges, African artists are making a significant contribution to the global art world. The digital age also offers unprecedented opportunities for African artists to connect globally, using platforms like Artsy to showcase their works to wider audiences globally, transcending geographical boundaries.