Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The meaning and purpose of art can be traced back to man’s earliest quest for survival. Thus the meaning, function and purpose of art in those days were quite different from what we would know of it today. Then, art only played a functional role. Early man learnt to fashion out tools, weapons and body coverings. Even the drawings done by the wizard artist were for magical purposes.

But as man developed further he even became superstitious, and thence emanated the ritual or religious purpose of art. But the most outstanding form of early-man’s art is the cave art: featuring drawings, paintings and etchings on the walls of caves. The purpose of these people for doing what they did have no doubt become different from what their legacies are for us today – hidden treasures of invaluable records. The artists were totally unbiased and true to their natural callings; responsive to their every social activities and events surrounding them. Art, be it as practised in the early times or as of today, would normally function in various ways. A piece of art work could perform social, domestic, religious or aesthetic functions.

Benin bronze head - an example of  traditional African art

But the question is – does African art perform different functions from European art for example? Are their roles supposed to be delimitated or specifically targeted towards a particular purpose? I would think that early-man art, and traditional art – being its immediate successor, could play the same roles be it in Africa, Europe, the Far East, the Americas or Oceania, etc.

Because of man’s level of development at this time, encumbered by superstition, animism crept into art. And also due to the level of interaction and non-commercialisation of man’s early art forms, there was maintained a strong level of seeming conservatism and therefore marked differences, and demarcations arose. And so one would want to ask – what is the noise all about African art? This is to say, looking at the concept, from the perspective in which the term is popularly viewed even in today’s modern world. I submit that there is African art, and there is also traditional art of Africa. So, if we set apart traditional African art, do we still have what is popularly touted as African art?

The Egyptians practised an art form centuries ago, which is regarded as Egyptian art, so also did Byzantine, Meroe, and India, etc. These art forms were very relevant in those eras, even still today. But they were also contemporary then, while today they have become traditional arts, tradition, being practices handed down from generations to generations. And this is a universal concept that hinges basically on primordial rituals. In any socio-cultural setting today therefore, there are traditional practices: the folk artists, and the naïve painters practising side by side with the traditionalists, and pop groups alike. Yet they all have their roles to play in society.

Lorry station by Ablade Glover, a modern African art

But while the existence of the college trained or modern African artist is being down played, and his role suppressed, his western counterpart is acclaimed as the modern artist. While the African ‘contemporary’ artist is sometimes derided for his sincere modernist posture, Pablo Picasso who by practise is a glorified African traditionalist, if not for his European background, at least going by his latter (cubism) period, has remained highly acclaimed. But his style is rather still considered as European. Picasso was not lampooned or derided for ‘imitating’ the Africans, which was alright.

Morgan Chima Nwanguma (Artist/Writer)

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