Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Look at Antique and Contemporary African Art

I just happened to read an article in the New York Times about a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which features both traditional African masks and masks created of cast off items by contemporary African artists.

This article raises many issues that may be of interest. First of all it indicates that the accessibility to purely traditional African masks and art is becoming more limited, and that the majority of people entering the international art market are turning to contemporary art.

This is explained because of the availability of contemporary art as compared to the traditional arts which are rapidly vanishing. Even traditional functional items which have attracted collectors in recent years are now becoming scarce when compared to readily available works by promising young contemporary artists. Thus galleries are forced to follow this trend and are overwhelmingly showing contemporary works.

This raises more related issues.

Traditional artists, like those who have carved masks for generations for their own tribal ceremonies or who are working in genres that are identifiable as "traditional" no longer have a customer base among their own people.

Thus they have turned to providing masks and other cultural items for an export or tourist market for the past few decades. So-called "cultural purists" have objected to these items which they identify as "copies", as if Africa is frozen forever in a time warp and can neither go backwards or forwards.

IF these objects are no longer used in traditional ceremonies, what are these traditional African masters (and their heirs) supposed to do? Stop the only craft or trade they have ever known because their customers are no longer their neighbors?

This "purism" among the art community in the West has taken on ridiculous forms. Certain buyers of masks for shops in Western museums or galleries want proof that the mask has been "danced", so "dances" may be conveniently arranged so that the mask passes this first test of provenance.

A museum director of one of the leading museums in Los Angeles insisted that all the new masks be remove from the museum shop due to criticism from "purists" that these items are " fake".

I do not think that such a patronizing attitude exists in relation to other cultures as compared to African items.

Certainly museum shops cannot be expected to sell only "old" items, nor could their customers afford to buy them. This problem is easily solved with labeling.

When I owned African Heritage, I always carefully labeled items as to whether they were produced by a craftsman from the culture it represents and its approximate age.

However, if (for instance) an Ashanti AkuAbua (fertility doll) was carved by a Kamba carver in Kenya, it was so labeled and the price reflected this.

So just at the time that the old items are disappearing and there is no longer a ready market for them in Africa, the Western "cultural purist" comes along and tells them to stop work, that they should no longer produce these "new" items with no consideration at all given to the history and expertise of the maker or the quality of the objects he makes.

Furthermore this attitude is devastating to Africans who want to buy "traditional" items, especially the younger generation.

I think there should always be a place to show high quality items produced by master traditional artists and that there should always be some latitude for changes from the traditional base, to allow for the artist's own originality.

At the other end of the spectrum I am not complaining about artists who make masks from old plastic cans and camera lenses (like those displayed in the subject exhibition at MOMA).

Far from it, I think what has become known as 'Junk" art can be extremely artistic and clever, but is it art?

There are many different variations of "Junk" art now appearing in galleries.

The mammoth "hangings" created entirely of bottle tops and metal debris by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui are excrutiatingly beautiful and they are based entirely on Ashanti textile traditions, ie the famous royal Kente and Adinkira cloths worn for royal ceremonies.

These spectacular works of art have caused a stir in art circles and critics struggle with words for them.

And the "Mass Communications" (left image) metal sculptures fashioned by Uganda John Odochameny from the debris of the technological age (recent ones include the addition of cell phones) are more than intriguing and have found quite a following.

However, I do not mean to get away from attempts to concentrate on traditional forms, rather I applaud what Jones and Key and others have done and continue to do.

I always tell my visitors to African Heritage House, that if they want to collect and preserve and protect tribal art, now is the time to do it.

When I finished African Heritage House in 1994, one could find masses of items on the market of almost all the items on display in the house, now they are gone.

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