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Africa Realism

Reality In African Aesthetics And Literary Criticism

One of the concerns of aesthetics has been the refutation of the colonialist definition of African aesthetics. A particular area of debate has been the negative assessment of African art, such as the claim that the category of realism does not apply to African art. William Abraham argues, "When critics like Gombrich say that the African artists were incapable of realistic representation, they quite miss the point of African art. If they seek life-like representation, they should turn to secular art, the art which was produced for decorative purposes or the purposes of records, rather than moral art, the art whose inspiration is the intuition of a world force" (p. 113). Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001) had only looked at one particular African art form, and proceeded to make inferences about the general character of African art. Abraham observes, "The Ashanti wooden maidens, which epitomise epitomize the Ashanti ideal of female beauty … were reasonably life-like." (p. 111), thus demonstrating that African art is both realistic and figurative, depending on its specific social function. Abraham's broad concern is to show African culture, including African art, as expressions of an essential African cosmology. For that reason, despite being a pioneer of professional or rationalist African philosophy, he is nevertheless classified as an ethnophilosopher (Oruka, 1990, p. 151).

Yet, Abraham's position is typical of African aestheticians whose objective is mainly to elaborate the general aesthetic laws of African art. This effort has been significantly extended in what is known as Black Aesthetics, a movement rooted in the 1960s anticolonial movements in Africa and the civil rights struggles in the United States. The work of diasporic scholars, such as Addison Gayle's The Black Aesthetic (1972), was vital to the process of defining African aesthetics, as it offered a set of clearly defined theoretical tools for the analysis of black arts for their distinctive aesthetic qualities. According to Oruka Black Aesthetics is bound up with the black person's awareness of a negating social reality and his/her attempt to negate that reality by means of a counter-reality, that of the values of black people. The operative assumption is that in a racialized world, literary and other artistic norms and values themselves bear the stamp of racial ideology and cannot be applied uncritically to works of art produced by a people who are denigrated within that social and political formation. Thus the aim is to found a set of aesthetic principles which will do justice to the quality of Black works, and then use such principles and artistic works to foster a collective Pan-African consciousness. It is in this instance that the slogan "Black is beautiful" emerges. The quest achieves its most prominent public emblematic form in the FESTAC festivals (Black and African Festival of African Arts and Culture). Marxist critics such as Onafume Onoge view this movement as flawed since all it does is substitute race for class analysis without addressing the complexity of the real power relations of postcolonial societies.

Largely, this quest for an essential Pan-African culture is what animates one of the earliest and most persistent cultural movements of the twentieth century. Negritude, begun in the 1930s in France by Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) and Aimé Césaire (b. 1913), among others, sought to define and represent the essential core of African values as embodied in African spirituality and experience. In Senghor's case, this took the form of a preoccupation with the representation of the ancestral presence in literature and a positive revalorization of black identity. Additionally, for Senghor, African art is conceived as inherently committed because it is intrinsically social and communal, as opposed to the individualism of European art. Senghor is also famously quoted as having proclaimed "Emotion is [Black], as reason is Greek." Clearly, Senghor's is an affective mimesis.

This view has not gone down well within the community of African scholars. As for the rationalist philosophers, with their commitment to the idea of reason as universal, negritude is seen as a fundamentally unphilosophical characterization of both African and Western reason. Oruka regards what he describes as "Negritude's mythological consciousness" as a phase in the development of a colonized consciousness toward a more liberated postcolonial consciousness of a different and better reality. Marxist critics too dismiss Senghor's negritude as staging a bourgeois reification of the real conditions of postcolonial existence, describing it as a mystical affirmation of African identity that transposes the real into a cultural collective that offers little possibility of fundamental change in the social and political order. Onoge contrasts Senghor with Aimé Césaire whom he commends for offering a more radical version of negritude, one that is predicated on a revolutionary affirmation that goes beyond the validation of the integrity of African culture. For Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), negritude's major weakness is that it articulates rather than enacts its radical identity. As Soyinka says, "A tiger does not pronounce its tigritude, it pounces" (Feuser, p. 559).

Its influence is evident in the whole ideology of Black Consciousness and in particular in some of the radical attempts to produce anticolonial African aesthetics such as that of the self-proclaimed Bolekaja critics, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. They are particularly concerned with the dominance of what they term Euro-Modernism in African writing and criticism. They cite what they call the Ibadan school of writing, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo included, as the arch progenitor of this tendency. Soyinka retorted by describing them as Neo-Tazarnists, that is, critics who are bent on disseminating neo-primitivist ideas about the nature of contemporary African reality. However, Soyinka's commitment to developing a distinct African aesthetic is one of the most ambitious among African writers. He produces a cosmological aesthetic from his reading of Yoruba culture mediated by Friedrich Nietzsche's conception of Greek mythology in Birth of Tragedy, fashioning his own theory of tragedy that is both hybrid and authentically African. According to Soyinka, Yoruba art is both mimetic and transformative of the structure of traditional Yoruba cosmology. Furthermore, he argues that African reality can be best understood as a simultaneous inhabitation of the world of the living and the dead as well as the present and the past. It is the tension between all these coordinates that is the primary object of mimesis for African art, but in a way that turns the artwork itself into an active formative agency of the very reality it imitates. Thus, Soyinka's theory of mimesis works with a more complex idea of reality than we are offered in the founding text of mimetic theory, Aristotle's Poetics. On the whole, though, he encapsulates both the ethnophilosophic and rationalist traditions of African philosophy.

Ngugi's Decolonising the African Mind (1986) is another major attempt at grounding African literature and culture in the historical worldview of Africa, in the belief that the only way this can be done effectively is by producing literature in African languages instead of the received colonial languages. Ngugi argues that language is bound up with a people's being; it "is a carrier of the history and culture of a [given community], … a collective memory bank of a people (1993, p. 15). Ngugi uses the reflectionist view of language, seeing it as a mirror of a people's belief system. In light of this, he can be placed squarely within the Afrocentric camp, but perhaps not so easily within that of the ethnophilosophers.

In literary criticism, indeed in cultural theory generally, the term realism is usually employed to describe a concern with the way in which literary and artistic representation reflects African reality. Here the fictional universe is judged in relation to its verisimilitude or vraisemblance to the actual world. Thus, the application of the concept is not dissimilar to the way it is understood and used in the European critical tradition. This is a result of the very particular history of African critical and cultural criticism. African criticism has, like postcolonial African philosophy, developed within the terms of Western theory. There have been calls for a distinctly African critical language and some serious attempts have been made in this regard, for instance, Wole Soyinka's cosmological aesthetic and Henry Louis Gate's African-American vernacular theory. However, for the most part, like their counterparts in philosophy, African writers and critics see their primary task as that of using all available meta-languages to illuminate the fundamental character of African cultural and artistic production, but in a way that adapts these various conceptual tools to the particular conditions of African reality.

Chinua Achebe's fiction is regarded as the supreme example of African literary realism, especially his novel Things Fall Apart (1958). Achebe's fiction can also be described as historical realism, especially when he seeks to recover the African past from its suppression in colonial discourse. He describes himself as practicing "applied art," suggesting that realism is also a politically committed and transformative form as opposed to the tradition of "art for art's sake." For Abiola Irele, it is this concern with historical and sociological reality that makes African literature a more accurate and comprehensive account of contemporary African reality than sociological or political documents. However, some critics such as Dan Izevbaye see that as the very fault of contemporary African writing, with its emphasis on the social function of literature constricting its formal possibilities. Izevbaye hopes that "as the literature becomes less preoccupied with social or national problems and more concerned with the problems of men as individuals in an African society, the considerations which influence critical judgement will be more human and literary than social ones" (Haywood, p. 30) Izevbaye is perhaps the closest to a universalist Platonic idealism in African literary criticism and aesthetics. His concept of humanity seems to be based on a transcendence of the experiential and the contingent.

According to Onoge, realism in African literature can be further subdivided into critical realism and socialist realism. The first, which is evident in the work of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and a host of other African writers, is principally characterized by an accurate description of the condition of modern Africa, but without proffering a clear solution to the problems identified. However, the latter takes the socialist transformation of the continent as a matter of historical and political necessity and as the only way in which the legacy of colonial and imperial capitalism and their neocolonial manifestations can be eradicated in order to create an alternative political and economic formation. Writers such as Sembene Ousmane, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and Femi Osofisan are exemplars of socialist realism. Georg Gugelberger advises against using the term, given its negative connotations arising out of its association with the propagandist writing produced in the 1930s in the Soviet Union. He suggests that Amiri Baraka's more radical concept, populist modernism, be adopted instead to describe progressive African literature. In his view, the word populist has an additional advantage, for instance, unlike socialist, it cancels the artificial contradiction between Marxism and modernism that has beset mainstream Marxism. Deconstructive critics such as Kwame Appiah argue that realism is the artistic expression of African nationalist ideology and is thus complicit with nationalism's superficial resolution of the underlying difficulties facing Africa. It no longer functions subversively—for that, one should turn to what he defines as postrealist or postnativist writing such as Yambo Oueloguem's Le Devoir de Violence, texts that interrogate the nationalist's imaginary and portray it as merely a reversal of the very race- centered European ideology it set out to dislodge. This kind of writing is similar to postmodernist writing, questioning established totalizing narratives and their regimes of truth.

What Appiah describes as postrealist is also part of the general trend referred to broadly as nonrealist modes of representation, but more specifically as magical realism, the best example of which is Ben Okri's The Famished Road (1990). This type of writing, like its Latin American counterpart, involves the deliberate violation of the conventions of realism, for instance the transgression of the boundary between the real and the fantastic. Some critics feel uncomfortable about this label as it suggests African writing imitating alien forms. Other argue that the worldview depicted in such texts is inherent in the contemporary African Weltanschauung in which the elements of traditional African culture coexist with those of modernity. It is as a way of emphasizing the indigeneity of the form that Harry Garuba substitutes it with the term animist realism.

As can be seen, the concept of realism is used diversely in African philosophical and cultural practice. It is used in its traditional sense as a concern with art as a mirror of reality, but also in relation to the requirement for epistemological, cultural, and representational authenticity. It is noteworthy that the term realism is applied to a variety of realities and to different methods of representing the real. Even deconstructionists ultimately cannot avoid employing the traditional meaning of the word, of connoting the degree of representativeness or accuracy of artistic as well as philosophical and critical practice. What is also significant is that the philosophical attempt to define the real and realism often overflows the rather rigid categories set up by the African rationalist philosophers, proving that their concepts, rigorously defined as they are, cannot themselves fully represent the diversity of intellectual reflections on realism in Africa in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps even universal philosophy is particular after all.


Abraham, William. The African Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962. A classic text of African philosophy.

Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet On Creation Day. New York: Anchor Press, 1975. A lucid and representative coverage of the writer's abiding critical concerns.

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Toward the Decolonisation of African Literature. London: Routledge, 1980. A passionate call to the decolonization of African literature and criticism that has generated a lot of controversy.

Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West African Fiction. London: Routledge, 1998. A groundbreaking study of the concept in African literature.

Feuser, Willfred. "Wole Soyinka: The Problem of Authenticity." Black Literature Forum 22, no. 3 (fall 1988): 555–575.

Garuba, Harry. "Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society." Public Culture 15, no. 2 (2003): 261–285. A work of profound originality on realism and the philosophy of African arts.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. An important contribution to the study of African and African-American cultural theory.

Gugelberger, Georg. Marxism and African Literature. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1986. An outstanding and representative text on trends in African Marxist literary criticism.

Heywood, Christopher, ed. Perspectives on African Literature. London: Heinemann, 1971. A good source on 1960s African literary criticism.

Irele, Abiola. The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. London: Heinemann, 1981. A rigorous sociological study of African literature.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the African Mind. London: Heinemann, 1986. A radical Afrocentric and original reading of the terms of cultural colonization as well as liberation.

——. Moving the Centre. London: Heinemann, 1993. A more universalist account of cultural decolonization.

Oruka, Henry Odera. Sage Philosophy. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1990. A singularly original piece of African philosophy.

——. Trends in Contemporary African Philosophy. Nairobi, Kenya: n.p., 1990. A good overview of African philosophy by one of its leading practitioners.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. Prose and Poetry. London: Heinemann, 1974. Carefully chosen representative texts.

Serequeberhan, Tsenay, ed. African Philosophy. New York: Paragon House, 1991. An extremely useful overview of historical and current trends in African philosophy.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. A major work of African philosophy and literary criticism.

Welsh-Asante, Kariamu, ed. The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993. An excellent assembly of the tradition.

Wiredu, Kwasi. Philosophy and an African Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980. A classic from a man who might be rightly called the father of modern African philosophy.

Mpalive-Hangson Msiska

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