3 minute read


AfricaFunctionalism, Structuralism, And "one Tribe, One Style"

The pre-nineteenth-century European distinction between "art" (the nonutilitarian) and "craft" (the utilitarian) also contributed to the prejudice against African art, given its use in ritual ceremonies. This distinction turned African sculptures and masks into ethnological specimens and a gold mine for anthropologists interested in the relationship between art and society. Some applied the functional theory developed in the 1920s by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and his followers, emphasizing the interconnection of ritual, religion, language, social practices, and symbolic expressions. Others employed the structuralist model popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) to search for deeper meanings or a concealed order in symbolic or language systems. In both approaches—often combined in the same study—art was treated as part of an organic whole and as an aspect of myth, religion, or kinship system. Little attention was paid to aesthetic factors, individual creativity, and the historical factors affecting form and style (for a comprehensive review of the literature, see Gerbrands).

Between 1935 and 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized major exhibitions of African and Oceanic art to familiarize the public with their influence on European and American modernism. By the 1950s some American art historians such as Robert Goldwater (New York University) and Paul Wingert (Columbia University) had started offering courses in African art. The emergence of many newly independent African states from the 1960s onward resulted in a worldwide increase of scholarly interest in African affairs.

Most of the early surveys of African art focused on style areas, inaugurating what Sidney Kasfir (1984) calls the "one tribe, one style" conceptual model. Its underlying assumption was that the styles and iconographical elements that define the art of a given group had been fixed for centuries, untouched by outside influences. It thus encouraged the study of African art in the "ethnographic present." A sea change occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the arrival in the field of new scholars who combined art-historical and anthropological methods in a more critical way. Apart from focusing on the art of specific African cultures, they took cognizance of individual and regional variations within a major style area. In addition, they documented artistic exchanges between contiguous and distant groups due to military conquest or centuries of trade, migration, and/or social interaction.

Unlike their predecessors, who focused mainly on art objects and ignored the artists who created them, the new scholars and their students recorded names of artists, possible dates of objects, and contexts of use, among other data. Since then there has been a shift from an emphasis on the religious significance of art to its implications in the realm of politics, psychology, gender, mass communication, and performance. Such was the involvement of art in all phases of life in precolonial Africa that scholars began to use the term art for life's sake to distinguish African art from the European idea of art for art's sake.

In the early twenty-first century the more rigorous approach of a new generation of scholars is shedding new light on old problems and assumptions. For example, previous scholars paid little attention to the interaction between Islam and African art or simply concluded that Islam had had a totally negative impact on African sculpture, given its injunction against image-making. Late twentieth and early twenty-first century scholarship provides evidence to the contrary. Field studies by René Bravmann (1974), Labelle Prussin, Frederick Lamp, and other scholars demonstrate that Muslims in some areas of West Africa have not totally abandoned their ancestral art and religion. By emphasizing the recreational function of African masking, they have succeeded in preserving it in an Islamic context. It is therefore not unusual (among the Baga of Guinea and the Dyula of Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ghana) to see masked performers in the early twenty-first century during important Islamic holiday celebrations, such as the end of Ramadan or the birthday of Prophet Mohammed. Non-Muslims are also known to attach Islamic talismans to altar sculptures so as to make them more efficacious. Arabesque motifs also abound in masks, wood carvings, and fabrics all over Africa. Thus the idea of "tradition" in African art has been modified. Whereas it was once regarded as a strict conformity to forms handed down from the past, in the early twenty-first century the idea is understood as a process of continuity and change (for an overview of the major paradigms in the study of African art up to the 1980s, see African Art Studies [1987], Adams, and Ben-Amos).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Anticolonialism in Southeast Asia - Categories And Features Of Anticolonialism to Ascorbic acidArts - Africa - The Myth Of Primitivism, Functionalism, Structuralism, And "one Tribe, One Style", Beyond Sub-saharan African Art