6 minute read


AfricaPan-africanism, Negritude, Decolonization, And The Search For A New Identity

It is easy to understand why art historians ignored modern and contemporary African art for a long time. First, they were preoccupied with the so-called classical African art, which had influenced the birth of modern European art. Second, some of them assumed that the belief system that inspired the best of African creativity was on the wane due to the negative impact of colonialism, Western education, industrialization, urbanization, and mass conversion to Islam and Christianity. That African creativity has not only recovered from the ordeals of colonialism but has in fact been rejuvenated is apparent in the early-twenty-first-century rise in the number of mainstream museums and galleries collecting contemporary African art as well as in the spate of publications on it.

Although it is customary to trace the beginnings of this recovery to the period after World War II when the products of the colonial art schools used their art to critique the colonialism as part of local agitation for political independence, the roots lie much deeper in the Pan-African movement of the nineteenth century. Spearheaded by George Padmore (1902–1959) and Henry Sylvester Williams (1869–1911) of Trinidad, Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912) of the Danish West Indies, and W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963) of the United States, among others, the movement organized a number of international conferences of black leaders from Africa and the Americas between the early 1900s and the 1940s. There were two principal objectives. The first was to inspire all blacks within and outside Africa to be proud of their color, history, and cultural heritage; and the second, to unite all blacks in their struggle against racial discrimination and toward the decolonization of Africa.

These conferences—along with Marcus Garvey's (1887–1940) ideology of "Africa for Africans," which promoted a millennial vision of decolonized Africa as a future superpower—generated many debates and publications on different aspects of black history and culture as well as the political, economic, and creative potentials of blacks. In the United States, the quest for a distinct black identity in the arts gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s during which African-American artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and intellectuals experimented with their African heritage. In France, Pan-Africanism, along with the Harlem Renaissance, inspired the Negritude movement in the 1930s among a group of African and Caribbean students.

Apart from celebrating the richness of their African past in their works, the Negritude writers and poets also questioned the "civilizing mission" of Europe in Africa, in view of the impact of African art on European modernism. Besides, they claimed that black people all over the world share certain cultural and emotional characteristics that constitute the essence of blackness and called on artists to capture this essence in their creations. The journal Presence Africaine was founded in Paris in 1947 to serve as an organ for disseminating the Negritude manifesto to the black world.

In short, these black-consciousness movements culminated in the political agitation that spread across Africa after World War II, motivating artists to explore the potentials of their African heritage and synthesize them with Western elements. The situation varied from one country to another, however, depending on the degree of the artistic commitment of the political leadership. For example, when Ghana gained political independence from Britain in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), an active member of the Pan-African movement, became its first prime minister and, later, president. He urged contemporary Ghanaian artists to research into their ancestral legacy and to cultivate an "African personality" in their works. To this end, he made funds available for public art projects.

Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), one of the founders of negritude along with Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léon Damas of Guyana, became the first Senegalese president when Senegal became independent from France in 1960. During his twenty years in office, he promoted negritude as a national artistic philosophy, becoming the patron of the "École de Dakar," a group of artists manifesting this philosophy in their works. Having been influenced by negritude while studying in Europe, the Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu (1921–1994) returned home to become his country's flag bearer in the search for a national identity in the visual arts, especially after Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. As the special art adviser to the government, he received a lot of commissions to decorate public buildings.

However, the most significant attempt to decolonize the visual arts in the country was initiated by the Zaria Art Society formed in 1958 by a group of students at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria, whose art department was dominated by expatriate art teachers. To counter the naturalism being forced upon them by their teachers, these students (now known as the "Zaria Rebels") organized private sessions to formulate strategies for evolving a Nigerian identity in their works. Space limitations will not allow a survey of artistic developments in all African countries. Suffice it to say that political independence inspired a cultural and artistic reawakening throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It led to a drastic review of the colonial art education program. New art schools, museums, and national galleries have since been created to promote an African consciousness in the arts, although not everybody agrees with the premise of Negritude that all black people share a common emotional characteristic.

There were similar post-emancipation reactions in northern and northeastern Africa (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and the Republic of Sudan) where there are large Arab populations, although Egypt and Libya attained political independence before World War II. The academic realism introduced to these countries during the colonial period has been modified. In the early twenty-first century, their contemporary artists experiment with different materials, forms, and ideas, seeking inspiration from diverse sources ranging from Islamic calligraphy and crafts to Pan-Africanism and different Euro-American styles. In Egypt some artists also draw on ancient Egyptian and Coptic sources in an attempt to relate the past to the present.

While Ethiopia has been exposed to Orthodox Christianity since the fourth century, it was never colonized except for a brief period of Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941. For a long time, the Ethiopian Church was the chief patron of the arts, commissioning metal crosses, illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and murals. Most of the artists were priests trained to work in the Coptic-Byzantine or modified Italian Renaissance style. But in the early nineteenth century, the nobility and members of the royal family started commissioning secular paintings from freelance artists. Modernization commenced in the 1920s with the introduction of European-type art education. Some Ethiopians later studied in Europe, returning in the 1930s to popularize new forms and styles. A school of fine arts was created in 1958; initially the school encouraged students to focus on Ethiopian history, culture, and political aspiration, but by the start of the twenty-first century the school's program stressed experimentation and individual creativity.

South Africa became a Dutch colony in the seventeenth century. The British took it over in the nineteenth century, granting it political independence under white minority rule in 1910. The notorious apartheid system that disenfranchised the black majority was introduced in 1948. Until recently, most of the well-equipped and state-sponsored art institutions were reserved for whites. Blacks had to be content with informal art workshops or craft centers run by churches and philanthropists. Black art focused mainly on black suffering under the oppressive apartheid regime between 1948 and 1994. Much of white South African art, in contrast, reflected the prevailing trends in Europe. However, by the 1980s some concerned white artists, no longer willing to be silent while the rest of the world condemned apartheid, had started using their art overtly or covertly to critique it. Since the end of the apartheid system in 1994, contemporary South African art has been charting a new course, reflecting on the past and projecting the collective aspirations of a new nation now ruled by a black majority.

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