Trinkets, Souvenirs, or Art?: African Art in the Face of Western Imperialism
For centuries, Africa has been—and continues to be—exploited by more industrialized technological powers such as the United States, Europe, and most recently, China. Western imperialism has directly exploited the land, people, and resources of the African continent. Its imposition of social Darwinism has dramatically affected the way in which African people are internationally perceived, as well as the art, culture, and traditions belonging to African people. By focusing on African Art, one may observe how the hierarchical lens of The West has shaped the value of modern African art and the discrepancies found therein.
As a target of the blunders of Western imperialism, the African continent has been subjected to a harsh history of violence and bloodshed. The stronger impetus of The West fostered a power imbalance between The West and Africa, with the former obtaining the upper hand. From the earliest stages of imperialism, Westerners appropriated African art and relegated these pieces of culture or history into souvenirs and curiosities. Due to the racialized notion that African civilizations were inferior and could not produce worthwhile art, African art would not be showcased in museums for centuries to come. Alongside the contrasting concept of Western art, which mainly entails sculpture or painting and lacks a specific function, the application of this idea helped to prevent the acceptance of African art as art. It was not until later, around the 19th century, when the perceptions surrounding African art began to change, and The West started to place appropriated African “trinkets” into Western art museums.
From the perspective of The West, the display of African art in museums, such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro and its counterparts in London, Berlin, and Munich, was not seen as stealing but rather as an appreciation for newfound aesthetics; It failed to consider African art in terms of functionality, practicality, and African culture. When referencing African art and its contribution to early modernism, the Metropolitan Museum of Art states that, “These avant-garde artists, their dealers, and leading critics of the era were among the first Europeans to collect African sculptures for their aesthetic value. While these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance.”
The consequences of these actions have created a schism within the artistic communities of many African countries. Western influence and the values that the West assigned to non-Western art posed the dilemma of what modern African art should be and should not be; Many African artists are dealing with the limitations placed upon African art in an effort to dismantle the imposed “rules” of Western art. Dr. Odiboh Freeborn explores this issue by stating, “Briefly, these concern strategies limiting African creativity by using Western normative evaluation, specifically placing an identity/authenticity expectancy on African art works. Such attitudes and continued commodification has resulted in considerable damage to the development of modern African art as a whole, particularly since the formation of an international elite corps of African artists has occurred within Western parameters.” As such, many contemporary African artists are deliberating on what qualifies certain art to be categorized as African art; Dr. Odiboh Freeborn sums it clearly by asking, “What art is genuinely modern African? Does authentic African identity refer to the person of the artist, his origin or background, or his affiliation with Africa? Would authentic identity indicate the form of an art piece, its content, theme, or motive? What if a Western artist, non-African, produced works in an African style? Would such an artist or the work be branded African, European, American, fraudulent or modern? Can we say that the person of the artist and the work produced must show particular traits to be branded or have an "authentic" identity?” In this way, the issue of authenticity arises in consideration of the identity crisis that Western imperialism thrust upon African art communities.
The many human rights violations brought upon by Western imperialism are explicit and continue to be discussed conscientiously; However, the underlying implications of imperialism in terms of the numerous facets of African art, culture, and tradition seem to be clouded and not given deserved attention outside of the Western view. As this is the status quo, it is imperative to understand how and why African art is currently undergoing a momentous change by engaging with African artists. Many prominent African artists have stepped up to the challenge in the hopes of reestablishing a clear purpose and identification for modern African art––from developing art schools, changing the skewed narrative, and questioning how art unites and identifies groups of people. Now more than ever, the West should reconcile with Africa for its many wrongdoings and allow Africa to develop its artistic craft without interference. Hopefully, an artistic rebirth can free these communities from a destructive past, allowing many African constituents to reclaim a distorted culture and make it their own once again.