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Appiah and Jegede's African Concept of a Postcolonial Art Appiah and Jegede's African Concept of a Postcolonial Art
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-12-12 09:06:33
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“African art has been maligned in the writings of Western scholars who have failed to understand its source and origin…In private collections, African artworks become transfixed on the mantelpiece on in wooden cubicles, bathed in a caressing interplay of lights, but with very little or no reference—suggested or amplified—to their contextual use of significance. Although we derive pleasure in appreciating these objects ex-situ, there is the danger of their being unduly romanticized. It is a danger that can be avoided is we would allow the arts to lead us into renewing our contact with Africa, and into a greater and more intimate appreciation of the cultures and the peoples of the continent. It is within this context that collection of traditional African art in private, public or academic holdings derive stronger legitimacy… The arts can be used to disprove racial innuendos and to re-direct the black man and woman towards the realization of positive self-affirmation. They can be used not only as indices of aesthetic cognition, but equally as important tools in stemming the marginalization of the blacks’ contributions to world civilization.”  
--Dele Jegede (“Art for Life’s Sake: African Art as a Reflection of an Afrocentric Cosmology”)

“…the place to look for hope is not just to the postcolonial novel—which has struggled to achieve the insights of Ouologuem or Midimbe—but to all-consuming vision of this less-anxious creativity. It matters little who it was made for; what we should learn from is the imagination that produced it. Man with a Bicycle is produced by someone who does not care that the bicycle is the white man’s invention—it is not there to be Other or the Yoruba Self; it is there because someone cared for its solidity; it there because it will take us further than our feet will take us; it is there because machines are now as African as novelists—and as fabricated as the kingdom of Nakem.”

--Kuame Anthony Appiah (from In my Father’s House)

It is a well known fact that Picasso was greatly influenced by the encounter with masks and other art objects from Africa. In turn, via Picasso, modern art at the turn of the 20th century became abstract. Nevertheless, Western attitudes toward African art have remained ethnocentric and patronizing. Dele Jegede a Nigerian artist and scholar (born in 1945) analyzes such an attitude in his essay “Art for Life’s Sake: African Art as a Reflection of an Afrocentric Cosmology.” His main line of criticism is the failure in the Western response to African art to understand the significance that art has within the cultures that produce it. That kind of failure in turn promotes demeaning attitudes.

Jegede sees in the term primitivism, to characterize African art, a form of Eurocentrism. It may have been coined as a mere aesthetic category, but the underlying suggestion is that those works of art lack the exquisite refinement of Western art. This is suggested by the very mode of displaying African art in museums with no particular reference to their cultural roles within African societies. This decontextualized display is antithetical to the ways in which Africans themselves experience and appreciate art.

For Jegede, art is not a cultural universal, but derives its particular meaning within the particular cultures of Africa. The practice of placing African art objects in a museum case to be disinterestedly contemplated is, for Jegede is a Eurocentric practice which leads to the labeling of “primitive.” It is that kind of decontextualization that robs the work of its most significant properties, those conferred by its role in specific cultural practices. For example, a mask in not simply an object whose form is to be appreciated; rather it is an effigy with specific ceremonial functions. As we have seen already, Adorno, a Western philosopher, also emphasizes the importance of the role of art objects play within social practices, but this is the exception rather than the rule in Western aesthetics.

Jegede uses the term Afrocentric to characterize his approach to African works of Art. It is an intellectual stance that places Africa at the center of one’s worldview and is, of course, a reaction to the Western tendency to view everything in relation to Europe, taken as the norm and the criteria for judgment. This stance can of course be critiqued in turn with this question: Has Jegege himself fallen prey to the unfortunate Eurocentric tendency to uncritically apply the label “art” to African artifacts? Is his alternative to an art “for art’s sake,” for and art “for life’s sake” (which so enthralled Picasso) superior to the views advanced in the West?

Be that is it may, we have already seen that Derrida’s most rigorous criticism of the philosophy of art in the West is the fact that, beginning with Plato, it has focused primarily on the Western tradition. The Ghanian Kwame Anthony Appiah takes a hard look at such a phenomenon in his book In my Father’s House. Very much like Jegede, he is concerned with the way the Western artworld views African art. He begins his critique by examining the process by which pieces were chosen for the 1987 exhibit, Perspective Angles on African Art. He shows that the items selected were included not just for aesthetic reasons but for economic reasons as well. For Appiah, this means that the artworld far from operating on purely aesthetic principles makes judgments on art based on market considerations too. This is the dirty little secret of Western art with its pretensions of universalism and art for art’s sake.

Appiah focuses on one particular work in the show, Yoruba Man with a Bicycle, which the African-American novelist and critic James Baldwin also noted precisely because it was not an example of primitivism, the kind of African art which usually attracts Western attention. This piece is neotraditional, produced for sale on the international art market. Appiah interprets the work within the context of postmodernism which rejects any claim to exclusivity and universality.

Modernists had previously argued for universal criteria to judge whether something is a work of art. Objects that failed to meet those criteria are not works of art, no matter the culture in which they originate. In part, African art was discovered through the modernist assessment that it possesses the sort of “significant form” found in Western modernist works. But this is exactly what the post-modernist rejects. It rejects the assumed existence of universal criteria. The post-modern theorist coins terms derived from Derrida’s deconstructionist’s school; terms such as “Eurocentric,” “phallocentric,” “logocentric,” etc, and with them he challenges the modernist to defend claims to standard untouched by history and culture. Undoubtedly, Appiah sides with the post-modernists.

Appiah challenges the modernist tradition by undermining the important concept of opposition between self and other. He does this by analyzing Yoruba Man with a Bicycle. Here we cannot see the work as simply the product of a radically different mentality and culture. This is due to its hybrid character: the presence of the bicycle in the work which makes it a pastiche of African and Western elements. But for the artist, both the traditional aspects of his culture and those he appropriates from the West are simply vehicles for his creativity. In the artist’s imagination Africa and the West are not others to each other.

So, Appiah’s reflections on this sculpture imply that in our efforts to understand what art is, we ought to abandon the search for one universal and single standard for the qualification of works of art. It is important to note that Appiah is not advocating full-scale relativism that would rob art of its transcendent values as some cultural philistines advocate nowadays. What he is criticizing is the presumption and the hubris that only the Western artist, beginning with the Romantics so romanticized by Hegel’s theory of art, is a self-conscious creator. In the process Appiah is also challenging the view that art gives us access to a genuine otherness; for indeed all of us have something in common with everybody else: our humanity. Back to the future of Italian Humanism?  

COVER IMAGE:
"Just Do It", Acrylic/Canvas, 46 x 28", 2003
Dele Jegede, Professor and Chair
Miami University


    
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Emanuel Paparella2008-12-12 09:47:44
A biographical footnote: Dele Jegede is currently a professor and Chairman of the Art Department at Indiana State University at Terre Haute. He is also an artist in hiw own right, as the cover image of today's magazine indicates, and has written extensively on questions of African art.

Kwame Anthony Appiah (born in 1950)is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He has written on a range of very diverse topics in philosophy, including conditionals, semantics, and the philosophy of culture.


Alexander Mikhaylov2008-12-14 01:14:43
African art is decidedly marked by quite an original (to our western eyes) outlook on spirituality, the kind of spirituality, that is unknown in any other parts of the world


Emanuel Paparella2008-12-14 04:43:36
Indeed, it is spiritual in the sense that it is so close to life as the one found in the caves in the caves in France. It proclaims man's humanity beyond the mere material: an aspiration for the transcendent and the eternal of which Western man needs to be reminded.


Jack2008-12-14 05:45:00
Much of the face paint reminds me of American Indian face painting. In fact the city of which I live nearby (Wichita) is an Indian name for "painted face". There were paintings for dances, for war, for religious purposes, for marriages, for hunting and for courting. Not all American Indians had painted faces (about half), but all knew that they had specific reasons due to cultural differences.

If the American Indian's had seen these African masks, perhaps they would have seen more accurately what they creator was trying to portray. I would imagine that they would have had far less ethno-centrisim [please allow me] than would people groups who had no such experience.

Needless to say, American Indian Art has had a positive influnce on American Art, in particular the Southwest.


Emanuel Paparella2008-12-14 15:36:34
Interisting comparison, Jack. Indeed, modern man can learn a lot from such "primitivism," as he contemptuously dubs it. Within such primitivism there is zest for life and for life's pointing to realities beyond itself; something that modernity, celebrating its own nihilism and "enlightenment" with songs of desperations and doing light unto itself, has long forgotten. As Kierkegaard, pointed out, the greatest sickness of them all is that of being sick and not even being aware of it.


Donald Maingi2009-05-19 22:00:49
I do quite agree with Appiah. Concentrations on traditional African art and the application of Postcolonial thinking to African art seems to subdue the social realities that inspire contemporary African societies. If we subscribe to a philosohy of history that acknowledges that African societies are not trapped an immobile history, thus embody a historical progress and thus have their own historiography embued in their lived ontological consciousness then we need not to constrain what it means to be African to the past.

Regarding the avantgarde perplex, i do believe that it is a commoditized discourse intended to subdue our critical concentration on the realities shaping contemporary African art. Thank you.

Donald Maingi
PhD student History of Art


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