Critical Stylistic Developments & Influences in African Painting
In 1972, Frank Willett wrote the insightful text African Art to guide the definition of the history of African art. He asserted that painting was primary in the evolution of the visual arts in Africa. The vast frescos across the Kalahari Desert and in the Brandberg and Drakensberg Mountains, which host the oldest paintings on the continent, support this claim. The White Lady from Brandberg so named by the French anthropologist Abbey Bruiel and dated 28,000 B.C., is an outstanding example.
This article examines the ways in which contemporary painting in Africa has maintained the style reflected in the Brandberg painting and the ways in which it has deviated from this original style, in view of influences from the academic tradition of Europe since the colonial era.
Colonisation spurred intense global intercultural negotiation and trading. As a result, new iconographies and styles, unmatched in history, sprung up across cultures. Interestingly, this occurrence set the stage for the resurgence of the painting genre in African art.
This situation gave rise to the following developments in African painting:
i. Survival of ancient traditions of paintings
ii. The emergence of hybrid contexts. Within hybrid settings are two further strands of development:
a. An initiative of European teachers who perpetuated a romantic idea of pre-colonial traditions of African painting, and
b. Artists who had formal liberal training in academies of art either in Africa or outside the continent
iii. Academic art derived from Western traditions from the Renaissance era and revived in French saloons at the Enlightenment.
However, contemporary global developments, centred in the reality of the post-colonial ferment can make the above distinctions hazy. Yet, by considering the pattern of historical development, an overview can be presented in the following paragraphs.
In West, East, and Southern Africa, contemporary paintings that mirror Africa’s ancient traditions of painting are associated with the Oshogbo artists, or the Mbari trained artists (Nigeria), John Ndevasia Muafangejo (Namibia) and Thango, with his work entitled Composition (Democratic Republic of Congo), as well as a host of others. The style consists of dense and congested compositions featuring repetitions of same and similar-sized figures or objects in overlap that are devoid of perspective, despite apparent spatial depths. The ground of the composition is usually actively engaged, privileging a gestalt that panders to the idea of “more is adequate” rather than “less is more,” which the academic tradition and the Brandberg frescos encouraged (and which was articulated by Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus tradition).
The compositions are also rendered in highly saturated earth colours, a style replete among East African artists. I label it the phenomenon of the “congested canvas.” Early European teachers of art in Africa encouraged this style. Among them were Uli and Georgina Biers (Nigeria), the Rev. Edward Paterson (Bulawayo, Zimbabwe) Pierre Lods (the Potopoto School in Congo Brazzaville and later Dakar), and Pierre Romain Desfosses (the Democratic Republic of Congo). Professor Cornelius Oyeleke Adepegba labelled the style “fossilised naivety sustained and encouraged.” In essence, the teaching received by the artists was tailored towards adopting an approved style, which their teachers assumed represented African ideals in visual representations. Creative practice in this guise does nothing other than encourage “auto mannerism” in the artists.
Connected to the above style are a group of African artists who received similar tutelage but proved independent-minded. Pierre Lods features here also while he taught art in Dakar, Senegal Margaret Trowell (Kampala, Uganda) and Kenneth Murray (Lagos, Nigeria). The following works fall into this category: Papa Ibra Tall’s The Stride of the Champion (Senegal), Ben Enwonwu’s Igbo Dancers (Nigeria), and Sam Ntiro’s Drawing Water (Uganda). The African American painters Henry O Tanner’s Study for the Thankful Boy (1896) and Jeff Donaldson’s One with Exe also belong here.
Within the style, the African spatial character “more is adequate” is moderated through selective delinking, that is, the fusion of African and Euro-inspired aesthetic rules. In the style, rhythmic and symbolic grids engage the pictorial space. Papa Ibra Tall’s The Stride of the Champion is a human whirl that is further animated by crisscrossing lines that resolve into fractals of skilfully coloured areas.
The academic tradition of art, which debuted during the Renaissance era and was further honed during the Enlightenment period, constitutes the next stylistic trend. Aina Onabolu fervently followed the tenets of this style. His many portraits of the new elite class in the early period of colonisation until his death during the decolonisation era are typical. A prominent feature is a realistic rendition of human forms, objects, and sceneries. Onabolu’s Portrait of Chief Dr Sapara is representative of the style, in its renaissance pyramidal format and preference for the “less is more” gestalt, where figures are situated naturally in the pictorial space, defining backgrounds, foregrounds or frontally balanced compositions in instances where a screen takes the place of spatial or atmospheric depth.
In view of the preceding discussion, it would appear that the discernible styles in African painting are realism, stylisation, and/or abstraction. I, however, think otherwise.
The academic tradition as a way of propagating new learning has been essential in contemporary stylistic trends. The colonisation agenda fostered landmark intercultural negotiations and trading that brought about a fusion of iconographies in cultural productions on a global scale (the universal post-colonial ferment). This condition is pertinent to the definition of critical stylistic developments in African painting.
The Dakar Art Biennale offers access to stylistic developments in contemporary African painting. At the Bienniale in 2006, in which I participated for the first time, a Western scholar called my attention to the “white cube” ambience of the main exhibition setting. The scholar questioned how such a set-up could be taken as authentic to Africa. An eventual response to the above opinion came thus in a review that I later wrote for the academic journal Third Text in January 2007:
The Biennale draws its strength from the contemporariness of the artworks and its prevailing sentiments concerning Africa and Africans…We can think of Ihab Hassan’s notion of “fermentation of Spirit” occurring among the artists and the curatorial team…with multiple influences emanating from the reality of intercultural negotiations and dialogues.
The central point here is not to shy away from the potency of borrowing from “Another,” but to engage in selective delinking when the need arises.
However, chronicling the Dakar Art Biennale from 2006 to date, I have found these to be the three stylistic developments following the subjects of representation:
The iconic image, which consists of realistic renditions;
The simulacrum, which distorts iconic resemblance, or what may be identified as abstractions; and
The speechless, non-objective art, or the art of vision. In these instances, materiality and processes remain vigorous in what is eventually created or conveyed as a metaphor.
The iconic image has endured in the practice of painting, constituting a recurring intervention between the simulacrum that accommodates a conceptual range of contemporary compositions and the non-mimetic, or speechless, art.
Realistic or mimetic art is associated with artists such as Yusuf A.C. Grillo, Abiodun Olaku, Joachim Voigts (Namibia). Artists that engage form as simulacrum dominate the contemporary scene. Victor Ekpuk’s States of Beings, Billy Mandindi’s Live Life My Dear, and Dumi Feni’s (Johannesburg) Horse and Rider.
Ablade Glover’s Red Townscape and Mbaye Babacar Diouf’s Khaatim Africa 2, shown at the Biennale in 2006, belongs to speechless art. Speechless art emerged from the painting style of Jackson Pollock in his vigorous work on canvas with pigments, with the result that forms which emerge are neither iconic nor simulacra; they lack the call-response of a signifier and the signified.
In conclusion, a critical definition of the stylistic developments in African painting and their influences is as complex as determining when painting began in Africa. What must be of interest is the way art as metaphor succumbs to appropriation. And like any appropriated metaphor, it is subject to change and an endless series of new configurations, styles, and concepts.
October 27, 2020
October 26, 2020