Article and pix by Lydia Gatundu Galavu
Published February 24, 2007
These painting, by Salvador Dali, appears to have been reproduced by Peter Ngugi in his surrealist painting of cows and other things suspended in space on thin elongated limbs
Galleries in Africa are teeming with impressive Van Goghs, Rembrandts and Picassos. However, all these 19th Century European-look-alike masterpieces are created by contemporary Africans. LYDIA GATUNDU GALAVU wonders if African artists are copying Western art or are merely reclaiming their stolen heritage.
Whether consciously or not, artists in Africa today utilise forms attributable to Cubism and Expressionism that were created by European artists from African images, form, and colour combination.
A selection of African artists whose working style can be compared with that of Picasso are Sudanese Ibrahim El Salahi, Tanzanian Charles Sekano and Ugandan Francis Nnaggenda.
The work of Kenyan artists Peter Ngugi, James Mbuthia, Jimnah Kimani and Peter Elungat has similarities to that of Western artists Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt, respectively.
Peter Ngugi’s surrealist painting style shows cows and things suspended in space on thin elongated limbs, much like Salvador Dali’s elephant
Kimani says that while some people say his work resembles that of Van Gogh, Paul Klee or even Picasso, he feels it leans more towards a different artist.
“A French friend and supporter once told me that my work reminds him of that of his college professor. When he showed me his professor’s work I was stunned at the similarity – the techniques, the colour application, just like I do it. I had never met or seen his college professor’s artworks,” he says, adding that the earth has become a global village and our experiences are very similar. “These experiences come out in our work making it look similar; making us look like we are copying each other while in fact we are not.”
Like the art of all peoples, the art of Africans expresses values, attitudes and thoughts that emerge from their experiences. Even so, expatriates and foreign gallery owners in Africa to a large extent, determine what African artists produce and how potential buyers will interpret it. The artists are usually of international renown, having acquired this status through patronage by the same expatriates and gallery owners. Works by these artists are collector items and are not affordable to local buyers. In one way, this patronage and brokerage is vital to the artists who depend on it for survival, whereas in another, these patrons are responsible if the artist’s work lacks originality.
James Mbuthia uses symbolist and futurist techniques like cubism and superimposition in this painting. This technique and the colour scheme of bright pure colours is similar to Marc Chagall’s working style
Some artists reproduce European art, waterfalls and snowy streets from books and postcards and make no excuses about it. These artists mainly sell their art on the streets to motorists and other interested buyers. Their buyers are locals who, they say, do not buy artwork depicting local scenes.
The kind of art produced is determined by the audiences for whom it is made.
Many African artists live and work in modest environments. They are passionate about issues that affect humanity and portray this in their work. However, doing art depicting slums, unplanned cities, poverty, hunger and night life has something Oedipal about it. This is evident in paintings done in the 1980s and 1990s by artists such as Kenyan Chain Muhandi, Sane Wadu, Joel Oswaggo and Lucy Njeri who despite being authentic, original and authoritative in their working styles, find that their buyers are mostly foreigners.
This group of artists was encouraged to make ‘naive’ paintings rather than something experimental by Nairobi”s Gallery Watatu under Ruth Schaffner. In spite of this, the Kenyan reality in their artwork is so unmistakably present that it provokes subversive emotions among prospective local patrons who would rather decorate their plush homes with unoriginal prints of European art than identify with glum images of slums and poverty. Hence, the emergence of the street artist; if the Kenyan artist wants to sell on the local market, the images have to “change from glum to glee ” and what easier way than to adopt a Euro-centric painterly attitude.
Other artists whose work is original and derived from deep links between their childhood and ancestral beliefs are Ugandas’s Josephine Alacu, Peter Mulindwa and Pilkington Ssengendo.
A painting by Marc Chagall
Mwaura Ndekere, a lecturer in the Fine Art department at Kenyatta University and the chairman of the National Arts Committee, says, “There is no contradiction about copying when one is in the process of learning because art is learnt through apprenticeship. Our traditional artists like the Kamba carvers learnt from the master by emulation. Even Rembrandt had students working under him who emulated him. Art as we know it in Kenya today came with Western education and the literature we have is Western. Even as an artist and educator, I will probably know more about Da Vinci than I would the founders of Makonde art.”
Ndekere explains that for many Africans art is about economics and established artists usually take one of two routes, both purely for survival. They will either partake of culturally-mediated identities or ‘rebel’ against the Western notion by applying only traditional African images like masks in their work.
Except for cave painting, Islamic or Coptic art, evidence of paintings in Africa may have been destroyed. The materials used may have decayed while temporary surfaces like body painting washed off. The styles we see in painting today are relatively new, dating back about a century ago and are probably influenced by Western art having been introduced as part of Western education. To some extend, artists who have gone through school will show influences of this education in their work.
Ethiopian artist Elisabeth Atnafu, winner the 1976 United Nations’ International Women’s Artist Award, studied art in America. In her installation, A Shrine for Angelica’s Dreams (1994), she transforms the white dress worn by highland Ethiopian women into an evocative, lace-edged 1920s Western-style dress and uses it as a framing device hung with memorabilia which evoke trans-cultural memories. For artists like Elisabeth who live and study abroad, their diasporic experience has formative influence on their work.
In Africa, most individuals and organisations that fund the arts are foreign. At the end of the day the organisation must account for money spent. To show results, they select and promote certain artists who work in ‘preferred’ styles (that have borrowed from Western art) and create market channels for them abroad. The only problem with this kind of patronage is that these market channels are not sustainable. The buyer abroad is doing business with the patron and will buy what the patron promotes. Good relations between artist and patron (who keeps the buyer contact list) must be maintained otherwise the patron may lose interest in the artist and support someone else. Should the individual or organisation withdraw support, the artist is left hanging without a clue as to who was buying their art. Early Gallery Watatu artists were left like sheep without a shepherd when the gallery’s owner Ruth Schaffner died. Other artists who attach themselves to trusts and foreign-run artist camps ‘hang-in’ there for fear of losing support should they venture out on their own. Many of these artists are greatly talented and with a bit of managerial, leadership and teamwork skills, can do a lot for themselves.
Much as Picasso borrowed from African art, he remains a point of reference in the minds of many African artists.
Ibrahim El Salahi, a Sudanese painter, says he applied the lesson of Picasso’s Cubism to break apart and reconstitute Sudanese calligraphy.
In the 1960s, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Senegal’s poet-President, Léopold Senghor, tried to convince artists that Picasso was the best role model for them because he had helped invent modernism while retaining his cultural identity.
Francis Nnaggenda of Makerere Art School in Uganda applies Cubism in his work in much the same way Picasso did.
Copying individual styles is tantamount to plagiarism and any one doing that should be guilty as charged. On the other hand, an African artist couldn’t possibly be guilty of copying abstract-ness from Western art because the reduction of human shapes to geometric patterns has always been fundamental in African art. The abstract quality in African art dates back to the origins of humanity millions of years ago when Homo habilis made his first stone tools.
James Mbuthia, a Kenyan artist, says, “All my work is original; when I work, I allow my hand to make natural movements on canvas then I fix in the colours according to their natural take to each other. If what comes out resembles one or other European artist it’s pure coincidence.”
Peter Elungat, whose captivating backgrounds resemble those of the 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn, is popularly known to his friends as “Rembranti”.
Judith von D. Miller in her book, Art in East Africa, says “The forerunners of today’s modern art were Cubists, but cubism with a small “c” was the basis of traditional African art. To claim that any of these artists, European or African, is derivative, is to invite serious disagreement.”
“The Donkey Rider” , a linocut print by one Hezbon Owiti featured in Miller’s book, has figures that resemble African masks but the twisted placement of the elements looks very Picasso. One cannot say that Owiti copied Picasso and according to Miller, “his conception of horse and rider is as modern as it is ancient, reminiscent even of early Celtic or Scandinavian figures. To reduce the elements of the body to geometric shapes is the mainstay of artistic traditions all over the world, as it is the basis of what is called ‘modern art’ today.”
The background on Peter Elungat’s paintings show a mastery of light and colour as seen on Rembrandt’s paintings. He also combines accentuated faces and necks like those on Modigliani’s portraits.
In her book, Contemporary African Art, Sidney L. Kasfir says, “Given Picasso’s well-publicized receptivity to African sculpture in his early visits to the Musée Trocadéro in Paris, it is especially ironic that the ghostly presence of African forms in the work of a European artist from the early twentieth century should have filtered back into contemporary African art practice by this circular route, from colony to metro pole and now back to the post colony.”
If the African were already artful centuries ago, what drives them to reproduce Western art?
Lydia Gatundu Galavu, a formally trained artist, is an Exhibition Designer with the National Museums of Kenya