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Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art

Twentieth century African art is a vast and fascinating world, yet it continues to be largely unexplored except from a central European, neo-colonialist viewpoint. Africa Explora aims to present a complete and representative view of 20th-century African Art from an African viewpoint that situates the continent’s art and artists in their proper context and allows them to speak with their own voices.

Africa Explora reveals the vitality and complexity of an art that combines ancient traditions and new forms of expression, juxtaposing genuine native and Western elements, embracing both artists with academic backgrounds and their self-taught counterparts, interweaving traditional forms inherited from the past with new solutions that have emerged from today’s vigorous communities.

Susan Vogel’s painstaking research on the mosaic that is 20th-century African art culminates with this exhibition she has curated for the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Having studied both its content and form, Vogel has defined five independent categories of African art, each of which has certain distinctive features that enable us to catalogue contemporary work without resorting to overly narrow classifications. Indeed, some work may include features of more than one category.

Extinct art is the glorious heritage of the African people. It is made up of traditional art from the past which still lives on in contemporary Africa, either in museums or in the collective memory. Extinct art is a link with the past, and a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. Taken as a symbol of national unity, it shapes a distinctive, African identity.

Traditional art is produced in small villages by artists who work for the members of their own ethnic group, emphasizing their connections with forms which are a heritage of their past rather than showcasing the inventiveness of individual artists. This work is functional and largely created for specific traditional occasions of worship, ritual or celebration, although many artists also produce work for the tourist trade. Traditional art usually takes the form of handcrafted sculptures, decorated with human and animal motifs.

New functional art will eventually become a part of African tradition if coming generations continue to work along these lines. Surprising, aggressive forms are conferred on objects that serve traditional purposes or are used to reflect new practices, almost always rooted in Christianity and Islam and often markedly syncretic. The artists are generally self-taught, highly innovative, and experiment with eclectic mixtures of materials and motifs.

Urban art, also known as folk art is the work of self-taught artist-craftsmen who produce signs and advertisements for small businesses (restaurants, barber shops, etc.). Its drawings and paintings are at once extroverted and compelling, entertaining and decorative. Urban art is not just shop signs, but also includes paintings intended for collectors and tourists, as well as posters, photographs and other more ephemeral objects.

International art is produced by artists with academic backgrounds who have worked under the guidance of European teachers or patrons. They are city dwellers, frequent travellers, and have a higher standard of living than other African artists. They are usually members of avant-garde artistic circles in New York, Paris or London and their work is quite popular with Western collectors and the political and social elite of their native countries. They are much concerned with form and their subject matter is often obscure to the uninitiated.

This exhibition aims to question some of the Western notions of African art and culture and revise the accepted concept of tradition.

Art history has tended to assume that African Art has not changed much in the past centuries. Africa explora demonstrates that it has changed more than it might seem. If the constant change has gone largely unnoticed it is because the Western World places a higher premium on change and originality while African artists stress continuity in forms and traditional standards as a way of legitimizing the present. The West has tended to assess African art in central European terms and has overlooked its past and present evolution. European judgements and prejudices affect our vision and analysis of contemporary African art, This exhibition poses a decisive question: how should we Westerners look at 20th- century African Art? The most important lesson to be learned from Africa explora is that African art should not be viewed from the standpoint of either neocolonialists or natives, but from a more abstract middle ground that does not vulnerate the mystery and idiosyncracy of contemporary African art.

The exhibition is enhanced by a profusely illustrated book-length catalogue which includes essays by Susan Vogel, Director of the Museum for African Art in New York; Walter E.A. Van Bekker, Associate Professor at the University of Utrecht, Begumil Jewsiewicki, Professor at the Université de Laval in Quebec; Ima Ebong, art historian; Donald John Cosentino, Associate Professor at the University of California at Los Angeles; Thomas McEvilley, art historian, and V. Y. Mudimbe, Professor at Duke University.