African Art? Traditional vs. Contemporary

 Ben Enwonwu

Ben Enwonwu

What is African Art?

It is not easy to define the term "African Art", let alone speaking or differentiating between Traditional and Contemporary African Art. I am no art historian or art scholar, but I will attempt to give some views on what I consider this art genre encompasses.

A little bit of Art History... "African Art" is a term normally defined as art coming from the Sub-Saharan countries of the continent. The Northern Africa region (Morocco, Egypt etc) have been clumped together under various periods with classical Europe, Islamic and oriental civilisations. South Africa, meanwhile, is not represented as "African Art" at all to those who study art.... I will get into more detail about this in another discussion.

For a long time, African artefacts in Europe - unlike European and Asian ‘works of art’ - were of more interest to anthropologists than to art historians. Then in the 1900s the Avant Garde art movement in Paris began to take an interest in sculpture from West and Central Africa, which came to the notice of art historians through its influence on their work. Since Europeans discovered ‘African art’, the notion seems to have gradually expanded to from figurative sculpture to include more and more types of African artefacts. Artists such as Vlaminck, Derain and Picasso were influenced by African art forms, this is evident in their work. So the interest in the arts of Africa flourished, and many modern Western artists rediscovered the enduring qualities of African art. In the latter part of the 20th century, African art has come to be appreciated for its intrinsic aesthetic value as well as continuing to be a source of inspiration for the work of Western artists.

"African Art" was (and to some extent still is) considered to be the usual "tribal" artefacts and works e.g. masks, pottery, sculptures, 3-dimensional work, colourful and abstract work usually of the human form - a naked man or woman (or hybrid animal man). A truly beautiful genre of art, every piece is a story and a way of looking to the past. You get a sense of the life lived and are transported to another life and way of living. A simpler time compared to the world we live in now.

But this is not all that "African Art" is! The nostaligia is an influence most certainly present in even recent works. Though we cannot forget that Art is a movement after all as well as being a narrative of the world. And the African world has truly changed.



 Uhunmwun-ekhue (hip pendant, Brass)  Nigeria; Benin Kingdom (Edo)   The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection   

Uhunmwun-ekhue (hip pendant, Brass)

Nigeria; Benin Kingdom (Edo) 

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection



So what is considered "African Art" now?

 El Anatsui

El Anatsui

My father, a Nigerian man,  does not believe that the genre "Contemporary African Art" exists. To him, there is only "African Art" and everything else is "Contemporary"in the Western sense. He sees no link to the abstract contemporary work  of some modern African artists to the "tribal" or traditional sense of African Art which I strongly disagree on. For my dear pops, he needs to see a mask, traditional clothing or a naked body before he identifies it with African Art!

I see why he has this view, to some extent, in regards to his definition of African art vs contemporary African art, but this is no doubt a colonial influence on how we perceive "African art". Must all art from African artists be only masks, tribes and body structures? Is the term yet another way to clump all of Africa together, a neocolonioal imposition by outsiders?

It is most certainly a debate that exists within the art market, causing some sort of invisible hierarchy on artists and the galleries that choose to display African works, as well as being within art appreciators and collectors and artists themselves!

However, it cannot be denied that there is most certainly a new wave of contemporary African artists hitting the African art market. This relatively new emergence of art is much more abstract than traditional african artwork with artists now going deeper not only into their subconscious and skill level, but also into their portrayal and vision. There is a surreal level of art and contemporary African artists do not solely focus on the old themes of past traditional works such as the human form.

 Yinka Shonibare

Yinka Shonibare


Many more contemporary African artists are gradually being represented in museum collections, and their art may sell for high prices at art auctions. Despite this, many contemporary African artists tend to have difficult times finding a market for their work. This is because they are still considered a niche market and for those who consider African art in it's traditional sense, modern African artists may be seen as "too contemporary".

The very concept of Contemporary African art has very different meanings according to its use. Magazines, exhibitions, publications and institutions, together with the artists themselves, have enriched through time the definition of this expression. Using their artwork to interpret and portray Africa's socio-economic realties, political challenges, rich traditions and diverse beauty, many contemporary African artists go beyond aesthetics and push boundaries.

Defining African art is not a simple task. This is evidenced by the fact that it is still being debated even now with each and every person giving their own take as to its form, style and meaning. African art was largely considered to be traditional and tribal artwork, but as mentioned, this can no longer be the sole definition as modern African artists have sought to bring the qualities of tradition to present day art while seeking a forum in the world's art community.

There is most certainly a greater creative freedom in contemporary vs traditional african art, however there does exist a link or one could even call it an "homage" to traditional African art which most viewers - such as my dear Father - fail to see. Yes, many African artists still produce work in the traditional style, but there is so much more to African art nowadays.

Perhaps the mistake is in trying to differentiate the art styles rather than just appreciating the change and progression of art coming out of my beloved continent.

“Art is not static, like culture. Art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back to expect that the art form of Africa today must resemble that of yesterday otherwise the former will not reflect the African image. African art has always, even long before western influence, continued to evolve through change and adaptation to new circumstances. And in like manner, the African view of art has followed the trend of cultural change up to the modern times”. Ben Enwonwu, 1950

I have never been a fan of tags anyway... 


 Tolu Aliki

Tolu Aliki