Exploring the Intersection between African Arts & Culture by Appreciation

Expenditure on recreational activities have substantially increased. And one type of activity that have increased substantially is in the visual arts area. Art is a great way to tell stories specifically stories that have a cultural significance and in so doing tell the stories of a people’s culture in an authentic way. Creativity is a huge part of who I am. I’m constantly and always looking for inspirations wherever I may be. And many will agree that, museums can be sometimes intimidating. Because they seems to be built for artists, art lovers, higher income individuals and the wealthy who’s lives seems to revolve around art.

However, when art is represented in a cultural way, either by portraying a people’s culture in an art form then it doesn’t become intimidating anymore. And that form of art we have become to appreciate — which is visual arts. As Kimberly Drew, the author of, This Is What I Know About Art, cannily observed, This is because art, and more broadly the world of culture, can help us to better see and understand our own subjectivity. At its best, art can be a pathway to worlds far, far away and a compass for making sense of exactly where we are right now.

Photo Credit: New York Times

Within his training as a historian of modern and contemporary art, Dr. Huey Copeland, an associate professor of art history and the Arthur Andersen Teaching and Research Professor at Northwestern University, focuses on contributing to conversations about artists of African descent, whom he calls “astonishing creators of form who do significant work on construction of blackness.” Across the African diaspora, he says, Black peoples within countries “have a particular understanding of what it means not only to see, but to be seen, not only to produce an object, but to be produced as an object given the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So they have made a unique contribution to the field of visual art with wide-ranging and radical artistic visions.”

Throughout time African cultures and traditions have use arts whether visual or contemporary arts along with sculptures and masks to celebrate the magnificence of the culture and traditions passed down by ancestors. These traditions have deeper roots, meaning and purpose for the people celebrating them. For example, The Benin Bronzes. You may have heard about the return of these bronzes to their original habitat. Benin Bronzes are a group of more than a thousand metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now modern-day Nigeria. Not to be confused with the Republic of Benin. One is the former Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria; the other a successor state of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, now called the Republic of Benin.

Photo Credit: New York Times

In an article by Emmanuel Konde titled, The African Bronze Art Culture of the Bight of Benin and its Influence on Modern Art Konde argues that Historical evidence suggests that the rise of the two Benin kingdoms was influenced by similar social forces and that the founders of these kingdoms shared a strong cultural affinity. Consequently, both Benins developed a sculptural art form in bronze casting of high quality that probably issued from the same culture complex and shared experiences. If the peoples of the kingdoms of Benin and Dahomey were not originally the same people who were eventually separated by migrations occasioned by the struggles of state formation, at least a vibrant and dynamic culture contact between them culminated in a diffusion of arts and crafts that ultimately resulted in striking similarities between their bronze sculptures. There is also a likelihood that trade between the two kingdoms included exchanges in artistic products that influenced imitations and copiousness of material culture. Collectively, the Benin bronzes form the best known examples of Benin art, created from the thirteenth century onwards, by the Edo people, which also included other sculptures in brass or bronze, including some famous portrait heads and smaller pieces. In 1897 most of the plaques and other objects were looted by British forces during a punitive expedition to the area as imperial control was being consolidated in Southern Nigeria. Two hundred of the pieces were taken to the British Museum, London, while the rest were purchased by other European museums.[4] Today, a large number are held by the British Museum. Other notable collections are in Germany and the USA.

Photo Credit: New York Times

The Benin Bronzes led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art. Initially, it appeared incredible to the discoverers that people "supposedly so primitive and savage" were responsible for such highly developed objects. Some even wrongly concluded that Benin knowledge of metallurgy came from the Portuguese traders who were in contact with Benin in the early modern period. In actual fact the Benin Empire was a hub of African civilization before the Portuguese traders visited and it is clear that the bronzes were made in Benin from an indigenous culture. Many of these dramatic sculptures date to the thirteenth century, centuries before contact with Portuguese traders, and a large part of the collection dates to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is believed that two "golden ages" in Benin metal workmanship occurred during the reigns of Esigie (fl. 1550) and of Eresoyen (1735–50), when their workmanship achieved its highest qualities. While the collection is known as the Benin Bronzes, like most West African "bronzes" the pieces are mostly made of brass of variable composition. There are also pieces made of mixtures of bronze and brass, of wood, of ceramic, and of ivory, among other materials. The metal pieces were made using lost-wax casting and are considered among the best sculptures made using this technique. 

Sibylle Bergemann on her series of Dakar, Senegal in 2001.

To appreciate African arts or any arts for that matter is to understand its origin and the stories of the people behind it. As Copeland argued, art history is challenging because art can’t be understood apart from its social, historical and cultural contexts. Therefore, the question becomes how do we understand such magnificent art like the Benin Bronzes if their true meaning and history is being hidden better yet, they are being reserved for the upper class and claimed ownership by institutions who looted them in the first place. Victor Ehikhamenor a Nigerian artist challenged this rationale, in a New York Times article, Give Us Back What Our Ancestors Made. There is an axiom of my elders: The earthworm says it used to own a lot of gold jewelry, but now that it burrows the earth and covers itself in mud, no one believes it. As a Nigerian, I’m reminded of that whenever I encounter some of the exquisite objects looted from Benin City, in southern Nigeria, in Western museums. I always feel a strong urge to tell others around me that these works belong to my country, but I know they would doubt me because a revered Western institution claims them as its own.

Photo Credit: New York Times

Moreover, another question that comes to mind is, how do we celebrate or appreciate a culture without risking to appropriate it? We have seen a lot of cultural appropriation especially in the fashion industry who will use a particular theme for their project without doing thorough research or due-diligence and risked appropriating. There’s nothing wrong with drawing inspirations from a people’s culture and use it in an artistic form that both appreciate and gives credit where credit is due. Cultural arts therefore, occurs whenever creative people decide to artistically enhance what is around them and in so doing create something magnificent that is both appreciative of the culture and gives credit to its true essence and creators.  It is important to understand, however, that there is a difference between appreciation and appropriation.  Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally.  Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.  Appropriation could mean of purchasing a piece of jewelry or clothing that may have important cultural significance to that culture, but simply using it as a fashion statement. Regardless, taking a part of another culture without understanding what it truly means can be harmful not only to those whose culture you are using but also to those with whom you share it.

Jordan Casteel: Within Reach at New York Museum

So, how can you explore and take part in a culture without exploiting it for your own use? A beautiful portrayal of such is Beyoncé’s Black is King body of work - a visual album directes, written and executive produced by Beyoncé herself and released last week Friday on the streaming service Disney+. A visual companion to the album The Gift — itself a companion to the release of the live-action remake of Disney's The Lion King — Black Is King is a retelling, of sorts, of the same story. A quote that seems to summarize this great body of work states, "To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist." And that that longing may be for the certainty of identity.

Beyonce: Black is King

Beyonce did an unbelieving job in telling the story of Black belonging and regality in a visual arts form. You can see that a lot of thoughts and research went into the project. It’s both a celebration of African culture, tradition and arts. In an article by Cate Young for NPR, Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Is A Sumptuous Search For Divine Identity. "Knowles has long said she is a visual thinker, and those skills are never more apparent than when she applies them to her music. She is also a consummate collaborator. The music of The Gift itself draws on the legacy of afrobeat, blending the work of African artists like Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage, Nija and Shatta Wale with contributions from Black American artists like Tierra Whack, Pharrell Williams, Childish Gambino and Knowles' husband, JAY-Z. Using music as a conduit, she tries to be expansive in her view of the creative potential of Black people, taking time to highlight both the extremes of hyper-excellence and the divinity in the mundanity of everyday life."

If you are the type of person who loves to travel and enjoy immersing into other cultures and art related experiences alike, attending biennales may help. Biennales are increasingly important in the promotion and representation of contemporary African art, both on and off the continent. For example the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Arts (Dak'Art), created in 1990, is the most well-known contemporary example on the African continent. It was preceded by arts festivals such as the Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres in Senegal in 1966 and the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Cultures (FESTAC) in 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria (Katchka, 2013). Like their Western counterparts, African biennales present artistic and commercial opportunities for participating artists, and they likewise create moments in which local, national, and global identities are represented and, at times, reinforced.

I believe as we continue to travel more and enjoy immersing into other cultures we will begin to appreciate  them learn their deeper meaning and embrace them without risking to appropriate them. We borrow ideas and draw inspirations from each other base on our experiences especially experiences that inspire and uplift us and perhaps shift our understanding and perspective for the better. And traveling can be one of those experiences that teaches us the universality of playing dress-up in other peoples’ styles by appreciation rather than appropriation. 

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