"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


africa is not a country

The following is from an interesting meditation on the meaning of out-of-context African art - and whether it should even be considered art. Because nothing drives me crazier than people asking if I speak African, or if I know their friend who was in the Peace Corps in Guinea, I particularly appreciated this bit on the absurdity of referring to "African" culture, people, etc.:

"...the "African" part can make the mind reel.

"Dozens of different language groups; peoples as different as the pygmies of the Congo basin and the Masai herders of the Serengeti plains -- not to mention the modern city dwellers of Lagos and Cape Town, 3,000 miles apart; religions as different as the animism of the remote camps in the Kalahari and the Sufi Islam of Senegal; "artworks" as different as the illuminated Bibles of Ethiopia, the export ivories carved five centuries ago by Benin royal craftsmen and the animal masks of the Mossi of Burkina Faso -- how could we imagine that any single adjective could meaningfully encompass all that?

"Or that the geological borders that happen to enclose a 12-million-square-mile landmass would also be the edges of a coherent mass of art or culture?

"However much we might recognize that variety, when it comes to talking about "African art," or to visiting a museum dedicated to it, it's very hard not to think that there's a there, there -- that "African culture" is something worth talking about in general terms. But studying the creativity of the vast continent of Africa probably makes about as much sense as looking at what goes on in a similarly sized chunk of land running, say, from northern Norway to the southern tip of Saudi Arabia, with its far corners touching Lisbon, Moscow and Kabul. Except that our imaginary continent of "Norabia" would probably have more cultural coherence than Africa ever could.

"Here's my guess about the one, absurdly superficial quality that truly unites the people we call "African" -- or at least those who live south of the Sahara, who made all the African art the Tishmans bought. The very top layer of their skin happens to have rather more pigment in it than their European "discoverers" were used to seeing. That, more than anything else, is what gave those people the unifying identity that white, Western museum culture has tended to see in them."



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