The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art: Reintroducing Africa in Modern African Art
The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) and its extensive collection of traditional (antique) and modern art pieces—both African and foreign—represents an opportunity to create awareness and reintroduce art as a potent force for national reconstruction and transformation. The significance of the museum is also demonstrated by its unique position as the only such rich (private) collection of art made available to the public, especially in the face of the neglect and deterioration of existing centers (national museums) for the collection and preservation of the symbols of our national cultural heritage. Furthermore, this “national resource” location in an academic environment (the Pan Atlantic University) is most strategic. It will facilitate the museum’s vision to introduce and educate young people—through various youth engagement programs—on the universality and versatility of art as a medium of communication, a source of inspiration and historical reconstruction, and as a symbol of social evolution human creativity.
Walking through the museum, a young observant guest might wonder at the origins of the (different) art on display, especially contemporary art pieces that portray a blend in their subject, material, and form. Such an individual will be interested to know that this is an outcome of social evolution classified into stages based on the variance of their material cultures as reflected in their art subjects and forms. Also, society is currently at the “commercial stage,” marked by increased cultural contact and exchange adequately captured by a blend of art cultures, producing a (modern) fusion. The current (Western-dominated) commercial stage in social evolution, recognized as having begun from the 15th century with the voyages of exploration, has been characterized by an intense race to assert cultural supremacy as justification for political domination and resource appropriation. In Africa, the initial appearance of mercantilist European nations on its southern shores meant the establishment of trade and diplomatic relations and the beginning of a gradual process of cultural exchange and influence. However, the decision by the more technologically advanced Europe to assert control over its “legitimate” trade with Africa as a means to guarantee unfettered access to its resources was followed by colonialism—a state of European socio-political and economic domination.
The 19th century western political, cultural, and economic hegemony in Africa was intellectually fostered through what is now known as “colonial historiography,” a body of knowledge based on a colonialist ideology that sought to establish western culture as the most advanced (supreme) and consequently renders the “Other” inferior. Thus, preparatory to and during colonialism, the African (south of the Sahara) saw every aspect of his existence—anatomy, psychology, philosophy, and agency—come under attack in the observation, analysis, and commentary of travelers/explorers, missionaries, colonial officials and intellectuals—anthropologists, sociologists, and historians—who sought to discredit, deny or demean everything (Black) African. To invoke Pentti Kanerva about India:
…colonial historiography was part of an ideological effort to appropriate history as a means of establishing cultural hegemony and legitimizing British rule…The basic idea embedded in the tradition of colonial historiography was the paradigm of a backward society’s progress towards the pattern of modern European civil and political society under the tutelage of the imperial power.
This follows the tenets of “modernization theory” that stipulates a progressive evolution of society from a “traditional,” “primitive,” or “pre-modern” state to a modern one. Thus, in traversing the field of African art in the era of “modernity,” it is pertinent to briefly describe the theoretical arguments that have surrounded the conceptual parameters of what has become a widely contentious concept (modernity), one that is commonly viewed as an outcome of the 17th-century renaissance (early modernism) and the 18th-century enlightenment in Europe.
According to an accessible source, “modernity, a topic in the humanities and social sciences is both a historical period (the modern era) and the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes, and practices that arose in the wake of the Renaissance—in the ‘Age of Reason’ of 17th-century thought and the 18th-century Enlightenment.” The central contention surrounds the construal of “modernity” as European in origin and as a 17th-19th century phenomenon. As Henry J. Drewal observes in “Local Transformations, Global Inspirations: The Visual Histories and Cultures of Mami Wata Arts in Africa,” Modernity is not a European invention… It results from the interactions and exchanges of diverse peoples across the planet over a long period of time. Hence, African art has always been modern, owing to its ability to spread its influence across cultures and transform to keep up with the changing traditions. To further buttress his point, Drewal points to the contribution of “primitive” African (Baule and Fang) art, which largely inspired the “modernist” movement in European art in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Drewal concludes that “it was African art that ‘modernized’ European art at the turn of the 20th century and not the reverse,” the consensus amongst contemporary western scholars and artists is that the encounter with African art was one of the “sparks” that produced a paradigmatic change in 20th-century European art.
In addition to the importance of establishing the validity or otherwise of these arguments in determining the extent to which African traditions and experiences have remained a major influence on the subject, technique, and form of African art in the “modern” era, there is also a need to provide a working definition of what the modern era connotes. This is important for situating our analysis within an ideal timeframe, one where the phenomenon of modern African art, which combines both African and Western art forms to produce an African hybrid under scrutiny, found expression. For Africa, this modern or contemporary era began with increased cultural contact between the continent and Europe. And if the 15th-century African coastal trade with the Portuguese marked the beginning of extensive cultural contact between Africa and Europe, the totalism of 19th and 20th-century European colonialism in Africa pushed the cultural relations to hegemonic levels. Thus, modernism here is linked with the growth of modernity in Africa, tied to colonialism and its modernization crusade.
As hinted above, “colonial historiography”—representative of a biased colonial ideology—was the tool deployed in the effort to demean and relegate the person (culture, tradition, and agency) of the African. Thus, the colonial education established to fulfill the colonial need for subordinate workforce initially paid no attention to African visual art as part of a tradition already written off as “primitive.” Moreover, as Chika Okeke-Agulu in his essay “Modern African Art” explains, “The notion of artistic freedom was antithetical to the ethos of colonialism.” This notwithstanding, continues Okeke-Agulu, “as colonialism made European material culture and ideas more available, artists from the colonies invented new artistic expressions that reflected Africa’s encounter with Europe and the rest of the globe.”
Art was not taught formally in the non-Islamic regions of Africa until the first decade of the 20th century and at the behest of educated Africans like Aina Onabolu (considered the region’s “first modern artist”), who impressed on the colonial administration in Lagos to introduce art courses to secondary schools. It was also a similar scenario in Islamic North Africa (Egypt, Algeria, Morocco) where, even with the substantial presence of Western artists—both visiting and settled—in what is known as the “Romantic era,” the colonial government did nothing to encourage the establishment of training. However, in Egypt, Prince Yusef Kamal, a politician, called for formal art education—the School of Fine Arts, Cairo, 1908. Furthermore, this forms one major reason the colonial or Western-style education is denied the originator of modern African art. Rather, as Chika Okeke-Agulu explains in “Modern African Art,” it is owed to “a few individuals to whom art as an autonomous practice became a medium for expressing their subjectivity and coming to terms with their sociopolitical circumstances—with their emergent modernities.”
Art in colonial Africa—in the pre-war years (before 1945)—became a vehicle for engaging the colonial establishment through sculptural and performance practices, which critiqued (with humor) the person of the colonialists—another evidence of African modern artistic expression outside Western education. The post-war period was also of remarkable significance to the development of modern African art. In reaction to the colonial government’s reluctance to establish art education, some African artists traveled to Europe for art training in European colleges, often on personal sponsorship. In Egypt and South Africa, art academies were in existence before the war. However, the racial situation in the South prevented the possibility of Black artists profiting from the institutional structures offered to their white counterparts. As a result, some of South Africa’s pioneering (modern) Black artists, including Ernest Mancoba and Gerard Sekoto, were compelled to migrate to Europe to access such facilities. In Egypt and other parts of the Islamic North, the situation was slightly different. The departure of some of its pioneering artists followed their graduation from local art colleges like the Cairo School of Fine Arts, leaving for either Paris or London for higher studies.
African artists in this nascent stage of modern African art that coincided with the rise of anti-colonial sentiments used their art to communicate the social, political, and cultural changes experienced within colonial African society. Even in diaspora, where a crop of pioneering African modern artists from different regions of the continent—Ben Enwonwu (1919-94) Nigeria, Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002), South Africa, Christian Lattier (1925-1978), Ivory Coast, Mahmoud Muktar (1891-1934) Egypt, amongst others—sought higher educational opportunities, they followed the debates on colonialism and African independence, participated in Black Congresses, and through their art, contributed to the movement for emancipation. Notable among such independent art is Mahmoud Muktar’s sculpture Egypt Awakening.
Later on in the continent, the founding of art schools in Kumasi, Ghana (1936), Makerere, Uganda (1937), Khartoum, Sudan (1946), Ibadan and Zaria, Nigeria (1953 and 1955), provided opportunities for interaction between African artists, political activists, and writers. These art schools, which began with curricula modeled after European prototypes, were later steered towards inculcating and producing traditional African art forms by the society’s artists who established art societies, such as the Art Society of the College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria. Reporting this development in “Modern African Art,” Chris Okeke-Agulu explains that:
The society’s artists embarked on an aggressive recovery of traditional Nigerian art forms in all their historical variants. Combining media and techniques learned in art school. They encouraged less reliance on European subject matter and formal tropes. They were also concerned with the role of the artist in a culture in transition.
In response to the political mood (nationalist fervor) of the period symbolized by Nkrumah’s concept of African personality and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabism, other African artists developed interests in indigenous art traditions and cultures, especially in the face of the intellectual attacks on colonial logic.
With African independence, some European-trained African modern artists returned home (except for South Africa) to serve their home governments in one administrative capacity or the other. And in their practice, they consciously adopted and adapted European art forms and techniques while turning to African traditions for inspiration. This, in 1964, led to the statements from William Fagg and Margaret Plass describing “contemporary” African art as an “extension of European art by a kind of involuntary cultural colonialism.” This attempt to decry modern African art as lacking “authenticity” and deny the African artist’s agency informs our question of the extent of “Africa in Modern African Art.”
In another vein, the post-independence decline in the role of art in African societies, which has been relegated mostly to serving tourists’ appetites and earning foreign revenue, is evidence of the dwindling appreciation of the historical, cultural, and political importance of art. Although this emphasis on servicing particular (foreign) tastes may not immediately pose tangible threats to the continued preservation of indigenous traditional art subjects, especially considering that the artworks are primarily valued for their otherness, the indigenous social relevance that gave these artworks their distinctive aesthetic quality/relevance might be lost, trapping African art in stasis. The YSMA is set to lead us on the right path.