The invented collective African artist

In a recent issue of Art South Africa, Achille Mbembe articulates on the factors constraining contemporary African culture. Among those factors, he identifies ‘The conflation of African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism’:

The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a collective act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ciphers of a deeper level of the ‘real’ that is fundamentally ethnographic and expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference of ‘authenticity’. It is this African ‘difference’ and this African ‘authenticity’ donors are keen to find, support and, if necessary, invent.

Achille Mbembe ‘Art and Development’ Art South Africa 8/3 2010 pp.70-74

Spirit in a spear blade – Mande Blacksmiths

Patrick McNaugthon’s study of Mali metalsmithing identified a problem in the applying Western distinction between art and life:

The Mande people of Mali, like some other African peoples, give a name to every kind of sculpture that they produce, and also to categories of objects such as wooden twin figures, dolls, animal masks and headdresses (McNaughton 1988:110f.). These names may be revealing as to an object’s perceived spiritual potency. Some types of objects might not be considered as art by Westerners, as in the case of spear blades and oil-burning lamps. Yet the Mande consider their beauty, symbolism, and place in society to take them beyond simple utility. The distinction between art and artifact (or crafts) is not generally marked in African languages.

Patrick R. McNaughton The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power and Art in West Africa Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988

The place of African craft: studio or village?

Potters from Nkwalini Valley in KwaZulu-Natal including Masonto

Potters from Nkwalini Valley in KwaZulu-Natal including Masonto

Potters from Nkwalini Valley in KwaZulu-Natal including Masonto. Photo by Steven Smith. Click image for story.

The online theme for 2.3 is the broad relation between African craft cultures and the modern craft movement. To a large degree, the development of modern craft has coincided with the relocation of craft practice from the village to the studio – from cottage industry to the artistic production of unique objects. Does modern African craft follow a similar path? Does the origin of much African craft tradition in collective ritual entail a loss of meaning when an object is transferred into the cold and quiet space of a gallery? Does this limit the capacity for individual African craftspersons to participate in the international craft arena?

For this issue, we invite those working in the field of African craft to share their thoughts on issues special to their area.

Online from Journal of Modern Craft 2.3: Editorial and Handspring Puppet Company by Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and Tommy Luther