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What is modernism in African art and when did it take place?

The last of a three-part series investigates modernity and the cultural underpinnings around its conception in African diaspora artists who contributed to the Western canon.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Mar 15, 2022

A century after modernism, we take a look at the movement and time period through a contemporary lens, through its successes, failures, abstractions of issues, and the impact that it has on ideas in the present. Modernism and modernity encompassed certain ideals that moved away from the past and responded to changes in technology and society, including coming to terms with an industrialised, worker-driven society in Europe. It becomes important to consider the situatedness of the modernist movement in the European and largely western contextualisation. Modernity becomes an encompassing movement across the humanities through philosophy, art, literature, music and more.

Overall, modernism can be understood as an accepted visual and aesthetic language that is a rejection of history, occurring as the avant-garde movements during the 20th century. However, what remains unacknowledged is a discourse around colonialism, imperialism, and slavery that takes place simultaneously in the time period, despite propagation of values around democracy and equality in the rest of the (western) world. Concurrently occurring during the European period of modernity is the influence of African cultures on post-impressionist and Cubist painting in the 20th century, as propagated by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and others.

Jacob’s Ladder, 1984, Mixed media on paper, Skunder Boghossia | Skunder Boghossia | STIRworld
Jacob’s Ladder, 1984, Mixed media on paper, Skunder Boghossia Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In order to define African modernism, art historians have looked to African diaspora artists who were exiled or went through self-imposed exile from their home countries, to settle in different western countries and have been influenced by the artistic movements that they have been exposed to, and built their practices on the foundations of such. There are a number of African artists who were influenced by western modernist concepts and formed their own unique imagery through a combination of the former with traditional African influences to artmaking.

Ernest Mancoba’s work moved between primitivist style of sculpture and painting, inspired by African forms to a form of abstraction after 1939. Eventually his interest moved away from figuration and objects towards a re-presentation of the object and human form melded with abstraction. A total form of abstraction that replicated the western form would perhaps signal an emulation of the same ideals or a sort of assimilation visually and culturally, that was not suited to the political movement of Pan-Africanism. Mancoba spent much of his professional career in Europe.

Skunder Boghossian was an Ethiopian-Armenian artist who lived and worked out of the US largely. Through his artistic career he continued to be inspired by African traditional motifs, paper forms and talismanic accompaniments, creating space for a new vocabulary of African modern art to flourish. Wall paintings were of particular importance to him, which he studied and incorporated into his works. Images and material occupations from Ethiopian life were also incorporated into his paintings that tried to break conventional compositional value, towards a modernism that can be compared to that of Europe.

African Guernica, 1967, Charcoal on Newsprint, Dumile Feni | Dumile Feni | STIRworld
African Guernica, 1967, Charcoal on Newsprint, Dumile Feni Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dumile Feni, on the other hand, was a South African contemporary artist who was known for his treatment of the apartheid through his works in the country. He spent much of his life in exile and living in poverty, though he had gained recognition in Johannesburg during his early years as an artist. Due to his critical attitude towards the South African regime, he eventually left for exile. His works were expressive and often stark interpretations of the social regimentation that was taking place as a part of the apartheid.

The Jazz Band, 1961, Oil on canvas, Gerard Sekoto | Gerard Sekoto | STIRworld
The Jazz Band, 1961, Oil on canvas, Gerard Sekoto Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What did artistic modernism look like in Africa? In order to tackle this question, it is important to consider the preconceived notions around modernity in terms of artistic style, historical situatedness, and to take into consideration the political stratifications that were taking place at the same time. It is only between the years of 1957 and 1962 that 24 African nations gained independence. It is also important to understand the relevance of the original question and what that reveals about the consideration of modernism as a global phenomenon, instead of as historically, politically and socially situated movements within a Eurocentric view.

Self-portrait, 1961, Watercolour on paper, Skunder Boghossia | Skunder Boghossia | STIRworld
Self-portrait, 1961, Watercolour on paper, Skunder Boghossia Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Another point of consideration becomes our understanding of Africa as a continent and the (post-)colonial conception of its image. Central to the modernist question is the idea of political and aesthetic agency as well as self-determination within the nation-state framework, alongside processes of decolonisation, education, societal construction, and so on. The question rather becomes how we want to understand modernism to begin with, as a movement or a stylistic and conceptual sensibility specific to a time period, rather than a definition of the time period itself. Africa as a continental mass that is understood still in a homogenised fashion, conflating several cultures into one, is a colonial approach that veils the reality of slavery and imperialist histories that have in turn defined our conception of Africa. A process of decolonisation begins with investigating histories that have been buried in order to generate the future that defines cultural machinery.

Trois Femmes (Three Women), 1908, Oil on canvas, Pablo Picasso | Pablo Picasso | STIRworld
Trois Femmes (Three Women), 1908, Oil on canvas, Pablo Picasso Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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