African art is never far from the headlines these days. Calls for the restitution of artefacts looted during the colonial era have been coming from Africa for decades; but until recently, they had fallen on deaf ears. Now, commitments by national governments such as Germany and France – as well as major museums across the world – to return objects in their collections are coming thick and fast.
While Britain has lagged behind the curve, there are signs that this might be changing. Last year, Aberdeen University announced it was to return a sculpture of an African king, one of the notorious Benin bronzes, that, it said, had been acquired by Britain in an “extremely immoral” manner in 1897. Earlier this year, the Horniman Museum, in London, said it was returning all 72 of its Benin bronzes to modern-day Nigeria.
And last month, a debate in the House of Lords featured several voices sympathetic to restitution – among them the Conservative peer Ed Vaizey, who spoke of doing “the right thing and return[ing] artefacts to their place of origin”.
Such debates often revolve around philosophical questions, such as whether restitution is a moral imperative or reparations are owed. Yet the importance of these artworks, as well as the clamour for their return, is equally bound up with the complicated tale of what actually happened when they came to the West – and what has happened to them since.
Until the 1980s, the story would almost invariably have begun like this. One day in 1904 or 1905, a French painter called Maurice de Vlaminck – soon to become, along with Henri Matisse and André Derain, one of the principal players in the Fauve movement – visited a Parisian bistro, where he became entranced by three statues. Two, painted in white and yellow ochre, were from Dahomey (the modern-day republic of Bénin); the other from the Ivory Coast. Suddenly, it struck him that these sculptures were in fact “the expression of an instinctive art”. They intrigued him so much that he bought them from the bistro and took them home.
Objects from Africa had been arriving in the West in the hands of colonial missionaries for several decades, and had largely been treated this way: not as art but as curiosities, quaint trinkets from “primitive” cultures. Yet in the drastically abbreviated sculptural language of African artists, Vlaminck and painters like him saw, instead, a way out of the impasse that art had reached. They found a means of eschewing the naturalism that had governed Western painting since the Renaissance, in favour of art that instead spoke the language of signs and symbols, making a more direct appeal to the intellect and connecting with deeper spiritual realities than anything they’d known before.
When he told this tale later, Vlaminck was probably exaggerating. It is highly likely that he saw his first African objects in 1906, around the time that Matisse, Picasso and many others began to recount similar experiences. Picasso’s encounter, in fact, was perhaps more pivotal: in 1907, he came upon a number of masks, faces radically elongated, that were made by the Fang people of what are now Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The masks would reappear later that year in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – a work in which five prostitutes, two with Fang-style faces, confront the viewer with their nakedness. With its angular forms and collapsing of perspective, this painting is a key precursor to Cubism. Yet these modernists were responding to African works on instinct and knew little of the cultures that had made them.
In Britain, for much of the 20th century, displays of this material were confined to institutions that displayed it as ethnography, rather than art. In Paris, a major show in 1923 of Indigenous Art of the French Colonies of Africa and Oceania and the Belgian Congo kept the imperial emphasis, though it did at least attribute to African works the status of art. The first survey of African art in the US took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935; wildly successful, it was pitched to New Yorkers as evidence that “modern art has in several of its phases been much influenced by primitive African art”.
This was indicative of the fact that art-world gatekeepers remained more interested in how Western artists were inspired by African works than in those works themselves. They were in for a rude awakening, and it came in 1984. That year, MoMA staged an exhibition called “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern, a blockbuster that paired Picasso et al with pieces that inspired them. The response was brutal. Artforum critic Thomas McEvilley led the charge in accusing the curators of demonstrating (in terms that now, in turn, seem dated) “the almost autistic reflexivity of Western civilisation’s modes of referring to the culturally Other”. The MoMA debacle came to be seen as a watershed. Museums could no longer treat African art as a tributary to the Western mainstream.
The story needed broadening out – and across Africa, artists and writers were already doing just that. Avant-garde artists and movements proliferated across Africa in the 1960s and ’70s – from the Zaria Rebels of Nigeria to the Casablanca School spearheaded by Farid Belkahia and Mohamed Melehi. What these movements had in common was a reaction against Western-style arts education in favour of rediscovering traditional aesthetic principles.
Contemporary African art has recently been booming in the marketplace. Auction sales increased by 44 per cent in 2021, from $50m (£44m) to $72m, while the number of dedicated galleries both on the African continent and across Europe and America has surged in recent years. Yet, because investment and interest in African art largely fell away in the postcolonial period, chances to explore African art from the middle of the 20th century remain few and far between in British institutions, which makes it harder to consider how artists working today relate to the work of their predecessors.
“We have come a long way since the ethnic and essentialist stereotypes associated with modernist ‘primitivism’,” says Osei Bonsu, a curator of international art at Tate Modern. “But many institutions and critics still struggle to engage with African artists on their own terms.”
Not for want of trying by artists themselves. Chika Okeke-Agulu, an artist and professor at Princeton University, points to a generation of artists from Africa and its diaspora – from Abdoulaye Konaté in Mali to the Kenyan-born, Surrey-based studio potter Magdalene Odundo or Theaster Gates in America – whose great achievement has been to “make us utterly aware, more than preceding modernists in Europe and elsewhere ever did, of traditional African art forms as a generous archival resource.”
Béninois artist Romuald Hazoumè, for instance, is known for his masques bidons, witty satirical reimaginings of traditional African masks made from petrol cans. They’re currently on display at October Gallery in Bloomsbury.
When I ask him how he considers his work in relation to the art of the past, he does not – as Picasso and company once did – make mention of formal or stylistic concerns. His connections run deeper. Just as his forebears once created art (he says) “to educate our community”, with sculptures that deterred would-be tree-fellers from medicinal plants, or masks that emphasised the sacredness of nature, Hazoumè sees his own art as a means of “protecting [his] people”, warning of contemporary dangers such as oil and plastic consumption.
Connections such as these remind us that the question of the meaningful return of Africa’s stolen heritage is not only about atoning for the wrongs of the past. Though past recalcitrance of Western governments has made it inevitable, treating African art as a political football does it a disservice. The arts of Africa should have pride of place in art’s present and future story. – Telegraph