The appeal of African Art

Posted by Ana on May 24th, 2015 | post in Uncategorized |No comment

As the colonial conquest of Africa proceeded during the 19th century, more and more African artefacts appeared in the museums and art markets of Europe. The idea of African art received a big boost in the 1890s when hundreds of fine brass sculptures, looted during the British conquest of Benin City in Nigeria, were sold on the open market, and many found their way into the British Museum. Later colonial adventurers continued to bring new surprises as they shipped back to Europe large collections of exotic artefacts in styles which Europeans had never seen before. Some African artefacts were presented to colonial administrators, missionaries and residents. Some were purchased, with detailed documentation by anthropologists, other by expatriate residents, collectors and art dealers. Such people have all contributed to the collections of the British Museum. For a long time African artefacts in Europe, unlike European and Asian ‘works of art’, were of more interest to anthropologists than to art historians. Then in the 1900s the avant garde art movement in Paris began to take an interest in sculpture from West and Central Africa, which came to the notice of art historians through its influence on their work. What was its appeal? Artists described their perceptions of remarkable formal qualities quite different from those in their own cultural tradition. They read into them the kinds of symbolic meanings they were seeking to express in their own work, promoting the view that Africans could create art, but of a very particular kind. To those struggling against the constraints of the naturalistic artistic tradition of Europe, such African art offered a refreshing and potent vision of the creativity of ‘natural man’.

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