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• a flea e e CULTURAL CELEBRATION OR COLONIALISM? Olabisi Silva n 1990,the late John Povey, editor of African Arts, wrote an article in which he asked,"What are we going to do about contemporaryAfrican art?" Above: Memorial Head, Akan, Ghana, 17th-19th century, terracotta, courtesy Royal Academy, london. Opposite page: Seydou KeitlI, Untitled, 1956-57, courtesy Serpentine Gallery, london. BaJournal of Contemporary African Art· Sprin9 1996 Ali Omar Ermes, Aahhh, 1993, acrylic and ink on paper mounted on canvas, 150 x 200 em, courtesy Rose Issa. At the 1989 triennial symposium gathering of Africanists in Baltimore, efforts bypanelist Janet Stanley and the late Jean Kennedy to open up the debate on contemporary art from Africa seemed fruitless. Sympathizing with this attempt, Povey laments on the attitude of participants who seemed to consider contemporary African art as "at best marginal, at worst a regrettable intrusion of a tiresome product outside the concerns of serious scholarship." This attitude succinctly illustrates the predicament of contemporary artists from Africa whether they are practicing abroad or on the continent . However, since the late 1980s, there has been a growing interest in visual art from Africa of which exhibitions such as "ChangingTraditions" (1990) at the Studio Museum, ''Africa Explores" (1991) at the Center for African Art, and ''Africa Now" (1992) at the Saatchi Gallery have been part. It is within this context that we were presented with the four month nationwide season of arts, africa95, which ended in December 1995 in England. At the center of this celebration of Africa's cultural and artistic heritage, was t1le mammoth Royal Academy exhibition, ''Africa: Art of a Continent:' The 850 odd objects presented date back millions of years, from the Olduval hand axe (1.6m BP) to early 20th century Dogon masks from Mali. The curator of this ambitious project, artist Tom Phillips, rightly placed the emphasis on the object. The exhibition "Journal of Contemporary African Alt· Spring 1996 does not pretend to be a survey with an ethnographic agenda, but rather a display of magnificent disparate objects created over vast time and space highlighting aesthetic attributes over functional values. However, an exhibition of this nature and scale cannot advert debates around ownership and the return of patrimony as well as issues of provenance and accusations of cultural colonialism. Examples which surface repeatedly include the wholesale pillage of Benin by British soldiers (officially known as the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897) emptying the Royal Palace of some of Nigeria's if not Africa's greatest treasures now to be found in the reserves of the British Museum. Such acts of cultural terrorism by Britain and other European countries will never start to be redeemed until a time when the continent and its people have access. It is inevitable that sooner or later Africans will want to reclaim their cultural heritage. Nonetheless, ''Art of a Continent" presented exquisite objects that allowed new readings and revelations while challenging old notions that have relegated ceremonial, spiritual, and medicinal objects to the domain of curiosities, fetishes, and the primitive. Whether the notion of art - in the western context that is - existed or not, there is no doubt that aesthetic consideration played an important part in the glass bead and cowrie Royal Stool from Cameroon, the terracotta head of a queen (12-13th centuries), or the tomb sculptures from Madagascar. Historically omitted from studies ofAfrica but on this occasion represented by some of the earliest manmade artifacts, were pieces of San Rock from Namibia (c. 25,000 B.C.), a lOth century Lydenburg head from South Africa, and 6th dynasty statuettes from Egypt. African art can and does stand out on its own without being an appendage to Western art. Despite the contentious theories of "elective affinity" propogated in the MoMA "Primitivism" exhibition (1984), the direct influence of African art in changing the course ofwestern art is undisputed : Fang masks in Picasso and Modigliani, Kuba designs in Klee and Egyptian figures in Henry Moore. The importance ofthis exhibition especially for people of African descent is that ''Art of a Continent" confirms and restores pride in a cultural and artistic heritage that has long been the subject of misrepresentation. These artifacts continue to...


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