In the 1800s, English critic John Ruskin declared that not a single piece of African art belonged in any art museum in the world. Over a century later, his view has prevailed--African art is still seen mostly in the world’s ethnographic institutions rather than its palaces of high culture.
Now, however, Africa 95--England’s current celebration of African art and artists--is changing all that. Since August, and continuing through January, Britain has been playing host to the most comprehensive expression of African culture ever assembled. At dozens of prestigious venues in 25 cities--from Prince Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and the Tate Gallery in Liverpool--visual art, drama, dance, music and scholarly symposiums are being offered up under the Africa 95 umbrella.
The centerpiece of this extravaganza is the visual arts blockbuster “Africa: Art of a Continent” at London’s Royal Academy of Art--the largest and costliest exhibition in the museum’s history. “Art of a Continent” covers African achievements from prehistory to the turn of the century, with 800 objects filling all 13 of the main-floor galleries. In February, it moves to Berlin, and arrives at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in June.
The exhibition’s “journey” through African art starts with a million-and-a-half-year-old Olduvai hand ax. “No earlier artifact exists on earth,” writes the show’s curator, Tom Phillips, an English artist and African art collector, in the six-pound catalog. “All art and technology begin here as all history begins here.”
Among the treasures on display is an Egyptian torso, revealed by the delicate draping of a diaphanous gown, and virtuosic wood carvings from East Africa. There is a 19th century Sudanese lyre festooned with beads and coin and bells, and the world’s earliest portative painting, dated 25000 BC. There are also masks from colonial collections that, when first seen by European artists early in the century, caused at least that segment of the art world to dismiss Ruskin out of hand: “These works,” wrote Picasso, ". . . are the most powerful and beautiful things the human imagination has created.”
The current reaction to Africa 95, and especially to the Royal Academy exhibition, has been almost equally rhapsodic. “This is great art, all of it, and this is one of those rare exhibitions that change perception and understanding forever,” William Packer wrote in the Financial Times. “An array of heart-stoppingly beautiful, relentlessly interesting masterpieces . . .,” wrote Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times. “It is clear we have been misled mightily in the past, completely underestimating the sophistication of various African civilizations, overestimating the tribal, the bellicose, the exotic. We are pig-ignorant about African art.”
How did it come about that Britain, a nation that zealously prizes its own culture, that has a bitter colonial history and a crop of current racial problems, should shine such a spotlight on African art?
In fact, Africa 95 was the long-simmering product of a network of African art aficionados in London. One was Clementine DeLiss, a young art historian working since the ‘80s with contemporary African artists; another was Norman Rosenthal, director of the Royal Academy, who’d become interested in African art after seeing a traveling exhibition from Nigeria in 1982. Along with Tom Phillips and a handful of others (including Nigerian-born novelist Simi Bedford and collector and African art patron Richard Loder), they approached the British government in 1992 with a proposal for a two-part event--the Royal Academy would present the “historical” show; DeLiss would coordinate contemporary artist-led performances and exhibitions nationwide.
In 1993, the festival met its first goal. Britain’s Foreign Office declared Africa 95 “in the interests of Britain,” and invited Sir Michael Caine--not the actor, but the former chairman of the multinational Booker Co., current chair of the Booker Literary Awards and president of the Royal African Society--to head the organizing committee and help raise money.
Caine knew it wouldn’t be easy. Money for arts was already a scarce commodity, and African art was hardly a shoo-in blockbuster. Earlier exhibitions had been plagued by Ruskin-style questions: Is African art “art”? Can it be understood “out of context”? And newer political issues also presented problems. Africans would be involved in every phase of Africa 95, but its initiators were for the most part European whites.
“It was all very difficult,” Caine said over tea in his London flat. “The queen didn’t come aboard until late. I guess the palace didn’t want to be associated with something that might prove a failure.”
Caine’s strategy was clear: The lion’s share of funding and sponsorship must come from the companies that did business in Africa or wanted to--for example, DeBeers, the diamond merchants, would become a major supporter. The European Development Fund and the British government would also contribute, but African governments were not approached initially.
“We didn’t want to give them a say on which [contemporary] artists could come,” he explained, because in some cases important artists were also important anti-government activists.
By March, South African President Nelson Mandela and Senegal’s poet-philosopher Leopold Sedar Senghor were joined by Queen Elizabeth as official patrons of Africa 95. By June, more than 5 million pounds, or $7.5 million, in cash or in kind had been raised.
And, once the events were up and running, the questions raised by Africa 95 seem to disappear handily. The predicted “minefield” of opposition, for example, failed to develop. The magazine West Africa editorialized: “Some think that Africa 95 should not have been formulated outside Africa . . . but someone had to do it. We have waited too long.” And criticisms of the Royal Academy show were minor.
Curator Phillips has been pleased by the English press reaction to the show, taking little credit for himself. “Many were simply put off guard by the overwhelming quality,” he said. “Britain has a long colonial tradition of thinking about Africa and Africans as ignorant. Therefore [they] categorize[d] their artifacts as unlikely to be good. The whole world was patronizing.”
One of the questions raised by Africa 95 that hasn’t gone away is what sort of ripple effect it might have. Genocide, starvation, tribal war and corruption tend to dominate the image of Africa in the media. Can Africa 95 change that as well?
Euro-African writer Gabriel Gbadamosi, who was present at Africa 95’s international symposium for artists and scholars, thinks it’s possible.
“Art is always a good ice-breaker,” he said, smiling. “It can be a wonderful Trojan horse. It can be smuggled into pockets of space inside a fortress. Who knows?”