close this bookThe Courier - N°158 - July - August 1996 Dossier Communication and the media - Country report Cape Verde
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View the documentOn creativity... in Africa and elsewhere
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On creativity... in Africa and elsewhere

by Alain Nicolas

The author of this article is head curator and director of the Museum of African, Oceanic and Amerindian Arts in Marseilles. Here he offers his thoughts on the (partially unconscious) reluctance of the 'official' art world in the West - museums, critics and art historians - to accept contemporary African artists. Even now, they tend to be relegated to the sphere of 'alternative' art. However, he believes that the abundance of creative Africans, and the pressure they are exerting on the art world and market will, sooner or later, generate a 'new revolution' in the museums. This iswhat happened in the early20th century when traditional African art first arrived in the West. This article is linked to the dossier on African creativity published in our previous issue.

When I was asked to make this small contribution on African creativity, I was happy to oblige since, as a non-specialist, I am able to content myself with a few generalisations. I believe that there are still barriers, sometime not very visible, but nonetheless real, which have to be broken down.

Unfortunately, writing just a few lines on creativity is a difficult exercise given the amount of literature on the subject and so many divergent opinions. So, what line should I adopt? About 15 years ago - in the wake of hordes of specialists in the humanities from sociology, psychology, ethnology, anthropology and so on - a rational approach, known as 'the anthropology of art', was at last proposed. The term 'rational' should be seen here in the context of the distinction between exact or 'hard' sciences such as mathematics, physics and astronomy, and the humanities, which are essentially inexact or 'soft' disciplines. And in brief, the West tends to take a scientific approach, relying on empirical evidence, even when it seeks to study such subjects as human creativity.

Creativity obviously is to be found in many different spheres. It is needed in technology, it is fundamental to story-telling, it underpins all forms of social organisation and has a part to play in religion. Similarly, what we term 'art' is one of the spheres of creative endeavour. The anthropology of art seeks to document artistic creativity and to analyse the conditions surrounding its expression in various cultures. This is a laudable enterprise insofar as art is regarded as another means of expression, used in one form or another by all human groups.

The creative function is universal

The basic postulate is that any society - and any individual - possesses creative potential which may be expressed in any way. The first thing to examine, therefore, is the context of choice. There are various modes of artistic expression ranging from music, poetry, prose and dance to architecture, painting and fashion. Some individuals or societies may have no choice, perhaps because of socio-economic constraints. Others may favour a particular mode of expression while nonetheless dabbling in more than one area. The expression of creativity is, therefore, like an identifying mark, claimed by the group or by the individual. The concept of 'style' now comes into play. The expression of one group is different from that of another and no two can ever be the same. Fundamental elements are at work in this materialisation of creativity. Some are due to the natural environment. Thus, for example, a society located in a place where wood is abundant may favour sculpture. Others come from the group or individual themselves. And in the final analysis, it is the groups or individuals that decide what to portray (or not) on the basis of their own social norms and what they want to express.

These few limited thoughts should be supplemented by the observation that sculpture or the plastic arts more generally can also be examined from at least two angles: as a means of conveying information, and as a form of linguistic expression.

As regards the former, some have proposed analysing any work of art, from whatever culture, as a message. Analysis of the work therefore includes an examination of the conditions surrounding the production and transmission of the message. What message is broadcast ? How does it function ? What does the addressee gain from it? This approach is fine in hypothetical terms but does not allow one to go beyond theoretical and formal data, teaching us nothing about the content of the message under study. It refers back to the originator who holds the keys to the way in which it was sent and thus to its form and meaning.

Linguistically speaking, we assume that all expression through sculpture is a language and that the techniques for studying language can therefore be applied to the work of art. This approach is more rewarding because it brings us closer both to the sources and to the function of communication.

Be that as it may, all methods involve knowledge of the group or of the individual (but also of the relationships between them) and thus of any organised knowledge. Art cannot be separated from perception. This is the position of the majority of scientists. Yet we are not completely certain of this. Briefly, we are led to imagine that art could be irreducible at a certain level. When we look at a sculpture or listen to a piece of music, aside from the emotional content which is at least partly quantifiable, what are we able to understand about the culture which produced them ?

Having travelled widely throughout the world and kept my eyes open, without having become the 'observer-participant' which the ethnologist should be, I am certain that the same creative function can be seen everywhere, and it is not difficult to identify.

Frequent visits to the world's museums and, perhaps above all, to their vaults, further reinforces the impression that constants do exist and are worthy of more and better investigation. Art, and more particularly the art of others, from other continents, is still the domain of a happy few.

They are usually highly literate people, and are seldom activists expounding a cause.

Contemporary African art must find its niche

The above statements relate as much to contemporary art as to what we term 'traditional' art. How many of the world's museums really show contemporary art from Africa ? It is as if this sector were cut off from current cultural reality. This is despite the fact that each week, new artists, musicians, designers, painters, sculptors, dancers, film-makers, stylists and photographers emerge from Africa, to be 'recognised' in the West (if anyone knows what 'recognition' really means!). The museums are, in fact, confused by this burgeoning of talent because they have no idea how to manage it.

It has been said that contemporary African art is an urban phenomenon aimed at those living in towns and cities - and that it rebels against essentially rural, traditional art.

The argument is that the usual methods for analysing traditional art cannot be fully mobilised because 'urban civilisation' conforms to a set of universal norms (more or less), which are distinct from those studied by ethnologists. It would, therefore, be more appropriate to consider contemporary art in the context of sociology and aesthetics. This may be true, but it still comes down to a matter of observation. Confusion reigns.

When we staged an exhibition in Marseilles by the Senegalese sculptor, Ousmane Sow, the first individual showing of his works came as a major shock to many people, including the specialists. I can remember the reactions of at least two colleagues from museums of contemporary art. What they said was almost identical, and was along the following lines:

· What's the name of this sculptor ? I am not familiar with him...

A N. Do you like his work ?

· Yes, I do, but what's his name ?

A.N. Ousmane Sow

· I don't know him. Astonishing! Where's he from ?

A N. Senegal - he lives in Dakar. Are you interested in his sculptures ?

· Yes, but..

A N. You can buy one of his works - he's not very expensive yet and it would be good for your museum.

· The problem is he's African.

AN. I see...

· His works are more your sphere.

A.N. But they don't have anything to do with traditional art which is what I have in my museum. Ousmane Sow is a contemporary artist, isn't he ?

· Yes, but he's African, and your museum is a museum of African art.

A N. You're correct, I would love to buy one of his works. But it would be the only example of contemporary art in my museum and would represent a change of policy for me. You wouldn't have anything by Ousmane Sow. And we would then be rivals!

Critics, artists and art historians have begun discussing contemporary African art, more and more good reviews of it are being published, talks are being given and some major exhibitions have been mounted. There are pioneers and supporters in France, Germany and elsewhere, and there is even a great museum - Washington's Smithsonian - which took it on board several years ago - but we still seem to be a long way from a commitment from most institutions.

I hope this statement will soon be proved wrong. Institutions do not like taking risks. Either they create 'ghettos' ('let's set up a museum of contemporary African art'), or they set up committees to consider the subject. It is up to us to set our houses in order, but we must not be too naive. This is the art market, after

Although we tend to cling to this somewhat short-sighted administrative view that there should be different institutions depending on whether we are dealing with heritage or contemporary creativity, museums of contemporary art must integrate all the world's sculptural expression. If not, they will be in conflict with the above; postulate which claims that creative potential is the same everywhere.

As for so-called museums of anthropology and also a few rare museums such as the Museum of African, Oceanic and Amerindian Art in Marseilles, the systematic exhibition of contemporary art does generate a number of problems.

When I have wanted to do this in the past, I have been reminded of the 'museographic landscape' and advised to consult the authorities, to organise a major debate on the topic: who, what, where ? That is the rational approach, we are told. There is no great hurry!

In fact, the recent arrival of African artists comes at a moment in our history when we are questioning the existence of our museums. When I say 'we', I mean the West in general.

So, what might happen ? Traditional African art caused an explosion in Western art and traditional art history at the very beginning of the 20th century, with the cubists and their research which led them to develop a passion for African sculpture. We are all aware of what we owe to Africa and its traditional artists.

Contemporary art from Africa is knocking on the closed door of Western museums, but the arrival of contemporary African artists and the pressure they exert on the art world and market might trigger a new revolution in the museums, which are also the archives. Certainly, all the usual followers are ready to take up the cause, and that is how it should be. Let's be optimistic.


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