Friday, 7 January 2011

The British Museum- African Art

The compelling mixture of archaeological and contemporary exhibits within the British Museums' African gallery succeed in absorbing you within the rhythm of life and cultural wealth of this highly diverse continent. During our visit to the gallery we were asked to contemplate the following-

*From known associations with African Art; what is unusual about the Collection?

*Who can use the museum? What is it's Purpose?

*How does the exhibition portray the collection?

The collection has certainly enabled me to gain a more complete grasp of African life and culture by not only including the traditional and anticipated, but by also introducing (to many of us for the first time) a glimpse of contemporary modern African art. When asked to imagine the contents of the African gallery, common expectations of African Art will often see it generalized into specific visual themes such as the following-

- Human figures symbolizing the living or dead. These often refer to chiefs, dancers, drummers and hunters but can also be representational of the inter-morphosis of human and animal.

-Highly abstracted images with use of colour and shape to symbolize what is being depicted.

-Sculpture. Traditionally, much emphasis was placed upon the three-dimensional through animated sculptures. Even paintings and cloths were often exhibited in a way which demanded the interaction and movement of the viewer.

-Masks, costumes and other items used for performance art or ceremonial use.

-Non-linear scaling (i.e. often a small part of an African design will look similar to a larger part).

The art therefore is perceived by many Westerners as being particularly 'primitive' indicating the continents apparent underdevelopment and poverty. Unlike the majority of other museum collections of African art, the British museum succeeds in dispelling this myth by not only displaying the traditional, but also the contemporary. One is able to learn an incredible amount of information about the continent through the perspective of fresh, truthful eyes. Even the unfair acquisition of certain African artworks (e.g. the Benin Plaques) by the British is openly discussed which I believe is both refreshing and highly important. People can therefore use the exhibition as a reliable source to gain a better knowledge of African culture, find out about their own history and descendants or even to simply satisfy a curiosity.

A display of Benin Plaques taken from the palace during the British Punitive Expedition in 1897. Showing aspects of Benin court rituals in the sixteenth century, shortly after Europe's first contact with West Africa and equally celebrating major historical events and convey representations associated with kingship.

The unfair acquisition of the plaques raises many a debate- should the museum return the artifacts or should they be kept safely here where they will undoubtedly be protected in order to inform future generations?


I must admit I am not very well acquainted with modern African artists. I was especially struck by El Anatsui's dramatic cloth made of recycled metal foil bottle-neck wrappers joined together by copper wire.

Man's Cloth

One of the leading contemporary African artists, El Anatsui plays on the notion of combining the traditional and stereotypical with the unexpected and unusual. His work carries important cultural references and connotations. This cloth can be interpreted as a metaphor for both the fragile nature and the strength of tradition. Its structure mimicks that of a Kente cloth (narrow-strip woven silk cloth of Ghana) but the unusual recycled materials have been chosen to convey an underlying message of the negativity of consumerism.

On the website further examples of his eye catching cloth's can be seen. Each demonstrating extreme skill, intricate detail and a considered choice of colour.

Society Woman's Cloth, 2004.

Other examples of his work which carry important messages are abundant, for example

Tree of Life, Mozambique, 2004

Cristovao Canhavato, Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos, Adelino Serafim MatéMaputo

This striking sculpture highlights the importance of art and its significant role in the transformation of a negative situation. In my opinion the dominating nature of the sculpture speaks for itself without the necessity of explanation. It is the result of a collaboration between 4 Mozambican artists relating to the 1976-1995 civil war in the country. Millions of hidden or burried weapons were found all over Mozambique. A project named Transforming Arms into Tools (TAE) was established with the purpose of decommissioning weapons. Mozambicans could exchange weapons for useful items such as sewing machines and powerful, highly emotive sculpture were constructed from the weapons.

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