JUST BEFORE THE RECENT SALE OF African art in London in May, under the auspices of the African Art Now show, there was a charity auction of Ugandan contemporary art in aid of the East Ugandan Arts Trust, which promotes the remarkable and almost untapped potential of the visual arts scene there. The proceeds of this auction also went to the Child's Foundation, helping to support an estimated 40,000 children growing up in orphanages in Uganda. Appropriately, Bonhams did not take their usual percentage from the sales.
The auctions came at a time when African artists are increasingly becoming impatient with the term "African art" or "African artist" foisted on them by Western commentators. "I'm an artist who paints for humankind and who just happens to come from Africa"; "To hell with African art"; "I don't give a toss about Africa", remarked artists Owusu-Ankomah, Hassan Musa, and Yinka Shonibare MBE.
Their views were shared by two prominent women artists, Houria Niati, and Sokari Douglas-Camp, both of whom rejected the consideration as "African" artists, let alone as "ethnic". It is significant that all five these artists live and work in Europe, reflecting a growing impatience among "African" artists with such labels.
However, artists working within Africa are generally not so concerned with such issues. "'The fact that most of the well-known curators of African art are now African, shows the picture becoming more positive," writes Chris Spring, curator of the Sainsbury African Galleries at the British Museum. Olu Oguibe, artist and curator, said: "People must begin to show confidence in the ability of individual African artists to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers on the global stage."
However, many artists do acknowledge that such labels as "Africanness" may still be necessary in order to give their work visibility. Despite a growing global appreciation of the genre, it remains remote from a far wider potential audience.
Ekpo Eyo, the former director general of Nigeria's Museums & Monuments, wrote: "Although I was involved with ancient artworks, it was impossible to ignore the creations of emerging artists. The works of those without formal art training attracted my attention first because I believed they were purer in form and content in relation to the works with which I was familiar.
"With time, however, I could not ignore the creations of artists who received training in art schools in which the teaching methods and aesthetic criteria were based on European models. My initial difficulty in accepting their works lay in the fact that I was always looking for the "Africanness" in their works and when I failed to find it, I distanced myself from them.
"But the varied types of contemporary art thrive with incredible success in all parts of Africa. This development is not unexpected in a society that is open to influences and striving to maintain and realise its own identity, with a resulting pluralism of styles".
Spiritual traditions and the cultural heritage run deeply through African art, but are able to coexist in vibrant synthesis with the present, due to that critical constant in African life - the acceptance of change. The star of the recent London sale was undoubtedly the New World Map by Ghana's El Anatsui, which sold for [pounds sterling]541,250, a jaw-dropping price for a work by an African artist. And why not? It is a masterpiece, huge in size (IIft x I6ft) and magisterial in achievement.
Its reference to traditional pattern (Kente cloth) is hauntingly rich, its materials and reference intrinsically a contemporary statement. Composed of flattened, crumpled bottle caps, linked together, it forms an undulating wall sculpture, which took many months for El Anatsui and his team of assistants to achieve.
Born in Ghana, but since 1975 head of sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, El Anatsui is particularly concerned with the erosion of African traditions by external forces, and the nature of their continued transmission. …