The Deconstruction of Eurocentric Art by Two Afrocentric Artists, Part I

Part I

“African art has been maligned in the writings of Western scholars who have failed to understand its source and origin… In private collections, African artworks become transfixed on the mantelpiece in wooden cubicles, bathed in a caressing interplay of lights, but with very little or no reference—suggested or amplified—to their contextual use of significance. Although we derive pleasure in appreciating these objects ex-situ, there is the danger of their being unduly romanticized. It is a danger that can be avoided if we would allow the arts to lead us into renewing our contact with Africa, and into a greater and more intimate appreciation of the cultures and the peoples of the continent. It is within this context that collection of traditional African art in private, public or academic holdings derives stronger legitimacy… The arts can be used to disprove racial innuendos and to re-direct the black man and woman towards the realization of positive self-affirmation. They can be used not only as indices of aesthetic cognition, but equally as important tools in stemming the marginalization of the blacks’ contributions to world civilization.”

—Dele Jegede (“Art for Life’s Sake: African Art as a Reflection of an Afrocentric Cosmology”)

It is a well known fact that Picasso was greatly influenced by the encounter with masks and other art objects from Africa. In turn, via Picasso, modern art at the turn of the 20th century became abstract. Nevertheless, Western attitudes toward African art have remained ethnocentric and patronizing. Dele Jegede, a Nigerian artist and scholar (born in 1945), analyzes such an attitude in his essay “Art for Life’s Sake: African Art as a Reflection of an Afrocentric Cosmology.” His main line of criticism is the failure in the Western response to African art to understand the significance that art has within the cultures that produce it. That kind of failure in turn promotes demeaning attitudes.

Jegede sees in the term primitivism, to characterize African art, a form of Eurocentrism. It may have been coined as a mere aesthetic category, but the underlying suggestion is that those works of art lack the exquisite refinement of Western art. This is suggested by the very mode of displaying African art in museums with no particular reference to their cultural roles within African societies. This decontextualized display is antithetical to the ways in which Africans themselves experience and appreciate art.

For Jegede, art is not a cultural universal, but derives its particular meaning within the particular cultures of Africa. The practice of placing African art objects in a museum case to be disinterestedly contemplated is, for Jegede, a Eurocentric practice which leads to the labeling of “primitive.” It is that kind of decontextualization that robs the work of its most significant properties, those conferred by its role in specific cultural practices. For example, a mask is not simply an object whose form is to be appreciated; rather it is an effigy with specific ceremonial functions. As we have seen already, Adorno, a Western philosopher, also emphasizes the importance of the role art objects play within social practices, but this is the exception rather than the rule in Western aesthetics.

Jegede uses the term Afrocentric to characterize his approach to African works of Art. It is an intellectual stance that places Africa at the center of one’s worldview and is, of course, a reaction to the Western tendency to view everything in relation to Europe, taken as the norm and the criteria for judgment. This stance can of course be critiqued in turn with this question: Has Jegege himself fallen prey to the unfortunate Eurocentric tendency to uncritically apply the label “art” to African artifacts? Is his alternative to an art “for art’s sake,” for an art “for life’s sake” (which so enthralled Picasso) superior to the views advanced in the West?

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