African art pieces are often referred to by their ethnicity or region of origin, and rarely by the name of the artist. Why such dehumanization?
“It was admitted without discussion that African art was an anonymous art whose productions, governed by ethnic, religious and ritual concerns, completely dominated creative individuality”. In a book devoted to the restitution of works of art looted in Africa by the colonial powers, "Images, memories and knowledge", Professor Mamadou Diawara poses a burning question: that of the origin, often erased, of the works of African art.
Some African artists like Efon Alaye, Areogun d'Osillorin, his son George Bandele, or even Osei Bonsu, have very few signed paintings and sculptures. Instead of artists' names, in European museums, thousands of works are simply titled: "Benin Bronze", "Yoruba Sculpture" or "Mahongwé Mask". In rarer cases, there is an estimate of the date or the region, but almost never the name of the artist.
If it was about the impossibility of tracking down the origin of the work, the specialists would not disagree. Except that the anonymization of works does not stop at ancestral arts: even African artists from the XNUMXth or XNUMXth centuries are not quoted on their own creations.
In this case, European archaeologists, restorers and anthropologists dare to assert that “African art is impersonal”. A lack of respect for traditions, according to Italian anthropologist Marco Aime.
“Dehumanized” African art
“An object created in Africa or Oceania only becomes 'art' when it is transferred to the West. Only the selective gaze of the Western observer makes it a work of art, and its value is based on our predetermined categories", laments the specialist who continues: "The primitive artist is made anonymous, an individual devoid of personality, who represents collective ideas. (…) His work is considered as the product of a culture. A first betrayal”.
In a column published in the press, the researcher especially denounces the value attributed by European museums to African works of art. A low value which is mainly due to the absence of the signature of an artist. Yet, insists Aime, some of the greatest currents in painting, notably art and craft and cubism, have African origins. However, their creation is exclusively attributed to Western artists and art schools.
Marco Aime recalls: “During an exhibition of African art, I had the chance to meet Wole Soyinka (Nigerian Nobel Prize for Literature, editor's note). The writer stopped in front of a mask and asked me: 'What is it for you?'. 'A mask,' I replied. (…) 'If it was worn by a person, then yes, it would be a mask', he retorted ”.
A meaningful anecdote. Are African works of art dehumanized?
The restitution of African works of art and its many obstacles
Another reason, in addition to the appreciation of connoisseurs, hinders the valuation of African art. The lack of archaeological excavations, in addition to urbanization prevent the establishment of an “archaeological motif”. This isolates the oldest works of art – some, discovered in South Africa, date back more than 7 years – and makes their exact identification impossible.
In order to preserve the looted works of art from the loss of their value, “they must be returned”, believes the Cameroonian arts commissioner Koyo kouoh.
In 2021, Nigeria, Benin and Rwanda celebrated the return of hundreds of sculptures. However, an overwhelming majority of works of art looted during the colonial era are still in Europe today. The restitution procedure is often made very difficult by the European authorities — French, Portuguese, British and German, especially.
Another concern: colonial borders. Some pieces, in this case the bronzes from Benin, are difficult to attribute to an exact region of modern sub-Saharan Africa. It is therefore difficult to return them to particular governments.