Tradition Reviving : African Art Finds Roots in Paintings

MAPUTO, Mozambique — The revolutionary artist squinted into the reflecting white sand to study the talent of the next generation. His thick, tangled beard stirred, and he smiled. Malangatana liked what he saw.

The sand-scape was covered with helicopters and parachutes, landing planes and speeding motorbikes, blooming flowers and happy children–the stuff of a child’s world in a teeming African barrio at the end of an airport runway.

Paper, pencils and paintbrushes are rare commodities in war-torn Mozambique. So every Sunday, the country’s most famous artist and about 50 neighborhood youngsters use rocks, glass and pastel-colored sand to paint on the canvas of a small, empty lot.

Pours Sand From Coke Can

Dulci Cuambe, on her hands and knees, poured some colored sand from an old Coke can to draw a house, a sun with red-sand rays, and a girl like herself.

“This is art we are doing here,” the 14-year-old explained. “Malangatana teaches us many things we don’t know.”

This informal school is one sign that African painting, a form of art that all but disappeared from this continent centuries ago, is coming alive again. A new generation of respected African painters is emerging and the popularity of painting is growing across the continent.

“Twenty years ago, I would take African paintings to galleries in the States, and people didn’t want to hear about contemporary African art. They’d say, ‘If it’s not a mask, it must not be African.’ But that’s all changing,” said Alan Donovan, whose store, African Heritage in Nairobi, Kenya, is a major seller of art in East Africa.

Origins Among Bushmen

African painting began as far back as 5000 BC, with the rock paintings of bushmen. But, for reasons no one fully understands, the art form quickly declined, replaced by more functional art such as the sculpted idols and ceremonial masks.

“Basically, the idea of a picture to stick on the wall is very un-African,” said John Povey, editor of African Arts, a magazine published by the African Studies Center at UCLA.

The cultural history of Africa is rich in sculpture. In fact, African sculpture was a source of inspiration to European painters such as Pablo Picasso. But indigenous African painting began to re-emerge in the 1940s, when a few colonial benefactors discovered talented young black African artists, such as Malangatana in Mozambique.

Now Africa’s schools are beginning to offer training for budding artists as well as art lovers. An art program at Nairobi’s Kenyatta University has grown from 10 to 40 students in the last year, for example, and art education is now compulsory in Kenyan primary schools.

For new painters in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, money is the key to survival. Families put pressure on their children, especially the educated ones, to help support an extended family that frequently includes dozens of siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts.

“The question for young people in developing countries such as ours is what job are you going to do,” said Catherine Gombe, head of the graphics department at Kenyatta University. “You cannot survive without money. And people wonder: What can art offer you? The society we deal with thinks like that.”

In their attempt to create art that sells, African painters have often borrowed heavily from the world’s great painters.

Many Artists Look Abroad

“A lot of our own people look out, to London and Paris and New York, rather than in,” said Elimo Njau, a successful Kenyan painter and curator of the Paa Ya Paa Gallery near Nairobi.

“Some of us are more British than the British,” Njau said, shaking his head. In fact, a Swahili saying for high-quality merchandise is kitu kizuri kama cha kizungu –“as good as European.”

Some African painters start out strongly, selling paintings with their own distinctive styles, only to spend the rest of their careers copying themselves, Njau said.

“Unfortunately, the mainstream of African painting has been overloaded with contemporary riffraff, a chewing of the cud of recent contemporary stuff just to make money,” Njau said.

The artists who work at Njau’s gallery are constantly warned, though.

Urged Not to Copy

“Do not copy. Copying puts God to sleep,” admonishes a sign that Njau painted on his house.

Africa’s painters face other hurdles as well. Materials, training and role models are in short supply. And despite international acclaim for its sculpture, the continent’s best-known artifacts are still the carved wooden salad utensils, soapstone elephants and other trinkets popular with tourists on safari.

Until recently, art experts considered even the best African paintings to be weak copies of the European masters. But growing numbers of African painters are studying abroad and, upon their return, adapting those skills to their feeling for African tradition–without resorting to borrowing.

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