The Sunday News
WHAT can the visual arts, spoken and written word, theatre and music tell us about an individual or a community? Artists are constantly talking about exploring “identity” through their art forms. “Identity” being a strong belief in knowing who one is and where one comes from. “Identity” is who you are, the way you think about yourself, the way you are viewed by the world and the characteristics that define you. Artists are indirectly the ambassadors of our African identity, cultural heritage and our state of mind. Artists have always narrated their stories and found creative methods of updating our identity.
The dynamic nature of identity is in its constant shift and evolution. Cultures are colliding every day and every hour resulting in new ways of thinking. These cultural collisions result in a metamorphosis of the African individual and gradually there is a new transformed “African”.
Artists often explore the characteristics that determine our personal and social identity. They construct a sense of who we are as individuals, as a society, or as a nation. Our culture is informed by various forms of artistic and social endeavour such as technology, politics, style, music, performance and the fine arts.
The artists from Africa created work that developed a visual language to convey aspects of individual and cultural identity such as age, status or profession, and spiritual beliefs. The majority of pieces were produced in the late 19th or early 20th century and are considered traditional African art. However, identity is continually being refashioned to meet new needs, and as these roles change we see old forms evolve into new ones.
Art is now engaging a wider variety of subjects and societal habits. Art has shifted from the traditional symbolic representation of a society and basic aesthetic endeavour and has now blossomed into an aggressive medium for communication.
Aggressive in the sense that there is a powerful and positive force that challenges traditional norms and taboos. As we evolve with the current times we absorb a diversity of influences. We live in a new world where we are no longer isolated from distant places geographically. The impact of the “global village” has had many positive results but has also done considerable harm on ethnic identity of African communities. This is now the era of the new artist who tells their story and has gained a new identity in this “glocal” and “global village” context.
Another new form of “identity” is formed as a result of geographical displacement. Identity and diaspora are addressed from both ends of the oceans. Those that have a longing for Africa (diaspora) and those that have an equal longing for those that were displaced (Africa). African artists address important and significant issues in their work, two of which intertwine inherently with Africa’s brutal past and the contemporary times.
Identity and diaspora are two major themes found in African art and are explored in a multitude of ways. The human figure has always been the focus of African art, from traditional masks and sculptures to the life-sized pieces.
The African diaspora was the dispersal of African peoples to Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The term is used most commonly for the coerced movement in various slave trades, but the word diaspora has also been used to refer to voluntary migrations from Africa and for population movements within Africa.
Out of America was born the term “Afrofuturism” to describe the cross-cultural philosophy of artists, musicians, and writers who drew on the utopian thinking of Africa. An Africa that they never knew. One sympathises with those that were displaced unwillingly and never had the chance to make choices such as the modern day African’s who are voluntarily displaced. Those that are in the diaspora feed off mythologies of the African narratives.
“Afrofuturism” is not an artistic style but an approach to the intersections of race and technology that aims to visualise the future. Artists from the 60’s and 70’s drew upon the futuristic energy of science fiction, seeing outer space as an escape from the oppressive social and political climate. Other artists have employed “cyborgs, robots, and aliens as alter-egos to access alternative identities”, such as world famous artistic activist Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu. Wangechi Mutu explores the violence and misrepresentation that women, particularly black women, experience in the contemporary world.
Her work engages the trials women undergo and this is revealed to us from her encounter with America. Art from the diaspora is created by artists who exist in new lands that are far from their birth place and those that never knew Africa. Our brothers and sisters across oceans express their desire for Africa and some express their new identity of whom they have become.
There is a sense of subtle pride exhibited through their creations of music, painting, poetry and sculpture. A pride of new emergence of a strong resilient African. Their creations become a fusion of exchange of identities.
In many pieces of modern African art, there is always a strong reference to an African identity that is in conflict with a foreign influence. This is because Africa as a continent has stories from its past to tell that are still heavily intertwined with the present and future. African art can be used as a tool for teaching the younger generations about past events and how the country moved forward from these into the future. It can also provide a unique insight into how African people see themselves in the future.