While we tend to learn about European painting as a progression of different historical movements characterized by particular artistic styles, this is not at all how African art is studied. On the contrary, African art is generally viewed practically two-dimensionally, broken down into tribe or country of origin, such as "Yoruba” or “Benin.” The identities of the artists themselves are rarely taken into account, let alone the significant regional differences that often carry tremendous weight in stylistic and thematic value. This study in anonymity is largely a product of the racism and cultural bias of the early European historians and anthropologists that visited Africa in the era of colonization.
|Luba Tribe, Master of the Cascade Coiffure, 19th-20th century. Wood, 13.3 x 10.5cm|
Africans were thought of as being without a history, and instead as having simply retained their values from generation to generation without undergoing any meaningful cultural development. The artist was in turn viewed as nothing more than a savage, a representative of his tribe, and certainly not as a creative individual. Many of the early scholars of African art purposefully neglected to record the names of the artisans who produced the artwork that they found (and in many cases stole) and took back to Europe to display in their home countries. This contrasts starkly with how European artists are treated both by art historians and the western public at large. When we study the progression of European painting, the narrative is steeped in the works and stories of individual artists, who are revered as important historical figures. If a piece purported to have been painted by a white European artist such as Rembrandt were to be deemed painted by a student or assistant, its value would drop precipitously.
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Despite modern historians’ attempts to counteract the racism of their predecessors by focusing on authenticity through identity and origin whenever possible, African art is still trivialized in the media and is often portrayed in an offensively stylized manner. Even today the value of African art is increasingly diluted by Westerners who, taught to view the carved wooden dolls and masks typical of African art as a kitsch commodity, purchase mass-made trinkets at cheap prices to display as souvenirs from the poor African countries they visit. These perhaps unwitting tourists further reinforce the unjust but widespread notion that African art is not to be admired but exploited.