The Two Worlds of African Art

What African Art Is and What It Is Not.
Warren M. Robbins

american collections

In the most recent decades of this century significant new insights have been gained in Western culture concerning the nature of creativity, what art is, where beauty lies, and what there is to be learned from, as well as about, cultures other than our own. In exhibition after exhibition in the modern art museums of the world, the line between fine art and superior craftsmanship has been obliterated. The elements of great art are recognized where they occur-whether in the master work of an historically significant painter or sculptor, in the clear and clean lines of a wellcrafted utilitarian object, in the pure form and design of a product of Western technology, or, increasingly-since Western eyes have learned to penetrate unfamiliar subject matter to perceive its essence win the creative output of non Western cultures.

Thus we discover the characteristics of great art in the masks, figures, utilitarian objects, and textiles of the peoples of Black Africa. Such objects were made not as art in the Western sense (though valid systems of aesthetics lie behind them) but rather as implements of the socioreligious life of a people in which art enhances status, reinforces authority, expresses spiritual values, and, in the most intimate way, confirms life itself. The expressive quality and evocative power of these objects transcend their cultures of origin to be of fundamental impact and influence on the universal culture of our time.

However, to regard African art simply as one would Western art is to misread its meaning and misunderstand its role in traditional African society. For the peoples of traditional Africa, sculpture served a function similar to that in Western culture of books of literature, law, religion, history, or education. In the absence of written documents, Africans often preserved their beliefs and values and conveyed them from generation to generation through their art. The significance of each work, therefore, derives not merely from its tangible form or its aesthetic merit, but equally from the concepts and beliefs that it embodies.

African sculptures may commorate human ancestors and their particular historical contributions, embody mythological spirits, or represent philosophical concepts such as divine order or morality. Group members “read” these symbolic carvings, conducting their lives and governing their societies according to the ancient precepts that they represent. Thus through the common language of their art people are bound together with a sense of their own history-the individual artist serving, as African scholar Chukwulozie Anyanwu writes, as “the secretary of his community” (Anyanwu 1982, 58).

Traditionally, African sculptures have served in a variety of specific roles: asa means of paying homage to ancestors and placating the guiding spirits of the universe; as educational aids for initiating the young into the responsibilities of adulthood; as implements of social control and the administration of justice; for enhancing fertility; for purposes of divination; to give spiritual and aesthetic dimension to everyday utilitarian objects; and as status symbols and emblems of rank.
Most African sculptures and artifacts are made of wood, metal, ivory, bone, or stone. Objects drawn from nature, such as horns, teeth, animal skins, plants, or roots are also common to the African tradition of additive or accumulative sculpture. Traditional African art encompasses textiles and ceramics as well as beadwork. Carving, casting, and loom-weaving are predominantly the domain of men; ceramics, fabric dyeing, and beadwork that of women.

 Among some ethnic groups, carvers are of a separate, sometimes almost priestly caste, frequently serving under the special patronage of a king or chief. In other groups, each man carves objects for his own ceremonial use. In instances where certain villages or chiefdoms have n o t sustained an adequate carving tradition, craftsmen from neigh boring areas or even from different peoples may be employed commercially to fulfill ceremonial needs.

Unlike art in the modern Occidental world, where individual creativity and innovation are encouraged, the creation of art works in Africa is restricted within clearly defined stylistic boundaries. With some margin for variation, carvers normally conform to the unique style of their own people, which has been handed down from generation to generation, sometimes for centuries. As a result, several hundred distinct and identifiable styles exist among the sculpture-producing peoples of Africa.

Despite the tremendous diversity in both the conception and execution of traditional African art among the various groups who produce it, it has, in its totality, a recognizable character enabling it to be readily differentiated from the art of  premodern societies in other parts of the world, specifically those of the Oceanic and Australasian peoples of the Pacific, of pre-Columbian Latin Americans, or of the native peoples of North America.

African art is primarily a conceptual, not a representational art form: that is, the African carver does not necessarily attempt to reproduce naturalistically what he sees; rather, he is carving ideas or concepts. Susan Vogel reports in a 1981 essay that when elders of a society approved of as culpture with the words “it looks like a person,” they “were not saying that the figures and masks literally look like people, or that they resemble particular individuals. . . . Rather, they are admiring the conformity of the works to traditional canons. . . They meant, “it looks like our traditional sculpture of a person” (Vogel 1982, 81).

Essentially, the African carver selects those elements that best express important concepts. Unlike abstract art in the Western world, which, for the most part, the general public does not understand, the symbolic abstractions of African sculpture are clearly understood by the members of the community.

In figurative sculpture, the size of individual elements within a composition reflects their relative significance. In fact, the very distortion and simplification of naturalistic form in African sculpture that have sometimes prompted non-Africans to view it as primitive, naive, or aesthetically inferior actually comprise a logical system of expressive emphasis. Thus, for example, the head, viewed as the locus of character and destiny, is often outsized in relation to the rest of the body. The navel, asa symbol of continuity in life, is frequently exaggerated, as are animal horns connoting virility and strength, breasts and genitals as embodiments of fertility or progenitive power, and hands as the part of the body where creative powers are believed to reside. For the African carver, not to distort such features in keeping with traditional concepts would be itself a form of distortion.

The omission of a particular feature can also have special meaning, just as does its exaggerated presence. The faces of some Kota reliquary figures of Gabon, for example, which serve as silent guardians of ancestral remains, are frequently depicted without mouths. The absence of a mouth, coupled with intense, vigilant eyes, underscores their intended purpose as guardian spirits.

The quality of dynamism, or what might be called captive energy, found in African sculpture is a manifestation of the widespread African belief that all objects inanimate as well as animate-embody a certain “life force.” The particular genius with which the African carver, for philosophical reasons, has been able to harness this energy in the form of plastic symbols is one of the characteristics that give the sculpture its great strength and emotional intensity. Defined by strong, powerful lines and bold, often flat geometric surfaces and intersecting planes, African sculpture can convey either motion or tension or, through subtlety and harmony, a certain repose. In even the smallest pieces its structural simplicity can impart a sense of monumentality.

In general, African sculptures were intended as but one element in a ceremonial orchestration that usually includes music, dance, costume, drama, poetry, or history recitation-somewhat analogous to what in Western culture would be considered the performing arts. Understandably, an African of traditional belief would be puzzled by the non-Africans desire to single o u t and value only one element of the greater whole.

With the greatly increased attention that has been paid to African art since the beginning of the century and particularly during the last four decades, the term African art has been applied to categories of objects that bear only the most tenuous and superficial relationship to what is today recognized as one of the great artistic traditions of humankind.

In considering the subject, therefore, one must first differentiate between the kinds of objects to which the term is applied-the ceremonial and the commercial; the original and the copy; the legitimate copy and the counterfeit-identifying as well contemporary art in Africa and African-style objects produced outside of the continent.

Accordingly, the following differentiations can be made:

“Authentic” African Art
Correct Copies
Counterfeit African Art
Tourist Art
Contemporary African Art: An Intercultural Tradition
Ex-Cultura African Art


“Authentic” African Art

There is perhaps no terminology so controversial, or with so volatile a history, as that which addresses the relative authenticity of African art works. The standards by which the authenticity of an object is judged have been much debated, n o t only for the sake of defining possible criteria but also to establish whether or not such judgments are possible to make or are ultimately even relevant.

Among someart historians and aestheticians, it is still widely held today that the designation authentic can be properly applied only to those African art objects used in the practice of traditional custom or religious belief. But this view is far too narrow to cover the many different kinds of objects that are made by African artists and the varying circumstances in which they are created and used.

Some masks and figural carvings are made, maintained, and refurbished each year for continued use; other objects are created for use only in one specific ceremony, following which they are discarded as having no further spiritual significance. In some instances objects that originally had a spiritual function are later desanctified by the appropriate authority specifically to be offered for sale, sometimes alongside of and indistinguishable from objects made by the same carver strictly for sale.

Many experts, therefore, have begun now to take the position that authenticity is a matter of degree. In 1976, an entire issue of the quarterly African Arts, published by the African Studies Department of the University of California, Los Angeles, was devoted to this question in its broadest sense. Among the specialists invited to express their views, Professor Frank Willett, Director of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, provided the following scale of authenticity:

The most obvious authentic works on which all would agree are those made by an African for use by his own people and so used. However, this category can be subdivided [into those] of superior, average, or inferior aesthetic quality. A little lower on the scale is a work made by an African for use by his own people but bought by an expatriate before use. Then comes sculpture made by an African in the traditional style of his own people for sale to an expatriate; then made by an African in the traditional style on commission by an expatriate; then sculpture made by an African in poor imitation of the tradition style of his own people for sale to an expatriate; made in the style of a different African people (though it may be well done) for sale to an expatriate; made in the style of a different African people but badly done for sale to an expatriate; made by an African in a non-traditional style for sale to an expatriate. Finally, we have works made by an expatriate, i.e. a non-African, for sale to other non-Africans but passed off as being African. This, at the other end of the continuum, is the unquestionable fake (Willett 1976, 8).

Although the selections in this book provide a measure for objects of superior aesthetic quality-in Willett’s first category, “Objects made by an African for use by his own people and so used”-the following information may serve as a basic guide to other kinds of objects related in varying degrees to the traditional.

Correct Copies

Since colonization and the arrival of an alien clientele, many African carvers frequently sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons of master sculptors-while continuing to make sculpture for traditional ceremony, also make secular copies for sale to foreigners. But being merely representations of religious objects rather than actual spiritual repositories themselves, these works, though physically correct in every detail, do not have the spiritual dimension of their original counterparts in traditional African societies. Nevertheless, “correct copies” serve a valuable purpose within these societies today, not merely by providing much-needed revenue and international currency, but by helping to eliminate the enticement to sell sacred objects. The latter can continue to be used ceremonially and provide prototypes for the perpetuation of the carving tradition.

In some instances, certain secular replicas have come to be adjudged aesthetically superior to their traditional prototypes. With the steady decline of traditional religious practice in Africa and the lesser demand and therefore lowered standards for ceremonial pieces, such aesthetically superior correct copies may gain greater recognition and appreciation. Perhaps, as the definition of authenticity gradually expands beyond the category of ceremonially used objects, it will encompass works by African carvers that demonstrate a high degree of artistic ability and a rich creative imagination, even though created primarily for sale. Indeed, some of the more finely executed copies of traditional African works being made today may someday be held in the same high regard as are certain ancient Roman sculptures, once dismissed as inferior since they were copies of their Greek prototypes. Precedent in Africa for such a phenomenon is found, certainly, in the example of the sixteenth-century Afro-Portuguese ivories, which, though made by Sherbro Island and Benin carvers on commission for the Portuguese, are nevertheless among the most treasured masterpieces of African sculpture.

Recognizing the legitimacy of correct copies of aesthetic merit may lead ultimately to a more logical definition of traditional art that would include all objects made by a society for its own purposes, whether ceremonial or commercial. The principal differentiation to be made then would be-as in the Western world-between “good” art and “bad” art, regardless of the history of the object within its own society, the motivation for its creation, or the circumstances of its usage.

The greatest importance of correct copies, however, may not be a matter of their foreign acceptance and marketability in the art museums and commercial galleries of the Western world; but rather, that they may become the very instruments through which qualitative standards of traditional styles of African carving can be maintained, or if already lost, revived to serve as “historical documents” for Africa’s museums of the future.

Counterfeit African Art

“Fakes do not exist except under the circumstances that there are collectors.” Robert Plant Armstrong

Within the broader parameters of authenticity described above, what kind of objects would come within the category of “counterfeit" or “fake" African art? Highly sophisticated copies are being made today, not only in workshops in Africa but in Europe as well. Obviously, any object made by a non-African could not be considered authentic African art, but objects made by Africans must also be deemed counterfeit if they are misrepresented.

There are a number of artificial ways of creating “African” sculptures. In response to the valuing of age by collectors and scholars, the characteristics of long usage can be readily falsified by clever artisans: objects can be deliberately exposed to the elements to hasten disintegration and affect a weathered look; they can be placed in ant hills to precipitate termite damage; false evidence of usage can be fabricatedrich patinas can be induced in a short time, for example, to imply years of handling and rubbing with leaf or body oils; sweat marks suggesting where a wearer’s forehead or cheek bones might have rubbed against the inside of a mask can be falsified; objects can be intentionally broken so that rough-hewn, ostensibly indigenous repairs can be made. Dances are even sometimes performed so that masks actually created for sale can be said to have been “used in ceremony” and therefore passed off as“authentic.”

Counterfeit works can range from virtuoso correct copies to crudely rendered approximations of traditional styles to hybrid objects incorporating elements of different styles that bear no authentic relationship to any particular one (though sometimes quite interesting in their inventiveness).
Ironically, the authenticity and aesthetic quality of certain objects have at times been measured against a misinformed standard of “classical” African aesthetics, drawn from sculptures whose patinas were “enhanced” by dealers-particularly in France- in the early years of this century to make them more desirable viewing objects in the drawing rooms of European collectors.

In the case of the more highly refined, artful, and cunningly made counterfeits, it is often as much the intuition of the seasoned specialist as the physical characteristics of the object itself that leads to its ultimate recognition as false. But some copies are so skillfully executed and aged that they confound the experts until scientific analyses of the materials through carbon dating, thermoluminescence, X-ray, or biochemical testing techniques can be carried out. Counterfeit African sculptures, including falsely represented correct copies, not infrequently sell to unwary collectors for many tens of thousands of dollars. The extremely high monetary value of some objects is sometimes actually a function of their rarity more than of their aesthetic merit, since, as has been noted, present-day carvers increasingly are producing for sale traditional-style objects of exceptional aesthetic merit, barely discernible from their prototypes.

Tourist Art

Great numbers of objects are produced for sale to people who are interested primarily in souvenirs or mementos of exotic lands. Such persons do not differentiate between replicas of traditional forms, or very diluted versions of them, and fantasy carvings that may combine traditional elements drawn from several styles or add forms that are not related to any known tradition. These objects are usually termed “Airport Art” because patrons need not go beyond the waiting rooms of airport terminals to aquire them, or “Beach Art” since they are sold to Western vacationers by vendors who walk the miles of Africa’s ocean beaches to peddle them.

Such sculptures are made not only for immediate sale to tourists, but also to supply an ever-growing network of African traders and vendors who bring them directly to the cities of America and Europe, where they set themselves up to sell from motel ooms, street corners, or even from the tailgates of rented vehicles. Some years ago, when African traders first began to come to America, their inventories usually included a certain number of objects that had been used in ceremony. But the supply of such original works soon became depleted and can rarely be acquired from traders today.

Still another category of tourist art is not related at all to traditional African art styles. Souvenir carvings of masks and figures of people and animals in wood, stone, or ivory, and highly naturalistic relief portrait carvings on plaques and bookends comprise this group.

Tourist art is not a recent phenomenon.As early asthe beginning of the sixteenth century the Portuguese were commissioning the Sherbro in the area that is now Sierra Leone and the Benin peoples of present-day Nigeria to create ivory salt cellars, spoons, forks, and hunting horns. These magnificent ivory carvings, which married the characteristics of ancestral figure styles with European subject matter, today bring astronomical prices in the international art market. Nevertheless, according to consistent criteria for authenticity, they would also have to be regarded as tourist pieces, however ancient they may be.

The contemporary sculpture of the Makonde peoples in East Africa constitutes a special case. Although the Makonde have made and used sculpture for traditional purposes for many generations, they have, in recent decades, also developed a contemporary style of carving, unique to their cultural group and made strictly for sale. Mostly abstracted, surrealistic figures in a variety of compositions, these sculptures have little or no precedent in the traditions of African art.
Many of the sculptures being made today in Africa lie somewhere between traditional art and new contemporary forms. Such works, Roy Sieber has noted, “have their own intrinsic interest and it is regrettable that we are doing so little to document recent African art styles” (Sieber 1984).

 Contemporary African Art: An Intercultural Tradition

Whereas the categories of objects noted above relate, correctly or incorrectly, to what has come to be known as traditional African sculpture, new movements and schools of contemporary art have appeared in Africa during the years since World War II that are related to both Western art traditions and their own cultural origins.

In many areas of Africa today, art centers and workshops flourish under the patronage of church missions, universities, federal or regional governments, and, in some instances, European or American individuals who inspired these movements“ Not unlike art colonies in the United States and Europe, these centers are places where artists gather to work and draw attention to their art.

Though tempered with African sensibility and humanism, and sometimes spiritual in content, contemporary African art is essentially secular in nature. Its forms integrate traditional African motifs and Western concepts and techniques, but with few exceptions, it does not have a traditional socioreligious function, being more the artists’ individual responses to contemporary life and present social and cultural circumstances.

Except for ancient rock and cave painting and for village and house murals, there has been relatively little indigenous tradition of two-dimensional art in Africa. Today, however, many contemporary African artists are producing paintings that, for their characteristic vitality, vibrance, and warmth, are gaining attention in the international art world.

Among Americans who have done the most to document and promote contemporary African art have been Mary Beatty Brady and Evelyn S. Brown (Brown 1966), of the now defunct Harmon Foundation, and jean Kennedy Wolford, who has written extensively on the subject and has organized more than one hundred fifty exhibitions in the United States and elsewhere. “Throughout the continent [of Africa],” Wolford writes, “the artists, whatever their traditional milieu or medium of expression, all have this in common: they reveal old forms translated, old idioms transformed, and testify that African art is still a metaphor for life that speaks loudly and clearly for itself” (Wolford 1974).

Ex-Cultura African Art

Africans who were resettled in other parts of the world continued wherever possible, their socioreligious art traditions, either maintaining them intact or responding to the character of new and alien environments by modifying old traditions in the development of new ones. Consequently, relationships are apparent between traditional art objects created in Africa and those made by African descendants in such countries as Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, and Mexico. The art of the Bahian people of Brazil, for example, is in many ways identical to that of the Yoruba of Nigeria, to whom they are related.

In the United States, however, the circumstances were different. African slaves were n o t allowed to carry on any apparently traditional activities that would keep alive identification with their original cultures, from which they might have gained spiritual sustenance.

Consequently, they were prevented from carving objects, and the tradition was lost.‘ However, the deep spirituality and musicality of the African could n o t be sup pressed, and the music and songs of plantation slaves evolved ultimately to be of profound impact upon the entire corpus of modern music in the West.

Bi-Cultural Aesthetics

“Our insights into primitive art will always be incomplete since they reflect what we have found in the subject to correspond with our own preoccupations.” Rene’ Huyghe 

In the Western world, art is for the most part peripheral to the interests of the general populace-being created by a special category of persons called “artists” and appreciated and understood by another somewhat larger and essentially elite group called “art lovers." In Africa, however, art is a phenomenon that pervades the life of all the people. Most African languages do not even have a word that corresponds to the Western idea of art. The very concept African art is an idea superimposed by non-Africans upon objects that had functioned originally as instruments of social, political, and religious custom, themselves inextricably bound together through ceremony.

To observe that the idea of art for art’s sake is almost totally alien to traditional Africa is by no means to say that African societies did not have a clearly formulated sense of aesthetics to which their artists adhered. In fact, the very meaning or spiritual effectiveness of an object was sometimes conveyed or enhanced by its perceived artistic excellence in its own society?

Consequently, in forming aesthetic evaluations of African art, non-Africans must be familiar with two sets of criteria: those of the Western art world and those, as well, of the societies that produced the art. And here we must use as a measure objects created before there was appreciable Western impact on African culture.

Only in the last two decades have scholars begun to explore seriously the African aesthetic. The liberating doctrine of cultural relativism, introduced by twentiethcentury anthropologists in Europe and America, held that cultures can be judgedalidly only in their own terms and not according to external criteria superimposed upon them. Thus social scientists were enabled for the first time to perceive as legitimate different conceptualizations and forms of cultural expression that might have been dismissed previously as simplistic, inferior, or “primitive.” A new selfconsciousness of Western ethnocentrism was the inevitable outcome of the doctrine of cultural relativism. But, as regards aesthetic judgment, the perspective from which individuals view and interpret cultures other than their own is determined not only by ethnocentric or geocultural biases but also by what might be called chronocentric ones, which are a function of time. Given the changing nature of a society’s collective viewpoint, it seems fair to say that the aesthetic choices of experts today are regulatednot only by the biases of their own culture in general vis-a-vis those of other cultures (ethnocentrism), but also by the time frame in which the choices are being made (chronocentrism). This phenomenon is aptly illustrated by Kenneth Clarke in the following anecdote.

[There is] an African mask that belonged to Roger Fry. I remember when he bought it and hung it up, and we agreed that it had all the qualities of a great work of art. I fancy that most people nowadays would find it more moving than the head of the Apollo of the Belvedere (on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Yet for four hundred years after it was discovered, the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten, except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture (Clarke 1969).

Although, in the ideal, civilization’s total experience accumulates and contributes to a universal and evolving reality, in fact, each group tends to consider its own philosophical or aesthetic truths at any given time to be universally applicable, project ing them backward and forward in time as well as superimposing them upon those of other societies with which it is engaged.

The relative nature of aesthetic judgment is explored by Morse Peckham in Man’s Rage for Chaos:

Biology, Behavior and the Arts:

In most ordinary discourse, if a person uses the word “art”, his listener has at least a rough idea of what he is talking about .... the existence of the category and what properly belongs in it are in fact rarely questioned. Certain assumptions have to be made if there is to be any discourse at all. This is true in our culture, but what are we to say of a culture in which the category “art” does not exist? Can it be properly said that the members of such a culture do in fact engage in artistic behavior? Actually, not long ago, our culture presumed art to be a characteristic of only high cultures; primitive cultures did not have art.

Today, such a notion seems absurd; yet not until the modern stylistic revolution did certain works of primitive cultures, such as African masks and fetish sculptures, begin to be perceived as works of art. Most critics and aestheticians write as if a work of art automatically elicited a particular kind of response, and this by virtue of “aesthetic structure.” But a work of art that moves me today may bore me tomorrow and often does. It is this phenomenon that makes the magisterial utterances of critics . about how a work of art affects the perceiver so astonishing, not to speak of their statements about how it affected the perceivers of three hundred years ago.

The customary way of dealing with this problem is to fall back on the authority of the qualified observer or on the consensus of tradition. But this is no solution. If today I respond to work the way aestheticians prescribe, I am a qualified observer; but if tomorrow I do not, why have I ceased to be qualified? In the nineteenth century qualified observers rejected the poetry of Donne from the canon of English poetry; should you make such a judgment today practically all qualified observers would insist that you are not qualified. Indeed, to make the problem utterly unmanageable, what has the improvised fluting of an African cowherd in common with Leonardo da Vinci’s “last Supper”? All we can really say is that upon questioning, some people would call them both art, some would classify only one of them as art, and some people, who had n not learned the category “art,” would not know what the question meant (Peckham 1967, 4).

Aesthetic quality, whether measured by Western standards or defined by the indigenous culture, should not be the sole criterion for determining the importance of an African art piece. Ekpo Eyo, formerly Director of the Nigerian Federal Department of Antiquities, has said that to concentrate exclusively on the aesthetics of a work would result in “incomplete appreciation” of it (as quoted in Kenner 1987, 112).

Any object of African art, regardless of its degree of authenticity or aesthetic excellence, is a carrier of significant cultural meaning. In the absence of written historical records, a collection of African art, like a library, constitutes a principal source of cultural information conveyed through symbols. Whether or not an individual African work meets the aesthetic standards of major Western museums, the social, philosophical, and ontological concepts it represents visually make it valuable for the understanding not simply of the object, but of the people who produced it. If non-Africans are to comprehend the significance, in its own society,of an art object, then they must recognize that every object, whether it be adjudged a masterpiece or of mediocre quality, constitutes important documentation expressing African beliefs and values in rich visual language.

The fact that until recent decades African art had been viewed negatively or indifferently by a vast majority of the Western public who have had only superficial acquaintance with it is to be attributed, therefore, not to the innate character of the object itself but to the ethnocentrism and chronocentrism of the viewers. Despite a great increase in viewing opportunities and published literature, a truly widespread public recognition of the significance of African art is yet to be achieved.

On the Use of the Term “Primitive”

"All art is sophisticated. If it were not sophisticated, it would not be art, but merely a felicitous accident." Frank Willetts

It is ironic that an art form as highly sophisticated, technically skilled, and richly inventive as traditional African sculpture should continue to be regarded in the Western world as primitive in the pejorative sense of crude, untutored, savage.

In actuality, African art dispels the imputation of savagery probably more than any other aspect of African culture, leaving only the degree of technological and industrial development and their sociological concomitants as the principal differentiation that can be made between traditional African and modern Western civilizations.

But the attitude conveyed by the use of the term primitive with reference to African sculpture persists today, carrying controversy with it wherever it is used, for both right and wrong reasons. In addition to its widespread appendant meaning of “crude” or “untutored,” the word has usually implied a chronological sequence from the “uncivilized” to the “civilized.” Thus certain recent or present-day cultures have been erroneously called primitive because they have been regarded as arrested stages in the development of the kind of societies that have evolved in the Western world. In truth, however, they are different societies, which, without modern technology, emphasize different capabilities and respond to different social values and psychological needs.

From cultural anthropology we know that the so-called primitive mind was in fact extremely complex. The eminent French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss emphasizes in The Savage Mind (Levi-Strauss 1962) that there is nothing childish about primitive thought and that the complex systems of rules and interdictions of African societies are fundamentally no different from those in the extensive catalogue of taboos in Western civilization.

African cultures in earlier centuries, for reasons of climate, ecology, philosophical values, social intent, subsistence possibilities, and historical coincidence, did not develop the kind and degree of technology that in the Western world allowed for the evolution of written language asa vehicle for universal knowledge accumulation and transmittal. Instead, these societies fostered the evolution of an aesthetic sensibility and a highly sophisticated technique of visual abstraction that resulted in art works that are today widely held to be superior in evocative power to Western works. Furthermore, the formal symbolism of African sculpture comprises a visual language, comparable in significance as an expression of human creativity to the verbal language of philosophy in the West.

Together with the twentieth-century insights of such social scientists as Levi Strauss, it was the recognition by Western artists of the genius behind African art that set in motion the gradual erosion of the ethnocentric attitudes that have governed think ing not only about African and other non-Western art forms, but about art in general.

The early twentieth-century artists of Paris, Berlin, and Dresden, without being aware of the original meaning of African sculpture, nevertheless recognized its artistic greatness. Assuming, if falsely, that the African carver worked spontaneously and naively, they admired what they perceived as stream-of-consciousness effect. In praise of such art, jean Dubuffet stated, “I believe very much in values of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness” (as quoted in Franzke, 1976). We know today, of course, that African art is far from spontaneous. On the contrary, much of the output of the African carver was made not out of “instinct, passion, mood, violence” and certainly not “madness,” but rather in perpetuation of a highly disciplined tradition of stylistic elements and inherited aesthetic canons to which the artists rigidly conformed.

Some general art specialists continue to refer to African sculpture as primitive, since the term for them does n o t carry pejorative implications, meaning simply “first,” “original,” “source,” or “early,” all perfectly compatible with their high estimation of the art. Their continued use of the term, however, has had the effect of confirming and perpetuating negative connotations that reside in the minds of a vastly greater number of people who have not digested the concept of cultural relativism. If, as linguistic scientists tell us, it is unrealistic to believe that such a term as primitive can be eliminated from the Western vocabulary, what alternatives may be offered to discourage its application to African art? The search for a word more appropriate than primitive has been carried on for decades, but in the last analysis, most alternatives that have been suggested either reflect some degree of ethnocentrism/ chronocentrism or are simply not applicable.

Tribal, though it could be as neutral a term as the Scottish clan, is inappropriate, since it carries with it many of the same negative and emotionally charged associations as the word primitive and is offensive to many people.

Similarly, the terms preliterate, indigenous, naive, folk, and ethnic are inappropriate for a variety of reasons. For example, though much of sub-Saharan African art issues from societies that have had no indigenous written language, the use of the term preliterate is misleading, insofar as the iconography of African sculpture comprises an intricate language of visual symbols, comparable in communicative power to that of the written word. By way of illustration, the art of the Tabwa of East Central Africa, called “statement art“ by Allen Roberts and Evan Maurer (Roberts ét Mauer 1986), consists of a complicated visual vocabulary in which the simplest line or pattern may make reference to complex philosophical values. Elaborate scarification designs on figural sculpture, as well ason the human body, express Tabwa belief that the individual may attain personal perfection through the decorative display of symbols of positive social deportment and of the harmony of natural forces. Indigenous provides no informa tion whatsoever about the art, referring simply to locality. The term ethnic is perhaps the most ethnocentric of all, since every people belongs to some ethnic group, white Anglo-Saxons no less than others (But one could hardly imagine a portrait by Sir joshua Reynolds being classified as ethnic art!)

It is particularly erroneous to refer to African sculpture as naive art or folk art precisely because the artists of these schools follow no established art tradition, being essentially untutored and individualistic, whereas African sculpture is a highly disciplioned art form. The various forms of naive art in the Western world, however, do fall within the usual definition of primitive art, since they do not conform, either through intent or lack of understanding, to the formal rules of so-called high art the device of geometric perspective, for example. Naive artists are actually the antithesis of traditional African sculptors, whose works do conform to long-established canons of style.

Symbolic is inappropriate for a different reason. Although it is particularly applicable to African (and other kinds of non-Western) art, its use would be confusing in view of its general meaning as a Western art historical term.

Of all the various euphemisms that have been used for primitive and tribal, the term traditional remains, having become, in its application to African art, perhaps the most generally acceptable and commonly used adjective, not only because it is not pejorative, but also, and more positively, because it alludes to the centuries-long tradition of African art as an expression and a conveyor of the beliefs and customs of Africa’s past.