Archival Project: Untraditional Art

I always enjoyed listening to the stories about the worlds that never existed and the miracles than can not happen when I was a child. They made my daily routine not that dull and difficult to live through. When I grew up, I found out that the stories of the unknown lands and dreams can be told not only with the words, but also by means of art.

My viewpoint upon the nature of art changed when I became an art history student. I have understood that there are mostly always several layers of meaning in the artistic work, that are to be deciphered in order to understand all social, political, emotional and cultural layers that are present in it.

It is possible to assume that the approach to studying art in the USA is mostly Western-centered. The ethnic elements in the works of the American artists are studied superficially and only as one of the elements that form the American artistic product. The culture they come from does not usually receive adequate attention. According to the concept of contradiction introduced by Lisa Lowe, the American culture collects popular imagery of different ethnicities, but in fact it is a simulacrum tht does not have original depth. As the African-American art is the part of our culture, I decided to learn more about the art in Africa. I hope that the exposition of the prominent African artists will help to understand the contemporary culture of the distant continent and change the stereotypical image that is often used in analyzing African-American artists.

The African aesthetics started to penetrate the Western tradition from the beginning of the 20th century. Its elements could be found in the works of European modernists and post modernists. Actually, the African aesthetics changed the direction of further development of the Western art. Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Paul Klee and many other renown artists were influenced by the African wind of beauty.

I have collected the pieces of art that show the most essential things about the contemporary African aesthetics and culture. They combine the present day problematics that are important for the African people and their history. They are different from the African-American art mainly because their identity was not influenced by the Western civilization. The peculiarity of the African art is in its concentrated ethnicity, which creates the unique African visual identity. My interest in the contemporary African art is explained by purely academic curiosity and the desire to recall the feeling of traveling to the miracle unknown world that I experienced in the childhood. The African art is different enough from the traditional Western art to create the feeling of discovering something absolutely new.

The first prolific African artist is Abdoulaye Konaté from Mali. He combines installation and painting in his works, which is a wide spread technique in the post modern art. Though, Konaté also uses a peculiar entirely African technique based on the usage of textile. The main themes that his works feature are social and political problems of the sub-Saharan region. Among them are the impact of globalization on the life of an average African person, violation of human rights, war and the epidemics of AIDS.

Power+Religion (Pouvoir et Religion) is an artwork created in 2011 by Abdoulaye Konaté (n.d.) where he used the materials that are traditional for his country, which are dyed and raw woven cloth. It reflects the popular tradition of the Western Africans that supposes that it is possible to communicate and to commemorate with the help of textiles. The ethnic craft is combined with the urgent problematics of this piece of art, which is supposed to express critical assessment of the religion and power in the region.

Power+Religion is the 7 meters long representation of the contrast of the cultural and religious lives of the country. The gray background with white spots on it is contrasted to the symbol of power and religion, which is in fact one crown. The form of the textile has its traditional symbolism For example, the artist uses the feathers of the mystical bird guinea fowl, which is often used in the stories of sub-Saharan Africa. It is thought that the feathers of this bird spread the colors over the world and every person lives with those colors in his/her heart. It is possible to assume that the effect of the religion and the government on the lives of ordinary people is similar to the powers of those mystical feathers. Such way of depicting the urgent problems is one of the ways to “re-member” the ethnic past as Lisa Lowe (1998) wrote. Such art helps to preserve the racial identity through fragments that form history of the nation.

Julie Mehretu is an Ethiopian artist who works in the abstract genre. Stadia Series is among the key works of this artist, which is a combination of all her distinctive techniques. She combines the elements of architecture and aerial mapping in her paintings. The complexity of silhouettes create the sentiment of the quick change and makes the painting beat with energy from inside, which underlines the urban growth that is characteristic to the contemporary community (Gleadell, 2005). Social networks and over populated cities accelerate the speed of life of the modern people. Nigeria is a comparatively developed country in Africa and that is why the cities are continuing to grow there. The rhythm of the new life, the shift from the former traditional way of living in the small villages is emphasized by the chaotic lines on the painting.

Mehretu’s Stadia Series represent a compression of place, space and time, that does not have any connections with the historical period. The artist herself describes her work as the combination of the story maps that have no specific location. Perhaps, this painting represents the ideas of mobility, freedom and spaciousness proposed by Yi-fu Tuan (1977) the best. I obviously experienced the feeling that he describes as “transcending the present condition” when I looked into the details of this painting. The combinations of the silhouettes create various images and it is possible to interpret them in a great number of ways. Mehretu is entirely African and global simultaneously. The techniques and the subjects she uses in her work are wide spread all over the world and belong more to the Western aesthetic futurist tradition than to the ethnic African one. Despite this fact, the painting Stadia Series is absolutely African, because it reflects the atmosphere of the particular historical period in the development of the Nigerian society and the country in general.

Another interesting Congolese artist is Chéri Samba (n.d.). He is among the most well known contemporary painters from Africa, who depicts in his works the reality of the average people who live in Africa in general and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in particular. He started to work as an artist drawing on billboards and creating comics. After that he changed the material to painting on sacking fabric, because the canvas were too expensive for him. Quelle Solution pour les Hommes is a painting of Chéri Samba that was created in 2001 and it features the most important characteristics of his works (Magnin, 2004). First of all, it is painted in the so called “word bubbles” comic style. Second, it features the commentary of the author that reflects the message of the art work. It is always provoking critical analysis and is called the “Samba signature”. It is made to encourage those people who look at the picture not only to perceive the visual side of it, but also to think about the meaning that is hidden in the captivating comics.

The painting Quelle Solution pour les Hommes is a kind of the artist’s fantasy on theme how great it might be if there were more women in the Earth. Women of different nationalities are sitting on the globe behind an African man, who is having a group of women in his heart and another woman in his mind. It is a strange picture and it can be interpreted in different ways. Perhaps, it is the painting about love and the enormous abilities of men to love, or it might be a more lyrical idea that women are the personification of something better than men, who ruin the Earth and start wars. When women sit on the depicted planet, it is full of green treas and in general they are sitting peacefully without starting racial conflicts among each other.

As it is seen from the example above, one piece of art can originate multiple discussions concerning its meaning. It reminded me of the idea expressed by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (1995) who wrote the following way about the works on political themes: “ ‘Political’ artworks, after all, are ‘the most hopelessly self-referential of all art forms… Where the work of art as such… exists to manufacture ambiguity, the political one seeks to resolve it” (Gilbert-Rolfe, 1995). Quelle Solution pour les Hommes supposes that there can be many variants of understanding the implied message of the painting, that will depend completely from the individual experience of the person who is looking at it. Though, if Chéri Samba wrote in the message for this painting that it is about the problem of chauvinism, the idea that men dominate all spheres of the public life and there need to be more rights for women in order to make the world better, will be quite evident. The interpretations that depend upon the personal experience will be cut by the political message of the art work.

Kudzanai Chiurai (n.d.) is, perhaps, the most politicized artist on Africa. Even the names of his works make people understand that their message is socially urgent, for example, It Is Not Africa, It Is Us or State of the Nation. Xenophobia, corrupted government and violence are among his most frequently used themes. The Revelations series from the State of the Nation exhibition are united by one common theme of violence, armed conflicts and the ways in which they change the society. Africa suffers from civil wars and the individual stories of people who participate in the blood shed make the audience think and talk about the problem of violence. Kudzanai Chiurai sometimes unites the images from different times and even with this they are completely African and ethnic, because it is the African history, that can not be disregarded. The artist depicts the new free generation of Zimbabwe in the environment of total seduction. War, arms, alcohol, drugs, homosexual relationships are on his pictures. The artist tries to gather the pieces of the present reality and to construct the possible future in his works, which is perhaps among the best things an artist can do.

Contemporary African art is diverse and unique. It obviously does not correspond to the stereotypical images of primitive native culture and features the most progressive styles like post modernism. In fact, the art on the continent keeps in pace with the global tendencies, but it has its peculiar ethnic atmosphere that makes it different from the Western visual tradition.


Abdoulaye Konaté. Retrieved from: <>.

Cheri Samba. Retrieved from: <>.

Gleadell, C. (2005). Contemporary market: Julie Mehretu. The Daily Telegraph.

Gilbert-Rolfe, J. (1995). Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lowe, L. (1998). The Power of Culture. Journal of Asian American Studies, John Hopkins University Press.

Kudzanai Chiurai. State of the Nation. Retrieved from: <http://www.goodman->.

Magnin. A., Storr, R. (2004). J’aime Cheri Samba, Thames & Hudson.

Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of MN P.

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