Why Should Schools Teach African Art?

“Why should students learn about African art? After all, isn’t it primarily primative art which is made for rituals and stuff? I mean, it isn’t like its Monet or Van Gogh or something.”

A couple of weeks ago, while waiting in line and chatting with a friend; I was discussing the fact that I knew a young man (of African heritage), who had recently attended one of the most prestigious art schools that the United States has to offer. I was talking to this young man, whom I know very well and asking him how his studies had gone and how his new school had impressed him thus far. He gave me a rather interesting reply: “I was in class the other day and we were discussing art history. The professor very rapidly skimmed over African art history and proclaimed that we would, in essence, not be studying it as it offered little. It was her view that since African objects such as baskets, statues, masks, etc were produced primarily for practical use; they weren’t really art. They had not been well thought out in their design as far as asthetics go; but were instead strictly utilitarian.”

The young man, who comes from a family which is both European and African in heritage; was shocked. But that isn’t the real story. It would in fact have ended there…

But some months later, (a few weeks ago now); I was in line talking to a friend about African fabrics. She has had a love of African fabrics for a great many years and was discussing a book she recently acquired which had beautiful photographs of cloth woven by the Asante peoples. The discussion soon turned to Adinkra symbols and their use in cloth as well as other art pieces.

Someone in the line overheard our discussion just as I had recounted what the young man had said to me about his “top of the line” art school and my surprise that there wasn’t more taught about the richness of African art there. Her reply was the topic of this post.

Before I had the chance to answer her, the woman I was talking to replied. This is not a quote of her reply; but it is a fair expression of the overall ideas she conveyed:

“Have you never heard of Picasso, Matisse or the Cubist period?” African art played a HEAVY influence on many of Europe’s finest artists. This is without even mentioning its current influence on modern painters, sculpters and other artists. And it goes without saying that African art strongly influenced past and more recent African-American, Cuban, Carribean and other artists who are part of the African diaspora. It is called “primative art” by some more because of their lack of understanding than due to its perceived lack of sophistication. Learn more about the continent and the diversity of the people who created those fabrics, masks and yes, even baskets and you’ll grow to understand that their art is as valuable asthetically as anyone else’s.

To the woman who replied in my stead, I simply say “Thank you for doing such a great job at speaking for Africa’s artists.”

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