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Art and 'Art' in Africa: Conceptual Clarification, Confusion or Colonization?

Jennifer Wilkinson


The concept of art that we have more or less come to accept is under siege both internally and externally. While some artists challenge its boundaries from within, many artefacts from Africa, a continent often presumed not to have or at least not to have had the concept, stretch its limits. In South Africa, since boundary disputes about art help to keep old racial prejudices alive, clarification is not merely of academic interest but is urgently required to assist in the process of transformation and reconciliation. Although there have been philosophical efforts to include ‘African art’ in the fold, by producing wider definitions and criteria, these tend to be paradigmatic. 1 The result is that African art hovers as a hybrid at the edges with the art of Western countries continuing to occupy center stage. Reaction in South Africa to a situation in which art is measured according to the perceived uncritical assimilation of foreign criteria, calls for conceptual decolonization. The plea is both to avoid the imposition of “categories of thought embedded in foreign languages or philosophical traditions which have exercised considerable influence on African thought and meaning ...” and in the further words of Kwasi Wiredu, to “exploit the resources of our indigenous conceptual schemes.” 2 The flipside is that since all concepts are governed by at least theoretically discoverable criteria and cannot be used at will, if what is made in Africa does not fulfil the logical requirements for art, there cannot be African art. At best, broadened definitions will allow for its uncomfortable accommodation. While the debate continues, curatorial and other decisions, with far-reaching and often unhappy consequences, are made with neither clear guidelines nor consensus.

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Journal on African Philosophy. ISSN: 1533-1067 (online).
Editor: Olufemi Taiwo.

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