Does African art have to bear the responsibility of a positive social message?

Arts for Art’s sake?

Ask me if I agree with this much over-used phrase, and my answer would be an unequivocal yes. Of course, art does not have to have a message. It can be enjoyed simply for its aesthetic beauty. Real art isn’t about messages, it doesn’t necessarily say anything. It is an arrangement of shapes, a pattern of words. But on the other-hand art has the power to enlighten and inspire.
Premised on the concept that inspiration can provoke action, art has often found its roots in the call for social change. Recalling the Renaissance artists, Mexico’s Diego Riviera, and more recently, China’s Ai Weiwei; history is littered with ground-breaking artists who have harnessed the power of art to challenge the status quo. As the old Ethiopian proverb goes, ‘If you pick up one end of the stick, you also pick up the other’.
As the owner of a gallery focusing on African art, do I have a duty to champion art that is socially responsible and that can contribute to a positive change for a continent that is often much maligned and misunderstood? But attempting to answer this question makes my head spin; why should we ask something of an African artist that we would never ask of their Western counterpart, who is free to make art as frivolous decoration as much as they may please.
Thankfully our next exhibition at Akka Project allows us to sit on both sides of the fence. The paintings that make up the ‘Children of Africa’ exhibition by Armand Boua have a sparse and haunting beauty that allows them to be appreciated even without knowledge of the context of the artist’s subject matter. However, understanding an artist’s motivation often allows for a deeper appreciation of a work of art – and so is the case with Armand Boua’s work. Armand Boua’s work is deeply influenced by the war that destroyed his native city, Abidjan, the once glorious capital known as ‘the Paris of West Africa’ ravaged by a decade long civil war. Armand’s painting depicts the formless figures of forgotten children and testifies to the violence that continues to characterize the political struggles of West Africa. His observations of children are drawn largely from street scenes where urban migrations create ethnic, cultural and social entanglements that have come to enrich and problematize the region in equal measure.
In returning to the question of art for art sake, I will follow the wisdom of ground-breaking author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is challenging the negative depictions of Africa says, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Instead, Chimamanda explains, we must seek diverse perspectives — and in turn, writers (artists) must tell their own stories – stories about experiences, hopes and fears, stories that help to break-down the power of clichés and stereotypes. In presenting African art for different perspectives,
Akka Project seeks to break the misconception of African understood as a homogenous monolith. Whilst we are powerfully moved by the message portrayed by Armand’s painting of abandoned children, we are equally enthralled by our next exhibition – a collection of 3D art and sculpture from a varied group of artists representing the diversity of the continent. In continuing to promote works by emerging Africa artists, will continue to champion art from Africa as deserving of global recognition for the immense talent coming from artists from various backgrounds with a multiplicity of messages.