Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

African artists perpetuate stereotypes

The common objection to the work of many African artists is simple: they oversimplify reality and dehumanise the African experience to please a so-called global audience. As a result, their content is predictable and monotonous.

In fact, it is not just an insult but, to a large extent, also a lie. What I mean is that the African human condition is not just about suffering, war, famine, oppression, poverty and dispossession or just greed, corruption and crime.

It is not just an unending series of the unchanging negative. The African experience is complex and dynamic.

Human life on the continent is as dynamic, progressive, ever-changing and complicated as in any other part of the world. But one rarely perceives or experiences this through African art, especially the visual arts like movies, photography etc.

Africans are multifaceted human beings, too, with full human life experiences despite the poverty, unemployment, corruption and crime.

They have love, joy and happiness or anger, jealousy and rage.

But they are, mostly, dehumanised and reduced to victims of colonialism, apartheid, racism and the betrayal of African politicians and government in places like South Africa, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe or Tunisia.

What I find disappointing and frustrating about African arts is two patterns.

Firstly, Africans are, mostly, portrayed as less than human because of degrading material circumstances.

Secondly, they are always portrayed in an unending condition of poverty, war, inequality, corruption and political crime.

In fact, this image of the African does not change. It has become frozen in the human consciousness, including the mind of the African visual artist.

We must challenge and problematise this portrayal, which perpetuates a negative view of the continent and its people by suggesting there is no progress or development.

Nobody is denying that Africa, her people and governments have serious problems like poverty, war or corruption. But this should not make African artists not consider or reflect the possibility that African experience may have some positive elements. Yes it may not be in a perfect material state but the white European experience is just as imperfect as well.

It is misleading for African artists, particularly, to portray and project the African experience as unique in its imperfection. Look at human degradation in Europe, India and China, for example.

Unfortunately, white hegemony and economic control makes it almost impossible for African artists to give a different or positive picture of the African experience.

Some African artists may want to broaden the depiction of the African human experience. But they find that they are prescribed and limited by those who not only control the purse strings but the power to open up opportunities for them and thus determine the content of their work.

Of course, due to their economic might, white Europeans and Americans control and manage the elite cultural industries and thus dictate what happens and what does not.

In fact, what they demand and dictate is that the market wants a negative view of Africa.

This has limited African artistic freedom. African artists have compromised their integrity and commitment to African self-determination and freedom for short-term gains like opportunities abroad, fame and fortune.

I am not suggesting that they should deny the tragic reality of the African experience. But artistic expression should capture and reflect the multidimensional African human experience and mirror the changing face of the continent and her people.

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    • Dave Harris

      I agree 100% Sandile, however for these “starving” African artists to gain recognition, they need to be “seen” / “discovered” by these galleries who in reality, prefer those African stereotypes, because this is what the elite want to buy!
      The overseas late night television commercials (invariably little orphan African kids with flies buzzing around their dripping noses) for aid to Africa is akin to poverty porn! Its BIG business!!!

    • The Creator

      Um. Can you cite an example or two? Because you’re essentially denouncing every cultural activity from Cape Agulhas to the Gulf of Sidre as being worthless and self-hating, and it would be nice to see if there’s even a speck of truth in your claims.

      Certainly it doesn’t apply to African literature.

    • Momma Cyndi

      a couple of ‘for instances’ would be nice.
      If we are talking movies (that seems to be the gist), my favourite movie is White Wedding – how does that fit into your theory?

    • Percipient

      Sandile, it is your posts that are stereotypical.

      You race-bait White people, always. Your facile propositions lack guts and your weak, wishy-washy arguments are found wanting for evidence and furthermore you have a propensity to begin your dreary screeds on a negative footing followed by feeble offerings of half-baked solutions to the by-now thoroughly bored reader.

      After labouring through this post it has become clear to me that you are no authority on African art nor a voice or opinion to be taken seriously on this exhaustive subject.

    • michael

      Maybe the anc should train and pay the artists.

    • GrahamJ

      Same old, same old.

      It’s been said before. It’s ALWAYS being said.

      Only one thing will change it.

    • peter

      So now we are all art critics as well. Most artists I know create images of one kind or another simply to satisfy their own longing to create something they consider to be worthwhile, no ulterior motive or agenda in evidence at all. They are of course mostly unsuccessful, both in their own creativity being self deprecating and of little personal value. Those who attempt to create art forms to please others are sometimes hugely successful im monetary terms, but probably derive very little satisfaction out of their work personally.

      Sensationalism is what is required, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to nomal folks and those artists who can create sensationalism ( the scream ) are examples of what art experts perceive to be quality. The spear comes to mind. Normal folks would never hang either of those items on their walls.

      Rembrant and his ilk must be turning over in their graves. There are literally millions of wonderful artists on this planet who have starved to death, because critics do not actually have a clue!

      One famous artist had a hissy fit in New York when he discovered that one of his uncle’s paintings was hanging upside down on the gallery wall! Neither the curator, art critics, nor any viewers were remotely aware of the problem. So much for those who purport to be art lovers and critics. It appears we know as much about art as we do about running our planet. Sorry lot are we!

    • Mr. Direct

      How dare those western scum, liking what they like. How dare they!

    • Risenga Makondo

      Sandile : I am sure you are in you 50s looking at you face,same age we are mate. I can remember the early 80s most of the Arts, a special in Urban South Africa was about the struggle. I can also remember looking at a piece of Art, without evin reading the name, I could tell if the Artist was black or white. Now the African expierance you talking about if universal. Example: In South Africa the Black Artst goes to the same Universty us the white artist to Study Arts. I am proud to see that African Artist are becoming more creative and this will help them compete for jobs local and international. We have to pay our Bonds and feed our Families. Art is my job not fun. No more Amandla Arts, remember the song Siyaya Siyaya Epitori. We now have arrived, lets move on shall we ?

    • MrK

      Hi Dave Harris,

      ” The overseas late night television commercials (invariably little orphan African kids with flies buzzing around their dripping noses) for aid to Africa is akin to poverty porn! Its BIG business!!! ”

      African exports: $1000 billion
      Donor Aid: $250 billion
      Charitable Giving: $6 billion

      You could say that ‘donor aid’ are the taxes that the transnational corporations are not paying. The charitable giving industry is there to provide the propaganda to keep the scam going.

      Because the CG industry has so much money, they often provide the infrastructure that drives foreign journalists around, provides them with food and shelter, etc. As a result, much of the ‘news’ about Africa is really aid news. This is why there are always problems and never solutions. This is why you get the poverty porn, but never the explanation of who benefits, who profits when one side or the other is victorious. And the message is always: please give more.

      You get ‘the curse of Coltan/Copper/Gold/Diamonds/etc.’, but the ‘journalists’ never follow the owners into the boardroom, or identify the shareholders who benefit from the Eastern DRC, for instance (hints: BSRG, Nikanor PLC, Glencore International PLC, Anglo-American De Beers).

      Donor Aid is a scam, and would be completely unnecessary if African countries received the value of their natural resources.

    • Tofolux

      @Sandile, there is a wonderful artist/designer etc called Nkhensani Nkosi who created a wonderful label. Yes, we can make many overtures about this label but there are so many things to admire about her ”state of mind” while she builds herself. Some time ago she ran a series of Drum ”covers” on her t-shirts. I absolutely luvd it because the covers should not only be iconic but it reflects the time of our different periods. The point I want to make is that these iconic ”covers” together with many photo’s and various productions gave us an insight into another part of our parents, elders etc lives. It shows happy times, it shows times of great musicality (and yes we produced iconic musical artists and products) wonderful style etc. I for one have a huge admiration for our ”african” pride, poise and style of those periods. The overarching point is that during these very difficult periods, our artists related an african experience that was so real, so enjoyed and happy. You are correct about the complexities with all its complications. I too feel despondent that we r bein robbed of an interpretation óf an important period by greedy and arrogant charlatans who sit on perches, seperate in mind and soul with no understanding of their roles or relevance to our history . Hence I have much confidence in many artists such as Nkosi who are so ignored becos they r too ”african” but who will stand the test of time and whom history will say are the real…