What issues do African artists explore?

African artistsAfrican artists
African artistsAfrican artists


What issues do African artists explore?

When we look at African art, we often just see the stunning paintings, unique photography and surprising sculptures. However, many African artists use their work to explore important issues such as political corruption in their country, gender inequalities that they face and racial issues they face across the continent.

Contemporary African art is vastly different to the usual ‘tribal’ art we associate with the continent. It aims to provoke its viewers and make them think about the issues faced by African people on a daily basis. Below are just some of the issues that African artists explore in their work.


Diaspora and Identity issues

One of the major themes in many African artworks is that of identity. This is because, up until now, African people have been viewed as ‘other’ by many Western countries, especially when it comes to popular culture such as film and TV series.

The human figure has always been at the centre of African art, from traditional masks and sculptures to the life-sized pieces of Mary Sibande. Sibande explores identity by creating life-sized visages of herself as her alter ego Sophie and dresses her in traditional domestic uniforms, elevated to Victorian-esque lavishness. By doing so, she is subverting how black women are traditionally viewed in South Africa.

Part of the identity issues explored by African art and artists is that of the Diaspora, the leaving of your home country or continent to start a life in another country or continent. These artists use visual abstractions rather than realistic interpretations to show how they perceive Africa and their experiences both in and out of the country. African artists see their identity as being more than just their country, using  themes such as Afrofuturism to explore these ideas.


Gender is given a new voice

Women in the African art world use their craft to give gender issues a voice. Artists such as Frances Goodman use techniques including creating sculptures using false nails, paintings made from hand-stitched sequins and an installation formed with crocheted wool.

She uses these materials to encourage the viewer to question how women present themselves to the public on the surface, and why many women struggle to maintain a certain image that might not be true to her inner self. Another artist, Lungiswa Gqunta, couples Black Label beer bottles (which once used a marketing campaign that highlighted Black masculinity) with soft bedding to show the soft, domestic Black female persona.

Together, these tools create a petrol bomb, a tool which was used as part of oppression and violence against Black people in Apartheid South Africa. Female African artists use a wide variety of tools and methods to show the public the issues they are dealing with on a daily basis, and that African art needs to become more inclusive in the gallery, exhibition and festival scenes.


Political corruption is brought to the forefront

In a continent such as Africa, there is bound to be political corruption in many countries. This is due to the history of colonialism and segregation in many African countries which has caused current governments to become inept and often corrupt.

Kudzanai Chiurai is a Zimbabwean artist who was exiled from his home country for an inflammatory piece of art depicting Robert Mugabe with horns, being swallowed by flames. Since this exile, much of his art has explored themes of political corruption, and other aspects of a constructed African state that has just been ravaged by conflict.

His Revelations collection features both his painting and photographic skills, and his art addresses government corruption to conflict and violence, xenophobia, and displacement. Many other African artists have experienced such political corruption and unrest, which makes it a common and important theme in their work.


The past and present intertwine

While Afrofuturism might be the buzzword on everyone’s lips in the arts community, most African artists still keep true to their roots and combine their past with the present and even the future. This can be seen in works by Kenyan artist Osborne Macharia, whose series The Kabunga People imagines a future of grandfathers who have taken on the rap and hip-hop culture.

These grandfathers teach and mentor the younger generations on music, style and life. It also gives the viewer insight into how the oral teaching tradition is still alive and well in African culture. It is inherent in many African cultures to look after their elderly family members and to respect their ancestors, which ties in with the notion of ‘identity’ in African art.


Final thoughts

Africa, as a continent, has stories to tell from its past that are still relevant today and the past can provide a unique insight into how both African people and the rest of the world sees the people today. This is why African artists explore issues such as gender inequalities, political corruption and identity and diaspora. They are using their art not only as entertainment to the viewers, but to tell a story and challenge those who might hold stereotypes in their mind about Africa and African art.

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