It’s my culture: how modern African art tells the story of African culture

African artAfrican art
African artAfrican art

It’s my culture: how modern African art tells the story of African culture

Over the years, African art has changed drastically. No longer does it consist of beadwork creations, tourist curios and tribal masks. Modern artists on the continent have embraced modernity and are using contemporary art techniques such as photography and digital art software. Despite this, modern African art still tells the story of African culture to those who view it.


How does modern African art tell the story of African culture?

Afrofuturism and the reimagining of Africa

‘Afrofuturism’ is a term coined by author Mark Dery, who used it in his essay ‘Black to the Future’ in order to identify a phenomenon he had observed. It is a cultural aesthetic which combines science-fiction, history and fantasy to explore the African experience.

One key player in the Afrofuturism is Osborne Macharia, who uses photography and digital art techniques to create fantastical images showing his take on the future, past and present of his home country Kenya. This can be seen in his work ‘Kipipiri’, based on the freedom fighters of Kenya and his submissions for the ‘Capture Kenya’ project.

Young African artists are using Afrofuturism in their art to retell and reimagine the future of the continent, and while it is vastly different to the traditional African art we are used to, it still shows us the story of African culture and educates us about how African countries are dealing with modernisation.


Identity and diaspora are addressed

African and South African artists address important and significant issues in their work, two of which intertwine inherently. Identity and diaspora are two major themes found in African art and are explored in a multitude of ways.

The human figure has always been the focus of African art, from traditional masks and sculptures to the life-sized pieces by Mary Sibande. Sibande creates sculptures of women using her own visage and clothes them in the traditional garb of the ‘domestic worker’ in South Africa. She changes this clothing to appear similar to that of Victorian upper-class ladies, subverting the traditional idea of identity for black South African women.

Diaspora is addressed by African artists who have left the continent and now live and work in other countries. By preferring to use visual abstraction over realistic interpretations, these artists can create representations of how they perceive Africa and their experiences both in and out of the country. Young African artists see their identity as something more than just their country, and so use Afrofuturism and other theories to explore this and comment on African culture.


Gender goes to the forefront

Female African artists are gaining popularity and are using their art to address gender issues that have long been debated in Africa. Previously, traditional African art did not address any such issues but contemporary African artists are now looking at gender issues in their art and exploring how the black female body is seen through both African and Western eyes.

KudzanaiChiurai is a Zimbabwean artist who was exiled to South Africa for his controversial posters criticising the Zimbabwean government. While he remains political, one topic that Chiurai has focused on and still focuses on is gender politics and identity. His conflict resolution pieces explore gender politics in the face of political unrest in a country.

Female African artists like Nigerian artist NjidekaAkunyili are telling their stories of their experiences as African women both in and out of Africa. These artists use fashion, photography, paint and sculpture as their mediums, and address issues such as women’s rights, genital mutilation, rape, body image issues and much more.


The artists have not forgotten their pasts

While many young African artists consider themselves to be part of the Afrofuturism movement most, if not all, have not forgotten their roots or the pasts of their countries. It is an inherently African notion to be highly considerate of one's ancestors and ancestry, and this ties heavily into the idea of ‘identity’ in African art.

In many pieces of modern African art, much like those by Macharia, older African people are referenced and even brought to the forefront. This is because Africa as a continent has stories from its past to tell that are still heavily intertwined with the present and future. African art can be used as a tool for teaching the younger generations about past events and how the country moved forward from these into the future. It can also provide a unique insight into how African people see themselves in the future.

The artworks that are being seen now by young artists depict a fresh, new dawn for African people without forgetting their traditions or heritage. It is this that makes African art unique to Western art.

African art