"African Contemporary Art," the international exhibition now at Howard University, suggests a continent, a people, in tentative transition. The 37 artists from 14 African nations whose works are on display together show us something sweeter, less dramatic than The Revolution. Theirs is not a shocking show.
They are reaching for the new, but they are not yet there. One feels within their work a past - part colonial part traditional - that they have, so far, only partially rejected. At the same time they are striving for something universal, a black art that might reach black people everywhere. Something of great promise, an attitude, a look, a unifying spirit, flickers in their work; but it, too, has been only partially achieved.
Some things here are smashing - the bright tapestries from Senegal, the moving "naive" paintings of Severino Monit-Klomin-Matti of Uganda, the picture made with beads by Jimoh Buraimoh of Nigeria. But this exhibition, on the whole, though it draws from a whole continent, seems thinner, less exuberant, than those recently presented by the faculty of Howard, a single U.S. school.
Howard's artists, after all, have learned from one another, from their students, from this city's many galleries and museums. The've been immersed in modern art, and, unlike many of the artists in this show, they have enthusiastically embraced old Africa's traditions.
Many contemporary Africans, and most of those represented here, have, instead, reached out toward Europe. The catalog tells us they received their "training" in London, Paris, Brussells, Vienna, Turin and other Western cities. Mission schools, European teachers, Western publications, have bred what one might call a kind of art colonialism that has added to the haze, the pseudo-European film, that clouds many of these works.
Sogo B. Isidore has taught himself a kind of French impressionism. So has Abdale Glover. Such European painters as Picasso, Feininger and Soulages have influenced these Africans. "The Man and the Horse" by Falka Armide of Ethiopia seems a copy of the work of the Italian Marino Marini.
Third World countries, while striving to be modern, sometimes reject as backward their own rich traditions. Westerners who have been awed by Africa's old art will notice, for example, that paintings much outnumber carvings in this show.
But the virtues of this exhibition far outweigh its faults. What is most impressive here is the emergence of a style, an attitude to image-making, that seems to be evolving not only throughout Africa but in America as well, wherever blacks make art.
One feels a love of patterning of complex visual rhythms, a preference for a certain set of colors and materials. Look, for instance, at the way these artists treat the figure. Their works, though full of people, are almost void of portraits. The warriors, the mothers, the women shopping in the market are almost always types rather than specific people.
Kojo Fosu of Ghana, who is now at Howard, spent three years traveling in Africa searching for the artists represented in this show. He visited 20 countries and contacted more than 100 African artists. His ambitious exhibition will be on view at Howard's art gallery (which is open Monday through Friday) until July 31.