African artists, anonymous, but recognisable!

Write By: admin Published In: News Created Date: 2014-08-23

Is the anonymity of African artists a myth?

African artists are rarely quoted or mentioned. What comes first is essentially the impact of the work of art itself. As the art, usually masks and sculptures, often relates to religion, what is important is the object and its role in ritual.

Our lack of knowledge about the artists can be explained by several factors: from a “local” point of view focusing on its origin, as in the previous paragraph, the object itself is more important than the person who made it, because it has a specific function for its owner; from a “scientific” point of view, seeing African art has not always helped us learn more about its artists, and so, in my own wordsl, “to contradict the stereotype of an art that emanated almost unconsciously from a collective culture, anonymous and devoid of history – a notion of East Africa that had left outside the history of art to which art museums and art history departments were dedicated” (1998, 44).

The silence surrounding artists who come from African cultures has often given free rein to western imagination, this largely being due to the historical context of the time. However, since the 1950s, researchers (such as historians, art historians, archaeologists, and sociologists) and institutions (museums, among others) have undertaken complementary research into these artists, in the hope of identifying the hand responsible for the object.

Some important studies

It is important to note that numerous studies have been conducted in much the same vein as research into the art history of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, i.e. determining a certain artist’s hand by analysing the stylistic elements of several works (as with the Master of Flémalle, or the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, and so on).

In Belgium, Frans Olbrechts (1899–1958), working in the Ethnography department of the Royal Museum for Eastern  and Central Africa in Tervuren from 1939, carried out comparative research into the form of objects produced by the Luba people and was able to identify the hand of a specific artist, the Master of Buli.

How can an artist be identified?

Researchers focus on objects showing similarities in their shape and style. Using these observations as a starting point, and building up a corpus, it is possible to attribute works to a specific artist, whose name is sometimes known (such as Olowe of Ise). In other cases, the title “master of …” (usually the name of the village where the art originates) is given instead.

Similarities were found on the basis of various structural characteristics, and so it was possible to conclude that this important work of art could be attributed to this particular artist, a major figure in the history of traditional African art.


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