For many decades African Art has been the inspiration for African creativity and artistic expression across the world. Its contribution to the artistic realm has surpassed beyond the confines of visual art and transcended to other modes of expression such as fashion, music, design, and architecture. However, the influence of African art on world aesthetics is often overlooked and overshadowed by the politics of representation that have stereotyped its characteristics for centuries.
South Africa celebrates heritage in the month of September and while the day is marked by communities embracing their diverse cultural background wearing different regalia, African art rarely features as part of this festivity. This is mainly due to a long-standing misconception that unlike its western, eastern, and northern counterparts, southern Africa lacks an artistic impulse that makes it unique. It is a misconception that scholars and creatives have not only demystified but also subverted to bring dignity and pride to the expressive modes of African people.
In 1979 Standard Bank and Wits University embarked on a partnership aimed at conserving and preserving indigenous African cultural material. The decision was not the only visionary on the part of both institutions, but it also resulted in one of the largest collections of African art material spanning from different parts of the continent. The collection now comprises unique beadwork, textiles, masks, headrests and staffs to name a few that have been acquired for their exceptional craftsmanship and technical qualities. Although it comprises of similar examples, one of the distinctions of the collection is how every piece was carefully selected by a committee of experts whose specialization is based on scholarship and research. The collection thus does not only carry intellectual currency but also demonstrates artistic excellence.
Part of the character of this collection is that it demonstrates how African art is also a record of cultural evolution. Over the past four decades, the pieces in the collection have not only evolved to reflect the changes in African societies but have done so by illustrating how technology and other socio-political factors have influenced the changes in the material. Part of this evolution has also influenced the work of contemporary creatives in many ways. Fashion designers for example have not only been drawing on patterns and designs from African art but also the technical skills of creating unique luxury pieces. The vibrant colours and complex patterning of African beadwork have influenced young design brands such as Maxhosa and Ninevites. This comes at a time when younger and younger creatives are looking back at their cultural heritage for ideas and inspiration that solidly grounds them in the historical significance of African expression. Similarly, the music and film industry has drawn immensely from the rhythm and spiritual qualities of African art. The sounds and vibrations of the African drum continue to resonate in the contemporary sounds of today’s popular culture. It is evident that the generation of creatives working today have fully embraced their African heritage in both appreciation and aesthetics. They have demonstrated that African art as heritage is not only a demonstration of cultural diversity but more importantly, it is a significant tool that instils a sense of dignity and pride that makes us uniquely African.