How a small African figurine changed art
Abook detailing the trial of nine leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) that sat in Pretoria in 1976 has been launched as part of celebrating Steve Biko’s legacy.
Titled ‘The Testimony of Steve Biko’, it details the trial that led to the detention of these leaders.
According to the author, the trial became about the entire philosophy of Black Consciousness and those who championed its cause.
The book is about the trial which started in the Pretoria Supreme Court in 1975.
It recounts the events building up to the arrest of the nine South African Student Organisation (Saso) and Black People’s Convention leaders by the Security Police in October 1974.
This after they illegally took part in a Viva Frelimo rally in Durban, in September of that year.
At the time they were banned and prohibited from any gatherings.
Biko testified at the trial for four days, giving a lecture on what the BCM stood for.
Author and Editor, Millard Arnold, says the book that was banned 40 years ago, is more relevant now than ever before.
“When you look at what Steve understood was that you had to address not just the issue of racism with the underlying issues which give rise to racism which includes the very structure, system and ideology and values that supported it. What Steve was simply saying was that we need to think constantly about what separates us from that kind of a background which is to think about our humanity and understand that our uBuntuness is what makes us different and be able to understand that the conditions which Black people found themselves were no accident.”
Biko’s son, Nkosinathi, says such books are important to conscientise young people.
But it wasn’t just the small Congolese figure that had provided the spur and turning point for Picasso’s work - and you can see this figure currently in the Royal Academy’s exhibition Matisse in the Studio, along with other objects Matisse kept that informed his painting and sculpture. It was the companionable rivalry provided by this new relationship with the older French artist, for Matisse was, at that point, the far more experimental and radical artist the leading Fauve, or ‘Wild Beast’.
Matisse had painted his multicoloured, dream-pastoral Le Bonheur de Vivre in 1906, the year he bought the African figurine and the year the two artists met (and he was soon experimenting with his own ‘Africanised’ nudes), and Les Demoiselles was painted partly in answer to it. Picasso was intent on painting something even more radical and daring, a work that would leave its mark, which, for the last 110 years it certainly has.
But Matisse wasn’t the first artist to appropriate non-Western art. Primitivism, as it came to be known, was beginning to be embraced by artists in France at the end of the 19th Century, though some of its roots go back further, to the pastoral paintings of a golden age of the Neo-Classical period. And although fundamental to it, it wasn’t only non-Western artefacts that were of interest. Children’s art, and later the art of the mentally ill, so-called outsider art and folk art were significant contributions to the evolution of modernism, not just in visual art but in music too. Back to basics Matisse himself was always fascinated by the drawings of his own children and saw within them possibilities for the direction of his own work. That interest, too, was followed through by Picasso, who later famously remarked that, “Every childis an artist. The problem is how to remain an artistonce he grows up.”
What was taken from each category of art produced from these non-conventional sources, was a sense of spontaneity, of innocence, of a creative impulse not suffocated by academic fine art training or indeed by Western values, which were beginning to be seen in some intellectual and avant-garde circles as corrupt and decadent or as simply a spent force. The unmediated, the unspoiled and the authentic was what was now prized, and that included art that expressed the artist’s inner world, or what emerged in the 20th Century as the unconscious. Art, in other words, unfettered by the supposed artificial values of bourgeois society.
Though naivety and lack of sophistication was hardly true of either African art or art from other non-Western cultures, artists were struck by a directness, a pared-down simplicity and a nonnaturalism that they discovered in these objects. But no thought was given to what these artefacts might actually mean, nor to any understanding of the unique cultures from which they derived. The politics of colonialism was not even in its infancy.
The Trocadéro museum, which had so impressed Picasso, had opened in 1878, with artefacts plundered from the French colonies. Today’s curators, including those of the Royal Academy’s Matisse exhibition in which African masks and figures from the artist’s collection appear, at least seek to acknowledge and redress this to a small extent. A similar effort was made earlier this year for Picasso Primitif at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, an exhibition exploring Picasso’s life-long relationship to African art. The sculptures, from West and Central Africa, were given as much space and importance as Picasso’s own work and one could appreciate at first hand the close correspondence between the works.
Meanwhile, the Art Institute of Chicago has an exhibition that looks at the creative process of an artist who was profoundly influenced by art from French Polynesia and who in turn was a particular influence on Matisse those colour-saturated dream-like pastoral paintings again, including the early Le Bonheur de Vivre mentioned above. Paul Gauguin, perhaps the quintessential European artist to ‘go native’, first in Martinique, then in Tahiti, where he died in 1903 aged 54, had long felt a disgust at Western civilisation, its perceived inauthenticity and spiritual emptiness.
Even before he left European shores for good he had lived in an artist’s colony in Brittany, painting
“I think it is important to publish this book on the occasion of the 40th anniversary because they provide the unadulterated voice and thoughts of Steve Biko which is often lost in third parties often writing about him and they provide young people with direct access to where he was in terms of thoughts at various stages of his life.”
Professor Saths Cooper, who was accused number one in the trial, and Zithulele Cindi, who was accused number nine, believe that a lot still needs to be done to liberate the masses economically and otherwise.
“1. Corruption and chaos that we see is not testimony to that revolution. I think what we are seeing is people who have let their own personal interests rise above those of people they ought to serve. 2. What we see today is not what we had struggled for, what we hoped we would have through the liberation struggle but the fundamental freedoms which relate to us having the access to economic power is eluding us. Even the political power we don’t have it as yet.”
Author, Millard Arnold, believes that when Steve Biko left the Pretoria High Court after four days of testimony, many were convinced that he was an organic intellectual - a view widely held by many Black Consciousness scholars.
The book is available at the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg, King William’s Town, and in other recognised book stores across the country. the deeply religious peasant women in traditional Breton dress. These paintings, such as Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, possess a rather unsettling and erotic sense of the numinous, as do his Tahiti paintings, with their piquant mix of sex and death. Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist shows us an artist fully immersed in the life from which his art was born.
The significance of non-European art on the avant-garde and on 20th-Century art modernism can’t be overestimated. It goes far beyond these three prominent artists, though all three were particularly instrumental in spreading its impact, from the Surrealists to Jackson Pollock. And even nearer our own time, seemingly long after the fascination with the primitif had been exhausted, the ritualised performance-land art of Ana Mendieta and the energetic postmodern faux-tribal paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat saw that it certainly hadn’t.
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles des Avignon shows the influence of African art in the masks the prostitutes wear
The Testimony of Steve Biko