Insofar as Africa has been defined by its relationship to the West, so has its art, and we can begin by looking at how Western art historians and museum curators came to identity African art. It is now 500 years since European voyages around the world began to bring home goods and information from other continents. 250 years ago some of the artefacts they obtained in Africa were being included among the ‘artificial curiosities’ in the developing collections of the newly formed British Museum. But it was not until the late 19th century that Europeans, especially anthropologists, began to treat some of these things as ‘art’.
Scholars then were interested particularly in trying to explain how they cultures of the world had developed and spread to produce what they regarded as the pinnacle of human achievement, the European culture of their day. Among the other peoples of world, some, including most inhabitants of Africa, were taken to represent ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ stages of cultural development, and insofar as their artefacts seemed to be versions of the arts which were a mark of so-called ‘civilization’, these became ‘primitive art’.
In American museums these cultures were often classified with ‘natural history’, but in the British Museum they came under the loose heading of ‘ethnography’. In either case this distinguished them from the civilisations of Europe, Asia and parts of Africa such as Egypt and the Arab states of North Africa. Later generations of Europeans, more cautious about insulting people by calling them ‘primitive’, have adopted words like ‘tribal’ or ‘ethnic’. How far this represents a change of attitude is another question, especially when so many writers feel the need to fall back on expressions like ‘so-called primitive’.
As the colonial conquest of Africa proceeded during the 19th century, more and more African artefacts appeared in the museums and art markets of Europe. The idea of African art received a big boost in the 1890s when hundreds of fine brass sculptures, looted during the British conquest of Benin City in Nigeria, were sold on the open market, and many found their way into the British Museum.
Later colonial adventurers continued to bring new surprises as they shipped back to Europe large collections of exotic artefacts in styles which Europeans had ever seen before.
Some of this was also loot from military expeditions, but much more was purchased from people who prized the wealth and exotic goods of Europe more than their familiar local products.
Some African artefacts were presented to colonial administrators, missionaries and residents. Some were purchased, with detailed documentation by anthropologists, other by expatriate residents, collectors and art dealers. Such people have all contributed to the collections of the British Museum.
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