The Dark Gift

The Dark Gift

Time Magazine, September.28, l962

Written for the Catalog of the opening of the Rhodes National Gallery by Frank McEwen Salisbury, Rhodesia, July, 1957
“Triumph of First Congress on African Culture” London Times, 1962
A trip to Africa: Frank McEwen, Rhodesia and Shona Art, 1968 by Adele Aldridge

African art, admired in the US and Europe as a rich creative tradition, has always had to fight for recognition in its own backyard. To the natives who practiced it, it was less art for art’s sake than a deadly serious business of magic, medicine, fetish and religion. To most white colonizers, African art has always been a mumbo-jumbo sort of thing, proofthat the native African lacked cultural instincts.

Last month an exhibition of African Art opened at the Rhodes National Gallery in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, that gives a new perspective to the neglected cultural contribution of Africa to the rest of the world. More than 350 works-many borrowed from museums and private collections in Britain, Europe, and the US make up the show. Bronzes, wood carvings, ironwork, masks, dance instruments, fragments of terra cotta are there and compared, when appropriate, with photographs of examples from the modern movement in Western art.

Cradle of Expressionism

Says Rhodes Gallery Director Frank McEwen: “The great attribute of African traditional art is expressionism and the Africans had it centuries ago.” As everyone knows, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, etc., admired and copied African art. “The entire modern movement in Western art owes a debt to primitive Africa, and that is the point we are trying to make with this exhibition,” McEwen says.”It is a fact that very few artists of contemporary style do not possess some well digested but evident influences of Africa.”

The Salisbury show is the most comprehensive collection of African art ever assembled. It ranges from the terra-cotta pieces of Nok culture, 2000 years ago, through the supremely realistic life portrait heads of the 8th to the l4th century, to the Benin empire bronzes that mark the turning point from realism to expressionism between the 15th and the 19th centuries. The most recent pieces of traditional art in the show are wood carvings 50 years old. The older things have survived because they are made of terra cotta, bronze, iron or brass; millions of wood sculptures have been destroyed over the ages by fire, termites, jungle damp or the iconoclasm of Christian missionaries.

The exhibition thus provides ample proof that Africa had many cultures predating by centuries the arrival of European influence. This realization gave the show different meanings to white and black viewers. To one white viewer, writing in the Rhodesia Herald, the show offered “nothing but crudity, primitiveness, and savagery … we are used to a culture that produces artists of the caliber of Michelangelo, sculptors of the caliber of Rodin But a serious and elegant Negro was led to wonder whether the local Europeans were able to understand anything of all this.”

The inroads of civilization have so squelched traditional art that little of it has been created in Africian communities for the past twenty years; the magical and ritual reasons for it are on the wane, and in its place has come airpor art designed more to please tourists than to appease terrible gods. The exhibition at Salisbury also devotes some attention to contemporary nontraditional art – painting and sculpture that seem to repay the compliment to Western art by espousing abstractionism or Rousseau-like primitivism. It also seems to cancel out the debt, with the result that African traditional art, after having helped shape the pattern for the West, has become a lost and forgotten art in its own land.