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Transforming Africa a la Picasso

6 March 2006 at 06:52 | 371 views

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, in Accra, argues that just as the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, used African art to transform modern art, African elites should learn from the Spaniard and use African values to transform the continent’s development process.

COMMENTARY

By Kofi Akosa-Sarpong, Accra, Ghana

“Picasso and Africa,” an exhibition that showcases more than 80 paintings, drawings and sculptures of the great Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, who never went to Africa though he was immensely influenced by the continent’s artistic values, more than three decades after his death, is now open in South Africa. Picasso stumbled upon African art in June 1907 at the African and Oceanic collection at the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero in Paris. Since then he was able to mix his innate Spanish artistic values and, as the London, UK-based The Economist quoted Marilyn Martin, one of the exhibition’s curators, as saying, with his “unique understanding of the magical and ritualistic power of African art.”

In a time when some enlightened African elites are talking seriously about mixing African values with that of her colonial legacies in the continent’s development process so as to bring development closer to the people, Picasso’s genius at mixing his Spanish artistic values with that of Africa’s could be a remarkable lesson in Africa’s progress. If Picasso, who never went to Africa, “absorbed Africa’s abstract, expressive representations of faces and bodies, and made them his own,” and used this mixture to transform modern art, why can’t African elites do the same so as to transform Africa’s progress by mixing African values and her colonial legacies so as to come out with something new to transform Africa’s development process?

Picasso’s exhibition comes at a time when the idea of mixing Africa’s cultural values with that of her colonial values in her process is increasingly gaining continental and global attention. Internationally, from the World Bank to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the idea of being culturally sensitive by respecting and appropriating local African values and experiences in formulating policies in Africa’s development process is being touted. A World Bank study authored by the Senegalese Mamadou Dia advises African states to reconcile their cultural values with their colonial values in their development process. The study says other ex-colonies such as Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Brazil have done it and are still doing it.

The need to mix African values with her colonial legacies, as Picasso somehow did in some sort of different way in his artistic transformations, is further heightened by Ghana’s Dr. Y.K. Amoako, the former executive secretary of the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-based U.N Economic Commission of Africa (ECA). He observed that Africa is the only region in the world where her development process is dominated by foreign values. The implications here is that the values driving Africa’s development process are not holistic and are not her own. That these values are not driven by Africa’s innate values and, by accident, the colonial values she has come into contact with. This missing link is partly responsible for some problems Africa faces today. The challenge for African elites, if Picasso’s way is anything to go by, is how to transform Africa’s development process by reconciling her values with her colonial legacies so as to effectuate the right balance in Africa’s progress bid.

Thoughtful Africans from some traditional rulers to ordinary people to some thinkers and some insightful journalists have been vigorously campaigning for a new thinking in Africa’s advancement by mixing her cultural values with that of her colonial standards. From the King of Ghana’s Asante ethnic group, Otumfuo Osei Tutu 11, to Ghanaian social scientist, Dr. George Ayittey, of the American University in Washington D.C, to the Kenyan thinker, Dr. Ali Mazrui, this idea is gaining ground.

Recently, at policy development forum at Ghana’s Northern Regional capital of Tamale, ordinary people tasked policy makers to appropriate their values, history, and experiences when formulating policies so as to make the policies realistic and reflective of the people’s struggles.

For long time, African elites’ inability to ground all their development process values in their innate values first and their colonial values second have made some African thinkers such as Mazrui suggest that African elites are mediocre. Unlike other ex-colonies, such as Japan, which Mazrui used liberally as an example to show how African elites failed to match their Western education with their African values in both their intellectual development and the continent’s progress, the trouble with African elites and the continent’s development process is that the elites who conceptualize ideas are not informed by Africa’s innate, indigenous values or ideas but are rather influenced by the Western ideas that they have had in formal schools. Mazrui thinks that African elites’ inability to think holistically, as Picasso did and as other ex-colonies’ elites have done in their progress, stem from the fact that the capacity to be curious and fascinated by ideas which normally starts early in the educational process, that is nourished from primary school onwards, can die at the university level if mediocrity prevails.

The mediocrity had prevailed because African elites’ ability to play with ideas, as is expected of intellectuals, is not grounded in African values, experiences and history but rather, more or less, in their colonial values. This has created problems for Africa’s intellectual growth not only at the university level but also at the primary school level; where the values, images and examples, which are heavily European-centred, are formed.

So, if the African primary education system is heavily Western structured, it flows and grows to the high school level, and then later to the university level; thus sowing a culture of mediocrity, in terms of African values not predominantly dictating the intellectual and developmental life of the African child early enough. Not only does this indicate that Africa’s development process is not culturally close to Africans, but also a revelation that African elites are mediocre in both their intellectualizing and their direction of the continent’s progress. This has made the African elite mediocre in their own environment and in their development process struggles. The mediocrity has come about because Africa’s elites do not think deeply from within Africa’s values first and the enabling aspects of their colonial legacies second in the continent’s progress.

In this sense, as African elites visit the Picasso exhibitions in Johannesburg and Cape Town, they should reflect about how he used African art to develop new global art forms; how Picasso and his associate avant-garde artists, in their search “for a new artistic language to break the mould of conventional representation" were exposed to African forms “rich in symbols;” and how Picasso’s encounter with African art “transformed his artistic vision and with the direction of modern art.” In Pablo Picasso, African elites have much to learn in their development process.

Photo: Pablo Picasso

Photo credit: AP

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