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Saturday, 6 March, 1999, 02:12 GMT
A new look to African art
 Philip Kwame Apagya
Works by Philip Kwame Apagya at the Barbican feature home settings
By the BBC's Ryan Dilley

President Clinton proclaimed "the beginning of a new African renaissance" during a six-nation tour of the continent last March.

Now, with the shadow of war and civil unrest again stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic coast, his words ring hollow.

Africa holds a status almost unique among the continents. Whereas political or economic instability in Asia or the Middle East prompts untold anxiety in the west, African strife elicits sighs of pity.

To many people, the region remains hopelessly adrift of the modern world, its nations backward and backward-looking.

 Philip Kwame Apagya
Another challenging work by Philip Kwame Apagya
But a new generation of artists, keen to stress the complex links between Africa and the developed world, are challenging these assumptions.

After centuries of appropriating African "culture" - with everyone from Picasso downwards taking inspiration from the "primitive" continent - the western art world is taking a less jaundiced look at African artists.

London currently boasts two major exhibitions exploring the seldom-visited side of African art.

Europeans have often underestimated the ease with which African traditions - far from being preserved in aspic - have absorbed outside influences.

John Picton, lecturer in art at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, credits the survival of many traditional art forms to the eagerness with which African artists have seized upon "foreign" materials, techniques and tastes.

Homely aspirations

Africa by Africa, an exhibition of photography at the Barbican Art Gallery, leaves the visitor in little doubt of Africa's ability to assimilate supposedly western art forms.

African photographers were in the vanguard of the art, from even its most primitive days. Photographers in Africa continue to call upon their rich and diverse cultural heritage, while deftly confounding western expectations.

Ghanaian Philip Kwame Apagya, one of the contemporary artists in the Barbican show, combines tradition and modernity in his studio portraits. He allows his sitters to select the backdrop for their picture and, although these exuberant canvases of dream homes, high-tech living rooms and gleaming cityscapes owe much to the conventions of African sign painters and folk artists, they talk of the aspirations of modern Ghanaians.

The Barbican is among the first galleries to showcase modern African art; the Brunei Gallery is another.

"Nationality is not the first port of call," says Frances Richardson, a contributor to Routes at the Brunei. The British artist learnt Yoruba woodcarving techniques out in Nigeria.

Frances Richardson
Frances Richardson has learned traditional African sculpting skills
Routes concentrates on what South African writer Laurens Van der Post called the "two-way flow of traffic" between Africans and Europeans. While Richardson's striking sculptures demonstrate how effortlessly African crafts can be assimilated into the repertoire of British artists, the paintings of Johannes Phokela acknowledge that the reversal of this flow can be more fraught.

Soweto-born Phokela copies and subverts masterpieces of European painting, not only to explore his technical virtuosity, but also as a rebuttal to those who would exclude Africans from such subject matter.

"Who said life drawing was only for Europeans?" asks the Royal College of Art graduate. "The European art market will always marginalise African art. The only way to fight that is not to make 'African' art."

One of his most impressive works at the Brunei, a copy of Manet's Death of Maximilian, does not disavow his race or his independence as an artist.

Johannes Phokel
A detail from Johannes Phokel's version of "Death of Maximilian"
Taking the distressed original in the National Gallery, Phokela subtly appropriates Manet's meditation on 19th Century colonialism and the fate of puppet dictators. His additions to the masterful composition are slight yet incisive.

Maximilian was shot by Mexican troops in the uniforms of the French who had installed the doomed ruler. Phokela magnifies this anomaly, giving one of the firing squad a Kalashnikov - a potent symbol of proxy wars and the great equaliser of the townships.

If the attention given to challenging artists like Phokela, Richardson and Apagya allows African art to achieve some parity with "western culture", perhaps President Clinton's predictions of an "African renaissance" are more likely to be realised.

Africa By Africa, at the Barbican Art Gallery, runs until 28 March.
Routes, at The Brunei Gallery, University of London, runs until 26 March.
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