Featured Image Source: Ochiwar, Under GNU Free Documentation License, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Intricate_bronze_ceremonial_pot,_9th_century,_Igbo-Ukwu,_Nigeria.jpg
Where is OUR art history, us Kenyans, Nigerians, Chadians, Indonesians, Aborigines, Mexicans and Native Americans. We make art, we have history. Why do we not get an Art history?
Western art history is often taught to young artists as the ‘universal’ art history. Other art histories are either ignored completely, taught in extra classes or have western art history crassly shoved over it. There is nothing wrong with a universal art history, in todays world, it can be helpful to find connections that span the entire world. There are things we can say about all art in general, but it is beyond Eurocentric to try and put forward the idea that western art history is the only or the most universal one. The ideas, movements and inspiration that define Western art history do not define other art histories.
Why Western art history is often taught as the de facto art history can be understood from a number of different perspectives. The most prominent reason is that the Western World is the most powerful part of the world. The Western world writes about, consumes and studies its own art the most and because ‘history is written by the victors’. Furthermore, because the study of art history in the Western world really bloomed during colonial times, Non-western art was characterised as being savage, not worthy of study and unrefined. It meant that Non-western art history was maligned and these ideas, although not as overtly, have continued in art history teaching today.
We can also see this in which museums art is presented in. Western art tends to be shown in National Museums and Modern art Museums whereas Non-western art is shown in Ethnographic museums. The art is shown in the context of other cultural products (like weapons and religious objects) and in the context of other cultures. Western Art is usually shown in a chronological fashion where art can be seen in its historical context and the growth of art can be seen. This is important to note for a number of reasons. It means that when you look Western art you can see it change and progress through the ages and how historical events and changes effect art. The same cannot be said for Non-western art in Ethnographic museums.Non-western art therefore often seems like there has been no change what so ever for the last 4000 years. This helps to enforce the idea that the Non-western world is uncivilized and that its culture is unchanging (source) & (source).
This is of course not true. Non-western art history has seen massive changes in forms, ideas, materials and movements just like Western art history. If we look at Japanese architecture we can see huge changes in forms, ideas and movements. The change from wooden temples with strict ideas about form, size and material to today where modernism has become one of the most important design principles (source).
The idea that Non-western art is not as intricate as Western Art is one that is still sometimes taught. This is particularly true for African Art. The idea being that Africa could not create fine art because the continent and its people were too poor, uncivilised or stupid to create art or culture. This is of course not true. Case in point the bronze pots from the 9th century created in nowadays Nigeria by the Igbo people. The bronze pots are incredibly intricate and used techniques that were much more advanced than bronze casting was in Europe at the time. These pots had an important role in Igbo culture and were used for a number of religious and ceremonial tasks. The pots were adorned with beads and often had a number of animal or human forms decorating the outside. These pots are some of the most complex ancient art works ever discovered and these detailed and important objects were cast in one piece. It is some of the most advanced bronze casting in the world (source).
Native peoples art history in western countries, like the Aborigine in Australia, are also under-represented in their countries national art history. These countries have a unique opportunity to study these art histories as these countries have the resources to gain a truly deep understanding of these Non-western arts. It is a shame that Australian universities are not at forefront of Non-western art studies and that their art history classes continue to be Eurocentric.
With the coming of the modern age, industrialisation and globalisation we are starting to see a conversion of art styles. We see that artists are becoming more international than ever. Creating artwork is a number of cultural settings and for a greater number of visitors. Obviously, artists always bring their own cultural history with them when they create an art piece.
Western Universities are better funded and have better facilities to study art history. It also makes a lot of sense that Western Universities would study Western art history. This means that there is a huge discrepancy between the amount of study between Western and Non-western art histories. This means that we have a deep and incredible wide view of Western art history. This can not be said for Non-western art history which often only skims the surface. This is especially true for African art history. This enforces the idea that Non-western art history is less interesting and less diverse than Western art history.
Both Western and Non-western universities have a responsibility to change the narrative around Non-western art. Western universities need to make a clear distinction between when they are talking about Western art history and when about universal art history. Furthermore, Western universities need to put more resources into teaching a wider and more inclusive art history.
More importantly though, Non-western universities need to put more resources into studying their own countries’ history and culture. To give a deeper understanding of the movements, ideas, styles and forms of Non-western art. Of their own art. And teach what they learn and stop teaching Western art history as the standard universal art history.
Note: Thanks to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her Amazing book ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ for being the inspiration for this story.
Sources: How to Talk About Art History, Helenrindsberg Myiglou, Big Think, Framer Framed, JSTOR, Huffington Post, CNN, MET Museums, The New York Times (How diverse Is African Art?), Cultural Encyclopaedia, The New York Times (Under Threat: The Shock of the Old), Wikipedia (Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu), Wikipedia (Japanese Architecture), Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture