Positioning Nigerian Modernism

Written by | Design & Art


The origins of African art lie long before recorded history preserved in the obscurity of time. From the cavemen of the earlier years to the artists of the new modern age, the expressive nature of African art has continually wowed and occasionally entranced viewers and modernism has played a key role.

Ben Enwonwu in 1958, declared to those who accused him of being “an artist who cannot make up his mind whether to be an African or a European” that, as an artist, he had a right to switch from one style to another just as an artist might switch mediums – stone to bronze or wax or canvas (Beier, 1960). A lot of critics and historians apply western conditions of modernism to the analysis of modern African art; the cultural nuances and inspirations are cast aside.

The problem, however, is not only a tendency to ignore the cultural consideration but also a minimalization of African culture to align with the past. Every culture has a dual tendency – a tendency towards stability and a tendency toward change. The development of modern art in Africa differs from its development in the west, modern African art involves discontinuation of the forms and artistic perceptions of the traditional past in favor of the ethos and idioms of the Western academy (Odiboh Freeborn, 2005). In Nigeria, presently, there is a debate going on as to what modernism entails – a shift for the traditional to embrace the new or reliance on traditional techniques and expression? Most artists, however, favor a mix of both, choosing not to ignore the importance of both traditional narrative and modern expertise to produce works that testify to a merger of cultural retention and brilliant modernity.

Last modified: April 12, 2021

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