Why African art is always open to interpretation

There are so many brilliant African artists whose artwork has featured in galleries across the world. Africa’s art is powerful, raw, real, as beautiful as its people and true to its origins. African art is making statements in the contemporary art industry on a global scale and...

Why African art is always open to interpretation
There are so many brilliant African artists whose artwork has featured in galleries across the world. Africa’s art is powerful, raw, real, as beautiful as its people and true to its origins.
African art is making statements in the contemporary art industry on a global scale and nobody can deny that.

As with most art, African art is always open to interpretation. There is always a variety of elements that play a role in the interpretation of a piece of art and you can trust that Africa’s rich history is a large influencing factor. We’re going to look at what it is that goes into a contemporary African artwork that makes it vulnerable to a million different interpretations when viewed by the world’s people.

The artist’s history

Many African artists stem from countries with economic, societal and political issues that greatly affect the people of those communities. Poverty, famine, illness, racial discrimination and war have occurred all over the continent. And while many of those issues have been resolved years ago at face-value, there are still after effects that current generations are undeservingly paying for. Many contemporary African artists come from these environments where you didn’t have to grow up in the struggle in order to suffer from it. 

Culture and tradition, even in a contemporary society, still play a role in African artists’ lives and many of them have found a way to incorporate that part of their history into their artwork as well. And if one doesn’t know about or understand those traditions, rituals and cultures, it won’t be interpreted in that context. There are strong themes of utopian and dystopian versions of Africa in the land contemporary art, which stem from the history of the artist and their country. 

This means that an interpretation of African art can always be conducted from the point of view of the artist’s history. If they use their art to tell a story or encourage a societal change of heart, it’s usually coming from the artist’s personal experience of issues and life in their country. 

The artist’s message 

Artists have many reasons for creating the art that they do. There’s a reason why they use a certain canvas, medium, colours, textures, lighting, technique and style. And it’s not only because of their expertise or what’s going to create a beautiful final product. 

When it comes to subject, narrative and expression, there’s a reason why an artist creates the final artwork that’s exhibited. There’s a message they want to express to all those who care to listen, interpret and understand. With that in mind, an African artwork is already created with one interpretation – the artist’s message. 

How we as viewers understand that interpretation is how new interpretations are formed. Not everyone is going to understand what the artist was trying to do, what they were thinking or how the title of the piece has any connection to the art itself. The artist can only do so much to relay their message through their art, the rest is up to us to correctly interpret it. But that’s also not to say that any other interpretation is incorrect. It’s both possible and common for one work of art to have multiple interpretations and meanings depending on the artist and the viewer. 

The viewer’s history

We’ve just established that the artist only has so much control over how their art can be interpreted. The rest is in the eyes of the beholder and that beholder’s circumstances. There are many foreign art collectors who won’t always appreciate the African struggle that many Africans have lived and are living through, so for them, that aspect of history is lost against their own. 

Then there are other Africans who may have grown up in a different area, a different way with different experiences who can’t always relate to the version of African history displayed by the artist. A viewer's history will come into play when they begin to interpret a piece of art. It will either help them empathise or sympathise with an artwork or they’ll be completely lost in understanding what it’s all about. 

The viewer’s current circumstances 

Another reason why African art is constantly open to new interpretations is because of the mood the viewer is in. Personal conflicts, moods, feelings and circumstances will all have an effect on how you interpret and connect with a piece of art.
One day you might not understand it at all and on another day, it might speak directly to your soul. Whatever someone is going through when they view art, will always affect the interpretation of it. It’s not always easy to look at art simply for what it is. But, then again, it’s not always created that way, it’s created with the intention to provoke thought, emotion and change, sometimes regardless of the interpretation. And that’s what makes it so beautiful.

Why African art is always open to interpretation


Why African art is always open to interpretation

Why African art is always open to interpretation

Why African art is always open to interpretation
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Information Guide Africa: Why African art is always open to interpretation
Why African art is always open to interpretation
There are so many brilliant African artists whose artwork has featured in galleries across the world. Africa’s art is powerful, raw, real, as beautiful as its people and true to its origins. African art is making statements in the contemporary art industry on a global scale and...
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