Just as the French artist, Pablo Picasso, used African art to transform modern art, African elites should learn from the French man and use African values to transform the continent's development process.
"Picasso and Africa," is an exhibition that showcases more than 80 paintings, drawings and sculptures of the great French artist, Pablo Picasso. Although he never went to Africa, he was immensely influenced by the continent's artistic values. More than three decades after his death, his exhibition is now opened 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 French artistic values. The London, UK-based The Economist quoted Marilyn Martin, one of the exhibition's curators, crediting Picasso with "unique understanding of the magical and ritualistic power of African art."
At a time when enlightened African elites are talking seriously about mixing African values with that of her colonial legacies to bring development closer to the people, Picasso's genius at mixing his French artistic values with that of Africa's could be a remarkable lesson. 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 to transform Africa's progress by mixing African values and her colonial legacies to come out with something new that will transform Africa's development process?
The idea of mixing Africa's cultural values with that of her colonial values 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 the colonial values in their development process. The study says other ex-colonies such as Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Brazil have are doing it.
The need to mix African values with her colonial legacies, as Picasso 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’s (ECA), observation 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 is neither holistic nor her own.
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 ones so as to bring the right balances in Africa's progress bid.
Thoughtful Africans from traditional rulers, ordinary people, some thinkers to 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, 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 grounds. 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 a long time, African elites’ inability to ground 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 the 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 stems from the fact that the capacity to be curious and fascinated by ideas which normally starts early in the educational process, nourished from primary school, can die at the university level if mediocrity prevails.
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 development life of the African child early enough. 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.
As African elites visit the Picasso exhibitions in Johannesburg and Cape Town, they should reflect on how Picasso 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.
By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong
Expo Times Independent Sierra Leone
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