Traditional African artistic production has historically been misinterpreted or largely ignored by Western scholarship. Essentially African art was relegated to the study of anthropology, rather than formal art, and thus was thought of as primitive, insinuating that African art was un-evolved and backward, as well as the same throughout the huge continent. Kasfir cites the problems inherent in approaching the visual culture of a continent the size of Africa with more than 50 national identities and 800 languages. In spite of this, there has been a tendency to ignore the artistic variety, and lump all visual expression together.
Art historian Frank Willett points out, ôthe term primitive art is a legacy from the anthropologists of the nineteenth century who saw the Europe of their day as the apex of social evolutionö (28). Willett contends that the only proper, and sensible way to judge foreign art traditions is on their own terms, and by specific regions, instead of categorizing all foreign art as ôtraditionalö or ôprimitive.ö In a notable art survey text of 1956, Sheldon Cheney implies that African art is more spontaneous art than formal art. He calls traditional bronzes an ôearly flowering of aesthetic instinctà.artists with an intuitive rather than a studied devotion to creative expressionö (8).
Kasfir argues that the inequities in interpreting traditional African art is the result of Western institutions defining what is art, as well as the desire to maintain colonial hierarchies prior to the independence of African nations, and perhaps afterwards.
In addition to African art misjudged as primitive and always the same, there is another aspect to consider: the exclusion of African art and artists from scholarly art books that have been overwhelmingly Eurocentric. For example, former New York Times art critic John CanadyÆs 1980 book, What is Art? An Introduction to Painting, virtually ignores African art (as wel...