Historical dimensions in the study of figurative wood-carving in South Africa

Nettleton, Anitra
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It is a widely accepted and disseminated tenet in virtually all the literature on African art that no tradition of figurative sculpture comparable to that of West and Central Africa existed in Southern Africa. This notion has bad and continues to have such wide currency in the literature that many blacks in South Africa are entirely unaware of the existence of their own artistic heritage. The propagation and perpetuation of this myth has been predicated on the most meagre of evidence. It is significant in the light of the argument that follows, that the South African Government itself, in pamphlets issued for the information of prospective white immigrants from Europe, continues to propagate this view of black South Africans as "fine-art" less. Here I am mast concerned with the presentation of these peoples as having had no tradition of figurative free-standing sculpture as it was this form of material culture which had the widest acceptance in Europe and America as "Art". This situation, has been exacerbated by the tendency in all the general literature on African art to represent Southern Africa with photographs of utilitarian objects such as headrests, milk pails and spoons among others. What this paper will attempt, then, is to examine why this myth has gained such wide acceptance and it will be examined in relation both to the history of the study or lack thereof of woodcarving traditions in South Africa and to the actual distribution, of such traditions.
ican Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 17 March 1986.
Figure sculpture, South African , Art. South Africa. Historiography , Wood-carving. South Africa