Early European Interpretations – A Land Without People?
The depiction of Africa’s landscape and its wildlife has an immense history. From rock paintings that are mankind’s oldest continuously practised art form, to modern day oil paintings that still search, experiment, and feel their way down new avenues into the vibrant global art market. Oil paintings of elegant human figures, richly hued animals, and subtle hints of architecture that blend so calmly with this dramatic land, continue to inspire admiration for quality and sophistication.
The craft of oil paintings was brought to Africa by white European explorers who chartered their way across the vast terrain of Africa recording the wildlife and landscapes they discovered. Much of this documentation was in the name of science and natural history. These naturalists and artists were inclined to represent the needs of the empire builders and governments who funded their trips. The landscape oil paintings of this time often reflected an idealised view of the continent, an undiscovered Eden, empty and free of its original inhabitants.
An early nineteenth century traveller in the Cape of Good Hope, William Burchell, who was a prolific naturalist as well as an accomplished artist characterises this school of thought. His landscape oil painting, “A Scene on the Gariep River” was so charming that; “It smothers every uneasy sensation of the mind”. This pleasing illustration displays the kind of landscape that Europeans of the time wanted to imagine existed in Africa. These idyllic paintings continued into the twentieth century with the work of J H Pierneef, and the Everard Group. For the majority of travelling European artists, the people they saw were simply part of Africa’s flora and fauna. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth century, major European artists, such as Picasso, began to study African motifs and techniques. This is now called his “African” phase, where Picasso produced many modern oil paintings, straying away from the conventional aesthetic representations, thus taking his artwork to a more philosophical and emotional level.
Progressive Landscape Views – Beyond the Colonial Era
Attitudes towards black African artists and their use of oil in landscape and wildlife paintings was often punitive or criticised, there was a general desire to keep the native artist “tribal”. The experience of one the earliest black South African landscape painters, John Mohl, demonstrates this:
“Mohl was approached by a white admirer and advised not to concentrate on landscape oil paintings, but to paint figures of his people in poverty and misery. Landscape, he was advised, had become the field where Europeans had advanced far in perfecting its painting. In response Mohl challenged this rhetoric and said: “But I am African, and when God made Africa, he also created beautiful landscapes for Africans to admire and paint.”
Through Mohl’s rural and urban landscape paintings he expressed a clear cultural defiance. By painting landscapes Mohl triumphed over the imperial ideals and expectations many Europeans had of the indigenous Artists in Africa. Although this European ideology may have been detrimental to the development of landscape oil painting in Africa, one common energy unites all African artists who choose landscape and wildlife as the subject of their artwork. No African artist whoever he or she may be can forget the material, the human side, the majesty and brilliance of creation.
Contemporary Oil Paintings – The Eternal Vista
Much has changed in Africa during the last century. Oil paintings of the radiant landscapes, the light, the heat, the life and the stunning beauty of this unique land and its wildlife will always be admired by those not fortunate enough to live there. Just as the people during colonial times would marvel at this realm’s incredible wonders, so today people from distant lands also appreciate its splendour. At the turn of the last century the only image of Africa people could behold were precious wildlife and landscape paintings created by artists.
Today in contemporary Britain we have many different media sources to experience the spectacle that is Africa. The Internet, TV, Video-on-Demand, DVD, Interactive games, Multimedia, the list goes on. Within this mélange of infinite images and interaction you may find that the only true way to experience this grandeur is through the eyes of those artists that are still painting the infinite and timeless scenes. Professionally produced and hand painted oil landscapes can truly connect you with the essence that is Africa. If you have visited Africa and followed in the footsteps of the early European artists, you will no doubt have fond memories of the continent. However, to own a contemporary oil painting will induce sentiment and wonder far richer than the memories themselves.