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FORMALISM: AN IMPARTIAL ASSESSMENT APPROACH OF VISUAL ARTS

 By Comfort Severa Maembe

Introduction

Formalism

Formalism is one of the approaches in the assessment of artworks, in that it avoids unnecessary prejudices that other approaches may contain. Formalism, an assessment founded by Roger Fry in 1920, refers to the formal analysis of an artwork whilst referring to the elements of art, such as color, shape, line, texture and form (Musterberg,2008). This approach, therefore, tends to overlook all the cultural, social, and symbol meaning of what the art work may bring, and pay attention on the composition of the artwork.

This brief paper argues that without a valid approach in assessing artworks, those who do so may mislead others. There are those who say, “I do not know anything about art but I know what I like”. This harmful   statement is the result of looking at art as if it is a discipline that does not demand analysis. This article, therefore, is intended to offer Formalism: an impartial assessment approach of visual arts to writers such as journalists and broadcasters, academicians, artist, art dealers to mention only a few.

As far as my mind can leads me, according to different scholars; in the analysis of visual arts there are different approaches that are universally employed namely Formalism, Contextual, Freudianism or Psychoanalytic, Feminism, Marxism  to mention only a few.  By a short explanation to the mentioned approaches, Formalism as defined at the beginning for it is  the main concerns of this article. Feminism looks on how women are portrayed in an art  composition (Raven ibid,1991) where,  contextual takes into account an artist historical background on the context in which a work of art was created (Pollchic,1973).Far most, Freudianism  or Psychoanalytic approach  bases on the psychological makeup on an artist, thus According to Freud when an artist is blocked in the direct attainment of his/ her wishes, he/she compensates by building fantasy in disguised ways (Idema,1990). Such ways can sometimes be observed in an artwork created.  For the Marxism approach, it is believed that art has never produced to be a commodity but a key to educational assets (Solomon, 1979).

For example, some scholars such as Elias Jengo (2015:9) writes,

                     “There was a time when art was a universal language but

                     That time is long gone. A work of art now is expected to

                     reveal the cultural values and identity of the artist.

                    This is reflected through form and content in the artwork

                    the artist creates. Since art cannot exist in a cultural vacuum,

                    the artist is expected to reveal his/her concerns within

                    the cultural environment in which he/she works.

                    Only through such conditions can art be truthful”

Jengo’s analysis of a truthful work of art is based on the contextual analysis. However, in the formalist analysis aspects of culture, politics, ethnicity and religion have no room because they may distort an accurate assessment of an art object. For example, the 50th Anniversary of Independence Monument in Senegal,that shows figures of a man, a woman and a child is a sculpture that has been variously assessed. The Islamic religious leaders assessed it as idolatrous symbol that is harmful to their religious belief. Feminist zealots criticized the sculpture for showing an exposed thigh of the female figure and that is not all, they also criticized the male figure for carrying a child instead of the female figure. Economists criticized the monument for the amount of money spent in creating it . None of the observers analyzed monument in terms of its formal elements such as texture, proportion, size to mention a few.

                        

All works of art are made up of form and content. The element that put together a work of art is referred to as formal elements. In analyzing or assessing a work of art, therefore, we confine ourselves only to the formal elements and see how the artist has been successful in putting them together to create the content. For example, when looking at a painting, we want to know how the artist has been successful in using light, lines, shapes, texture, pattern, depth and color.

In this situation a painting by a formally trained artists such as Godfrey Banadda, George Kyeyune, Maria Naita, Bruno Sserunkuuma from Uganda, Anne Ntinyari Mwiti, Mwaura Ndekere, Adrian Nduma from Kenya, and Elias Jengo, Comfort Severa, Kadaso kipingili and Emmanuel Ishengoma  from Tanzania  can be assessed on equal bases as the works of art by the informally trained artists from East Africa such as Tusiime Mathias, Jak Katalikawe from Uganda, Michael Soi, Peter Elungat, John Njenga Kamau aka Wanyu Brush from Kenya and Lutengano Mwakipesile, Mwanaharusi Idi Juma, Haji Chilonga from Tanzania to mention only a few. However, this does not mean that the two groups are on the same intellectual level, but it so happens that they are using similar visual elements in creating works of art.

 

Conclusion and recommendations

The article has shown that it can always be dangerous and unfair to assess an artwork on the account of an artist credentials such as age, experience, education, ethnicity and gender to mention only a few. In order to avoid such trappings, we must use a neutral method that takes into account all the ingredients that make up a work of art. The assessment of art works by using the application and arrangement of visual elements has proved to be difficult to many lay broadcasters and journalists. Such people concentrate on the biographical particulars of artists rather than on their works. It is time for all journalist colleges to include courses on aesthetics in their curricula; it would enable them to write intelligently on the other arts such as music, film and theatre.

Finally, it is recommended that since some schools may have children of different backgrounds, and therefore may differ in terms of their artistic perceptions. Formalism, therefore, it should first appear in analysis before the other approaches to avoid unfairness in assessment of students works of art, this is because, if you let children do what they want without guiding them through principles and elements, then, formalism becomes impossible to use as an approach in the first place.

 

 

 


 

Are “Self-Taught” Artists self-taught?

By Emmanuel Ishengoma

University of Dodoma, Department of Arts, Media and Design, Fine Art PhD Candidate, University of Dar es Salaam, MA (Fine Art), University of Dar es Salaam

Bachelor of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University

 

Introduction

This essay which is based on the study conducted by the current writer between January 2016 and January 2017 in East Africa entails to instigate a conversation among visual arts stakeholders on whether “self-taught artists” are self taught or not. One of the key findings of the said study vividly indicated that the most superior criterion for collection of contemporary East African visual arts among patrons, gallery managers and collectors was the distinctiveness in art practice. This difference which was being sought entailed to distance, as far as possible, African artists from western art practices. Assuming that visual artists who had gone through formal training in visual arts locally and internationally were most likely to have been contaminated with western art practices; some western collectors, patrons and gallery managers favored art of artists they termed as “self-taught” as the most authentic. This would mean that genuineness in their art lied in the assumption that they were “not taught” and therefore were devoid of any western influences.  The discourse this essay is set to prompt is: are the “self-taught” visual artists self-taught?

 Keywords: Self-taught artists; authenticity; western patronage; contemporary African visual arts. 

For the purpose of this dialogue, there could be several categories of people in East Africa who either introduce themselves as “self-taught artists” or who are so referred to by some art practitioners. The first category may be comprised of people who attended primary or secondary education in environments where art subjects are not taught in schools or those who did not attend any schooling at all. For example, Elias Jengo, retired professor at the now Department of Creative Arts of the University of Dar es Salaam indicates that Tanzania has only 38 secondary schools with students who sit for Certificate of Secondary Education Examination in Fine Arts (2016: 116). This implies that in countries like Tanzania, there could be some people who may have gone through junior levels of education without being formally introduced to visual arts education. These, however, may have trained through means such as workshops, residencies, summer academies as well as internet. Others may be those who have had basic art training from environments where art subjects are a compulsory component at lower levels of education. According to Christopher Muganga, art subjects in Uganda have been an important part of primary, secondary and National Teachers Colleges and the new 2016 curriculum makes the subjects a compulsory component (29/3/2016). This would mean that in countries like Uganda, most people with these levels of education have had basic formal art training. Muganga is a curriculum specialist responsible for creative arts at the Uganda National Curriculum Development Centre. The other category may include all people who share space with artists or whose close relatives have had artistic backgrounds.

There exists a long list of art dealers who enthuse over works of artists they call “self-taught” and their reasoning has well been recorded. For instance; Kasfir (1999), reports Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu in Nairobi having indicated that formal training spoiled creativity among African artists (p. 78). Gallery Watatu under Schaffner is known to have dealt in art of only self-taught artists. The same mentality was held by Ulli Beier, a German university educator of literature who worked at the University of Ibadan since 1957 and who founded Mbari clubs and Oshogbo school in assistance of his two wives; Suzanne Wenger and Georgina Bets. He once wrote regarding their selection for participants at the Oshogbo school that “we aimed at primary school leavers, or illiterate people, - they had never received enough education to become Black Europeans – they never left Oshogbo to seek wisdom or skills outside” (Beier, 1968: 107). This feeling can be exemplified in the fact that his 1968 Contemporary Art in Africa book had no mention of Margaret Trowell’s Makerere art school despite the fact that it had been in existence for more than three decades by the time of publication. Trowell herself is not an exception though. At Makerere during her tenure from 1937 to 1958, she strived to form an art school which was radically different from western art practices. To ensure this difference, Trowell, neither taught observation, objective study nor did she teach history of art (Court, 1996: 291; Kasfir, 1999: 142). She is quoted by Pissarra (2015) as having written that “art is a language and to speak well a man must use his own tongue” (p. 29). The teaching pedagogue at Makerere changed under Cecil Todd after the retirement of Trowell in 1958.  In a more serious move, Frank McEwen, a British artist responsible for the establishment of Zimbabwe National Gallery and Gallery Workshop under State invitation, went ahead to expel formally trained artists from the workshop out of fear that they would spoil “his Shona carvers” (Guthrie, 1988: 4). Collectors Jean Pigozzi, owner of the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) which collects art of only the “self-taught” artists hails them saying; “they are totally innovative and non-derivative” precisely because of their non-education (Magnin, 2005: 11).  Andre Magnin, curator for the 1989 Magiciens de la Terre show knew in advance that works of African professors and their students would not be taken seriously by the committee in Paris” (Magnin: 2005: 21).

In fact, some writers such as Russell (2001) suppose that self-taught artists are less controlled and hence can freely create an original language that academic artists can only approach ironically, from a distance (p. 34).Their assumptions are based on the notion that mainstream artists have but one point of reference – art history (Ibid.). Crown and Russell (2007) add that “because self-taught artists are usually not guided by the established art historical conventions that may constrain academic artists and shape the expectations of the art audience, the challenge and reward of their creations can be especially imaginative and original” (p. xii). These writers may be understood from the perspective that they belong to the obsolete ant-academicism of the European past.

Luckily, it is known that in the western art market, self-taught art is a form of identity art in which the characteristics of the artists and their life stories are as important as the formal features of the created objects” (Fine, 2006: 154). It is also known that art of some “self-taught” artists remind westerners of what they are not and gives form to their dialogue of artistic superiority (Hall & Metcalf, 1994). To the western art market, these artists are a genuine representation of indigenous groups of the past that they can observe and report back onto their friends at home. They can acquire from them some souvenirs to put on display as examples of the primitive encounters they have returned from (Clarke, et al., 2008). Consequently, artists’ biographies become a market asset for influential patrons and collectors, even if the artist does not recognize it. The content in the memoirs of self-taught artists, therefore, must show them as uneducated; poor; mentally ill; vulnerable; rural, and not fully integrated professionals in the mainstream art world (Ibid. p. 4; Fosu, 1986: 48). At Mission Center in Bulawayo under director Reverend Frangeon Jones, for instance, Fosu (1986) reports that priority was given to African persons with disabilities to train as artists. In Mombasa, Kenya, a peace volunteer from South Carolina also set up Bombolulu workshop from where people who had been traumatised in serious accidents like fire and road accidents made jewelry (Tairo, 2015: 9). It is not known, until today, how artists’ body deformity or trauma complemented production of authentic African visual arts. It is known however, in the view of Fosu (1986), “the choice for the non-sophisticated level of these young Africans could enable sympathetic Europeans to patronise a hybrid of art expression that was a sum total of European aesthetics in African idiom” (p. 48). The more vulnerable the details in the biography of the self-taught artists, the more the market for his/her work. According to Heinrich Schweizer, the head of African and Oceanic art at Sotheby’s New York (quoted in Sancton, 2013), patrons and dealers are aware that self-taught art in Africa is a market where you can still get works of world importance for relatively little money. “For $10 million, you can probably buy the equivalent of the Mona Lisa”. But, are these artists really self-taught?

In the opinion of the present writer, self-taught artists in the purest sense of the term are non-existent unless a narrow perception of education is taken. Constructivism Theory of learning which favors self-learning can be put to use in explaining this view. In his Freedom to Learn of 1969, Carl Rogers had felt that unless the learning process involved feelings and personal meanings achieved through self-learning; education had became the futile attempt to learn material which had no personal meaning and which only took place “from the neck up” (p. 4). He deeply believed that when a learner was taught basing the instruction on elements which had meaning for the teacher, “learning is tremendously slowed or even stopped” (Ibid.). Therefore, Rogers and others who believe in self-learning processes, perhaps, base their claims on the learning theories such as Constructivism which places more responsibility in the hands of the student. In the University of California Berkeley Graduate Division’s Overview of Learning Theories; Constructivism is viewed in the Cognitive and Social approaches. In Cognitive Constructivism, knowledge systems of cognitive structures are actively constructed by learners based on pre-existing cognitive structures. Learning takes place through assimilation and accommodation of new information to existing cognitive structures with learners setting their own goals and motivating themselves to learn. On the other hand, Social Constructivism is viewed as an approach in which knowledge is constructed within social contexts through interactions with a knowledge community. However, according to McMahon (1997) and Pritchard (2009) as presented in Alan Pritchard and John Woollard (2013), Social Constructivism indicates that learning is a social process and that it is neither simply an individual process, nor a passive process. According to these psychologists, effective and lasting learning takes place for the individual when engaged in social activity with a range of others.

Hence, even if analysis is based on Constructivism theory which greatly favors the idea of self-taughtness, it is clear that the aforementioned categories of “self-taught” artists would, most likely, cognitively or socially, be involved in learning from the “knowledge community” through “assimilation or accommodation” of new information with the “range of others”. The social environments from which “self-taught” artists learn are also likely to have been educated through means other than self-taughtness. Let a few East African artists referred to as “self-taught” be used to further illustrate this view.  

One known example is veteran Jak Katarikawe, born in Kigezi, south-west Uganda in 1940. Katarikawe never attended any formal schooling in his early life, therefore, he can barely read, write or count. He once worked as a driver for David Cook, a Makerere professor of Literature (1962-1977) from the University of Southampton. Professor Cook introduced Katarikawe to Tanzanian Sam Joseph Ntiro who was then working as tutor at Makerere art school. It is said that Ntiro reluctantly allowed Katarikawe to attend art classes but, according to Mutu (2016), he eventually dropped out of the university because “he could not keep up with the theoretical aspect of art studies” (The Star Magazine, Saturday, August 27, 2016).

 

Artist Jak Katarikawe (right) explaining his painting to the current writer (center)

in his studio in Nairobi (18/1/2016)

In another environment Katarikawe further recalls Professor Cook having invited the then big name artists such as George Kakooza, Eli Kyeyune and Theresa Musoke, all from Makerere art school, asking them to teach him how to produce art that the tourists would like. He recalls: “I asked if there was art for tourists and art for Ugandans, he said; yes” (18/1/2016). Katarikawe was one of the major artists of Gallery Watatu under Ruth Schaffner during the era when the gallery dealt only with self-taught artists. His apprenticeship to his mother who decorated houses back in Kigezi might deprive him the title “self-taught artist”, let alone his closeness to Professor Cook and his prolonged stay at Makerere.

Although most writers would like to place Lilanga on the self-taught artist list, he might not comfortably sit there. Lilanga completed the colonial Standard Four at Lutamba Primary School in Masasi town and learned the art of carving under apprenticeship of Mzee Sumaili (Goscinny, 2001: 7). From here, he shifted to the city of Dar es Salaam where he joined other artists such as Mohammed Raza, Robino Ntila and Augustino Malaba at Sister Jean’s Nyumba ya Sanaa (House of Arts). In the 1980s, Lilanga and his colleagues frequented Salzburg International Summer Academies where he learned etching and metal sculpture.

            

On the left, Lilanga’s “This guy has made too many telephone calls and therefore he got a far too large head”, on the right, Wanyu Brush’s “Protect the Children”.

The other excellent example among “self-taught” artists is Ugandan Tusiime Mathias, who recently received invitation to teach art at the University of Florida among other venues. A highly consistent artist stylistically, he has been working at Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts since 1998 as studio cleaner to present date. His patrons such as Rocca Gutteridge and Joyce Gottlieb feel that what makes Tusiime an exception is his “unusual career start” as a cleaner at an art school and not as a student. On the catalogue for the artist’s 2012 exhibition, Gutteridge, citizen of the UK, patron and co-founder of 320 East Uganda Arts Trust writes:

Like many Ugandan artists, Mathias began his career at one of the oldest East Afri­can schools, Makerere University, but unlike any, as a cleaner, not a student. Once the day was done, Mathias collected the student’s discarded paints, paper and sugar cane pulp and in the solitary of his work-room, converted the ‘waste’ into his own creations. This unusual career start underlines the artist’s unique self-taught style and adds a further sense of curiosity and intrigue to a new upcoming success in the Ugandan Art scene.

Gutteridge sounds uninformed of the fact that people like Tusiime might have basic formal training in visual arts acquired at primary and secondary schools. Additionally, knowledge in Business Administration the artist had from Makerere Business Institute and the prolonged stay at an art school as well as his international exposure must have shaped the artist. Tusiime started painting in 1999, roughly a year after his employment at Makerere. Although particularly introduced as “self-taught”, the artist rightly admits he learned all that he knows as an artist from working with students and their professors at Makerere Art School (see Tusiime Mathias, MIHCR – July 30, 2015).


 

 

          

Tusiime Mathias’ “Children” (2007),  the artist with the writer at

Makerere’s Margaret Trowel School of Industrial and Fine Arts (March 10, 2016).

Artists such as Kenyan Peter Elungat attended several instructional workshops at Kuona Trust in Nairobi after having dropped out of secondary school. At Kuona, Elungat shared a workspace with “a gifted American painter” Olivia Pentergast, according to Kenya Business Daily (Friday February 26th, 2016). Other artists such as Enoch Mukiibi, graduate of Makerere (2000) with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Linguistics and Literature are also referred to as “self-taught” although his father, Mugalula Mukiibi is a an accomplished artist who owns Twin Heritage Museum. Enoch took art subjects at both Ordinary and Advanced levels of secondary education in Uganda. Haji Chilonga has attended several workshops and he proudly mentions the 2001 Rafiki International workshop in Bagamoyo, 2004 Ngoma International workshop in Kampala, 2006 Thupelo International workshop, Kwazulu Natal, 2013 Insaka International workshop, Livingstone, Zambia and the 2014 Salisbury International Summer academy. Tingatinga painters in Dar es Salaam also view themselves as “self-taught’ although they paint in a manner that strictly copies pioneer Edward Saidi Tingatinga. Actually, artists such as David Mzuguno who advance modifications on the style are treated as mutineers. People who regard Kenyan Wanyu Brush and Ugandan Nuwa Nnyanzi as “self-taught” artists are to be informed that they both trained at CTC YMCA – Shaurimoyo in Nairobi where batik making was taught. Today, Nnyanzi is well known for batik making while Brush is a known “naïve” painter after dropping batik making in fear that “the wax would block my intestines” (17/1/2016). Nnyanzi says in the interview with the current writer:

I am a God-taught artist because I did not go through a formal setting to learn to do the things am doing. I can only accredit it to God who gave me the talent. The only degree I have is Masters Degree in Design from Middlesex University. The first time I entered a lecture room in art, I had gone to lecture (18/3/2016).

All artists in the foregoing dialogue have learned either by “assimilation” or “accommodation” within the “knowledge communities” with the range of others and are expected to be proud of this truth. There may be pride in feeling that one climbed and reached the top of a mountain without help. Conversely, though, it is a disservice to the knowledge community that one passed on their way up if gratitude is not conveyed by both, the artists and the market. African artists such as Katarikawe, Lilanga, Brush, Tingatinga, Malaba, Twins Seven Seven, Malangatana, Nnyanzi and others who the market tend to refer to as “self-taught” operated in times when the world had not become so globalized. And yet, their self-taughtness can hardly be proven. Today, through technological advancements, the contemporary world provides us with more comfortable avenues through which we can learn art. The fact that artists can put up exhibition and others can come and see the artworks; read catalogues and magazines and watch television; the naked truth that a person today has 24-hour access to the internet; none can claim that he/she is self-taught.

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