Toward the end of the 19th century, European powers scavenged the African continent to establish and secure political power. Throughout the Scramble for Africa, European colonizers carved borders into the continent with no consideration of local geography or culture.

 

The European division of African ethnic groups into African states resulted in political instability and civil war across the continent that, in some cases, endures. In hindsight, this outcome is not surprising, whatsoever 00 forcing political change upon an unknown culture will surely result in political upheaval.

 

Today, there’s a new Scramble for Africa. It’s not for political power, slaves, or gold; it’s for art.

 

Joseph Bertiers' "Yesterday afternoon" recently sold at an auction for £4,000. (bonhams.com)

Joseph Bertiers’ “Yesterday afternoon” recently sold at an auction for £4,000. (bonhams.com)

Juno Lee, for instance, is a South Korean art collector who has amassed a collection of more than 400 pieces of African art in just six years. He made the following claim about the importance of his collection: “In South Korea, we have some strong negative stereotype of the African. I just want to let [Koreans] know the positive image of African culture.”

 

Lee is not alone; affluent international buyers have made the popularity and prices of African art skyrocket in recent years.

 

Director of African Art for influential British auction house, Bonhams, Giles Peppiatt has established a firm market for African art in the Western world. Peppiatt’s efforts have been hugely profitable and have established Bonhams as “the market leader in Contemporary African Art.”

 

Peppiatt claims that his efforts have introduced hope throughout Africa’s 54 nations. He said that the booming of contemporary African art is “a new development taking the message of African ingenuity to the wider world — a rather different message the kind the world has grown used to hearing from Africa.”

 

Haven’t Westerners, however, taken enough from Africa? Do Europeans like Peppiatt have the right to commodify and profit from African cultures? Probably not. Westerners lost that right when they exported about 10 million African people from their native lands and forced them into slavery.

 

Bonhams' Giles Peppiatt welcomes guests at African art auction in New York

Director of African Art for Bonhams Giles Peppiatt welcomes guests to the “Africa Now” reception in New York. (zimbio.com)

The new African art craze will only detract from and belittle African cultures. Successful Kenyan artist Bertiers, for instance, changed his name from Joseph Mbatia Njoroge to Bertiers in order to be taken seriously by Western buyers and “in an attempt to boost his global appeal.” Njoroge should not have to sacrifice a piece of himself — a piece of his Kenyan identity — for the Westerners interested in his artwork. Nobody should have to conform themselves to another culture’s standards in order to secure their own well-being.

 

During the Scramble for Africa, European colonizers exploited the continent and disassembled its political and social structures for their own gains of wealth and power. They left the continent economically instable and generally underdeveloped.

 

The new Scramble for Africa — this time for its art — jeopardizes not Africa’s political nor social integrity, but the integrity of the continent’s culture. Western powers are now returning to the countries that they havocked and have been driving the commodification and exotification of these countries’ cultures.

 

The Smithsonian Libraries offers the following understanding of the rising appeal of African art: “At a moment when contemporary art in the West has become a bit tired and too self-referential, African art offers an alternative. The relentless quest for the Next Big Thing has hit upon contemporary African art.”

 

The scramble for African art does not represent a sincere interest in the continent’s culture, but an appropriation of its culture. The gentrification of African culture will feed Western misconceptions of Africa and allow Africa’s image as an exotic, tribal land to persist.

 

Although some African artists have benefitted from the scramble for African art, these benefits may not outweigh the cultural impacts? Feel free to share your opinion on this matter below in the comments section or on Twitter @ryanlawlessness.