In 1937, Julius Lips wrote “the impression of the white man’s superiority did not last long. The natives began to know him better and ceased devising tales which would explain his superiority. They soon found that the white man was only another species of the human race. When they became familiar with him, they treated him to their mockery exactly as they did with any member of their own tribe, as soon as they recognized his weaknesses.”
The term “Colon art” originates from the word “colonial” and was coined to describe a specific African art genre, born out of the encounter with Europeans. Some call it transitional art. The aesthetics are based on traditional African ideals of beauty, with the artist working within the style of the tribe, usually for a client, with the addition of symbols of European culture. Historically, the inclusion of European elements into African art is not new: Benin bronze plaques depicting figures dressed in Portuguese military uniforms date to the 16th century.
There were many reasons African sculptors began to innovate and their clients to commission these artworks: Colonialism exposed them to new ideas, political realities (world war 1/2), religious systems, economies, education, mechanization and technology. It was perceived by some that the power and magic of the colonist was perhaps due to his possessions. By visually assimilating these elements into traditional sculpture, carvings might be empowered and their efficacy improved. The imagination of indigenous craftsmen was gripped, and their work included:
- Symbols of power: depictions of uniforms, guns and pith helmets.
- Mobility and locomotion: Bicycles, motor vehicles, trains, coco pans
- Travel and alternative economies: Aeroplanes and foreign currency.
- Education: literacy, writing, advertising, cinema
- Modernity, fashion and status: Boots, bikinis, platform heels, wristwatches, sunglasses, lapel suits and photography.
- Religious iconography: the bible, the cross, images of the Madonna and child.
Missionaries, arriving all over Africa, encouraged proselytes to cover their “private parts” in an attempt to instil concepts of pudor and puritanism. This impacted on Colon art as it generated depictions of underwear and new modes of clothing.
Another reason for the depictions was curiosity, a universal human fascination with the ‘’exotic” or “strange”. By replicating these new ideas through a process of artistic familiarity the concepts are then easily digested. Other reasons were:
- As a form of resistance: After the collapse of their rebellion in 1911, the Baule people of Ivory Coast began to carve European type figures. Conceived to warn people of the presence of the white man, these were installed at road intersections and at bridges.
- As a means of mastery through memisis: The purpose was to master the white man by mimicking him. This did not only occur in art: The Huaka of Niger are a sect of spirit mediums who in 1925 focused on European spirit possession. When ridden by a “white” spirit, they strutted, posed, and parodied military figures. Called each other by military titles, spoke in pidgin and incited the populace, amongst other things, to withhold the payment of taxes from their colonial overlords. Ejected from Niger, at this time, they continued their practices in Ghana and Ivory Coast, exporting their ideas and perhaps influencing the rise of colon art.
- As a means of societal control: In Africa, the idiosyncrasies of strangers are lampooned in masquerades and puppet theatre in order to consolidate traditional values.
By adding European symbols to their material culture Africans reflected their changing world and colon art became synonymous with an urban lifestyle and aspirations for status. Writing was prestigious so artists and craftsmen were quick to make their literary skill apparent. Words featured on flags, military monuments, drums, masquerade costumes and lately, barber posters. Merchandise like bright enamel paint, dyes, glass and mirrors changed the presentation and image of indigenous architecture, sculpture, textiles and jewellery, how it looked and how the owners of these items were perceived by others.
Perhaps one can speculate that the colon trend was developed as a canny marketing strategy: By subtly changing the product, the artist reinvented the work for his patrons and maybe later, inadvertently attracted a new market in the form of the European in colonial service, then antiquities dealers, and lately tourists with cash to spend.
Today, colon- type sculpture has become commercialized: a commodity, lined up in neat rows on street vendor displays and a parody of its former context, but curios oil the wheels of micro- economies and provide new ways to earn a living. Perhaps the white skinned tourist fingering and purchasing these pieces is in a sense attempting to recapture the fleeting vestiges of their perceptions of the exotic and strange- in reverse.
Jahn. J. Colon – das schwartze bild vom weiben mann. 1983. Verags KG, Munchen. Isbn: 3-8077-0204-0
Girard. E. Kernel. B. 1993.Colons- statuettes habilles D’Afrique de L’ouest.
Blackburn. J. 1979. The White men- The first response of aboriginal people to the white man. Orbis Pub. Isbn: 085613 -399x
Further reading: Ravenhill. Philip L. Dreams and reverie, images of otherworld mates among the Baule, West Africa. 1996. Smithsonian institute press. Isbn: 1-56098-650-6.
Contemporary African art: Africa explores, 20 century African art. The centre for African art, new York. Isbn: 0-9455802-09-9