The white man cometh. And we know the results were at their best, ambiguous, mixed, tormented, anguished and illusory. At their worst, lets not get into that. At every Africa shore and port some time in the last five hundred years, the light skinned stranger came, bearing Western Civilization. His image, seen by native artists, was scratched on rock, carved in wood, woven in cloth, or painted on paper.
That graphic record remains to mark those fateful moments in the history of African culture. It was not always a flattering image of the white man that the native artist produced, since he soon learned that the white man was something less than divine: the slaver and the trader followed in the wake of the explorer and the missionary. It is surprising that the African man’s reply was in the main, reasonably good tempered given the circumstances….
As they grew to know the white man better, the native artists appear to have followed a definite and logical progression in their work, from ships to sculptural figurative work of great talent and strength of feeling. The engravings published in most of the explorers’ books in nineteenth-century Europe make all Africans look pretty much the same, and there is a general tendency to exaggerate their wildness and fierceness.
“Blackamoors” was a generic term, and a round wooly head with two round white rimmed eyes was a taken as a fair likeness. The gun, of course, whether the antique musket or the newer rifle is a major theme in native illustration of the whites. The gun set the white man apart; it was his special and terrible magic, the source of his devastating power. Its details were usually drawn with the greatest attention to detail. Possibly, there may have been an ulterior motive here: it was one of the most widespread beliefs of primitive peoples, and not such a far-fetched one at that- that by drawing an object or making a model of it you can to some extent possess it and exorcise its magic.
Portraiture of white women seems to have posed for the early African artists a problem they never quite overcame. In effect sh was a rarity and a woman occupied a decidedly inferior position in tribal life; whether white or black, she was hardly a worthy subject for the artist. It was the man who had the power. An exception is in the image below: the schoolmistress it seems, is spinsterish, strait-laced and disapproving, and yet we have great affection for her. The ears are a bit unkind and nose and mouth seem exaggerated, but the rest we recognize from the fashions of “la belle epoque.” She comes of course, from Paris and the Seine, but alas, one feels she never attended any of those rip-roaring Maupassant summer-evening parties on the river; she was right here in the Tropics trying to teach these wooly-headed little brats, whom she loved, the Code Napoleon.In the main, we have been dealing here with the first, or at any rate, the early contacts between whites and Africans. It was a period of relative innocence, of unselfconsciousness, of experiment, and of intense curiosity. The artist was still true to his environment; he observed directly and without fear, and because he had no knowledge of other skills and cultures that were more sophisticated than his own, he did not imitate. Of course, once he made contact with the whites, he had to put this innocence and tribal life behind him, at least conceptually, at least to accept in exchange, willingly or not, what Professor Lips called the “doubt and calculation” implicit in the feverish life of the white world.