The notion of “Tribe” connects people and ideas. It is a concept going back thousands of years. Simplicity and even deliberate naivety is the key. Feeding our appetite for the handmade, the subject is a rich resource for pattern, colour and texture.
Tribal ornament is beautifully imperfect, mud cloth, carvings, hand-painted marks and stitching.
Historically, it marked territory and local customs. Tribal artefacts could be ceremonial or utilitarian. Ceremonial objects could be exquisitely simple and everyday objects could be adorned with the most detailed pattern.
To be inspired by these objects, is to see their world with a true human perspective. We may not live in that world but we can try to understand how their experiences shape the things they make and use and let that feed the designer’s imagination.
By contrast to this pure simplicity, Renaissance art was a fantastically sophisticated, elite and artificial product that always carried within it the seeds of decadence. In later centuries, artists sought the opposite qualities – honesty, simplicity, innocence, nature. They sought, too, pure and simple faiths, in contrast to the complexities of the Roman Church. In their search for these truths, painters moved out of the city and into the fields, to increasingly remote rural fastnesses untainted by urban life. Then, in a milestone in Art history, one of them, Paul Gauguin, left Europe altogether.
During the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture became a powerful influence among European artists. In France, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso blended the highly-stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Gauguin. The resulting pictorial flatness, vivid colour palette, and fragmented Cubist shapes helped to define early modernism. While these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the Renaissance style.
Post colonialism, artists and collectors have had an abiding interest in the art of any small-scale society. This is even more true now. We are inspired by everyday objects and religious artefacts as they existed before the mass-production economy.
We can be inspired by the forms, patterns and colours but at the same time we must respect their origins. Vaguely attributing a collection’s inspiration as African, ‘primitive’, ‘wild’ or ‘ethnic’, using a sprinkling of animal prints, completely reduces an entire continent into a stereotype.
Looking to the future, the influence of African design may be destined to reshape the global design world as Africa is brought into more global narratives. From catwalks to movie screens, a palpable and continuous focus on Africa shows that the continent’s influence is more than just a trend.