We’ve spent three short weeks looking at and discussing historic African art. Some of the most interesting insights have come through blogging and so, I think this is a worthy use of our time. We’ve encountered some very thoughtful posts on the complications contemporary African artists face. We’ve thought about the obligations of museums and collectors in holding or returning cultural treasures to their home countries. And, we’ve thought about how artists have borrowed and re-interpreted African images. All of these issues are complex and interesting. We have to consider that historically, our western perspective makes us think about African art as art for art’s sake. But, that adds a layer of misunderstanding to the mix. Until British colonization and the introduction of African arts to western markets, African “arts” were ritual and spiritual objects. They were not, in African eyes, art as we know it. So, if contemporary African artists echo historical styles, are they creating art or are they blaspheming deeply spiritual beliefs with their work? If we consider that perspective, surely we can understand why contemporary African artists would hesitate to follow traditional styles. In addition, western museums, with the exception of a few, such as the deYoung in San Francisco, have not adequately developed collections that have fully explored or appreciated African art. Considering that historical traditions are still barely recognized in the west then, we could understand the lack of motivation for contemporary African artists to follow cultural traditions. But, wow, have western artists learned from African images. When Pablo Picasso and Erich Heckel borrowed African treatments to express the human figure they expanded the traditional western styles and produced powerful works. Modern art owes a debt to African art that exists because of British colonial expansion. When European artists were looking for ways to break free from their own cultural traditions African art provided a conduit for expansion. The dramatic grotesque style of masks suggested that the human figure could be far more powerful and expressive than western artists had dared to previously explore. And, although we might have been introduced to African treasures in the early 20th century, our understanding and appreciation of them might have since faded from view were it not for treasures held by museums worldwide. We do have an obligation to make sure that countries do not see their cultural property looted. We would fight to save our own. And yet we can also see that collectors who have paid dearly for works that they now share with the public might have difficulties with the idea of giving up what they have bought. And we, the appreciative public, might also hate to lose the ability to admire and learn from these same treasures. We have seen beautiful and dramatic sculpture created for a variety of purposes. The work of African artists insures domestic and social stability. Rituals commemorating ancestors and kings, funerary and initiation rites, protection from witches and taboo, coaxing the spirits of nature to bring rain or harvests, all keep the human family focused on living harmoniously. We’ve learned that African art is far more than art. It is the physical expression of spiritual beliefs that are core to African life.