Narratives, context in contemporary art

Knowledge Mushohwe Art Zone
Art education is increasingly becoming exercise for those that preside over it, mainly because of the various forms of pluralism that are available to their students. Pluralism, an approach that recognises that there are a variety of ways in which people get to know, understand and represent the world in the arts quells the notion that art is all about the pencil and paper or paint and canvas.

Art educators and students are finding fresh methods and techniques to represent the world, thereby providing art lovers with options of aesthetic experience. Years before, it was unheard of for artists to use pigmentation drawn from soils, leaves and other natural resources for painting. It was also deemed unnatural for creators of art to use mirrors on sculptures like what Dominic Benhura and other sculptors are doing today.

Before the Dada movement of the mid-twentieth century started to use found objects as the centre of their art expressions, art was limited to a few options. Now, anything can be an art medium or tool and artists are challenging the world to see art in everything they see within their surroundings. Yet, while pluralism is becoming the norm in artistic expression, art educators are faced with a new quandary. How do students’ products of creativity meet uniform standards defined almost solely by student evaluations?

While interest in pluralism opens up opportunities for art educators to consider a range of alternatives for art education, accountability practices push the field in particular directions. An art educator is compelled to use the same standard to evaluate, using the same marking guide, students working with or on completely different media.

In creating art pluralism, it is also clear that the students can not only rely on their knowledge, technique and experience, the dynamic and interactive concepts of history, heritage, tradition, and culture need to be understood from a social anthropological perspective to facilitate the understanding of multicultural art and visual culture education.

History, heritage, and traditions do not exist only in the past. These concepts are continually being constructed and reconstructed in the present to make them meaningful and relevant for people’s lives. Individuals’ varied experiences within the history, heritage, tradition, and culture of the social groups of which they are part are what produce diversity.

History informs us about the development of art movements and their influences, and for art to develop further, both the student and the art educator need to learn from the past. As for the evaluations, the context and the narrative become more important than the principles that guide the creation of art.

Principles such as unity, emphasis, balance and size of objects become secondary in today’s artworld because, with pluralism, artworks are less about arrangement as they are narratives with a particular context.

Much like the emotion in abstract expressionism, the art of today is not grounded in context and narrative. Take visual artist Masimba Hwati’s work for example. The seasoned, award-winning artist specialises in installations that sometimes include found objects and traditional artifacts.

There can be no real comparisons between his work and paintings or sculptures created by contemporary Zimbabwean artists. His work epitomises the very essence of pluralism as it defines a shifts from the ‘‘normal’’.

In his own words, Hwati says, “I have used several alternative materials in my work from animal hides, found material soil, animal bones and other cultural and anthropological relevant material. In this I have come up with and developed theories such as the “energy of objects” and “therapeutic points” in the process of art making”.

Because his art is different, that does not mean he is superior or inferior when compared to his peers. He is just different. Thought the principled of art are ever present in his work, they are not the most important elements of his work.

Any artwork attempts to answer the two simple questions, ‘‘What is represented in the composition’’, and more importantly, ‘‘What narrative does the work represent in the context in which it was developed?’’

With plurality, the beauty of the work is primarily in the narrative and context rather than in the technical jargon that relates to how the work is developed. Artists and their educators need not worry about how much an artwork resembles the symbols it represents, because if they do, art would only be a technical subject that is preoccupied with ‘‘copying’’ the environment.

Instead understanding its context and following the narrative gives art more value than simple aesthetic appeal. And if the work can be just as ‘‘beautiful’’ as it tells a story, it can be the icing on the cake.

Artists today use all sorts of materials, media and techniques to create their artworks. Evaluating these artworks must not stop at whether or not the piece is appealing. The story behind its creation and the meaning it presents can be more precious.

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