What wide-ranging impact did European modernism have on colonial and postcolonial African cultures?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The impact of European modernism on colonial and post-colonial African culture was significant in a number of ways, including the following:

  • Modernist writers often helped to challenge many of the basic assumptions of nineteenth-century European culture. The nineteenth century saw a large emphasis on European colonization of Africa. To the extent that the modernists helped undermine confidence (or at least reflect the loss of confidence) in nineteenth-century European culture, they helped undermine many of the original rationales for colonization.
  • Modernist artists (such as Picasso) often showed great interest in the art produced by Africans. By taking such art so often as a model for his own work, he (and others like him) helped raise the prestige of African culture in Europe.
  • To the extent that some modernists were almost (if not literally) fascistic in their politics, they helped support and prolong the kinds of regimes that often intervened colonially in Africa.
  • To the extent that modernism became a powerful and influential literary force, it affected the writings of certain prominent colonial and post-colonial African writers. The obvious example is Christopher Okigbo.  In his essay on Okigo titled “Christopher Okigbo and the Postcolonial Market of Memories,” Maik Nwosu challenges critics who saw Okigbo as too much under the influence of such modernist writers as T. S. Eliot. At one point, for instance, Nwosu notes that

The association of Okigbo with the poetics of Eliot has attracted to his poetry two main types of dismissal, beyond the categorization into an early, Eurocentric Okigbo (everything up until "Path of Thunder") and a later, Afrocentric Okigbo ("Path of Thunder"): the failure of ideology and the truncation of cultural identity. In his evaluation, Emmanuel Ngara wonders why "two years before the independence of his country, Nigeria, and at a time when most politically conscious Africans were waiting with great expectations for the deliverance of the continent from colonial rule, Okigbo would be singing lyrics to the pessimism of Europe" (35).

Nwosu, however, is unsympathetic to such charges, replying (in part) that

Ngara's evaluation does not quite reflect Okigbo's ideological principle in Labyrinths but rather exemplifies what Thomas Knipp describes as Ngara's Afro-Marxist reductionism (200) and his failure "to see in the whole volume the drama of the creation, through metonymy and myth, of a new African consciousness capable of refining into art new, tragic African realities."

This debate about Okigbo is typical of much larger debates about how much European modernism should or should not have influenced African writers. For critics such as Nwosu, such influence proved healthy, at least in the case of Okigbo. For critics such as Ngara, however, the influence proved excessive and unfortunate.

 

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