In this study, I seek to explore how contemporary art created by Nigerian and South African artists can be described to be rooted in an African vernacular. To this end, I conducted a comparative analysis of the cultural imageries and symbolisms of four Nigerian and four South African artists. For each of the artists, five of their works produced between 2007 and 2016 were purposively sampled. Thus, the study investigates forty works within the ten year period. The comparative analysis focuses on visual hermeneutics theory and art historical methodologies (formal analysis). Accordingly, the analysis examines the artists’ personal influences, training, frames of reference, knowledge base and philosophy as well as the reception of their works.
Given the fact that most of the selected artists are excluded from mainstream art historical research because their works are said to be outside the normative contemporary art standards, this study establishes that the trend of their art is significant and should be researched. For that reason, the selected artists were included in this study so as to contribute a mainstream art historical discourse on their artworks. In the theoretical underpinning of this study, it is argued that although vernacular arts were produced in a historical African arts context, nevertheless the contemporary modes of cultural appropriations in artworks by the selected academically trained artists are not a continuation of the historical African. Therefore this study establishes that the adoption of the term African vernacular rooted in narrating contemporary African arts produced by Nigerian and South African artists is a rethink in the use of the old term in opening up a new discourse on engagement with cultural imageries and symbolisms. As a result, this research argues that their ideological trends in appropriating cultural imageries in arts are not a different form of contemporary African art. The significance of this research lies in the contribution of knowledge to the existing literature on global contemporary African art, and in initiating the exercise of documenting the visual culture of artists from both countries.
Although the study provides a wider insight into appropriations of cultural symbolism in the works of these artists, it shows that some of the artists focus their visual narratives on specific dominant vernacular tropes or cultural imageries and symbolism in narrating experiences from past and present occurrences in both countries. However, many of the dominant cultural symbolisms are basically depictions of either young black African children or compositions showing African men and women. However, they narrate different experiences and aspects of African socio-cultural life. Significantly, the depictions in the artworks of the contemporary artists demonstrate, in different heterogeneous ways, African identities through cultures, heritage, history, and identity. Furthermore, most of the African vernacular rooted arts discussed in this study reveal influences from environmental factors such as migration, homelessness, African humanism, socio-cultural ceremonies, cultural and racial unity, oppression, ritual murders, and family life.