Blood out of stone

An exhibition in Yorkshire sees African sculptors at work among the Moores and Hepworths. Jonathan Glancey watches art in the making
When Henry Moore was a Yorkshire lad, nose t'Hopwood stone, African art was very much in vogue. Sculptors' eyes swept across an imperfectly understood and colonised continent in a quest for the sensual, the primitive and the roots of Mother Art. This was, after all, the continent where human life began.

If you go to Yorkshire this month and next, you will have a chance to see Henry Moores set alongside the latest outpourings of contemporary Africa. The contrast is fascinating, the new work pregnant with life, the Moores a solid measure by which we have come to judge other 20th-century sculpture.

The new works by African artists drawn from throughout the continent stand in the 18th-century landscaped grounds of Bretton Hall, Wakefield, better known as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and a place to walk with Moore and Hepworth and Flanagan through bothy garden, hill garden, old trees, walls and hedges with the rolling drama of the West Riding landscape as a constant visual backdrop. Such a walk is often at its best in winter, when park, art and landscape is weighed down in snow and objects natural and artificial stand out in graphic relief.

Odd then, this week, to stand and gawp at sculptors like Noria Mabasa from South Africa and Adam Madebe from Zimbabwe carving fresh new African art in a landscape that, subjectively, looks best in Arctic conditions. The artists were here for the Park's International Sculpture Workshop and Exhibition (the workshop continues this weekend, the exhibition begins on 9 September), an inspired if curious venture that has brought a disparate tribe of important African artists to the north of England and got them to carve there, rather than asking them to exhibit work made at home.

But no matter how fascinating it is to see, say, Adam Madebe carve a voluptuous female torso that spells AFRICA in capital letters, do not expect to discover some new hybrid Anglo-African art. Influences cannot work that quickly, and what the African artists bring to Yorkshire are chinks of home.

In this sense, there is a little of the theme park here at Bretton Hall, watching talented people produce work that seems so out of context. In the end, though, this hardly matters, as the artist's vision is carried in the head and even though an artist may spend years away from their native home, they never go native as such. An artist like Magdalene Odundo, who, Kenyan-born, has lived and worked in southern England for many years, is considered to be one of this country's foremost potters, and yet she carries a vision of Africa (her particular vision of Africa) in her head and hands and you would rightly guess that either she was African or had made a brilliant job of assimilating a foreign culture.

This living show also serves to remind visitors, if they needed reminding, just how diverse Africa is. Who knows if what we see here is a representative sample of artworks nurtured in a sweep of countries that takes in Egypt (Gamal Abdel Nasser) and Morocco (Ikram Kabbaj) to the north, Nigeria (Ndidi Dike) to the west, Uganda (Francis Nnaggenda) in the centre and the Republic of South Africa (Duke Ketye and Noria Mabasa)? Clearly, there are very strong local or regional influences at work on some of the Yorkshire Africans, but equally there are those whose work defies the kind of comfortable categorisations we look for and rely on in museums.

What this show is not is an exhibition of African craft, so do not go along hoping to find the equivalent of Township folk art on the fringe of Wakefield. The artists are all prominent in their own countries and in many ways do not represent them in, say, the picture-book way that a pull-along Jumbo jet made of discarded Fanta cans spells Soweto.

What all the artists displayed, however, was a gloriously un-English lack of self-effacement. Here was art in the making without preciousness and charged with the very vitality that drew artists of Henry Moore's youth to Africa in the first place. Best of all, the artists were too engrossed with making lovely things than with theorising about what they were doing, so all one needed to do was to watch goggle-eyed as forms, familiar and fantastic, emerged from steady hands and eagle eyes. Since the Renaissance, much Western art has been executed in secret, including the stones of artists fascinated by Africa, yet apart from the spirit of African artists. In Yorkshire, the African artists may have been on show, but none of their individual sorcery or skill was lost.

The exhibition is a part of "africa95", a six-month season celebrating the arts and culture of Africa. The big, set-piece show is Africa: the Art of a Continent, opening soon at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The show will cover 1.6 million years of African art history, which gives you some idea of how naively European artists came to Africa when Henry Moore first took up stone carving.

International Sculpture Workshop and Exhibition, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, West Bretton, Wakefield, (01924 830302); to 29 Oct. Africa: the Art of a Continent, Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (0171- 494 5676); 4 Oct to 21 Jan 1996