AFRICAN CANVAS: THE ART OF WEST AFRICAN WOMEN Photographs and text, By Margaret Courtney-Clarke, Foreword by Maya Angelou, New York: Rizzoli, 204 pp., 181 color photographs, $60 TOWARD the end of the last century, writers of utopian fiction speculated about a new role for art in society. What if, they mused, everyone were to be an artist? How would art be different?
It seemed probable to these thinkers that what we call high art would gradually disappear. It would be replaced by crafts such as carpentry, pottery, and weaving, which unite beauty and use.
In other words, art would look as it has for centuries in traditional societies, like the forms that persist in the remote regions of contemporary West Africa.
Art does not a perfect society make, but many of the world's people make art for motives that are radically different from those in the West.
In Mali, Mauritania, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, women paint bold decorative motifs on the walls of their mud dwellings. Some women are more talented than others, of course, but this artwork is not primarily competitive. It is, instead, a communal effort that rejuvenates social bonds.
After the harvests, West African women gather to restore the decoration on the exterior walls of homes that have been washed nearly clean during the rains of the wet season. Theirs is not a permanent art, but must be renewed each year.
Using natural pigments, or substances introduced from the West, like bluing, they create intricate patterns, using their hands as brushes. In some villages, large geometric shapes dominate the murals. In others, intricate filigree bears witness to the influence of Islam.
To Western eyes, the most fascinating art practice may be the variation of the woman's art called uli. In its lyrical yet fidgety line and rosy pallette, uli resembles the best work of Swiss painter Paul Klee. Uli patterns are passed on from mothers to daughters, but each woman is permitted to express herself within these agreed-upon codes.
Uli, which is becoming increasingly rare among the Igbo women of Nigeria, incorporates a highly complex symbol system. A motif can represent an object, or it can signify something entirely abstract, such as reconciliation after a misunderstanding. Uli can be applied to the human body as well as to wall surfaces. When a woman quarrels with another woman, the one who settles the argument is called ``the free one.'' By custom, ``the free one'' is entitled to paint uli symbols of her peacemaking on her chest.
Because of urbanization and the introduction of outside influences, the women's art of Western Africa is dying out. In order to see it practiced and to photograph it, Margaret Courtney-Clarke trekked to distant settlements and compounds.
Traveling alone or with an interpreter, she survived sandstorms and locust swarms, survived malaria and amoebic dysentery.
``For weeks on end,'' she writes, ``I ate only goat meat and drank camel's milk and contaminated water. On other occasions, I ate dog, bush rat, insects, and food I could not identify, and sometimes - for days - nothing at all.''
Courtney-Clarke risked her mental and physical health to record this art, yet she is far from the bluff-hardy adventuress. Born and raised in what is now Namibia, she is a modest and appreciative interpreter of an art that is virtually unknown outside of Africa.
Most of the artifacts we have seen are those that are both permanent and portable. For the most part, the wood, bronze, ivory, and beads brought out of Africa have been produced by men. ``African Canvas'' is the first book to exhibit the women's art practice of West Africa.
Although she includes small sections on fabric design, body painting, and pottery, it is women's mural art that attracts Courtney-Clarke's attention.
As she was in her highly praised photo-study of the Ndebele of South Africa, published in 1986, Courtney-Clarke has again been careful to identify as many of the women artists as possible. Unlike anthropologists who frequently forget elements of personal style in non-Western art, she is attuned to individuality.
Because this work is perishable, photographs of it assume a larger importance. These lush images capture not only the vivid patterns of the murals, but also the sweep and flow of the vernacular mud architecture where they have been painted. The red earth, from which the buildings are made, and the fine dust that often suffuses the atmosphere of West Africa are both caught in these pictures.
If one were to wish for more - and it is only a quibble - it would be for more shots that show the punishing sparseness of the landscape that makes this art all the more remarkable.
In her appreciative introduction, Maya Angelou writes: ``What is Africa to me? It is mysterious, it is exciting, and it has been made more wonderful and more knowable because of the women's art. The women of West Africa and Margaret Courtney-Clarke.''
More than an art book, ``African Canvas'' is a cultural testimony accessible to all. An article on motifs in African sculpture appears on the Home Forum page today. See ``Travel Icons of African Art,'' Page 16. Mary Warner Marien, who writes from Lafayette, N.Y., specializes in reviewing travel and fine arts for the Monitor and is a recipient of the New York State Foundation for the Arts nonfiction writing award.