Africa: Historic Background

Our knowledge of African history is based on a combination of African oral traditions and the accounts given by early travellers. In recent years this information has been augmented by the discoveries of archaeologists. However, much of the material culture of Africa has perished because of the fact that the organic materials most available-- wood, bone, ivory, and fibers-- decompose in the tropical conditions of Africa.

The 8,000 year old paintings found in the center of the Sahara desert demonstrate that even at this early date there were vigorous communities in Africa. They also are evidence that there was once water in the Sahara-- and that the spread of the deserts has been underway for a long time. Remains have also been found of the Nok Empire in Nigeria dating from c. 500 B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. This empire was associated with tin mines and iron smelting, both sophisticated industries for this period. Other great Empires arose in many parts of Africa during the centuries preceding European colonization, notably the great empire of Zimbabwe, and the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria. However, the colonial era brought an end to these kingdoms, and effectively destroyed much of the evidence that they had ever existed.

Africa is five times the size of the United States, and contains an enormous diversity of ethnic groups, cultures and religions. For the purpose of this course, discussion will be limited to the agriculturally based societies of West Africa. As has commonly been the case among traditional agricultural communities, religious ideas center around the cycles of seasons, days, years, and lifetimes. The metaphors of planting, fertilizing, harvest and renewal are echoed in the seasons of human life, which are marked by the great passages of birth, puberty and initiation into adulthood, marriage and procreation, old age, death, and entry into the community of the departed. These events are marked by special rites, and define the rights, privileges, and limitations placed upon the individual at each stage of life. The natural world is believed to be full of sacred power, and religious practice is designed to manage that power. The departed ancestors are frequently of great importance in the religious rites of African people.

For more information on African history, go to this excellent site created by the BBC World Service.

The visual language of African Art

African art has been of great importance in the 20th century development of modern art in Europe and the United States. However, the response of European and American artists to these objects has generally had little to do with their intended meaning or purpose. African art collected in the 19th century tended to be collected as curiosities. It was viewed by the Victorians as ugly, and as an expression of "primitive" culture, the work of non-christian "heathens." It generally ended up stored in natural history museums with geological and biological specimens.

However, this attitude began to change as twentieth century artists such as Vlaminck, Matisse, Braque, and Picasso became intrigued with the graphic, stylized forms of African sculpture. Yet these artists still knew little about the makers of these works, and were not interested in their motives. Nonetheless, African art contributed a great deal to the development of Modern Art movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.

More recently art historians and anthropologists have begun to study the meaning and intentions of the artists who created these pieces. Sieber, in African Art in the Cycle of Life has outlined the qualities that give a work value and meaning to its African makers and users:

1. Objects should have a function. The object may confer status, or serve a function that may be ceremonial, sacred, or practical. However, the Western idea of "art for arts sake" is not generally understood or accepted.

2. Craftsmanship is important; the skill of the craftsman is highly respected, and a well-made object is valued.

3. Importance is placed on a quality Sieber calls mid-point mimesis. There should be a balance between resemblance and likeness; a figure, for example, should be identifiable as a man, but not identifiable as a specific man. An object that bears a resemblance to the original model draws power from the original, which is desired, but not to be overdone. Individual portraiture is considered presumptuous and dangerous, because of the power that the object may contain.

4. Visibility or clarity of line and form is valued as well. This gives the powerful graphic quality that is so characteristic of African art, and so attracted early European modernists. Strong angular edges to forms, smoothly polished planes and curves, and the angular protrusion of such features as lips, eyes, and nose accentuate these features.

5. The meaning and function of the object requires that emotional proportion supersede natural proportions. For example, a sculpture of a baby intended to assist a young wife in achieving motherhood has an exceptionally large head, to insure that the child will be healthy, beautiful, and intelligent.

6. It is considered proper that persons be only depicted in the prime of life. For example, a memorial figure of an ancestor who died in old age must be shown as a young and vigorous person; to do otherwise would be insulting and also possibly dangerous.

7. The idea of the interrelatedness of forms is expressed through images that carry double, or even triple meanings. This idea reflect the religious idea that spiritual forces inhabit all of nature, all of which is interconnected. For example, a carved headdress from the Ibo people of Nigeria can be seen as a human torso, a bird, or a ram. These visual "puns" carry spiritual as well as humorous meanings.

8. Some African people do not designate aesthetic qualities at all. Since sculptures are consecrated and holy, all are considered equally beautiful, and it is therefore sacrilegious to pass judgement on the relative merits of particular items.

Since function is such an important feature of all African art, we need to consider some of the functions served by these objects. First, the cycles of life, and the rites of passage between them are important as events for which objects are made.

Security and safety for the individual and the group are another set of purposes. This can include objects intended to assist in healing, prediction or control of the future, or insuring success in agriculture, hunting, or other endeavors. Governance, status, and display are important functions of art. Royal insignia and furnishings, the embellishment of houses and doors, and the wearing of cloth and other ornaments that identify the wearer's status and affiliation are examples of this use.

The introduction of European materials and forms has influenced African forms. However, the meanings and uses have been adapted to African value systems. For example, European style chairs, merely furniture to the Europeans, were copied for use in place of the traditional royal stool, but embellished with carved emblems in much the way the traditional stool had been. Imported factory printed cloth was reinterpreted, taking on communicative meanings based on its designs, in the same way that traditional designs and patterns had meaning in the past.

For additional examples of African art, try this link, or this link to an exhibition.

This web site Copyright © 1995 by Charlotte Jirousek
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