Back To CourseArt, Music, and Architecture Around the World
17 chapters | 231 lessons
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The African continent is the point of origin of humanity itself, so it makes sense that it would also be the wellspring of human art. Some anthropologists have suggested that the defining quality setting human beings apart from our evolutionary ancestors is not physical, but creative. For the purposes of this lesson, we'll talk about art as any act of deliberate creative expression - not just formal painting and sculpture, like we'd expect to find in an art gallery.
Ancient people had far less access to resources than most of us enjoy in the modern world, and a great deal of their time was devoted to daily survival. Under such conditions, human creativity would rarely be about purely personal expression or basic beautification. Even personal ornaments probably had a spiritual and social function, such as Ghanaian kente cloth today, with patterns that send a social message and communicate status. Weapons and tools often had a creative embellishment, and thus, ancient art was often both expressive and functional, or having a practical use. The focus of the lesson will be sub-Saharan Africa, since geography isolated Egypt from the main continent and plugged its history into what we now consider Western tradition.
Let's first focus on some of the general qualities of sub-Saharan traditional African art, including that:
Okay, let's now define the artistic terms 'medium' and 'genre' before talking about some specific types used in ancient African art. In art lingo, medium refers to the material or format of the art, which generally comes down to the stuff it's made of or the means through which it happens. Watercolor, oil, pastel, rock, marble, ivory, fabric, digital photography, and clay are all types of media.
Genre indicates the category or classification of the art form: painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, drama, and jazz are all genres. Owing to resource availability and other socioeconomic factors, much traditional African art has been created with non-durable, perishable media, such as wood and other plant fiber. We'll look at some exceptions, but to a large extent, we have to speculate about ancient art through references to the more contemporary.
The oldest surviving examples of human creativity were done on rock or shaped from it. Engravings on ochre (also used as a pigment for body painting) from the Blombos Cave in South Africa have been dated from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, making them the oldest examples of ancient African art yet discovered. Their abstract patterns indicate higher order thinking. Blombos also yielded crafted shell beads, bone tools, and other examples of human craft and creativity.
A fancy word for rock carvings is petroglyphs, and Africa has a wealth of them, spread from Algeria to Chad to Namibia to Niger, and from Tanzania to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Libya. In Dabous in the Sahara, a life-sized pair of giraffes highlights the scope of the investment in this ancient art form. In fact, giraffe petroglyphs are almost a sub-genre of their own, being found over numerous sites, across thousands of years, and in many different styles. In addition, Laas Geel, in Somalia, is one of many sites that help trace the development of African herding and livestock domestication by providing us with vibrant visual art in the form of cave paintings.
Metalwork is a more recent phenomenon in Africa, largely because of resource distribution, but the famous 'bronzes' of Benin (actually made of brass in many instances) challenged many European stereotypes when discovered, as did the amazing sculptures of the Yoruba in bronze and even copper, a difficult medium to work with. Various sculptures and plaques date back over 3,500 years.
The situation is similar with ceramics. African potters did not use a potter's wheel, so vessels are heavy but also fragile. Nok ceramic sculptures, made from terracotta, stand out for their stunning imagination, design and uniqueness in combined medium and genre.
Masks provide a widespread and incredibly diverse format for creative expression among African cultures. Because of their medium, however, frequently a wood base with a broad array of added materials, we mainly have more recent examples of what is almost certainly an extremely ancient art form.
Like so much African art, and global art for that matter, masks were frequently carved for ceremonial and ritual purposes. In many cases, masks were believed to be infused with spiritual essence and sometimes even dark and dangerous power. Such masks were generally kept hidden away when not in ritual use or sometimes even destroyed after a particular ritual was concluded. This power to channel spiritual forces or beings could also take a more positive and public form. In Dan culture, for example, marriage masks for bride and groom allow them to recreate a mythological first marriage and connect a present moment with a mystical ancient past and the ordinary with the supernatural.
African masks are most often humaniform, though they depict animals as well, such as elephants or gazelles. Depending on the region and culture, the carving style varies from highly realistic to highly exaggerated and abstract. The dramatic angles and planes of West African masks, for instance, influenced the works of Picasso. Benin masks can be eerily lifelike across a variety of media. Dan masks elaborate upon a set of stylized characteristics according to the creativity and prestige of the carver. Baule masks can be quite abstract and symbolic: one type, for example, called a Goli, merges the characteristics of the sun and a buffalo.
Again, we can only speculate about ancient mask art in Africa, but the prominence of mask art in more recent times - in Africa and throughout the world - as well as the enduring connection to religious practice and fundamental social ritual makes it extremely likely that the mask tradition has sprung from ancient roots.
As with much of its visual art, traditional African architecture was constructed from non-durable materials, and few examples exist outside of Egypt and Nubia (modern Sudan). But architecture, and the artistic imagination behind it, refers as much to the layout of the built environment as a particular building or building style. In recent years, the work of ethnomathematics has revealed an exciting component of African artistic design in the form of fractal geometry.
Put simply, fractals refer to the repetition of a particular 'seed' shape in diminishing/increasing scale that can theoretically stretch into infinity. Dr. Ron Eglash, in his work African Fractals, has noted this phenomenon not only in architectural layout, but in sculpture, textile patterns, religious symbols, and even, believe it or not, hairstyles. Fractal geometry in the arts seems to be a distinguishing feature of African art, differentiating it from Western styles while demonstrating high conceptual sophistication.
Let's review the main facts we covered in this lesson…
The creative cultures of sub-Saharan Africa are heavily performative and oral. Visual arts genres, or categories, tend to be figurative, emphasizing the human form in three dimensions, and functional. Resource limitations resulted in the use of mainly biodegradable artistic material, or mediums. Ancient rock carvings, or petroglyphs, however, which are found throughout Africa, are durable, 2-D exceptions. African artists have also worked in metal and ceramics on a limited basis; examples include bronzes and copper work dating back over 3,500 years and the stunning Nok sculpture in terracotta.
Masks, mostly carved from wood, are a distinctive and probably ancient African art form. They are strongly associated with ritual and spiritual expression. And, both the visual arts and traditional architectural design reveal an underlying fractal pattern, a distinctive trait that distinguished it from Western artistic practices.
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Back To CourseArt, Music, and Architecture Around the World
17 chapters | 231 lessons