Why Use & Efficacy are Central to African Art

Instructor: Haddy Kreie

Haddy is ABD in Theatre Studies and has taught college theatre for 7 years.

Have you ever wondered why most of the African art is either masks or statues of human figures? In this lesson, we will identify the ways that art objects have use and efficacy for the people who create them.

African Art Objects Perform

In the west, we often think of art as something unique from craft. The idea of art for art's sake, or art as an aesthetic form separate from objects that we use, developed under a specific set of social, economic, and intellectual conditions that did not occur simultaneously throughout Africa. Rather, prior to extensive contact with Western Europeans during the colonial period, African arts placed a high value on use and efficacy.

Throughout Africa, local aesthetic values are closely tied to the use of particular art objects in ritual or their efficacy, meaning their ability to produce a desired result. In these contexts, art objects such as masks, sculptures, jewelry, or architecture are said to perform. That is, they take an active rather than passive role in peoples' lives.

To understand how use and efficacy function in pre-colonial African arts, we can study how they function in three broad contexts:

  • as intermediaries in the human experience
  • as markers or life stages, accomplishments, or status
  • as monumental trappings associated with urbanization or the development of civilizations

Art Objects Intervene in Human Experience

Art objects are an expression of the human experience.They often play an intermediary role between people and systems of belief, authority, or society. For example, the Dogon people (who occupy what is now Mali) often use masks and sculptures to intervene in spiritual matters. Sculptures might house spirits of the dead or drive them away. They don't merely decorate people's homes; they 'act' on behalf of those who have commissioned them.

The Senufo people of northern Côte d'Ivoire use sculptures in initiation ceremonies. In this instance, sculptures act as intermediary objects in the transmission of authority by guiding boys into manhood. Sculptural figures are used to educate the boys, and during the ceremony, the initiates swing the sculptures and beat the earth with them to invoke ancestral spirits who will oversee the rites.

Traditionally, the Fon people of modern day Benin and the Kongo people of the modern day Congo region each use sculptural human figures to ask the spirits to intervene on their behalf in dealing with societal issues.The figurines often contain a number of ceremonial substances such as blood, feathers, animal parts, or leaves and twigs. In supplication to the spirits, the person using the art object places sharp objects such as nails into the figurine to mark a particular appeal, such as a need for protection or conflict resolution.

Kongo sculpture used to appeal to the spirits to intervene in daily life

Art Objects Mark History

Art objects in Africa are also used to record various kinds of history. They recount accomplishments of local leaders, recognize changes in social status, and articulate desired behaviors. The Dogon people, for example, decorate the homes of community leaders with grid patterns that symbolize and encode a sense of civilization and order. This artwork articulates the desired behaviors of community members. The symbolic artwork promotes the values of order, peacefulness, and discipline.

In another example from the Kongo people, special wooden pot lids are carved with images that narrate particular proverbs. A woman might bring out a dish covered with the lid to indicate to her husband that she wishes to discuss a particular complaint. When the pot lid appears at dinner, the husband is obliged to address her concerns among familial witnesses.

The Bambara people, also of a region within Mali, use a series of masks to denote the various life stages of men in their communities. As boys grow into men and continue through the stages of life, they adorn different masks at public ceremonies to recognize changes in social status. Young boys, for example, wear masks with a line of vertical projections above the face that recall local creation mythology. Men who are preparing to be husbands and fathers wear masks and headdresses that reference agriculture.

Bambara mask for men preparing to be husbands and fathers
bambara mask

Body adornment is another prevalent example of marking social status or lineage. The Yoruba people in the region of Nigeria scar their bodies to indicate ancestral lineage. The Nuba women of Sudan use scarification to mark stages of life such as menstruation and the birth of the first child.

Wall reliefs are a great example of how art objects record history and accomplishments of local leaders.The walls of Fon palaces are often ornamented with painted clay reliefs that recount and honor the achievements of their kings and queens.

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