Africa: the many-faced ancestor of Modern European Art
A Search through Soyinka
Few years back in London my wife Patricia told me she had two tickets for an international poetry reading session in the South Bank Centre. It was a pleasant summer weekend. Once we reached the venue I was pleasantly surprised that the African Nobel Laureate, Woley Soyinka was among the readers. I looked at Patricia and knew then why she was insisting on coming to the recitals.
Back in 1990, I had a different kind of encounter with Soyinka through his Strong Breed; I had the opportunity to translate it in Bangla as it was my chosen piece when I had had the chance to direct a play at Commonwealth Literature Seminar at Dhaka's British Council. The translation was later published in the form of a booklet and was launched at a publishing ceremony at the National Museum in Dhaka.
While facing Soyinka in person, I told Patricia that I wished I had the translation or at least the booklet with me. She smiled and said that she was carrying the booklet in her bag. After the reading, Soyinka gave us a bit of time when I gave him the booklet which had a black and white picture of him on the cover. Though, he didn't understand Bangla, still the way he was taking it near his face as if he was trying to smell it. His reaction was unpretentious: that's how art captures life!
During the short conversation we had, Soyinka wanted to know what the central question was which I asked myself after encountering Africa through his play. I said that I wanted to know under what circumstances individual talent altered conventional forms. Soyinka with his head full of white hair and beard looked contented with my focus and touched my head! A blessing from the old master representing the dawn of evolution and one who has been through the contemporary matrix of time.
Other then the central question based on the alteration of convention by the individual the additional questions I added to my reading and observation of the African art and literature is how old is traditional African Art? What governed its local variations? Most intriguing to me was why these variations took the forms they did?
Gods , Spirits and Magic Charms
Threatened by unknown forces and sometimes by hunger and beasts of prey, Africans, like other peoples enlisted the aid of magic. Their techniques were largely pragmatic and derived from everyday experience. If a farmer plucked a round black stone from a river bed and was thereafter blessed by several good crops, in time he was likely to consider round black stones as standard insurance for good crops. Similarly, the teeth of dead lions and crocodiles were regarded as powerful medicine against wild beasts: particularly if a hunter wore them and returned successfully from the hunt. Objects that did not work were discarded; those that worked were widely copied and gradually became standardized and then stylized into symbolic magical devices. These devices then enter day-to-day life as talismans, good luck charms and amulets to ward off specific evils. In practice, however, eclectic Africans used magical objects less by category, than by what they actually seemed to do.
Religious beliefs and practices played so large a part in African life because the custodians of the temples and shrines were people of great importance. No doubt they were as varied in their talents and characters as any such specialists would be. Yet if some were frauds and rascals, most were skilful practitioners in the arts of physical and mental healing. Their authority came partly from a broad knowledge of herbal medicine plus psychological insight and an intimate understanding of local circumstances.
In Ashanti the shrine priest was called an Okomfo, from Kom, which means to prophesy or predict. The Okofo's main duty was to care for the sacred object through which he evoked the god. This he was doing by tinkling a bell, drumming, and most importantly, by dancing. He will know when the spirit has taken up its abode in the body and feel it by being seized with trembling and shakings. The Okomfo then addresses the spirit and provides the answers as a medium to those who have come to consult it.
Such skills required arduous training. Among some African people there was a regular course of schooling for shrine priests. In Ashanti, a novice studied for three years, during which time he was said to be 'married' to the god.
The Dogon are an ethnic group living in the central plateau region of Mali, south of the Niger bend near the city of Bandiagara in the Mopti region. The population numbers between 400,000 and 800,000. The Dogon are best known for their mythology, their mask dances, wooden sculpture and their architecture. The past century has seen significant changes in the social organization, material culture and beliefs of the Dogon, partly because Dogon country is one of Mali's major tourist attractions.
Among the Dogon several oral traditions have been recorded as to their origin. One relates to their coming from Mande, located to the southwest of the Bandiagara escarpment near Bamako. According to this oral tradition, the first Dogon settlement was established in the extreme southwest of the escarpment at Kani-Na. Over time the Dogon moved north along the escarpment, arriving in the Sanga region in the 15th century. Other oral histories place the origin of the Dogon to the west beyond the river Niger, or tell of the Dogon coming from the east. It is likely that the Dogon of today combine several groups of diverse origin who migrated to escape Islamization.
Islamic law classified them and many other ethnicities of the region, (Mossi, Gurma, Bobo, Busa and the Yoruba) as being within the dar al-harb and consequently fair game for slave raids organized by merchants, though it is often difficult to distinguish between pre-Muslim practices and later Islamic practices as the growth of cities increased the demand for slaves across the region of West Africa.
Dogon art is primarily sculpture. Dogon art revolves around religious values, ideals, and freedoms. Dogon sculptures are not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly hidden from the public eye within the houses of families, sanctuaries, or kept with the Hogon. The importance of secrecy is due to the symbolic meaning behind the pieces and the process by which they are made.
Themes found throughout Dogon sculpture consist of figures with raised arms, superimposed bearded figures, horsemen, stools with caryatids, women with children, figures covering their faces, women grinding pearl millet, women bearing vessels on their heads, donkeys bearing cups, musicians, dogs, quadruped-shaped troughs or benches, figures bending from the waist, mirror-images, aproned and standing figures. Signs of other contacts and origins are also evident in Dogon art. The Dogon people were not the first inhabitants of the cliffs of Bandiagara. Influence from Tellem art is evident in Dogon art because of its rectilinear designs.
Belief and Art
In my search of the lost links with Africa I had to come back to the fact again and again that Africa's traditional arts, like its beliefs and customs, were the product of an age of faith. Just as Europe during the middle ages and Asia before that built temples and composed music to the glory of gods, so were African artists preoccupied with the spiritual content of their work. In sculpture, in music, in dancing and in story telling they attempted to express and celebrate the moral convictions that underlay their daily life. From this concern African art acquired two chief characteristics: variety in form and conventionality in style.
The forms were varied because the beliefs and rituals of African religion were varied. The style was conventional because the art was meant to express ideas laid down by long-established precedent. In short, African art was neither haphazard nor spontaneous.
The Primitive Labelling
The first African art to make an impact on the outside world reached Paris just after the turn of the century. It consisted of ritual masks and figurines carved of wood, brought from French, Belgian and German holdings in equatorial Africa. Grotesque and often oddly proportioned, it was an art judged by artists and critics alike to be entirely free; the product of the emotion of the moment, shaped only by the sculptor's private vision. The critics agreed that those masks were direct expression of individual feelings of fear, awe, anger, love and other elemental sensations. How else could one explain these contorted features, so urgently furious, so affecting, so difficult to understand within the familiar forms of art?
This judgment, made without sufficient knowledge of the background from which the masks and figures had come, led most Europeans astray. They labeled African art as primitive and by primitive meant that it was the product of people incapable of understanding their feelings; spiritual wonder or cosmic anguish were all unpremeditated expressions. Both the Christians and Muslim conquerors were upholding this idea that African artists worked without rules and stylistic precedents. The same mistakes are repeated, or, perhaps, deliberate conclusions were drawn by the Europeans when they entered America. The idea behind labeling African art as Primitive also came from the imposition that the societies there contained no rules for personal or community behavior because none were visible! Again what was visible did not fit the recognized signs of established discipline. Though the European scholars nowadays say that these conclusions were historical accidents, to me they were a thought pattern supplied by the well narrated orientalism which took firm seat in every colonial capital of that time.
Cubism and the Dogon Ancestor Figure
By rotating a five-inch Dogon ancestral maternity figure through 180 degree in multiple exposures one can create a Cubist impression. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the European cultural elite were discovering African, Micronesian and Native American art for the first time. Artists such as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso were intrigued and inspired by the stark power and simplicity of styles of those foreign cultures. Around 1906, Picasso met Matisse through Gertrude Stein, at a time when both artists had recently acquired an interest in primitivism, Iberian sculpture, African art and African tribal masks. They became friendly rivals and competed with each other throughout their careers, perhaps leading to Picasso entering a new period in his work by 1907, marked by the influence of Greek, Iberian and African art. Picasso's paintings of 1907 have been characterized as Protocubism, as notably seen in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the antecedent of Cubism.
The sculpture that arrived in Paris in the early 1900 came largely from people upon whom it was easy to tack the label 'primitive.' The masks included those of the Dan, Senufo, Baule and Kota people who lived in the Ivory Coast and the north-west Congo. Many of the stylized figures carved by these peoples were so removed from portraiture or likeness that they must have seemed the work of untutored hands like the art of children. The fact that experimental artists like Picasso admired and used African art in their fight against representational art also helped to fix the label 'primitive.'
But if Picasso, Braque and other radical exponents of Parisian avant-garde had lived in Berlin instead of Paris, they might well have disregarded African art. For in Berlin there arrived, during the same period, African art of a very different sort. German travellers returning from Nigeria brought with them a number of bronze heads and plaques from Benin. Contrary to the idea of 'primitive' these works were curious in style and ornamentation. They depicted figures recognizable as people, and were obviously meant to serve familiar purposes such as enhancing royal prestige. Unable to fit the Benin works into their idea of 'primitivism,' the scholars in Berlin said that these were from the long lost world of Atlantis! Africa couldn't be given its fair share as the ancestors of the modern art! There again the Berliners proved that the 'historical accident' theory was a banal apology without any honesty.
Most of these early explanations of African art have been undermined by more recent research not only into African art but into the nature of art in general. The majestic heads and figures of Benin are as much a product of Africa as are the monster-masks of the Senufo and the geometrical abstraction of the Kota. The apparent conflict between them is one of the artistic style, not artistic ability. They were all conceived by artists working within an intensely religious culture whose rituals were hallowed by tradition.
Ido Ivory Mask
A common consensus among historians is that the art of Benin served to narrate events and achievements, actual or mythical, which occurred in the past. It was grounded on traditional values and religious beliefs and displayed iconographic affinities. Although only made popular after the Punitive Expedition in the 19th century, Benin art has been in existence since at least 500 BCE.
Benin Art is the art from the Kingdom of Benin or Edo Empire (1440-1897), a pre-colonial African state located in what is now known as the South-South region of Nigeria. Benin art was produced mainly for the court of the Oba of Benin - a divine ruler for whom the craftsmen produced a range of ceremonially significant objects. Aside from producing work to promote theological and religious piety, Benin Art includes a range of animal heads, figurines, busts, plaques, and other artifacts. Typical Benin art materials include bronze, brass, clay, ivory, terracota, and wood. During the reign of the Kingdom of Benin, the characteristics of the artwork shifted from thin castings and careful treatment to thick, less defined castings and generalized features.
Benin art has proven to be hard to interpret. This is due in part to the lack of supplementary written documents. Because of the non-literate nature of the ancient inhabitants of Benin City, there is a dearth in literary backup as would be seen in other cultures (Ben- Amos, 1980).
A common consensus among historians is that the art of Benin served to narrate events and achievements, actual or mythical, which occurred in the past. It was grounded on traditional values and religious beliefs and displayed iconographic affinities. Although only made popular after the Punitive Expedition in the 19th century, Benin art has been in existence since at least 500 BCE (Andrea & Overfield, 2005). They used their art to depict religious, social and cultural issues that were central to their beliefs such as ceremonial weapons, religious objects and masks (Blackmun, 1988). The culture of the Benin people was that of religious sentiment which can be seen in a lot of their art. They viewed their kings or obas as unearthly, in the sense that they were closer to the gods than the average human was. In a popular story, Ewuare, a ruler in the 15th and 16th century, goes to the river and steals the beads that belong to Olokun, god of the waters. He brings them back to Benin and in the process establishes the palace of the oba as the earthly counterpart and a kind of dry land (Ben- Amos, 1980). Stories and events like these inspired many of the beliefs and art of the early Benin people.
Although styles of sculptures varied widely among African tribes, all shared a common purpose: to express in material from the mystical spirits and 'life force' preached by a unique religion. Since the West has no direct experience of such a religious climate, some critics believed that African art is “beyond our horizon.” Through the selective eye of different photographer many of the powerful qualities of African traditional art has become clear: the brilliant carving, the three-dimensional depth, the surface textures and most importantly, the emotional impact that comes from translating into solid wood the extraordinary shapes of abstract ideas.
Form and Tension
Almost all African sculpture was made from a single piece of wood, selected from a still growing tree by the sculptor, who scrupulously stayed within the trees when he carved. The close collaboration of the artist with his material could be reflected when the sculpture is seen in its three dimensional view. The carved figure would reflect the single cylinder of wood from which it was made. Each dimension was to lend the body great tension and strength.
Although much African sculpture was immobile and conveyed its interior energy by a sense of arrested movement, masks were meant to be seen in action. Most wildly imaginative of all African sculpture, their mysterious, tortured and often terrifying lines expressed the ultimate in supernatural forces.
The societies which were and still are producing these masks varied in nature from mutual assistance groups to sinister cabals. Their funerals, festivals and other important occasions were almost always accompanied by fierce dancing in masks. The harrowing quality of much of this dancing came from the wearers' belief in the spirits represented by the masks.
Art that Captures Life
Africa's high arts are now largely splintered and scattered. This is not necessarily because other arts have supplanted them, but because Africa has changed. The old Africa, of which these arts were so integral a part, has now lost much of its meaning and coherence. Although traditional art is still practiced seriously by a few good African artists, much of which is called traditional art is nothing but commercial rubbish.
Here and there, however, some artists are seeking to bridge the gap between the old and the new. Not by re-creating the past, but by recognizing their affinity with the spirit that animates the past. From that affinity creating a new art for modern Africa. I myself can remember the appeal Soyinka had on me through all of his plays.
- Margaret Shinnie, Ancient African Kingdoms, , St Martin's Press, 1966.
- Roland Oliver and J D Fagg, A Short History Of Africa, Penguin, 1963.
- Elsy Leuzinger, The Art Of Africa, Pollinger, 1960.
- Douglas Fraser, Primitive Art, Thames & Hudson, 1962.
- William Fagg, Tribes And Forms In African Art, Heffer, 1965.
- Margaret Trowell, Classical African Sculpture, Faber, 1964.
- J Spencer Trimingham, A History Of Islam in West Africa, Oxford University Press, 1962.
- Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects, BBC Radio 2010.
- Woley Soyinka, Collected Plays 1, Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Robert (ed) & Hollyman, Stephenie (photographs) & Walter EA van Beek (text), 2001, Dogon: Africa's people of the cliffs. New York: Abrams.
- Timothy Insoll, The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (2003), Cambridge University Press.
CHOYON KHAIRUL HABIB is a contemporary Bengali poet and playwright based in Brittany, France. His major collections include Julekha Syrup and Rangoon Sonnets. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Looking back in wonder
CARL EINSTEIN (1885-1940), the German art critic and historian, influenced by the German Philosopher Wilhelm Worringer, wrote one of the most influential treaties on African Art in 1915. Pointing out the deficiency of European knowledge in identifying a style far removed from the Mediterranean affinity with verisimilitude and Greek idealism, he raised some important issues that prepared the ground for a new departure. Below are excerpts from his writing entitled 'Negroplastik', in German, 'Negro Sculpture', in English translation, sourced from 'Art in Theory 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Idea', new edition.
Remarks on Method
There is probably no art that the European approaches with more suspicion than the art of Africa. […] The Negro […] is regarded from the outset as an inferior part of humanity that must be ruthlessly developed into something better, and what he has to hastily fashioned to account for him. For some he was pressed into service to provide a misguided concept of primitive man, while others garlanded this hapless object of research with demonstrably false phrases about a people of timeless prehistory. Some hoped to discover in the negro a kind of origin, a condition of life that will never escape its first beginnings. Many of the opinions entertained about African man are largely based on prejudices such as these, prejudices effectively developed to fit some comfortable theory or other. In passing judgment on the negro the European makes one assumption: that of an unqualified and almost fantastical superiority on this part.
In fact our lack of respect for the negro merely expresses an ignorance about him, and one that oppresses him quite unjustly.
[...] In general our knowledge of African art in scant and extremely vague. [...] Nonetheless we must begin from fact rather than some surreptitiously introduced substitute for fact. And I think there is one fact which imposes itself more reliably than any conceivable knowledge of an ethnographic or other kind, and that is the African sculptures themselves. We must ignore their 'objective' character, that is, we must ignore them as objects associated with a specific environment, and analyse them precisely as created forms [Gebilden]. We must try and see whether analysis of the formal character of these sculptures can lead us towards an overall conception of form commensurate with that found throughout the different forms of art in general. One thing will certainly have to be observed here, and one thing avoided: we must stay with the realm of perception [Anschauung], and proceed in accordance with its specific principles. We must never impose the structure of our own thoughts upon the realm of perception or the specific creativity we are attempting here to explore. We must refrain from hypothesizing comforting evolutionary trends or identifying intellectual processes of thought with the creative achievements of art. We must renounce the prejudice that psychological processes can manifest themselves simply under reserved signs, that reflection upon art simply corresponds to the active creation of art. For such reflection is a generally distinct process, one that advances specifically beyond from and the world of form in order to locate the work of art within the realm of process in [Geschehen] general.
The Painterly Element
The typical European lack of understanding for African art is directly related to its stylistic power. For this art does indeed represent an exemplary case of sculptural vision.
One can certainly argue that the sculpture of our own continent has been profoundly influenced by surrogate and essentially painterly effects. Hildebrand's Problem of Form presents us with an ideal reconciliation of the painterly and the sculptural. But even the striking examples of French sculpture, up to and including Robin, appear to be struggling towards a dissolution of the sculptural as such. Even the aspect of frontality, which is generally regarded as rigorous and 'primitive' clarification of the cubic dimension [des Kubischen], must properly be interpreted as a painterly conception of the sculptural. For the three-dimensional character of sculpture is here summarized in terms of a few planes that effectively suppress the cubic aspect altogether. The parts closest to the viewer are emphasized and organized into planes, while the more distant parts are presented as incidental modifications of the frontal plane whose own dynamic character is weakened as a result.