African Art in the Modern Era
William Blake, commissioned by J.G. Stedman, for the finis page of his book Narrative
of a five years’ expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, Europe Supported
by Africa and America, engraving, 1796. By the dawn of the nineteenth century,
Europeans had a clear notion of the labor of Africa and the natural resources of American as properly performing a service role for the glory of European civilization. This image, with the allegorical figures of America and Africa holding up Europe while wearing nothing but armbands of slavery, gives us an unflinching view of the metaphysical order of the world through Europe’s eyes. African peoples, in particular, resisted this concept, asserting their autonomy artistically in manifold ways.
Africa had been in contact with European and Islamic cultures since at least the fifteenth century, when the religion of Islam and the economic influence of Portuguese traders created variations in the native cultures. Beginning in the nineteenth century, European powers began to dominate the indigenous nations of the vast and varied continent, posing greater and greater challenges and threats to the cultural commerce that had existed since the time of the Pharaohs. Traditional cultures still survive and flourish in many parts of Africa, and often the arts have been a valuable link to the past, to social and spiritual identity, and a means of exerting control over abstract forces affecting their lives.
The effect of the European colonization of Africa effected ripples both wide and deep in the fabric of life and culture on the great continent. Overflow populations of European settlers in Africa did not have the same impact as it had in the Americas and Australia: while the conquerors perceived the vast lands as essentially unpopulated and free for the taking, and saw the native peoples and cultures as essentially expendable, the civilizations (in especially the north) proved much more intractable and impervious to imperial force. The native African nations can rightly be credited a great achievement in their resistance to colonization, since the only self-sustaining European society to be established was that of South Africa, which has been radically altered in recent years by self-realization movements such as the one led by Nelson Mandela.
The extremes in the physical environment of Africa may have contributed to its unconquerability. Ranging from equatorial rain forest, to the perpetually ice-capped 16,500 foot peaks of the Ruwenzori Range, to the great arid expanses of the Sahara’s
sand, the African landscape possesses natural boundaries and insulation against invasion that can prove insurmountable for the uninitiated. The great grasslands and forests are often much more amenable to hunting and herding than farming, and many native cultures have been able to survive precisely due to their emphasis on social skills such as cooperation, compassion, and wise distribution of natural resources and wealth. The arrival of foreign powers, the intrusion of the slave trade, and the resultant pressures on the cohesiveness of society and family accentuated this emphasis on the negotiation of th century, increased in intensity throughout the power. Colonization, initiated in the 16thheight of the slave trade, and peaked in the 19 century with the establishment of the
great resident trading companies of Portugal, Holland, France, and especially England.
thth and 20 Negotiating the vicissitudes of almost constant change, the cultures of 19century Africa responded in a variety of culturally creative ways, given form by remarkable and imaginative forms of art.
Forms of Power
It will be useful to understand the art of Africa of this era through the efficacy of various artistic strategies for dealing with power rather than through geographic references. Although we will look at the attenuation of power through three sub-categories, Social,
Spiritual, and Political power, in traditional African society, as well as in its transplanted forms in North and South America, the three blend together in an almost seamless way. In the Caribbean and Brazil, the influence of the culture of the imported African slaves brought flexibility and adaptability to the host cultures, creating a great range of artistic, religious, and cultural forms that defy European taxonomy. In creole religious practices such as Brazillian macumba or catomble there is no established priesthood or political
hierarchy; ceremonies meant to appease or control spiritual powers that rule earthly power, love, health, and wealth are courted and manipulated by female “priests”, who attain their influence by how well they can connect the realms of social, spiritual, and political power. In North America, the institution of the African-American church functions on all these levels, often a catalyst for political, social, and spiritual change, expressed and given vivid form by the arts. In these paradigms, various kinds of power are all expressions of the same root force or archetypal power matrix.
Objects such as masks, figurines, and dolls helped to shape young men and women, and promulgate ideals of beauty and strength, therefore molding the power of fertility, gender, and sexuality. Rituals, and the costumes and props accompanying them, also served to weave together disparate generations, helping to insure the solidarity of the social group within and between parents, children, grand-children, and a myriad of filial bonding groups.
thBiiga (doll), Mossi Culture, Burkina Faso, mid-20 century. The West Africa culture of
the Mossi, in Burkina Faso, use a vivid idealized, abstracted female image to bring girls into consciousness as women. The dolls are used much as a Barbie doll is by a child in Western culture; the girls bathe, clothe, and care for their dolls as if they were children. Demonstrating both the elongated ideal of beauty of the culture, and the natural elongation of the breasts in women caused by the rituals massaging and pulling of the breasts to encourage lactation, the dolls carry meaning for both young and mature women. Taken into her husband’s house, the plaything of the young girl becomes a potent fertility effigy in the household of the girl as wife and mother.
Female (Nowo) mask, Mende Culture, Sierra Leone, 1906. This image of ideal Mende
female beauty is worn, with other adornments, by the elder women of the Sande society during the river ceremony, meant to mark the change from immature to mature feminine beauty. Initiated into the lineage of ancestral Sande by their community elders, the young
women are then protected from harm by the talismans of the society, such as the chrysalis-like form of the mask. Creases around the neck of the mask portend future abundance and fertility, and the black color of the entire costume evokes possibly the timelessness of the process, and the female connection with the night and the moon.
Do Society Masks, Bwa culture, Dossi, Burkina Faso, 1984. The tall shields at the top of
the masks represent the moon, under which the rituals take place, and the X forms refer to the initiation scars of the adult Bwa. The tall masks and costumes both make the wearer cognizant of the adult responsibility they now carry, and create an intimidating sight, hopefully striking fear in the hearts of attackers. European explorers frequently brought home descriptions of human-like beings with strange anatomy, one of the strangest surely being a kind of creature with its face in its torso. Costumes like this may have encouraged such tall tales of the mysterious continent. The masks were initially associated with the cult spirit of Do, a local deity, and were made of leaves associated with Do. The makers of the masks eventually changed their media to wood after slave traders began to target groups wearing leaf masks.
th century. The political system of the Lega, Bwami masks, Lega Culture, Congo, early 20
a hierarchical arrangement of Bwami, levels or grades of initiation, provides a major
conduit for the achievement of power and prestige for these residents of the Congo forests. Both male and female initiates seek higher grades of the order through both the paying of increasingly higher fees with each level, but moreover through service to the community, providing their kinfolk with food and other essentials. The grades of Bwami encourage an ethos of social service that accompanies prestige. The symbolic masks are small, often worn on the thigh, shoulder, or hand.
Many African societies view the world of the spirit as almost contiguous with the physical plane, with direct interact possible and even common. The task of the Shaman/Artist is to align the interests of the concerned parties with those of the beings in the spiritual realm, and to hopefully influence spirits and deities to a propitious end for all. When these cultures cross-fertilized with each other, and with occupying cultures, they created a wide range of magical and ritual objects to help deal with the insecurities and challenges now present in their world.
thSpirit figure (boteba), Burkino Faso, Lobi culture. 19 century. The boteba is a powerful
talisman for managing the emanation of spiritual influence from one person to another, such as occurs in the example of the “evil eye.” These spirit figures take on the features of a threatening Thil, absorbing the destructive influence of another’s emotion, such as grief, anger, envy, etc., enabling the owner to be free that negative influence. The Lobi live in dispersed communities, united by agreed upon norms dictated by the ruling Thila. This spiritual force, rather than centralized political authority, enforces order on the otherwise loose-knit communities.
th century. Southern central Nkisi Nkonde, “Power figures”, Zaire, Kongo culture, 19
Africa is the realm of the Kongo culture, whose life was structured around the great Congo River running through the middle of the Zaire territory. When a person encounters a difficult problem in this society, a diviner is enlisted who both diagnoses the root of the problem and obtains a nkonde. These figurative forms possess no power when originally
carved, but obtains desired magic with the diviners help. First, certain materials appropriate to the malady are attached to the figure, such as hair, fingernail clippings, plants, minerals, and animal parts, which are then activated to the driving of nails, blades, knives, or other sharp into it. The figure can be stripped of its accoutrements after its use is fulfilled, and reactivated with other prescribed materials to solve another problem. It is surely no coincidence that this form emerged after the influx of European goods into Africa, such as the nail.
Seated Couple, Dogon culture, Mali, 1800-1850. Situated near the Niger delta, the Dogon
of Mali created highly stylized, conceptualized figures such as this couple. Perhaps an ancestor or altar image, this work is typical in its representation of body parts in simple and direct symbolic language, rather than via any idea such as realism. The man and woman are strikingly similar, perhaps hinting at the egalitarian world view of many so-called hunting and gathering societies.
thSpirit Spouse (blolo bla), Baule Culture, Ivory Coast, early 20 century. In this African
cosmology, one’s influence on earth and interaction with living people in earthly ways
does not end with death; a concurrent reality lives in the spirit world. The Baule people believe in each person’s spiritual pre-existence, which includes union with a spirit spouse.
If a person is having trouble pairing up in their earthly life, and dreams of their spirit-spouse, it is assumed that this previous marriage is the problem. To appease the restless spirit, a blolo bla (female) or blolo vian (male) is carved. Created in a broadly naturalistic
manner, with an emphasis on fashionable details of couture, these effigies invite the auspicious presence of the dreamer’s left-behind spirit spouse to reside in the lovely
object, hopefully enabling the dreamer to progress in life. The spirit may then have a place in his or her spouse’s home, not, perhaps, feeling so left out, being fed, dressed, and
caressed by the supplicant.
thDance staff depicting Eshu, Yoruba culture, Nigeria, 20 century. Representing one of
the intermediary gods (orisha), Eshu, the messenger, who appeals for humans to the great god, Olodumare, this effigy is meant to deal with the mercurial nature of the trickster god, who rules money and sex. The two faces, a boy playing a pipe, and a wise old man with flowing beard, illustrate the duality of the god, and the duality of fortune. Eshu reminds human beings not to be proud or demanding of the distant Olodumare, and that blessings may come and go capriciously.
thKanaga Mask, Dogon Culture, Mali, early 20 century. Every twelve years, people in
villages of the Dogon culture engage in a communal funerary rite called Dama,
“dangerous,” when performers dance with these tall masks to the rhythm of gunfire, lasting for as long as six days. The ritual marks the end of the official Mourning period for deceased elders, reminding them that they must depart for the next world. Dancers act
out former activities of the deceased to remind them that they cannot return to their earthly life. It is considered unhealthy for these spirits to linger for too long, as they will begin to envy the living, and interfere with normal life in an attempt to participate. Masks such as the Kanaga include small figures representing the dead, dominated by a great image of a lizard, crocodile, or female splayed out, meant to frighten or cajole the restless spirits into the next world.
Spirit Mask in performance, Guro culture, Ivory Coast, 1983. African ritual masks and
costumes are an ongoing, living artform, which evolve as they are created anew each generation. This elaborate head piece employs modern oil based enamels and other mass produced materials into a very traditional piece of ritual costume. This sort of syncretic art practice testifies to the resilience and vitality of the tradition of African art.
Power of leadership is often closely associated with ancestor worship, veneration, and memorial, with symbolic images, colors, and rituals responsible for the harmonious transition and maintenance of political influence. Forms of art served to dress the royal person, assert their right by lineage to rule, and to keep society in order by the punishment of transgressions.
Olowe of Ise, veranda post carved for the chief of Akure, Yoruba, Nigeria, 1900-1938. A
clear hierarchical order is depicted in this architectural ornament for the leader’s house.
Women support the donkey which supports the great chief, who stands at the ready to defend his people, spear in hand. The artist expertly uses zig-zags of negative, open sculptural spaces to encourage the elongated upward movement of the composition. This is a confident, aspirant, and powerful image of group solidarity.
th century. The Ashanti were one of the few Kente Cloth, Ashanti culture, Ghana, 20
peoples relatively untouched by the slave trade, managing to keep their solidarity by diplomacy, force, and complex cultural organization and expression. They both used locally spun and dyed cloth, and acquired silk cloth from China which they unwove to remake in their own style. This piece of a long narrow Chinese silk was produced on a portable loom, and uses the colors red, green, and yellow to represent the friction between two contrasting factions of the Oyoko clan; this civil war followed the death of king Osai Tutu in 1730. Commemorating both the dispute and its resolution, this pattern and its colorsbecame to be considered to be fitting only for use by royal persons, and was adopted later when Ras Taferi was crowned King of Ethiopia as Haile Sallasie I, the legendary founder of the Rastafarians.
thSpokesperson’s staff, (okyeame poma), Ashanti culture, Ghana, , 20 century. Gold,
traditionally a major source of economic power for the Ashanti, energizes this finial image of an okyeame. The egg, symbolic of purity and of the delicate balance of power, rests precariously, yet comfortably, in the hand of the wise speaker.
Ekpo Society Mask, Anang Ibibio culture, Nigeria, 1930. This disturbing face was used
much as frightening images have been for millennia by cultures around the world: to scare the unworthy and evil spirit. For generations the Ibibio were ruled by the men’s
group, the Ekpo, who were both politicians and police force. When a crime was
committed, members of the society would don these unsettling masks and pay a visit to the accused, to ascertain justice, and to administer corporal punishment if necessary. These frightening images helped to protect the identity of the accuser or agent of justice, and to encourage social repentance in the offender, providing both formal authority and a sense of righteous power transcending the individual.
th century. For the Ijo culture, Ancestor Screen (duen fobara), Ijo culture, Nigeria 19
from the Atlantic coast of southeast Nigeria, this funerary screen commemorates the death of a member a powerful Canoe House, an influential fraternal organization. This “forehead of the dead” icon memorialized the power of the individual, thought to rest in the forehead, with the screen placed in the ancestral altar of the Canoe House making a home for the spirit of the deceased. The features of the person’s status and prominence in
the community were represented, rather than their likeness.
Magdalene Odundo, Asymmetrical Angled Piece, Red Clay, 1991. In traditional tribal
Africa, most women primarily worked in crafts such as pottery, to both create useful items and to supplement family income. The artist Odundo here has taken this cue and created a sculptural image of great power and assertive form using the materials and techniques of traditional women’s society. The form is both rounded and sensuous, and
monumental and assertive, perhaps creating a mediation between the tradition of male political and female domestic power into a symbol of hopeful unity.