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African Art

African Art

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will examine symbols, themes, and culture portrayed in African Arts.

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Tutorial

An overview of African art from west and central Africa.

Video Transcription

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Hello, and welcome to this episode of Exploring Art History within Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about African art. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the thematic elements of African Art in the examples from this lesson, and identify examples of African Artwork.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is abstraction. In the arts, the simplification of form down to its most basic elements. Performative, in the arts, used for or relating to performance. Artifact, an object made by a human being. In particular, an object of historical or cultural interest. Akuaba, wooden dolls from Ghana and nearby areas that are used to insure fertility and/or a beautiful child. They're characterized by their heads, which are large, flattened, and circular in shape. Nkisi Nkondi, a type of sculpture consisting of a wooden human figure that is thought to embody a spirit and is used to take oaths and figure out who has been committing wrongdoings.

The big idea for today is that the concept of art is not universal. The examples of African art we'll examine today were meant to be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. And the African art that we're looking at today dates from between the 12th and 19th centuries. We'll be traveling to a few places in Africa today, but we'll fly into Benin City, Nigeria. From what I know, they just remodeled the airport, and if we're lucky that remodel includes a Chipotle.

So African art, in kola nutshell-- kola nuts are actually native to Africa, fun fact. African thematic elements include abstraction, emphasis on the human figure, emphasis on sculpture, sensory overload, performance aspect, and this aspect as well of leadership.

So African art has a different perspective as it pertains to art in general. There are always exceptions, of course, but for the sake of argument, let's generalize and say that the Western approach to art is thus. Creation of art for profit and/or with the intention that it will be viewed in a particular setting like a private home, gallery, museum, or in public. And art is created with aesthetics in mind, which is open to interpretation, of course, and usually has some sort of message.

Now remember, though, that the creation of objects of aesthetic value often has a different function or purpose depending upon culture. Now this is true of many cultures in Africa. In the art that we examine today, like these Akuaba figures, the meaning associated with them changes depending on the context of the art. Any perceived power in these objects is lost when placed in a museum, for example. They weren't intended for display, or just to be looked at. They are functional and retain their significance as long as they're serving their particular function.

Now Akuaba figures are the most common among the Ashanti people in and around Ghana and the Ivory Coast in Western Africa. Women carry these objects in order to help them conceive or to help them have beautiful children. What I always enjoyed about African art was the emphasis on abstraction, like you can see here. The figures are reduced to their most essential elements, which in turn are very stylized.

We saw this in earlier examples such as supposed fertility idols of prehistoric Europe. My personal opinion is that the level of artistry is more apparent here, however. These figures are also an example of how certain types of art are associated with certain groups. These figures tend to be gender specific. To the best of my knowledge anyway, you wouldn't see men hauling these around.

African art is steeped in tradition, with the emphasis on community rather than individuality. African art lacks the association with artistic originality. Tradition and consistency of design are much more important than artistic originality. That isn't to say there are professional artists, there are certain disciplines that require the dedication and time to learn that only a professional can provide.

The Ashanti people are also known for their production of Kente cloth. This is a very symbolic and important form of art to these people. The cloth is typically worn during ceremonies, and it originally could only be won by kings, although such restrictions have eased over time. Each color has a different symbolic meaning. I am by no means an expert on Kente cloth symbolism, but I can give you my best educated interpretation from what I see here. I'm assuming these particular examples are for females based on what I know of the color symbolism. Pink and purple tend to be closely associated with the feminine essence, or with feminine aspects of life, such as motherhood. Gold or yellow can have an association with fertility. That's about as far as I can go. So sorry.

Nkisi Nkondi figures are sculptures thought to contain a spirit, or a nkondi. Now you may think, like I did upon first glance of images like this so many years ago, that these were some sort of voodoo-ish idol, given that the nails are driven into the figure. And like me, you're probably watching too much Scooby Doo. But not completely incorrect in terms of the connection to the living these figures were thought to have. Now the nails actually function as a way for the spirit to see into the other world. Sometimes figures would have mirrors on their bellies which served a similar purpose.

And there's a performance aspect to the figure as well. In ceremonies the nails were driven into its body, which served to activate its power. Now these were used in ceremonies to heal or cause sickness, or as a way to detect whether someone committed a wrongdoing. Again, its perceived power that these objects had was context specific. These were functional, not just eye candy.

Now professional artists did exist in African cultures, as is the case with bronze casters like this Yoruba mask from Benin. Now again, these had a specific performance and functional aspect to them. In terms of aesthetics, it's a beautiful example of the artistic skill of the Yoruba artist. The bronze casting skill of the Yoruba is arguably second to none, particularly in the way they were able to achieve such realism in this object, for example.

In terms of function, they were ceremonial items intended to be worn, and are believed to function as an intermediary between this world and the spirit world. And are representative of a particular person, given the level of realism that we see here.

Now this lends an idea of the importance the Yoruba placed on tradition and ancestral connections. Death was just a point of passage onto another plane of existence. Like altars, bronze portrait heads express ideas about the importance of leadership. This was obviously made to depict an important person. During a ceremonial performance the mask would be worn by someone who functioned as the intermediary between the two worlds and allowed the living to reconnect with the spirit of an important leader from the past.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the thematic elements for African art in the examples from this lesson, and identify examples of African artwork?

And once again, the big idea for today is that the concept of art is not universal. The examples of African Art we'll examine today were meant to be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing.

That's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "African Art"

Key Terms

Abstraction

In the arts, the simplification of form down to its most basic elements.

Performative

In the arts, used for, or relating to, performance.

Artifact

An object made by a human being, in particular an object of historical or cultural interest. 

Akuaba

Wooden dolls from Ghana and nearby areas that are used to ensure fertility and/or a beautiful child. They are characterized by their heads, which are large, flattened, and circular in shape.

Nkisi Nkondi

A type of sculpture consisting of a wooden human figure that is thought to embody a spirit, and is used to take oaths and figure out who has been committing wrongdoings.

Citations

Akuaba Figures; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Akuaba.jpg Nksisi Knonde Figure; Creative Commons (Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Female_Power_Figure_%28Nkisi_Nkonde%29.jpg Kente Cloths; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ewe_kente,_Ghana.jpg Yoruba Bronze Head; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yoruba-bronze-head.jpg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Abstraction

    In the arts, the simplification of form down to its most basic elements.

  • Performative

    In the arts, used for, or relating to, performance.

  • Artifact

    An object made by a human being, in particular an object of historical or cultural interest.

  • Akuaba

    Wooden dolls from Ghana and nearby areas that are used to ensure fertility and/or a beautiful child. They are characterized by their heads, which are large, flattened, and circular in shape.

  • Nkisi Nkondi

    A type of sculpture consisting of a wooden human figure that is thought to embody a spirit, and is used to take oaths and figure out who has been committing wrongdoings.