Cultures & Traditions

Artists in Traditional African Art

African art is not anonymous, and individuals, not groups, make art in traditional African societies. Artists are specialists who make art that is culturally appropriate for their gender. Traditionally, men work in wood, ivory, stone, and metal, including casting copper alloys and forging iron. Men who make objects for ritual use may be initiated into a cult or association to learn its secrets. Women weave baskets and make pottery wares for domestic and ritual use and model figurative objects out of clay or other pliable materials. They also decorate the exterior of their homes and shrines. The roles of males and females in art making, as in other spheres of African social life, are often complementary. Among the Kuba, for example, men weave the raffia mats or panels that women decorate with applique, cut-pile, and embroidery. Products made by both men and women working in the same medium, such as weaving or beadworking, are destined for use in different contexts.

Traditional artists’ names do not appear with their works in museum installations and exhibition catalogues because we do not know them. The earliest collectors failed—usually for reasons of prevailing cultural and racial biases or the methods of the discipline (e.g., ethnologists study groups not individuals)—to ask, “Who made this?” There were, as recently as 1960, only a few ethnographers who inquired about the creators of the objects they collected in the field. These individuals include Frans Olbrechts, Hans and Ulrike Himmelheber, P. J. L. Vandenhoute, Philip Allison, Father Kevin Carroll, William R. Bascom, Roy Sieber, and William Fagg. Since then, Warren d’Azevedo, Robert Farris Thompson, Jean Borgatti, Susan Mullin Vogel, Eberhard and Barbara Fischer, and Roslyn A. Walker have published works on individual artists.

Talented artists became famous and were known well beyond their communities. Having said that, there are instances where an artist’s name had been forgotten or it was intentionally suppressed in favor of greater glory to the object itself. In the absence of an interview with the artist, scholars obtain biographical information from the indigenous oral literature (among the Yoruba, for example, this is the person’s oriki or praise song), written accounts by Europeans who encountered the artist, and photographs or written descriptions of the artist’s work in situ. Several named, tradition-based African artists represented in the Dallas Museum of Art permanent collections include the Mende artist Manowulo of Bo Town area, Baoma chiefdom, Sierra Leone (2006.44); the Yoruba artists Olowe of Ise (2004.16.McD; 2010.34); Arowogun (Areogun) of Osi-Ilorin (1984.57.A-B); Akobi Ogun Fakeye of Ila Orangun (1981.138.A-B.FA); Oshamuko of Osi from Nigeria (2007.41.1); and the Kota sculptor Semangoy from Gabon (2005.36.McD).

Studies of traditional African artists indicate, among other things, that sculptors of wood—who may also be blacksmiths—learned their craft by apprenticing with a master sculptor to perfect their skills. An apprenticeship could last for more than fifteen years. Training entailed learning the established stylistic canon and its vocabulary. A Dan sculptor, for example, was expected to polish the surface of the mask he carved; a Mende sculptor, to depict the attributes of feminine beauty in the carved sowei (helmet mask). While conformity to the canon was essential—because to not conform could adversely affect a mask or figure’s efficacy or repel the spirit that was to embody it—innovation within the parameters of the canon was allowed. Thus, it is possible to distinguish the personal styles of Olowe of Ise, Arowogun (Areogun) of Osi-Ilorin, and other Yoruba artists.

Apprentices learning to carve wood had to learn how to select wood according to the type and purpose of the commissioned object. For example, a mask or figure that was to be used in a healing ritual had to be carved from wood with specific medicinal qualities. They learned to pay respect to the vital forces believed to reside in trees and in carving tools to prevent accidents and harm to themselves. They were taught to carve with a variety of adzes, axelike tools with the blade set at an angle to the haft, and knives and to use a sandpaper-textured leaf to smooth the surface. Artists carving green wood learned how to prevent the dried product from cracking. They learned how to carve the entire object from the solid. Color had meaning and had to be applied appropriately. Before the advent of European paints, traditional artists made their pigments and sealants from plants and minerals found in the local environment.

African artists also create with stone, gold, silver, and iron. Materials found in the local environment—leather, animal hair and skin, cotton, palm and other fibers, feathers, shells, seeds, and beads—were used to make objects or to embellish them. New materials and techniques introduced through foreign trade were incorporated into the design and adornment of indigenous objects. Materials such as cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean and mirrors, glass beads, brass upholstery tacks, buttons, silk, cotton, synthetic textiles, and enamel paint from Europe and Asia enhanced the appearance of locally made objects, thereby increasing their prestige value and efficacy.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 29-35.

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