Cultures & Traditions

African Decorative Arts

African Textiles and Decorative Arts in 1972 and African Furniture and Household Objects in 1989, exhibitions curated by Roy Seiber, brought attention to objects for the house and human body and demonstrated that the parameters of traditional African visual arts are not limited to masks, figures, and objects used in religious and prestige and/or leadership rituals and ceremonies. Although these personal objects can be quite modest in form and material, the professional sculptors and "artisans" who made them applied the same creativity, skill, and craftsmanship to their design and decoration as did the sculptors and metalsmiths who created objects for the court or shrine.

African "decorative arts" encompass a broad range of objects, including architectural elements such as granary doors, door locks, tent posts, headrests (African "pillows"), containers for cosmetics and ointments, drinking vessels, musical instruments, clothing, and jewelry. Mundane but hardly ordinary, these objects reflect their owners' "decided taste for the beautiful," to quote William H. Sheppard, an African American missionary, who observed that the "natives of Africa...decorate everything." The artworks also demonstrate the owners' ability to compensate the best sculptors and artisans to create items to enhance the appearance of their homes and adorn their bodies.

The decoration of utilitarian objects such as ritual objects is sometimes meaningful rather than simply appealing to the eye. The animals depicted on the Baule door, for example, refer to a proverb about human relations. Similarly, the highly stylized triangular patterns that represent pangolin scales on a Luba headrest are also found on royal emblems and objects used in religious rituals. Some decoration is practical. The applique on Kuba skirts originally served as patches to cover holes produced by pounding the raffia into supple cloth. The carved ivory miniature masks worn by Pende men and women are replicas of the masks that appear during healing rites and the mukuanda masquerades. Rather than "protective objects," the mask pendants are considered adornment.

Many of the objects in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection belong to the past and have been replaced by modern keyhole European devices and objects. Having said that, the metal keyhole in a Baule door clearly indicates that it was used after the lock and key were introduced [1974.SC.25]. Textiles are still produced today in many parts of Africa. Cloth woven in this traditional manner is used for garments of "national dress," which are worn during political events and on important occasions such as family weddings, naming ceremonies, and funerals. The Museum's collection includes traditional clothing from the northern, western, central, and southern regions of Africa.

Excerpt from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 219.

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