Cultures & Traditions

African Art in Context

Tradition-based African art is often characterized as “art for life’s sake” or “art as a matter of life and death” in contrast to “art for art’s sake”—an inherited 19th-century Western notion that art is self-sufficient, requiring no justification from a belief system outside of itself. Traditional African art served a purpose (and does still in some cultures) as an agent of religion, social stability, and social control. Art that has a purpose is not unique to African or other non-Western cultures but occurs in Western ones as well. Among the works of art at the Dallas Museum of Art, a Greek statue of a young man from the 4th century B.C.E. and a Spanish altarpiece from the late 15th century exemplify this notion. The Greek statue memorialized a male who died in the prime of life and was part of a sculptural program in an architectural shrine (1966.26). The altarpiece was a devotional object. It was originally installed in a church behind and above the altar on which Christian religious rituals were performed (1939.1.1). Like the Greek statue and Spanish altarpiece, African works of art were not meant to be viewed in a museum. Rather, they were placed in shrines and on personal or communal altars, carried in public processions,and worn as regalia or in a masquerade. The works of art in the African collection reveal the extraordinary diversity of sub-Saharan cultures and visual traditions.

The oldest extant African art, including that of ancient Egypt, dates from the 8th millennium B.C.E., while that of sub-Saharan Africa, the area from which most objects in the DMA originated, dates from the 1st millennium B.C.E. The oldest works of art in the DMA’s collections are a terracotta male figure from the modern state of Sokoto in northwestern Nigeria that dates from between 200 B.C.E and 200 C.E. (1994.195.McD) and a standing female figure, from a pre-Dogon culture in Mali, that is conservatively dated from the 11th to 13th century (1974.Sc.1). These are followed by cast copper alloy figures and a carved ivory waist pendant from the Benin kingdom that date from the 16th to 18th century. All are made of durable materials or, in the case of the pre-Dogon figure, survived owing to a combination of a durable material (hardwood) and the dry climate of the western Sudan. As with most African art collections, the majority of the works at the DMA were made of wood or other organic materials during the late 19th to mid 20th century. Had they remained in Africa these objects would have been destroyed by the moist climate and wood-eating insects inhabiting the rain forests. The prevailing opinion maintains most extant wooden sculptures are replacements; that is, they were in use for not more than a generation or two before they were brought out of Africa. It was customary to replace ritual objects with new ones.

The history of African art, like the history of Africa itself, remains a work in progress. The reconstruction of Africa’s art history, especially south of the Sahara where conventional systems of inscription are absent, depends upon indigenous oral traditions and early European and Arabic documents from travelers, missionaries, merchants, and colonial officers. Sources of information also include linguistics, archaeology, and scientific dating methods such as radiocarbon dating analysis for organic materials and thermoluminescence tests on fired clay objects. X-ray procedures, including computed axial tomography (CT or CAT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are also being used for this purpose.

Appreciating African art requires a perceptual adjustment away from the western aesthetic of measuring the human form against the yardstick of classical Greek statuary, in favor of a different cultural lens. The proportions of the classical Greco-Roman figure—with the head being one-seventh of the standing figure—typify the Western ideal. The head-to-body ratio of most African figures is usually one to three or one to four. To the uninitiated eye, the head is out of proportion to the rest of the body. From a personal perspective, the African artist emphasizes that which is important—the head, because it is the site of the major sensory organs and an individual’s essential nature and destiny; sexual organs, because they are essential for reproduction; and the navel and breasts, because they provide nourishment. Hands and feet are sometimes accentuated because they are active and provide stability.

Ideal beauty and the height of virility or fertility (ephebism) rather than “the warts and all” realism are depicted regardless of the age or anatomy of the male or female sitter who may have served as a model for the spirit that is embodied by a mask or figure. The human form may be highly stylized or naturalistic. Almost invariably, the facial expression on African sculptures is calm. An elder’s beard is the only indication of age on the otherwise unlined, youthful face of a physically fit male. Exceptions to portraying ideal beauty are masks and figures that represent diseases and malevolent spirits, though there are exceptions to this general rule. In compositions that include more than one individual, artists use “social perspective” to identify the most important person in a group. That personage is depicted larger than others and is placed at the center of the composition. These facts and observations can serve as a rudimentary frame, or context, for the study and appreciation of African art.

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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