Cultures & Traditions

African Art and the Influences of Foreign Trade

Arabs and Europeans came to Africa in search of trade, to spread their culture and the teachings of their religions, and to extend their territory and political power. Their experiences were recorded and provide useful, sometimes invaluable, information. Muslim travelers, historians, and geographers in the 10th century described what they found in Bildad al-Sudan, "the land of the blacks," which they reached by trade routes across the Sahara Desert. The Portuguese, whose mission was to divert the gold trade from the Arab monopoly and find a direct route to the source of highly desirable Asian spices, were the first Europeans to explore Africa. Beginning in 1434, they traveled southward on the Atlantic Ocean until they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached East Africa. On successive voyages they stopped at Cape Verde (1444), the Gold Coast (modern Ghana, 1471), the Benin kingdom (in modern Nigeria, c. 1476), the mouth of the Congo (1483), and the Cape of Good Hope (in modern South Africa, 1488). They were followed by the Castilians and Flemish in the mid 15th century; the French, English, and Dutch in the 16th century; and the Danes, Swedes, and Brandenburgers in the 17th century.

African trade goods—pepper, ivory, animal hides, wax, amber, indigo, textiles, gold, and slaves—were exchanged for European horses, silk, copper and brass, clothing, beads, tobacco, alcohol, and firearms. Slaves for the overseas trade, which the Portuguese initiated in 1441 with twelve captives, became the major export of the 19th century. After slavery was abolished around 1850, legitimate trade was established, and palm oil and other raw materials were exchanged for factory-made textiles ("trade cloth"), utensils, beads, doors, paint, and weapons. Trading with Africans was not enough. Europeans, who desired to own and control the sources of African's wealth, colonized the regions in which they had been trading partners. By 1914, the continent was owned by Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Only Ethiopia remained an independent nation.

Africans recorded their experiences, actual or received, orally and in the visual arts. They sculpted figures and masks that depicted European slave traders, missionaries, soldiers, clerks, and men, women, and children in various mediums for use in traditional African contexts and for the export trade. Adoption of Christianity provided an outlet for creativity as demonstrated in the variety of Ethiopian crucifixes (1991.352.39; 1991.352.43; 1991.352.203). An ivory waist pendant from the Benin kingdom references the sea on which the Portuguese, the initial source of Benin's wealth, traveled (1994.201.McD). Trade with Portugal also resulted in more copper to make "bronze" sculptures of ancestral altars, items of royal regalia, and architecture. Although a few sculptures, such as the lidded bowl by Arowogun (Aerogun) of Osi-Ilorin (1984.57.A-B) and the figurative vessel by Voania Muba (1975.75), depict foreigners and their belongings (horses, bicycles or motorcycles, articles of clothing, weapons), most of the holding in the Museum's collection display Africans' use of imported materials and objects including glass beads, cowrie shells, mirrors, porcelain, various types of trade cloth, copper and brass, and even wine glasses. The Muslim/Islamic influences are evident in the geometrical patterns in beadwork and embroidery, the leather amulets depicted on a Mende sowei helmet mask (2006.44), a Yoruba bead-embroidered ile ori (2005.13), and a Hausa man's robe from Cameroon (2006.43). Olowe of Ise (c. 1875 - c. 1938), the famous Yoruba sculptor to kings, used imported European paints as well as local pigments to color the sculptures he carved out of wood.

Works in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection demonstrate not only what Africans received from foreigners and how they used and applied the ideas, beliefs, and materials in their own lives, but also Africa's contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind. For example, around the turn of the 20th century, African sculpture was instrumental in shifting modern art from styles based on visual perception to those based on the artist's view of the world. André Derain (1880-1954), Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Isaac Païlès (1895-1978) (who once owned a Baule seated figure now in the Museum's collection (1994.200.McD)), and others may not have known about the cultures in which the African masks and figures originated or their significance, but they felt the power of their forms. The influence of African sculpture on Western artists has continued, as evidenced by such works as Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1979) by Dorothea Tanning (2005.27) and Fetish #2 (1988) by Renée Stout (1989.27), a work that was inspired by Kongo minkisi (power figures).

The art of the African weaver has undoubtedly made an impact on American popular culture, fashion, and furnishings. Two textiles, one from Ghana (2006.45) and the other from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the Museum's collection exemplify this assertion (2007.50.6). African designs and patterns are reproduced wholesale or stylized but are rarely identified as such by the manufacturers. That omission is corrected in the DMA collection.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 261-262.

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