Art Exhibition English Printed Art Book

African Art

Exhibition: Beyond Compare: Art from Africa

Date: October 27, 2017 – December 31, 2019

Venue: Bode Museum, Berlin.

Origin of the Negro Peoples of Africa

It seems that the actual state of our knowledge does not permit us, as yet, to answer this question in a definitive or even a satisfactory manner. Undoubtedly, one would not have even asked the question if Africa were the only part of the world to possess Negroes. But such is not the case and without speaking, of course, of the countries where the advent of the Negro race has taken place only at a recent epoch, as the result of migrations which were generally involuntary and whose genesis and circumstances are known, as in America, we know that the reputed autochthonous inhabitants of lands far removed from Africa and separated from it by the entire width of the Indian Ocean are considered as belonging to the Negro race for the same reasons as are the Negroes of Mozambique and of Guinea.

African Art 1
Statue (Kaka).
Wood, height: 100 cm.

Hypothetical Lemuria

If the natives of Australia, of Papua, and of the Melanesian islands are to be ranked in the same human category as the African Negroes, it may be reasonably asked whether the first came from Africa and the second from Oceania, or indeed, if one and the other had not in the first ages of the world, a common habitat on some hypothetical continent, now disappeared, situated between Africa and the Oceanian archipelagoes but having formerly constituted a connection and a passage between them.

African Art 2
Crest (Ekoi). Wood, plant fibres, hair, leather, and ivory, height: 25 cm. Private collection.

This continent, the supposed cradle of the Negro race, has its partisans, like that other one which certain people claim to have anciently existed between the present European and the American seas; it has even received a name, Lemuria, as the other has been called Atlantis, and we are shown its remains, represented by Madagascar, the Mascarenes, and a number of islands of various sizes, just as the Canaries and the Azores are regarded as the debris of the ancient Atlantis.

African 3
Edjo statue (Urhobo).Nigeria.
Wood, pigment, height: 212 cm.

The existence of Lemuria remains problematical. Even if it were proved it may be that this continent had already disappeared from the face of the globe before the appearance of the first man. Moreover, there is no need to have recourse to such a hypothesis in order to justify the theory according to which the African Negroes come from Oceania. We know today with certainty that a very important portion of the population of the island of Madagascar originally came from Indonesia and it seems well demonstrated that, for a part at least, the migration took place at an epoch when there were no more facilities of communication than exist today between Oceania and Madagascar, and that the migrations alluded to, took place by sea.

African art 4
Lydenburg Head, c. 500-700 CE. Eastern Transvaal, South Africa.
Clay, traces of white pigment, and specularite, 38 x 26 x 25.5 cm.
University of Cape Town Collection, South African Museum, Cape Town.

Oceanic Migrations

In principle, there could be no opposition to the proposal that the current of population flowed in an inverse direction and that the Negroes of Melanesia should be considered of African origin. But an attentive examination of native traditions tends to favor the first of the two hypotheses. However vague these traditions, whatever their apparent incoherence and with whatever highly supernatural garments they have been clothed by the imagination and the superstition of the Negroes, they strike the most biased mind by their concordance and lead one to think that, once disengaged from their accessories, they possess a basis of truth.

African Art 5
Statuette (Léga).
Ivory, height: 15.5 cm.

All the Negro tribes of Africa claim that their first ancestors came from the east. Of course migrations have taken place in all directions; but, if we analyse methodically all the circumstances of which we have knowledge, we ascertain that the movements in any other direction than to the west took place as the result of local wars, epidemics, droughts, and always at an epoch later than that at which the particular group dates the beginning of its history. If we push the natives whom we interrogate to their last retrenchments, they invariably show us the rising sun as representing the point whence departed their most ancient patriarch.

Autochthonous Africans

Who were, then, the people inhabiting the African continent before the Negroes, whom the latter found there at the moment of their arrival, and what has become of them? Here again, we are reduced to suppositions. However, they can be supported by some facts, though of an altogether relative certitude, some furnished by local traditions, others by the accounts of ancient authors and the observations of modern travelers, and still others by the works of prehistorians and anthropologists. These latter have scientifically demonstrated that the dwarfs or pygmies, who have been pointed out at all times in certain regions of Africa, belong to a human race distinct from the Negro.

African Art 5
Rock engraving (San), c. 2000-1000 BCE. South Africa. Andesite rock, 53 x 54 x 24 cm. McGregor Museum, Kimberley.

Not only are they lighter in colour and slighter in build than the generality of Negroes, but they are differentiated from them by a number of other physical characteristics, notably by the more disproportionate relation of the respective dimensions of the head, the trunk and the limbs.

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