The Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting the exhibition: The African Origin of Civilization. It will remain on view while The Met’s galleries of Sub-Saharan African Art are closed for the complete renovation of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.
Besides, from November 20th, 2022 to February 27th, 2023, the Chicago Art Institute have another one: The Language of Beauty in African Art. It – while acknowledging this narrow historical assessment of African art – focuses instead on showcasing the aesthetic evaluations of the communities and makers who produced the works.
Just find out on these featured exhibitions!
It is indisputable that the artistic sense is highly developed in the black race. This is a truth that Count Gobineau himself did not hesitate to recognise. Nevertheless, this gift does not show to the same degree of perfection in all the arts and, almost everywhere that it is to be seen, it is especially found in the sense of the decorative effect or of the impression produced rather than in the sense of plastic beauty, of gracefulness, or of the perfection of the whole composition. The African Negroes have given us almost nothing in the field of painting or monumental statues. None of the colourings that are to be observed on certain of their walls recall, either by the subject or the execution, anything that could evoke an idea of what we call a picture. The few life-size statues in clay or wood that are sometimes met with in the sacred woods or in the funeral chapels are generally very crude and one would doubt, to look at them, that they were fashioned by the same artists who have made so many delightful trinkets from the same materials.
African Human Figures and Gods
In order to appreciate properly the artistic value of the various objects above mentioned, it is indispensable to distinguish from the others those having human figures, that is to say, the statuettes and masks, as well as ivory tusks, metal plates, wooden coffers or coffins representing scenes with human beings. When we are in the presence of those men or women on bended knees, whose limbs are singularly short with respect to the length of the trunk, and with enormous heads, or those masks with terrifying or hideous expressions, we can hardly prevent the impression that these representations are grotesque and have no artistic character. It is evident that this impression would be justified if these objects were the work of Europeans of modern times, for there would be too violent an antithesis between the normal conceptions of the artist and the style of the object produced by his hands.
Art is not really art unless it corresponds, in its expression as in its inspiration, to the civilisation of which it is, so to say, the sublimated product. But we should recall that the artisan who has sculpted these statuettes had in view the representation not of living beings but of the deified dead; that the one who imagined these masks thought to express by them the symbol of a redoubtable divinity to those who are not initiated into its mysteries: both are believers, comparable to the anonymous artists to whom our old Gothic cathedrals owe those extraordinary gargoyles, those grimacing heads of demons, those statues of saints or the dead conventionalised in hieratical and formal attitudes. Neither one nor the other have worked to reproduce, with the utmost flattery, the traits of a human model: they have sculpted gods – or devils – and not men, and they have sculpted these gods as they have been represented to their minds by the traditions of their times.
African Animal Representations
As soon as we leave the domain of human representation – or more exactly what appears to us as human representation, but is not so in the eyes of the Negroes – this sort of “incomprehension”, which assails us in spite of ourselves, disappears and we are in a better position to appreciate exactly the artistic value of the productions which are not so far removed from our own conceptions. In truth, the representations of animals, so numerous in Negro art, are no more imitations of nature than the human figures and just as often offer anomalies of proportion or an intentionally bizarre or repulsive aspect. But we are accustomed to chimeras, dragons, and unicorns, we do not find it extraordinary that animals are given a conventional attitude or incongruous attribute, so we are better prepared to perceive exactly the impression that the artist has brought to life in his work. For all the more reason, we have full liberty to admire, without reserve, compositions in which we are tempted to see only the fruit of an imagination gifted in the sense of line and harmony.
African lndustrial Arts
At the side of religious art or art for art’s sake, there is another domain in which the Negroes are past-masters: it is that of the industrial arts, represented by work in clay, wood, iron, copper, gold, leather, and textiles. Ornamented and glazed pottery of all forms and dimensions, finely carved spoons, gongs, staffs of command, low or high stools each one of which is a masterpiece of patience and elegant execution; harmoniously slender paddles, straight or curved knives having handles of wood incrusted with metal, lances with multiple blades of graceful contours, axes for war or parade, small objects in moulded or hammered copper; golden jewellery of filigree or made in a mould, rings and bracelets with delicately wrought openwork, cushions, saddles, boots, and sheaths in supple leather diversely coloured; curious boxes of oryx skin, trays and mats of coloured reeds, fabrics of cotton, wool, or raffia that are veritable tapestries with motifs as sober as they are varied and of a very sure taste in colouring; silk or cotton embroideries of a singular richness and happy design. All this is beginning to be familiar to us, thanks to the collections brought together in museums or for exhibitions. More than one of our manufacturers has been inspired by them to produce new types in Europe that are highly appreciated by the public. Even in Africa missionaries are developing these artistic industries among the natives who find, in the exportation of these products of their ingenuity, unlooked-for sources of revenue. Perhaps it is even to be feared that the stimulus of an easier profit may push the Negro artisans to subordinate their own inspiration to the taste of the European buyer and to sacrifice their art to the temptation of mass production.
With regard to some specific objects, especially those of leather or fabrics of cotton and embroideries, the superiority of the southern peoples over the Sudanese is no longer apparent. Manifestly it is because we are dealing with industries imported from North Africa, together with their techniques and their motifs of decoration. Sudanese artisans are not more highly gifted in this domain than in the others with respect to their congeners of the south, but they have received knowledge of which the latter are still ignorant.
The same observation can be made with regard to architecture. It is very certain that this art, which is almost unknown to the populations of the Gulf of Guinea or equatorial Africa, except in its ornamental branch, has reached a remarkable development in the Sudanese zone. Nevertheless, it does not show its full richness except among Islamised populations and, as we have seen above, the architectural style of Sudan, although it has taken on a distinctly local character in the course of time, is of Arabo-Berber origin. It does not on this account furnish a less striking proof of the artistic faculties of the Negroes, since they have been able to produce such brilliant results after seeing only a few models in a field for which their traditions had in no ways prepared them.
In this brief review of the arts having a place of honour among the Negroes we must not forget music. In France, when we speak of Negro music we immediately evoke the diabolical harmonies and cacophony of a jazz-band. Now nothing less resembles the music of the Negroes, at least the Negro music of Africa, than the music of the jazz-band. I do not know from what source the latter is derived, but it is certainly not from Africa.
Used in Sudanese zar ceremonies, it is believed that this instrument can rid the body or mind of a person posessed by an evil spirit which is causing illness or pain. It is thought that the sound of the instrument can call the evil spirit from the affected person during these curative rituals.
In truth, it may, as far as the sound of certain of its instruments are concerned and the remarkable precision with which it furnishes the rhythm for the steps of the dancers, recall, to a certain degree, those orchestras of drums, rattles, iron rods struck against each other, and horns or oliphants, to which Europeans give the significant name of tomtoms and which, in sunlight or moonlight, accompanied by the clapping of hands and cries, stimulate the movements of the men and women dancers. But the tom-tom is not music; it is only the instrument of the dance. Upon reflection, I think that the jazz-band is nothing else than that, and it is undoubtedly for this reason that it is related to the tom-tom of the Negroes.
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