Crowns covered with a pearled decoration (Yoruba), African Art
Art,  English

African Art: Ancient Inspirations, Modern Expressions

The text below is the excerpt from the book African Art (ISBN: 9781783107865), written by Maurice Delafosse, published by Parkstone International.

The aim of this book is to furnish a general view of the history, the civilisations, and the material, intellectual, and social character of the Negro race which inhabits the African continent.

There will be no question, therefore, of the peoples of the white race who, either in antiquity or since, have played such an important role in the development of North Africa, and whom we find today, more or less mixed and transformed, scattered from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and from the shores of the Mediterranean to the southern limits of the Sahara: ancient and modern Egyptians, Phoenician, and Punic peoples, Libyans or Berbers, Arabs, and Moors. More precisely, no mention will be made of them except in the measure of their influence on the progress of Negro societies, an influence which has often been considerable and which could not be too emphasised.

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

For the same reason, there will be no study, except incidentally, of the peoples who, however dark their pigmentation has become as the result of secular and repeated crossing with the Negroes, are nevertheless considered as belonging either to the Semitic branch of the white race, for example, the principal portion of the Abyssinians, or to an Indonesian branch of the yellow race, such as many of the Malagasy tribes. Moreover, the island of Madagascar is outside the geographical limits which I have assigned to myself.

On the other hand, there are African populations which can claim, in part at least, non-Negro ancestry but who are in some way incorporated into the Negro race and into Negro society: such peoples will find a place in this study. I will be content for the moment with citing from among them the Fulani of Sudan, the Hottentots of southern Africa and a certain number of more or less hybrid tribes of East Africa which are commonly called, without much reason, Hamitic or Chamitic.

The object of the present work being thus defined, we must now begin by seeking to find out whence came the African Negroes. But is it possible to commit oneself as to their first origin? 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Ancestor statue (Hemba), African Art
Ancestor statue (Hemba). Wood, height: 64 cm. Private collection.

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. One will object, it is true, that someone and a half million Malagasy of the Indonesian race should be put on a parallel with the 150 millions of Africans of the Negro race.

But this latter figure has not been reached in a day and it is permissible to suppose that migrations, comparable in total importance to those which have brought the Malays and other Oceanians to Madagascar, but having taken place thousands of years previously, had also imported a Negro element of sufficient numbers to Africa, who, after multiplying in the new habitat, from millennium to millennium, and amalgamating with autochthonous elements, arrived in the long run at the above figure, which is only roughly approximate.

Headgear crest (Senufo), African Art
Headgear crest (Senufo), detail. Ivory Coast. Wood, height: 86 cm. Musée du quai Branly, Paris.

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Further Reading:

Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.

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