Welcome to Looking at African Art and Culture, a virtual exhibit created by students in an introductory course on the art and culture of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1925, African American poet Countee Cullen asked, "What is Africa to me?" In his long poem on heritage, he marveled over Africa's ancient past. Africa, as Cullen knew, is a continent rich in culture, rich in resources, and rich in ancient history. Unfortunately, readers do not often discover this Africa. Ancient African history is popularly defined as an archeological site around the Olduvai Gorge rather than an integral player. Cultural history in ancient Kemet (Egypt to the early Greeks) is reduced to the development of Old Kingdom pyramids and New Kingsom dynasties (especially Rameses). Modern history is the famine on the Eastern Horn, civic unrest along the Guinea Coast, and human rights violations in South Africa. Rarely do standard textbooks present the histories of the Mande and Songhay dynasties of the Sahara or the powerful kingdom of the Edo ( Benin) of Nigeria.

African cultural history exists as a series of vignettes that places Sub-Saharan cultures in a perpetual present of small scale cultural regions constructed against a backdrop of masks, power figures, and ancestors. This structure reflects nineteenth century European Romanticism mediated by scientific racism and applied Social Darwinism. Even Countee Cullen found that he needed to ask about the "true" Africa as opposed to the Africa he discovered in books. While ancient African history is not the subject of this exhibit, it is wise to remember that contemporary cultures are the products of these ancient civilizations.

There is no characteristic Africa and so is there no single, characteristic African art. Some generalities however, may be considered.

  • There is a propensity toward figural abstraction with an emphasis on representing the inner self rather than outward appearancces. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the role of the artist is to capture and reflect the ashe or inner essence of the subject. The outward self is a shell, a superficial manifestation of the material world.
  • There is a general belief in the efficacy of ancestors and their ability to interact with and influence the living. Power figures and masks, used to contact and interact with the world beyond, form a class of intermediaries that link these two worlds.
  • There is a binary division of social institutions that balances action against inaction, constructive against destructive, culture against nature. African ritual structures often mediate between these poles. Among the Igbo of Nigeria, the white-faced Mmwo (Maiden Spirit) mask presents the ideals of female purity and beauty with petite features and carefully coifed hair; these are balanced by the ferocity of the male Mgbedike (Time of the Brave) mask, with its exaggerated features and dark, foul-smelling, toothy appearance. This "beauty and beast" dichotomy is seen in many groups throughout Sub-Saharan Africa in which female and male masks are danced.
  • Masking and performance (including music, dance, and pantomime) are powerful intermediaries used to contact and interact with both ancestors and supernatural beings. Masks, often connected with secret societies, extend authority and control, maintaining balance and social order. Each mask is named and used in performance to provide a location for a spirit being (ancestor or deity) to become an active participant in village ritual life. Through the masquerade, these spirit beings interact with the world of the living and become agents in rites of passage: rituals of birth, death, marriage, fertility (agricultural and human), and transformations into adulthood. While some masks include entertainment (the Hemba monkey or so'o mask both guides the dead out of the world of the village and, as a trickster, entertains), masks are not designed specifically for this function. Neither are they meant to be displayed as art objects, as they are when transplanted and decontextualized in Western collections.
  • Art and leadership are inseparable in Africa, as they are throughout the world. Regalia of leadership includes fans, images (freestanding and/or architectual), masks, flywhisks, drinking horns, drums, and cloth. The boldly patterned and colored kente cloth of the Asante of Ghana represents the power of the paramount chief (Asantehene) through the symbolic, proverb-based retelling of historical events and moral/ethical admonitions.

This exhibit relies heavily on two culture regions -Nigeria, especially the Yoruba and Igbo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These regions, separated by more than a thousand miles, represent the diversity of the arts on the African continent.

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