African Art in the Modern Era Lecture

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African Art in the Modern Era

  • A huge continent (show map). We cannot cover it all

  • Collections in New York include: the Met Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora, Studio Museum Harlem (African American contemporary art)

Class questions:

What do we mean by the term Colonialism?

  • The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically


  • Slave trade & European contact with Africa occurs between the 15th - 19th centuries, largely focused on coastal areas of Africa. In the nineteenth century as the slave trade was phased out, European governments sought to gain from the rich natural resources of Africa, and Christian missionaries arrived in force.

  • By 1914 almost all of Africa was under colonial rule after a race to occupy by many European nations.

  • Collecting African objects became of great interest to the incoming colonists as they realized, ironically, that their presence might endanger or eradicate many age-old customs and traditions through introduction of modern/Western technologies and diseases.

Cultural Patrimony?

  • Ancestral heritage and entitlement over certain objects – eg. The Euphronios Krater, returned by the Met to Italy in 2008 (not Greece!!)

Slide: Compare and contrast Picasso to African mask

  • Like preceding chapters, we're dealing with a huge geographic landmass, many languages, cultures, countries, peoples. We will only be able to skim the surface.

  • Keep in mind that "all of our acts of understanding are acts of interpretation" - we bring cultural knowledge, expectations, preconceptions - there is never an objective or neutral understanding of any cultural production.

  • Within the history of colonialism of African art, it's not just within Africa but when African art is exported to the West (like Japanese art 50 years earlier) that African aesthetics are taken on by Western artists like Pablo Picasso.

  • "All I need to know about Africa I can find in that mask" - Picasso - casting the objects as exotic, primitive, even barbaric, and always purely aesthetic.

Ask ourselves the questions:

  • what happens when objects travel, or are "re" presented, as in the museum? What are the positive and negative outcomes of cultural cross-pollination?

  • Functional objects becomes purely aesthetic; aesthetics take on new meanings within new cultures (the transference of African mask shapes to Picasso's female faces).

Watch together How African art influences European art and artists:

Duration: 01:35

  • Animated presentation showing how African art strongly influenced the work of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and showing where this can be seen in their pictures.

  • A look at how the influence of African art affected the way these two different artists used its elements in their own contrasting styles to produce both Cubist and bold decorative pieces.

  • There is also a reference to contemporary British artist Chris Ofili's similarly influenced work.

Other video resources:

  • David Attenborough “Behind the Mask” (

  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. “The Wonders of the African World”

Two objects for class discussion:
Bamana Poeple, Mali, N. W. Africa

Chiwara (antelope headdress)

20th century, Wood

  • Represents the cultivation of the land

  • The antelope horns represent the plough

  • Large oral tradition surrounds the chiwara

  • The work has a social, performative function - regarded in the West as a work of art rather than a functional object

  • What is not there in the museum? the dance, the ritual associations, the social element of gathering a community, the contextual/historical/religious elements of the work

  • Works of art in this sense have a very concrete social function, connecting the living community to the ancestral, spiritual world.

  • Rather than periodization or geographic terrain, Stokstad organizes African art production in a thematic sense, directly related to significant "rites of passage." Is this a successful strategy? Why not organize European art like this?

Yoruba Twin Figures

Made by Akiode? (died 1936)

Nigeria, 20th century, Wood

  • Children are important in most, if not all, human cultures, but perhaps especially in tradition based micro- and macro- cultures where they are seen as absolutely important to carry on family lineage, look after parents in old age etc (which his currently a big conversation in China and Germany, let alone Africa!!)

  • In some regions of Africa, life expectancy was and is fairly low, sometimes as low as 40, and children often die before the age of 5.

  • Women and families will appeal for help using special prayers and objects

  • The Yoruba people of Nigeria have the highest rate of twin births in the world, which is cause for celebration but also worry as they are often more susceptible to premature death

  • - Twin figures are made when such a death occurs in order to honor the dead twin, linking the living to the dead who will look after the surviving family members if correct tribute is paid to them

  • - the figure will be carved by an artist and then brought home by the mother who will place it in a shrine in her bedroom

  • - the figures look well, healthy and emphasize hope for the future.

  • Think about comparing this Yoruba sculpture to the Dogon figure some of you are looking at for your essay.

Like comparing Northern Renaissance with Italian Renaissance?
Guided questions for the film “Hidden Treasure of African Art”:

BBC Film:

** Throughout the film, consider the narrator Griff Rhys Jones. How does he present African art to the viewer? Do you think he is a “good” narrator (ie. convincing, interesting, and thoughtful)? Why, or why not?
** Where does he travel to in Africa? (Dogon, N. Mali and Ghana)

  • Banigara Escarpment

  • The principal Dogon area is bisected by the Bandiagara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff of up to 500m stretching about 90 miles. Historically, Dogon villages were established in the Bandiagara area in consequence of the Dogon people's collective refusal to convert to Islam a thousand years ago.

  • Dogon insecurity in the face of these historical pressures caused them to locate their villages in defensible positions along the walls of the escarpment. The other factor influencing their choice of settlement location is water. The Niger River is nearby and in the sandstone rock, a rivulet runs at the foot of the cliff at the lowest point of the area during the wet season.

  • What is the colonial history of Mali? Current history?

Taken by French in 19th century

Currently in civil war in 2012

  1. What does the term “animist” mean or refer to? (a set of beliefs based on the existence of non-human "spiritual beings" in nature and humans)

  1. What happens in the toguna in Kundu Village? What is the animal carved on the toguna?

  1. Have we seen any artworks yet this semester that might compare to what we see in the film in terms of the way they look or the way they function in society? (Perhaps Giotto’s Madonna?)

  1. What does the Dogon anthropologist tell us about the Dogon masked dance, and how it has changed and evolved recently? What are his concerns for the future? (sculpture, music, and dance; not the same in a museum display; 78 characters, evolved during French Colonialism to include colonial characters; now for tourists; not at night; the masks are made in the open for tourists to watch, rather than secretly and only by men) (modern religion, education, tourism, migration and commerce will make Dogon culture extinct)

  1. Are individual artists important in the Dogon culture, like they began to be in the Renaissance? Is there the same idea of “authorship”? (yes, blacksmith is important, for eg.)

  1. The narrator travels to Accra in Ghana – what is similar and/or different about the “Adoration” ceremony he watches here than the masked dance he saw in Mali? (not for tourists)

  1. What are the newer religious belief systems in Africa now? The narrator suggests that older animist systems may no longer exist. Based on the film, do you agree or disagree? (Islam and Christianity)

African Art (continued)

Last lesson we watched “Hidden Treasures of African Art” (useful for those doing their essay on the Dogon sculpture, and will be an exam question around question #3).


  • Africa is second largest continent (Asia is largest)

  • It is also very diverse geographically and culturally (over 1000 languages!) with unique cultures, with their own history, customs, and art

  • We looked at Mali, but what the film didn’t point out is that Mali is currently in the grip of a civil/external war. Just eight months ago, Mali was held up as a model of democracy in Africa. Today, it is practically a failed state with much of the north governed by a consortium of militant groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

  • Mali’s descent from democracy began in March when soldiers, unhappy with the amount of government resources given to them to fight a band of nomadic Tuareg rebels in the north, gave up that fight and instead staged a coup in Bamako, Mali’s capital.

  • The Tuaregs, however, had been infiltrated by foreign terrorist organizations, which gave rise to something tantamount to an Al Qaeda-controlled area the size of France in Mali's north. The Tuareg watched their rebellion slip away as Al Qaeda evicted them from their last stronghold, Assongo, in mid-July.

  • So, the question the film asked – “is the culture in Mali still one that uses the Seated Couple as a traditional power figure” one that has increased potency as fundamentalist groups threaten traditional ways of life (creating 200,000 refugees in Mali to date).


  • Even thought the Christian and Islamic influences altered the African perception of the world, native traditions are still in existence (though the film calls us to question this, to ask to what extent they still remain)

  • in trying to answer the fundamental questions such as why is this person ill and not that, why is this year's crop better than other, why is there rain this season and why was it lacking the last one, Africans do not explain these as turning to the almighty creator such as monoteistic God

  • they believe that there is a multitude of spirits inhabiting our world who interfere with daily human activities: they may inhabit forests which house animals, rivers that provide fish, fields of crops

  • there are also ancestral spirits that require maintaining of proper relationship with them, otherwise the punishment may be inflicted on the transgressor, family, or even the entire community

  • communication between the spirits and humans is left to mediators such as diviners, shamans, and healers who use prayer, sacrifice, offering, ritual performance, divination etc Art is often an indispensable tool for such communication

All four objects we’ll look at just now are records in some way of both African material culture, and how that materials culture – objects, art – have been received, changed, or affected by Western intervention. It is difficult to study the Arts of Africa after 1400 in a survey class context without talking about the detrimental effects of colonialism because it has been so pervasive.

  1. Toguna, Kundu Village, Mali

Dogon Culture

  • As we saw in the film, a building only for men. They rest here much of the day throughout the heat of the dry season, discuss affairs and take important decisions in the toguna.

  • The roof of a toguna is made by 8 layers of millet stalks. It is a low building in which one cannot stand upright. This helps with avoiding violence when discussions get heated.

  • In Kundu Village, where the narrator of the film visited, the animal on the toguna was a crocodile. Why crocodiles?

  • No one knows how the crocodiles got to this region because they are miles away from the nearest rivers.

  • Crocodiles and Dogon's have a unique understanding in Dogon. The Dogon's feed the crocodiles. They are the totem of the village and it is forbidden to harm them and kill them.

  • During the rainy season when there is drought the Dogon shaman asks for the crocodiles blessing and 2-3 days later it rains. Part of animist belief, just like “asking” for wood to make masks from the trees

  • For the Dogon every rock plant and animal is powerful spirit that must be respected.

    • See Video from Reuters Africa Jounral: 2. 5 mins

  1. Dogon Mask, Mali

19th-20th century

(Source: Met Museum)

  • Dogon masks such as this are worn primarily at commemorative rituals for Dogon men.

  • The face of the mask is typical of many Dogon wooden masks - A rectangular box with a tall superstructure, which is lashed to it with strips of hide.

  • This mask's face is said to represent an antelope, while the top depicts a tall, thin spirit in human form whose body is constantly swaying.

  • This appears as one of many different types of masks during a funerary ritual known as dama. This ritual takes place several years after the initial burial, so that the elaborate and costly preparations for it can be made.

  • The goal of a dama ceremony is to escort the soul of the deceased out of the village, and ensure its transformation into an ancestor who can help his living descendants.

  • The dama is also an opportunity to express the wealth and prestige of the deceased and of his descendants through the expenditure of great resources, performance of numerous dancers, and degree of community participation.

  • For the dama of an important elder, the elaborate six-day ceremony may include hundreds of masked performers, creating a brilliantly colored spectacle of sculpture, costume, song, and dance.

Dama ceremonies are still performed, and new types of masks are created to reflect changes in Dogon society (eg. During French colonialism, as we saw in the film)

What are the recent evolutions and changes? Now masks and dances made for tourists; not done at night; incoming religions threaten them; migration and commerce of the modern world threaten traditional rather than tourists uses of these masks)

  1. Ife Head, Brass Statue from Nigeria

1400-1500 AD

Yoruba Culture, Ife

(Source: British Museum)

Nigeria is also in West Africa, south of Mali and East of Ghana (where we saw contemporary art in the film).

By the time of these heads in the 1500s, Ife had for centuries been a leading political, economic and spiritual centre. It was a world of forest farming, dominated by cities that developed in the lands west of the Niger River.

And it was river systems that connected Ife to the regional trade networks of West Africa, and to the great routes that carried ivory and gold across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. In return, came metals that would make the Ife heads.

What does Neil MacGregor say about the head?

  • This is a head, cast in brass. It's quite clearly the portrait of a person, but we don't know who. We don’t know the artist. It's without question by a very great artist, but we don't know who. And it must have been made for a ceremony, but we don't know what.

  • What is certain is that the head is African & it's royal

  • It was one of a group of heads discovered in 1938 in the grounds of a palace in Ife, Nigeria,

  • His head's a little smaller than life-size, and made of brass, which has now darkened with age. The shape of the face is an elegant oval, covered with finely incised vertical lines, but it's a facial scarring so perfectly symmetrical that it contains rather than disturbs the features.

  • He wears a crown - a high beaded diadem with a striking vertical plume projecting from the top, and that's still got quite a lot of the original red paint.

  • Real or Ideal? The details of the face have been generalised and abstracted to give an impression of repose.

Why does MacGregor talk about these Ife heads as “exploding European notions of the history of art”? How do these fit into our colonial narrative?

  • The sculptures forced Europeans to rethink Africa's place in the cultural history of the world.

  • In 1910, when the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius found the very first brass head in a shrine outside the city of Ife, he was so overwhelmed by its technical and aesthetic assurance that he immediately associated it with the greatest art that he knew - the classical sculptures of ancient Greece.

  • But what possible connection could there have been between ancient Greece and Nigeria? There's no record of contact in the literature or in the archaeology. For Frobenius there was an obvious and exhilarating solution to the conundrum. The lost island of Atlantis must have sunk off the coast of Nigeria, and the Greek survivors stepped ashore to make this astonishing sculpture.

  • He predicted that if a full figure were to be found, the figure would reflect the typical Greek proportions - say the head constituting about one seventh of the whole body. But when a full figure was eventually discovered at Ife, the head was just about a quarter of the body, complying with the typical proportion characterising much of African art - the emphasis on the head because it is the crown of the body, the seat of the soul, the site of identity, perception and communication."

Who’s head was this? How would it have been used? What does MacGregor suggest?

  • The senior ruler, the ooni.

  • His role was not merely political; he also had a great range of spiritual and ritual duties. Still today there is an ooni who has high ceremonial status and moral authority

  • Our head is almost certainly the portrait of an ooni, but it's not at all obvious how such a portrait would have been used. It was clearly not meant to stand on its own, so it might well have been mounted on a wooden body, and there's what looks like a nail hole at the neck that could have been used to attach it. It's been suggested that it might have been carried in processions, or that in certain ceremonies it could have stood in for an absent or even for a dead ooni.

  • Around the mouth there are a series of small holes. Again, we can't be quite certain what these are for, but they were possibly used to attach a beaded veil that would hide the mouth and the lower part of the face. And we know that the Ooni today still covers his face completely on some ritual occasions - a powerful marker of his distinct status as a person apart, not like other human beings.

  1. Benin Plaque, Nigeria

1500-1600 AD

  • Made in what is now modern Nigeria, in the sixteenth century, the Benin plaques are actually made of brass, not bronze.

  • They're each about the size of an 11 x 14” sheet of paper, and they show figures in high relief that celebrate the battles won by the army of the Benin ruler, the oba, and the rituals of the oba's court.

  • They're not only great works of art and triumphs of metal-casting, they're also documents of two quite distinct moments of Euro-African contact - the first, peaceful and commercial, the second bloody.

  • Their main subject is the glorification of the ruler of Benin, the oba, and of his prowess as hunter and soldier

There are five figures on it - three Africans and two Europeans.

  • In the centre, in the proudest relief and looking straight out at us, is the oba; high helmet-like crown; His neck is completely invisible - a series of large rings runs from his shoulder right the way up to his lower lip. In his right hand he holds up a ceremonial axe.

  • To either side of the oba kneel two court functionaries, dressed very like him but with plainer headdresses and fewer neck-rings. They wear belts hung with small crocodile heads, and these were the emblem of those authorised to conduct business with the Europeans.

  • And the Europeans are present - or at least part of them. Against the patterned background, we can see floating the heads and shoulders of two tiny Europeans.

The Europeans shown are Portuguese, who were sailing down the west coast of Africa interested in West African pepper, ivory and gold. They were the first Europeans to arrive by sea in West Africa

  • Until now, any trade between West Africa and Europe had been conducted through a series of middle-men, with goods carried across the Sahara by camel. The Portuguese galleons cut out all the middle-men, and offered a totally new kind of trading opportunity.

  • Their ships carried gold and ivory direct to Europe and, in return, brought back larger quantities of European brass than had ever before reached West Africa. This was the raw material which enabled the Benin plaques to be made in the quantities they were. RAW MATERIALS for both Benin plaques and Ife heads was from Europe.

They were nailed to the walls of his palace - rather in the same way as tapestries in a European context - and they allowed the visitor to admire both the achievements of the ruler and the wealth of the kingdom.

  • Europeans visiting Benin, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, discovered a society every bit as organised and structured as the great courts of Europe, with an administration able to control all aspects of life and, not least, foreign trade.

  • The brass needed to make the plaques was usually transported in the form of large bracelets - 'manillas' in Portuguese - and the quantities involved are staggering. In 1548 just one German merchant-house agreed to provide Portugal with 432 tons of brass manillas for the West African market.

  • The Benin plaques were reserved for the oba himself, and they were not allowed to leave the country. None had been seen in Europe before 1897.

How did the west eventually see the plaques in museums?

  • On 13 January 1897, the London 'Times' announced news of a "Benin Disaster". A British delegation, seeking to enter Benin City during an important religious ceremony, had been attacked, and some of its members killed.

  • The details of what actually happened are still far from clear, and have been vigorously disputed, but whatever the real facts, the British, in ostensible revenge for the killing, organised a punitive expedition which raided Benin City, exiled the oba and created the British protectorate of Southern Nigeria.

  • The booty from the attack on Benin included carved ivory tusks, coral jewellery and hundreds of bronze statues and plaques. Many of these objects were then auctioned off to cover the costs of the expedition, and they were bought by museums across the world.

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