Traditional Art of the African Nations

Traditional Art of the African Nations

Traditional Art of the African Nations

Traditional Art of the African Nations

Excerpt

On the continent of Africa a group of nations has emerged. Recently organized, recently independent, the rest of the world has become accustomed to think of them as the new nations of Africa. And so they are in the limited sense of geographical identity and political structure.

But in another, more profound sense these nations are far from new, or even recent arrivals. Socially, culturally, aesthetically, their peoples have a long and intricate history. Since for the most part that history has been orally transmitted, we know only a portion, probably only a small portion of the complex of its traditions and development. Some few specific dates have been recorded by travellers from abroad; others, more ancient, have been revealed by archaeology, which has told us enough so that we may be sure that further investigations will tell us much more; some oral histories are apparently chronologically accurate. But there are not many such temporally pin-pointed facts, and their scarcity has perhaps given them an undue importance, compared to the vast totality of African cultural history.

Even without documents, we can infer the quality of this history from what we know of the nature of the recent past. The many cultural traditions of Africa, in all their distinction and variety, the ordering of their social structure, the intricacy and sharpness of their religious beliefs, the wealth of their oral traditions--all these can only have evolved in the course of a long, complex and thoughtful history.

The plastic arts of Africa are a manifestation of this cultural history, the one perhaps best known to the world in general, and they carry its evidence within themselves. Their skilled technique has a directness that comes from an almost intuitive use of established methods, passed on and gradually perfected. Their styles are as various as the cultures that have developed them, since they embody and externalize them. Because the cultural unit has been the "tribe" (which may number many hundreds of thousands of persons and so is perhaps better referred to as a people), and the art reflects this unit, any one of today's nations has been the home of many styles. If these styles are distinct and recognizable, they are also related, and have influenced and borrowed from each other. Neither immutable nor isolated, yet clearly formed and individual, they are like the arts of the city-states of Italy --Florence, Siena, or Bologna--each having its sepa-

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