Inspired by African Art

By Rutledge Heintz, June | School Arts, February 1991 | Go to article overview

Inspired by African Art


Rutledge Heintz, June, School Arts


For many people the art of Africa seems distant and unfamiliar. Are there persuasive reasons to introduce African forms to elementary students? My answer is an unequivocal, "Yes!" I have found that the artistic expressions of Africa have enormous appeal to children, teach vital art concepts, and enlarge our understanding of the role of art in human culture. The following statements explain.

1. African art provides dramatic evidence of the power of art to communicate. Traditional African artistic creations play a central role in embodying the culture of the people who make and use them. The shared language of visual symbols binds individuals to the group and communicates the history, values and wisdom of the culture. What better example of the fact that art is visual language?

2. Children respond enthusiastically. Perhaps they are captivated by the mysterious appearance of the masks, or by the power of the abstract forms, or by the inevitable reference to communication with unseen realities, but, at every level, from kindergarten to fifth grade, students seem transfixed by this unit of study.

3. Knowledge about the art destroys the myth of "primitive" Africa. As students learn of the intentional selection of abstraction and the meaning and power of symbols, they begin to move beyond our Western fetish for realistic representation.

4. African art is part of our cultural heritage. The "discovery" of African art propelled such titans of twentieth century western art as Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi into explorations of the expressive power of abstract form.

Understanding traditional African art

Africa is an immense continent, more than three times the size of the United States with more than 1,000 distinct language and cultural groups. Most of the examples used in this unit come from western and southern parts of Africa, an area encompassing several nations and hundreds of cultures. In spite of the great diversity, some generalizations can be made about artistic expression across these cultures.

1. Traditionally African art is inseparable from the daily life of the individual and the community. Ndebele women transform the walls of their houses into brilliant displays of geometric designs. The well dressed Yoruba woman goes about swathed in carefully crafted textile art. Masks and sculpture are conceived as vehicles of meaning at the heart of the life of the community, not as objects to be admired in themselves.

2. African art is a central and powerful means of communicating social, religious, political and economic messages to members of the culture and to future generations. A pattern woven into kente cloth indicates the social class of the wearer. The applique hangings of the Fon people tell of the heroic actions of their kings and are used with associated proverbs for the instruction of the young. The Gbona gla mask presides over judicial proceedings among the We.

3. Traditional African art employs an enormous vocabulary of symbols. Use of symbols makes possible direct and intuitive transmission of ideas and concepts, yet preserves elements of ambiguity and mystery. A pattern of repeated triangles suggests both individual self-control and the stability of human culture. The cross symbolizes not only the daily path of the sun, but also the cycle of living things: birth, middle age, height of power, physical death, and the passage through death in preparation for rebirth.

4. African art emphasizes essential form through the use of simplification and abstraction and is primarily conceptual. Dramatic reduction of realistic images to geometric forms serves to increase the visual impact of the art. The conceptual approach is well illustrated by a mask with twisted features, made to be danced in derision of a violator of some social code and signifying twisted character, not a deformed individual.

5. Traditionally, African artists and craftspeople use symbols and abstractions, not because they are unable to produce objects which mimic surface reality, but because, for them, visual reality masks and limits a world of other, more important realities. …

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