Thursday, December 15, 2011

African Beauty

Over the past couple of years, I have gazed in awe at the beautiful and spectacular buildings that my fellow bloggers have written about.  I’ve been blown away by pictures of monasteries on hilltops and by soaring churches and their stained glass windows.  When I travel I’m always amazed by the beauty of buildings that are thousands of years old – the Roman and Greek temples and amphitheatres, the pyramids and temples of Egypt, Angkor Wat, and so on.  And I’ve wondered why there are no equally beautiful indigenous buildings in sub-Saharan Africa.
Certainly most sub-Saharan countries have beautiful buildings, but they are almost always European in design and function, as in some of those that Leighton has shown in Brazil.  But the ruins of ancient buildings in sub-Saharan Africa, although fascinating archeologically, are not as attractive as their similarly aged counterparts elsewhere.
Why is that?
Is it because gods or spirits were worshiped through dancing and singing rather than at a church or temple?  That there were no archbishops or high priests?  Is it because the great leaders of African tribes didn’t arrange for huge memorials to be built in their memory?  Is it because power was diffused more into communities than centralized?  Is it because day-to-day structures were made from wood and grass and not more enduring stone or brick?
I’ve no idea what the answer is.
So where is beauty to be found in Africa other than in its landscapes, people, and wildlife?  It is found in its art, particularly in its three-dimensional art – its figures and its masks, usually carved from wood, but sometimes of stone, and occasionally molded from clay.  Two-dimensional art is rare, other than the rock art of the Khoi-San peoples.
Although I admire the great European and Eastern sculptures, I have always had a greater emotional affinity to the art of Africa –despite my upbringing being very Eurocentric.  The only European style I have a passion for is Cycladic art, particularly figures and faces.

Cycladic face

Cycladic face
Cycladic female figure
The inherent lack of realism in African masks (and African art in general) is generally attributed to the fact that most African cultures distinguish the essence of a subject from its looks; the former, rather than the latter, being the actual subject of artistic representation.  This means that African art depicts what the artist feels about a subject rather than what the subject looks like.  Consequently African art is about emotion rather than realism.

I have a decent collection of African masks and figures, some of which are, to Western eyes, very weird, particularly the spirit sculptures of the Makonde people of southern Tanzania or northern Mozambique.  Yet they have always talked to me.  It’s their message that I get.
Here are some examples of African art.  Remember much of it is relatively recent (about 100 years is regarded as old).  This is because most carvings are made from wood and are susceptible to rot, borer beetles, and decay. African art older than 100 years is rare.
Nok (Nigeria) - 1500 years old
Nok (Nigeria) - 2000 years old
Ife (Nigeria) terra cotta - 300 years old
Benin leopard pair (bronze) - 300 years old
Bwa (Burkino Fasso)

Baule (Ivory Coast)

Makonde (Tanzania) spirit sculpture

Makonde (Tanzania) spirit sculpture

Makonde (Tanzania) spirit sculpture
Benin (Nigeria)

Benin (Nigeria)

Songye (Democratic Republic of the Congo - Kifwebe mask

Bambara (Mali)  Chiwara

Fang (Cameroon and Guinnea) mask

Needless to say, I have collected African masks and figures for many years.  Here are a couple of photos of my Minneapolis apartment.  Very African.

Stan's Minneapolis apartment

Stan's Minneapolis apartment
Stan's Minneapolis apartment
Stan - Thursday


  1. The centuries old cathedrals of Europe are the descendents of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman buildings that as temples or churches gave praise to the deity to whom the people owed praise and thanksgiving.

    The buildings of Rome, like the Parthenon, fascinated this American. Built to honor all the gods it became a place of worship for the one God centuries ago. But it isn't a museum, a place in which people must wait in line in order to enter for a few moments. It is a parish church with funerals, weddings, baptisms,and the events that make up a life. One the outside they seem sterile but they are also venues for moments of great joy and great sadness.

    Yet, these places of worship were also built as reflections of the genius of the artists and architects who designed and decorated them and the kings and princes, secular and religious, who paid for their construction. The sacred and profane on display in one building.

    Artists and architects and builders and composers offered their best work to the church for the greater glory of God. They did it through paintings and sculptures that showed the forms of the gifts with which God had blessed the world be it man, animal, flower, mountain, or ocean.

    In Africa, it seems that didn't need forms as representatives of God's creation because the real thing was right there to be enjoyed and to be marveled at.

    On the other hand, the creator of the three hundred year-old terra cotta bust had the same genius as Bernini. She is beauty in any age (form) and she captures the imagination because the artist captured her essence.

  2. I've been inspired by Cycladic sculpture, too, so much so that the precise Cycladic female figure you show played a key role in "Murder in Mykonos." But I must say your African figures blew me away, especially the Tanzanian.

    There is one nagging question the other photos raise, at least for me: Who's your cleaning lady and does she have any free days?

  3. The cleaning lady? C'est moi! And I'm not that expensive.