Thursday, July 25, 2013

Atlantis found!

Those of you who read my blogs probably realize that I think that Africa is much (and unjustly) maligned by people in the West.  I attribute this to ignorance as well as prejudice.

I could write blog after blog supporting my thesis that whenever most Westerners think about, write about, or talk about Africa, their frontal lobes seize up, resulting in sweeping generalizations that have little currency in reality.

For example, 'Africans are uncivilized.'

Have people who make this statement, which I've heard in various forms hundreds of times, either forgotten or do not know that the pyramids, the Sphinx, hundreds of other temples temples, are in Africa?  Long before Archimedes lived, the Egyptians were using his principle to float 100-ton pieces of stone hundreds of miles down the Nile.  Yes, they slung them under boats rather than carry them on top, thus effectively lowering their weight by the weight of water displaced.

Have these people either forgotten or do not know that one of the greatest libraries of ancient times - the library at Alexandria - was in Africa?  It was subsequently destroyed - the details of which are somewhat murky - by Europeans and Muslims.  After the great library had gone, scholars worked in a branch library in a temple call Serapeum.  This was subsequently also destroyed  - by decree of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Theophilus.

Have these people either forgotten or do not know that one of the great libraries of today is in Timbuktu, Mali?  Actually, calling it one library is probably a misnomer, because it comprises many smaller private libraries.

 I don't think these people have forgotten these things.  I think that they do know these things (with the possible exception of the libraries in Timbuktu).

What these people actually mean when they say Africans are uncivilized is that black Africans are uncivilized.

So let's take a look at this statement from one aspect of what is regarded as one attribute of civilization, namely art.

Picasso is one of the most admired artists of all time, known for his daring shapes and use of colour.  We know he lifted most of his ideas on cubism from African art.  Yet he continues to be the once who garners the accolades - not the artists whose works he drew so heavily from.  But then they were African!

Here is a Fang mask, similar to the one that Picasso saw in 1907 in Paris, which resulted in changes to his famous painting, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.  Most people have heard of Picasso; most people haven't heard of the Fang.

Here are a few photos from my collection - you can see why Picasso was so influenced by African art.

My favorite story in this regard - the intersection of Western bias and African art - took place around 1910.  A very interesting German explorer, Leo Frobenius, discovered a remarkable piece of art in Southwestern Nigeria, in an area called Ife (EE-fay).  It was a bronze head made using the lost wax method (you can read about this sophisticated process here).

As you can see from the photos of similar heads (his has disappeared), they are very appealing, combining a physical beauty with an ethereal expression.

Frobenius was so amazed by the beauty of what he had just found that he immediately announced that it could not have been made by an African.

Instead he decided that he had discovered Atlantis, not an island under the sea but a part of West Africa, and that the piece had been made by Athenians who had travelled across the Sahara and conquered the people of Atlantis.  The New York Times reported this in some detail.

The Kingdom of Ife thrived economically from about 1100 to 1500 and was home to artists (African artists) who produced heads (and other things) made from both metal and terra cotta.  Since 1910 many more heads of both types have been found.

To my eyes they are stunning.

For many years, whenever I was in Johannesburg, I went to an art gallery owned by a legendary collector of African pieces, and drooled over two pieces - a terra cotta head and a bronze leopard, both from Ife.  They were both well out of my price range.  However, a year after I had recovered from colon-cancer surgery, I was again in Johannesburg, working with Michael on DEADLY HARVEST.  Of course I went to the gallery to drool yet again.  But this time, I said to myself, why enjoy these magnificent items only for a few minutes a year.  And after all it only takes money to acquire them.

So I spent far more than I should ever have and bought the terra cotta head.  Buying both would have put me in the poorhouse.

Now I enjoy my Ife head all the time - and if I ever need the money I am sure I can sell it.

As far as I know there are only three terra cotta heads in American museums, including my home town's Minneapolis Institute of Art.  and now there's one in the Trollip gallery.

Terra cotta Ife head in Minneapolis Institute of Art

Ife head in the Trollip collection

And I cannot tell you how delighted I am to have a piece of African art that stands with any sculpture ever made and to have my friends drool over it.  I am a lucky man indeed.

It also serves as a constant reminder as to how much further we in the West have to go before we see Africa as it is, not as we believe it to be.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Your point is very well taken, Stan. But I have another. At CrimeFest, didn't you agree to buy the leopard? Or was it a leotard? We'll have to ask Yrsa or Annamaria for a ruling on that.

    1. I did indeed, Jeff, but I haven't been back to South Africa since then.

  2. The Ife heads are stunningly beautiful. And your column is a perfect example of why I find the MIE blog so wonderful: we can only learn about 'otherness' (and recognize how 'us-ness' it IS) by experiencing it ourselves. Short of VISITING and experiencing first-hand, reading and experiencing second-hand is the next best way. Sure, it's kind of like a deaf, blind man standing by a great waterfall and just feeling the mist on his face and a rumble in his chest, but still... this blog takes me all over the world and exposes me to culture and history that I (often-times) had never experienced, such as the "heads of Ife."


  3. Stan, you need to stop wasting your time conversing with ignoramuses. The cradle of humanity and the cradle of civilization are both in Africa. The incurious may not know this, but any decently educated person, in fact, anyone who was not asleep in the fourth grade should know this. To my way of thinking, anyone who would make the blanket statement that Africans are uncivilized should go look in the mirror.
    I look forward to seeing the Trollip collection in person, not just drooling over the photographs.

  4. Stan--

    I don't know which is more wonderful, your Ife sculpture, or the theory that if you find great art in Africa it must have come from Atlantis.

    No--wait--the art wins. No contest.

    Drooling from a distance,

  5. I like your head the best (by this I mean the terracotta head). Stunning.

  6. I wish this would appear on the front page of every
    major newspaper in the U.S.