Hidden messages of objects of African art Essay

Get your original paper written from scratch starting at just $10 per page with a plagiarism report and free revisions included!









Hire A Writer

In our modern world works of art play a role which is quite different from the role they used to play in the past. Indeed, in ancient times the craftsmanship of masters who produced utensils necessary for daily needs was already the source of art, because their products were among few vehicles of self-expression. As the result, many of the objects of the ancient art were simultaneously the objects of use, like vessels for liquids, different decorated tools, etc. However, with time and along with the social developments at least since Hellenistic culture art in the Western world was becoming more a means of self-expression of man and of our human striving for beauty.

This process, while preserving the attraction to objects of practical utilization endowed with artistic qualities, also led to the separation of decorative art into a means to achieve aesthetic satisfaction. At a certain moment, art began to be integrated into the approaches towards creation of living spaces of human beings, and, importantly, the works of art began to be valued for their own sake.

Since the industrial revolution, when technologies enabled mass production of products, the role of art in the Western world underwent further transformation art because capitalism initiated “. . . the bringing of art . . . into subordinate relation . . .”[1] Since those times there appeared a tendency to perceive works of art as a kind of modern icons enclosed in museums for public viewing. Thus, “the religion of art . . . was born”[2], and art as a consecrated phenomenon has been by now somewhat isolated from our everyday lives.

In this regard, one of the most important tasks of museums is to find the most effective ways to immerse people into artistic environment and to teach them not only to contemplate objects with their eyes, but as well to feel them with all their senses, as if reliving experiences of those human beings who created artistic objects. This task becomes especially challenging when it comes to the presentation of artifacts of cultures that significantly differ from our own. To see such challenges we may turn our attention to art of Africa, which contains a lot of exotic elements for modern viewers. One of the most important qualities of art in African cultures is its focus on immediate human experiences.

In addition to racial differences among the ethnic groups of Africa that are reflected in their approach towards depiction of human beings, works of African art in most cases also look so strange for modern viewers because they represent world views and unique experiences (already fixed by addition of “and unique experiences”) of their creators which are really different from ours. Indeed, African art builds upon heritage of several millennia of various cultural traditions embodied in such diverse artistic artifacts as sculptures created for ritual purposes, wooden and golden monuments, ornaments made of silver and gold, unique garments, masks, and other artifacts. On grounds of this diversity, it is very hard to make generalizations about the African culture.

However, there are some common elements that can be viewed as main motives and themes of African art. For example, it is a well known fact that African natural environment is very harsh in comparison to other regions of the world. Consequently, for African denizens the answer to the need to maintain population has traditionally been the bearing of numerous children. Therefore, African women are primarily associated with the symbol of life, because the existence and integrity of families and clans depends on one hand upon ability of woman to give birth to children, and on other hand upon her role as supporter of old parents and upon her mission in many African societies of contacting with spirits of the ancestors through prayers and ritual offerings.

On ground of this, many themes in African art are in one way or another linked with symbols of fertility of women, of soil as another source of life, and of animals and plants. For example, many African shrines are dedicated to spirits that are believed to provide fertility, and they often contain some sculptures or other art forms that symbolize fertility. In a more direct fashion, in many African cultures there is an abundance of art objects that directly depict pregnant women. In this way we can see that African art has traditionally been influenced by specifics of its environment. However, one of the Western approaches to African art lies in our attempts to find out whether Africans make art for its own sake, and this approach may be somewhat misleading.

At this point we may recall our considerations of the development of art in the Western world when until relatively recent times art was not meant to be placed in museums as it is often the case today, but rather was integrated in the life of society, for instance in religious and even political practices. In this connection, African art seems to have retained the ability to keep itself close to everyday concerns of people as far as it aims to reflect upon the most urgent concerns of African people.

The objects of African art bristle with expressive emotions of their masters who with the help of objects of art try to investigate their relation with the world, and who through art communicate their striving to survive in a tough environment. Therefore, African art can hardly be separated from the lives of people who created it, and this unity seems to be stronger than in the Western artistic tradition.[3]

One of the very exciting exhibitions where we can find beautiful exemplars of African art is the exhibition devoted to Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Let us with the help of this exhibition explore how modern viewers perceive objects of quite a different culture, and whether this exhibition manages to make the displayed objects of art speak to spectators in their native language. For this task we may pick several objects representative of the African culture as far as they reflect upon the main traditional themes of past and present African art.

It must be pointed out from the outset that very often there are no firm dates for many of objects of African art. This is because African artists neither signed nor dated their creations. However, as many pieces of African art are made of wood, which is not a very long-lasting material, especially in African environment, it is thought that most of the wooden pieces of African art can probably be dated as belonging to the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century.

Of course, aside from wood many objects are made of stone, clay, bronze, silver, gold, ivory, and terracotta. Such objects are long-lasting and those of them that have been found in known archeological contexts and in properly investigated archaeological locations have more or less fixed dates attributed to them.

I propose to choose the following objects for the further research:
A seated figure of a male from the thirteenth century, which offers an impressive image of anxiety that speaks directly to viewers` emotions (figure 1 in Appendix). This object originates from Inland Niger Delta region, the site named Jenne-jeno, which is the most ancient known city of sub-Saharan Africa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired this object in 1981 as a bequest from Joseph Pulitzer, Harris Brisbane Dick, and Rogers Funds. (already fixed)
A memorial head of a ruler of the Akan ethnic group from Western Africa from the seventeenth century that reflects idealized notions of African people (figure 2 in Appendix). This object`s origin was Hemang city in the Twifo region of Ghana, the land of the Akan ethnic group. It was initially a part of Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection and was given to museum by Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1967.
A pendant mask dated of the sixteenth century, which has an interesting history and therefore can enhance our understanding of the role of art in African cultures (figure 3 in Appendix). This object originates from Benin, a culturally important region populated by Edo speaking people that is a part of southern and northern The mask has a rich history of ownership, as it belonged to Brenda Z. Seligman, Prof. C. G. Seligman, and Sir Ralph Moor. In the end, it also became a part of Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection and was gifted to museum by Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1972. (I`m afraid that if more detailed info is needed on provenance, the only way to get it is to visit the museum and find out, because officially Metropolitan Museum states only what we have mentioned above, i.e. that “it belonged to Brenda Z. Seligman, Prof. C. G. Seligman, and Sir Ralph Moor. In the end, it also became a part of Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection and was gifted to museum by Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1972”)

Of course, there exists a diverse and comprehensive body of research dedicated to such a complex phenomenon as African art. Most of the books dedicated to this topic attempt to integrate African art with social and ethnographic peculiarities of African cultures. I believe that this is a rightful path to follow, because if we try to comprehend the meaning of African objects of art while ignoring their context we risk not grasping their true meaning that was assigned to them by their creators. Among books that provide such an integrated approach to the research of African art we may highlight several.

One of them is the work History of Art in Africa by Monica Blackmun Visona and numerous co-authors. This book is not that much a strictly formal research but rather a detailed guide that increases our understanding of artistic forms created in different regions of Africa by different peoples and cultures, especially those of the Sub-Saharan areas. From the academic point of view, by means of a combination of modern research of various forms of African arts and their attempts to apply those findings to different geographic regions and different times of African history authors had made a significant contribution to the literature devoted to the history of art. Another relevant work that deals with African art is the book edited by Tom Phillips Africa: The Art of a Continent.

It is one of the most thorough general works on African art that provides detailed overview of art forms and styles, and at the same time gives extensive description of African tribes and their influence on regionalized art forms. In this way, this book is helpful as a reference for those who would like to systemize the knowledge of African art that one already has, and to localize cultural centers of African art. In addition to the mentioned books, the work of Sidney Littlefield Kasfir Contemporary African Art is the worthy piece of reasearch that treats the transformations in African art in the latter half of the 20th century.

It is a very helpful direction of research because, among other things, it shows how the traditional forms of African art are reevaluated by contemporary African artists themselves. The high level of scholarship of the author and his masterful ability to tie modernity with history co-operate to paradoxically make this book relevant for those who aim to better understand not only modern African art, but its traditional forms as well, which is the important achievement for this author.

Each of the mentioned books contains some outstanding points, but at the same time none of them can pretend to be a fully comprehensive guide to African art, if it is at all possible to make a such a guide. But as all those books cover somewhat different aspects of African art, I believe that our task is to try to combine their findings with our immediate impressions from the contemplation of the objects of African art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to achieve the highest possible level of comprehension of the uniqueness of African cultural heritage.

This aim leads me to a more general task which I will try to accomplish, namely to see whether it is possible for a museum as a kind of “modern cultural church” of our society to present objects of an unfamiliar culture in such a way as to enable viewers to really penetrate beyond the objects` material form and recreate in their minds experiences similar to those of artists who embodied their feelings in artistic creations. This task presupposes some psychological research, of which my own impressions from the exhibition will be the object, and also considerations about the general level of successfulness of the exhibit as measured by visible impressions of its other visitors.

The first object of our analysis is a seated figure of a male. Due to the age of this piece of art and the fact that African artists did not inscribe their names on their creations it is impossible to know who exactly was the author of this object. However, we know that this sculpture originates from a location known as Jenne-jeno, which was the most ancient known city of sub-Saharan Africa. This was a center that thrived around the ninth century AD, but declined by the beginning of the fifteenth century leaving numerous artifacts made of forged iron, cast brass, and clay. While performed archaeological digs give only a vague glimpse of the true role of art in that region, the available heritage of the old culture of Jenne-jeno definitely shows that artists of the urban society of that time possessed highly sophisticated artistic skills.

For example, this particularly impressive figure, with its legs crossed, its chest almost pressed against a leg, and its head touching its knee, transmits the sensation of anxiety and stress, or, alternatively, of a full immersion in a prayer. This frozen emotional load of the sculpture bespeaks the motives of a creator of this piece of art that apparently were aimed at expressing intense emotional experiences that could arise from such events as ritual commemoration of the death of loved people. The method of direct portrayal of emotions as if written on the face of the figure serves to actually dissolve boundaries of time and make this object universally understood. (well, sometimes we have to defend our position, and in this case it actually could be both that the figure is tense or relaxed in prayer, and it`s not a contradiction.

In fact, I checked the website of the Metropolitan and, ironically, there it is also said that this figure “simultaneously suggests the knotted tension of anxiety and the sublime absorption of deep prayer”) At the same time, sculptures like this one despite their concreteness of representation could simultaneously serve as a symbolic image of ancestors or mythic heroes, in this way existing in realms of both the material and spiritual, and therefore most probably were employed in ritual ceremonies. Indeed, the shaved head of this figure and its state of self-immersion are somewhat symbolized and remind of mourning practices that are still used by many cultures of sub-Saharan Africa.[4] In this way, this object enables us to suppose that such practices were as well common 700 years ago among peoples of the Inland Niger Delta.

But, of course, due to the mentioned scarcity of our knowledge of the true role of art in the region of Jenne-jeno we cannot convincingly limit the role of this figure exclusively to mourning practices. In terms of materials used, this object is made of terracotta, a brownish baked earth clay that is a durable and easily workable substance. Usually, found terracotta figures have a lot of detail, because this material was widely used in African art for production of bodily ornaments and jewelry. This sculpture is not an exception as can be seen from its physical appearance and its surface qualities.

For example, the technique used for the creation of this object enabled the author to make the parallel lines of knobs and dots on the back of the figure in such a way as to give it a heightened sense of relief. By the way, such knobs and dots were employed in African art quite often, sometimes covering the whole space of human figures. It is thought that this element in art was supposed to stand for signs of some kind of sicknesses that abound in African environment.

[5] Combining the mentioned aspects of this object of art, I have to admit that I was greatly impressed by its overall look, and I noticed that the general response of other museum visitors was similar as people were apparently staying near this object for a longer time than on average. I believe the reason for this is the skillful work of the artist who managed to embody in the material shape a lot of emotional load, and therefore reached a powerful effect. But what made me especially excited about this object was the realization of the fact that for the author of this work its message was most probably personally experienced, and therefore this object conforms to one of the most important tasks of art, which lies in the creation of universal space of communication that transcends bounds of time and cultures.

The second object of our research is a memorial head of a ruler dated of the seventeenth century, and for which we also do not know the author. This terracotta object is a decorated portrait that depicts a serene man with accurately balanced facial features and striped long neck. This form of African art belongs to what is called in some West-African cultures as “mma”, an idealized image that depicts the positive qualities that were expected from a ruler. Therefore, one of the main motives for the creation of this object was its involvement in ritual procedures. In fact, it is known that such portraits were crafted posthumously and were left along with similar images of preceding rulers in special sacred cemeteries and shrines called “mmaso” that had to keep the memory and the history of lineage of noble members of African societies.

Additionally, this practice of posthumous pictorial commemoration of rulers also extended to members of his court and his servants, who were supposed to continue their service for their ruler after his death as well. “Mmaso” cemeteries were the places of regular offerings and prayers aimed at the constant support of the deceased ancestors.[6] On these grounds, it stands to reason that artists who created portraits such as the one we are studying were adding a great deal of symbolism to their creations. Indeed, the general appearance of this object is such that for me it was hard to imagine the person who it was intended to copy, and I suspect that the exact physical resemblance might not have been the main concern of the author of this memorial portrait. This head is also made from terracotta, and is decorated with fragments of quartz.

But in contrast to the previous terracotta object that depicts a figure in a very plastic and emotional way, this object looks as if it was consciously processed by the artist without excessive modification of the original terracotta sphere. It seems that the facial features of the man float above the rough material they are inscribed on, and radiate a kind and positive irony, which to my judgement testifies to a very subtle technique used by the artist that is on a par with the best recognized masterpieces of fine arts. At the same time, it seems to me that this object of art retains some mystery, as if the closed eyes of the man say that we cannot see the world that his eyes had seen, and that we might have to become one of his contemporaries to fully perceive the world view of this ancient ruler and the artist who immortalized him.

(Hm, it`s really hard to say what the professor meant by putting “!” along this portion of the text. . . Do you know exactly?) Interestingly, many people in the museum behaved as if feeling in some subconscious way the ultimate futility of efforts to fully comprehend the message of this object, because I noticed that in most cases visitors did not spend much time near this memorial head. But I believe that with this work the artist reached perhaps the most important artistic effect, that of its ability to intrigue truly attentive viewers, and therefore make them wonder about the hidden aspects of the culture that gave birth to this object.

The last target of our research is a mask, the object strongly associated with African art. And, indeed, this mask had a special meaning for its creators. It is dated of the sixteenth century, and in contrast to previous anonymous works this artifact can give us some hints as to its artistic origin. In fact, this mask is thought to have been created in the beginning of the sixteenth century for the king of Benin Esigie. The mask depicts the elaborated and thoughtful portrait of the mother of the king, and it was probably used in rites that honored the king`s mother. From this we can guess that this mask was created by some court artist specifically for the ritual purposes, moreover that even today in many African cultures similar pendant masks are always involved in yearly rituals of spiritual purification.

To reinforce this assumption we should point out that this mask is primarily made of ivory, the material that in Benin is associated with the white color that symbolizes ritual purity of the god of the sea named Olokun. This god was also viewed as a spiritual guard of kings, so this mask could bear several meanings.[7] In addition to ivory as a primary material, this mask is decorated with metal mosaic, has carved superficial incisions in the skin of its forehead, and holds below the chin beads made of coral. Interestingly, the collar and the diadem of the mask contain images of mudfish and bearded Portuguese. Mudfish live both in the water and on land, and thus it stands for the dual nature of the king who is simultaneously human and divine.

On the other hand, Portuguese, who arrived from the sea, were perceived as coming from the spiritual realm. In this way, this mask integrates in it numerous symbols of the African culture. In general, this object of art conveys a somewhat different impression than previous ones. First of all, its high level of detail draws attention and begs for an especially careful inspection from the side of a viewer. On the other hand, despite having many types of decorations this mask nevertheless looks very integral and thematically complete.

Moreover, among the objects of our research this mask is the most realistic one in terms of its resemblance to an actual human being. But at the same time it seemed to me that maybe because of its portrait-like look many people fail to notice the depth of its symbolical meaning of which the facial form of the mask is merely a small part. Thus, we can see that African artists already long time ago fully possessed the skill of integration of multilayered symbolical messages in a work of art, which uncovers the richness of their world views.

On ground of our observations, we may conclude that museum exhibits can really give visitors a chance to relive experiences of cultures as different from ours as African ones are. However, the expansion of our cultural awareness is a task that perhaps to a larger degree depends on a viewer himself. Indeed, if a viewer just walks by the exhibit, she may get only a very limited impression of African art which may only confirm some formulaic notions that many of us have about it, like that there are a lot of masks, that objects of African art are of a strange look, etc. Even I must admit that without the deeper investigation of the history and hidden messages of the objects of African art that we had researched I would most probably also fail to see the true meaning of the works of African art, because a superficiality of judgement reduces the artistic creations merely to their material form and ignores their spiritual connotation.

On a more practical side, I would recommend that in relation to exhibits devoted to exotic forms of art, of which African art is a good example, museums should not merely provide a passive presentation of artistic objects, but rather should take more proactive steps in terms of attraction of visitors` attention towards hidden aspects of art that may defy superficial attitude. For example, this purpose may be achieved through organization of publicly open regular thematic seminars on new historical, ethnographic and iconographic research devoted to African and other exotic forms of art, and through advertised presentations of new objects obtained by museum.

All of this would help put what otherwise might be perceived as isolated individual objects of art into a larger cultural context, and therefore might increase public awareness of the specifics and values of art of different regions of the world.


“Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa. Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Brettell, Richard R. Modern Art 1851-1929 : Capitalism and Representation. Oxford

University Press, 1999.

Drewal, Henry John, Pemberton, John III, Abiodun, Rowland, and Wardwell, Allen, (Ed.).

Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. Harry N Abrams, 1990.

Ezra, Kate. Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.

Hahner-Herzog, Iris, Kecskesi, Maria, and Vajda, Lazlo. African Masks: The Barbier-

Mueller Collection. Prestel Publishing, 1998.

Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. Contemporary African Art. Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Mills, C. Wright. Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills

Oxford University Press, 1967.

Phillips, Tom, (Ed.). Africa: The Art of a Continent. Prestel Publishing, 1999.

Thompson, Robert Farris. African Art in Motion: Icon and Act in the Collection of Katherine

Coryton White. University of California Press, 1974.

Turner, Victor Witter. Revelation and divination in Ndembu ritual (Symbol, myth, and ritual).

Cornell University Press, 1975.

Visona, Monica Blackmun, Poynor, Robin, Cole, Herbert M., Harris, Michael D., Abiodun,

Rowland, and Blier, Suzanne Preston. History of Art in Africa. Prentice Hall, 2003.

Willett, Frank. African Art. Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Works Cited:

Hahner-Herzog, Iris, Kecskesi, Maria, and Vajda, Lazlo. African Masks: The Barbier-

Mueller Collection. Prestel Publishing, 1998.

Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. Contemporary African Art. Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Mills, C. Wright. Power, Politics, and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills.

Oxford University Press, 1967.

Paz, Octavio. Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature. Harvest/HBJ Book, 1991.

Phillips, Tom, (Ed.). Africa: The Art of a Continent. Prestel Publishing, 1999.

Visona, Monica Blackmun, Poynor, Robin, Cole, Herbert M., Harris, Michael D., Abiodun,

Rowland, and Blier, Suzanne Preston. History of Art in Africa. Prentice Hall, 2003.

(As you could see, I already have removed Paz from Bibliography)