BLACK HISTORY MONTH: The true varied, modern and innovative nature of so-called ‘primitive’ African Art

AUTHOR: MEG GUY

The African continent spans 30.37 million square kilometres and encompasses an area large enough to fit the United States, China, India, Japan Mexico and more within its borders. A diverse land mass, it features everything from mountains to deserts, to jagged coastlines and is home to over 1.37 billion people. In terms of art and culture, there is so much that Africa has to offer – rock drawings dating back over 70,000 years, beautiful Mosques and sculptures to name just a few. Yet overwhelmingly, the Western narrative of Africa continues to be one dominated by poverty and a perceived ‘primitiveness’ rather than art and high culture associated with classical Western states such as Greece and Rome.

For the past 500 years, history and accounts of history which underpin our understanding of the past has predominately been based on the dominant narrative of rich, cis-gender, able-bodied White men.  Still today fewer than 1% of the professors employed at UK universities are Black and recent data showed that between 2015 and 2020, less than 5% of successful PhD applications in the UK were Black.

The persistence of this Western narrativization of Africa and its people is rooted in colonial thinking. For it was only due to the re-conceptualisation of Africa and Africans as ‘uncivilised’, ‘uncultured’, ‘primitive’ and inferior to the White ‘race’ that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and later, colonialism was able to happen. This logic did not just disappear with the end of abolition or the end of colonial rule, but lays latent behind many of the racist tropes and ideas about Africa today – including the refusal to acknowledge Africa’s art and cultural heritage. Africa is portrayed as isolated, poor, dangerous, static, barren and ‘uncivilised’ but nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the course of the last 200,000 years Africa has provided us with art of unparalleled beauty, technical brilliance and thousands of years of breath-taking architecture, and the greatest achievement of human creativity – culture.

As we embark on the long journey towards an anti-racist society, this racist logic must be challenged and actively de-colonised. It is important to explore and challenge our own knowledge, our own view of history, and to ask which voices are being heard, and who is telling the story. My small contribution to this epic task will be to take you, the reader, on a whistle-stop tour of just some of Africa’s phenomenal art and culture.  

It makes sense to start our tour at the ‘beginning’ with the rock drawings in the Drakensberg in the Blombos Cave, Lesotho South Africa. Not only are they of great historical significance (one painting in this area has been declared the earliest known drawing by homo sapiens), but they stand as a lasting legacy of the spirituality of the San people who drew them. In 1991 the discovery of the Blombos Cave in South Africa provided evidence of over 140,000 years of human habitation and signs of the first forms of human creative expression.  A 77,000 year old cross-hatched engraving on a stone fragment is believed to be the earliest known drawing by a human in the world and the earliest attempts at visual expression.  This artistic impression was created with purpose and meaning and predates other ancient drawings by around 35,000 years and confirms that the emotional and cognitive behaviours that we see as ‘being human’ were present long before modern humans left Africa, busting the myths that Africans are uncivilised or sub-human (the earliest known European cave paintings of Chauvet Cave France date to around 30,000BC).  Found alongside the engraving was a 75,000 year old snail shell necklace believed to be the world’s oldest jewellery.

San rock drawing

Often drawn by San shamans on specific sections of rock believed to separate the real and spiritual worlds, many of the drawings depict the journeys to the afterlife shamans experienced through trances.  These examples of art and early communication show us how our ancestors viewed their surroundings, provide insight into their thoughts, their spiritual worlds and how they lived, hunted and loved.

Other examples include the ‘Cave of Swimmers’ in Wadi Sura, loosely translated as the ‘Valley of the Pictures’ is one of the most famous rock sites of the Sahara, a place known for its sand dunes, a place we cannot begin to imagine human life surviving, however the Sahara was once a very different environment capable of sustaining these emerging human communities.  Depicting swimmers, aquatic life, crocodiles, giraffes and animals grazing, the cave art is a historical recording of lakes, vegetation and wildlife thriving and verifies archaeological evidence that up until around 10,000 years ago the Sahara was a lush green Savannah.

Those early San drawings referred to before also reveal how advanced and innovative the painting materials were despite their great age. Paints were made out of charcoal, bone, iron oxide, clay, faeces, blood and fat whilst fingers and broken-up bone (sometimes made into a brush with feathers or horsehair) were used to apply the pigment to the stone. 

‘Human figures painted in the bending forward position’ source bradshawfoundation.com

Alongside this ancient spirituality of the Drakensberg rock art there were huge advances made in mathematics, navigation, astronomy, engineering and medicine over the millennia.  When we think of ‘advanced’ African civilisation we often think only of Egypt, but advances were being made across the continent, have you ever heard of Kush?

Kush

The earliest settlement in Kerma, capital of Kush, has been dated to 4,000BC and by 2500BC it is estimated its power and wealth rivalled that of Egypt.  Kerma was a well organised defensive walled town and most of the houses were built of mud-brick, a technique still used today.  The town was well organised and divided into several parts, built around a vast structure called the Duffufa, the Duffufa is said to be the largest and earliest example of mud-brick architecture in Africa.  Today little remains of this once magnificent ‘planned city’.

(From Archaeology Magazine. Used by them courtesy of the Swiss-Franco-Sudanese Archaeological Mission of Kerma-Dukki Gel, Photograph B.N. Chagny © KAPArcheo.com) An aerial view of the city of Dukki Gel, which lies less than a mile north of Kerma. Excavations have now shown that the city was built by people coming from the south when Kerma was at its height.
(Archaeology Magazine. Courtesy of the Swiss-Franco-Sudanese Archaeological Mission of Kerma-Dukki Gel, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/ Alamy Stock Photo, Ceramic vessels excavated in Kerma’s necropolis include a black-and-white ceramic pot (top) made by the so-called C-Group people and red brushed wares (middle, above) fashioned in the Kerma style.

 

Christian and Islamic Art and Architecture

Art and architecture have been used by people everywhere as an expression of their humanity, needs and beliefs, this expression has always been a part of art and culture across the continent. As the years passed there came a wealth of later Christian and Islamic art and architecture to be found across the continent. Although African Christianity is often associated with White, Christian missionaries who ‘tamed’ the ‘savages’ with their faith, this couldn’t be more wrong. Neither the continent, nor the countries or people within it have ever existed in isolation. People, goods, riches, ideas and even religions were always constantly flowing in and out.

A church unearthed in Ethiopia between 2011 and 2016 at a settlement called Beta Samati challenged the narrative about what we know about Christianity in Africa.  The Church was discovered 30 miles northeast of the capital of Aksum, a trading empire that emerged in the first century AD.  Radiocarbon dating revealed the church to have been built in the fourth century AD, about the same when Roman Emperor Constatine I legalised Christianity.  In an area 3,000 miles from Rome, King Ezana of Aksum is understood to be one of the first converts to Christianity.  In 350AD the design of the Aksum currency changed, becoming some of the first coins in the world to bear a Christian symbol.  The cross.

The empire Aksum was one of the world’s most influential ancient civilisations, but remains one of the least widely known. Medieval Christian Kingdoms of Nobadia, Makuria and Alwa would thrive for 1,000 years.

A fresco of Bishop Marianos and the Vrigin Mary, Faras Cathedral, Nubia (modern Sudan). 11th century CE. (Polish National Museum, Warsaw)

Christian art appeared all over as the religion took hold. Frescos found at Faras Cathedral date back to end of the 6th and 7th century and demonstrate some of the earliest Christian art, including a nativity scene. In 1964 the cathedral disappeared under the rising waters of Lake Nubia, but it is still possible to visit the national museums of Khartoum (Sudan) and Warsaw which house the extraordinary collection and here you can admire paintings, inscriptions and other artefacts .

By the 7th century Islam had begun to spread across the continent, but the area remained Christian.  Today nearly half of all Ethiopians are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Today there are roughly 500 million practicing Christians in Africa, and 444 million Muslims.

This long heritage has resulted in an abundance of Christian art and architecture in the region. Influenced by the art of the Coptic Christians in Egypt, Ethiopian Christian art features colourful figures with large, almond eyes like this painting at Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar.

Frescoes of Saint George Slaying the Dragon, The Assumption of Mary, and other biblical Subjects – Photo by Bernard Gagnon – November 2012

Debre Birhan Selassie in Gondar

Debre Birhan Selassie Church in Gondar, Ethiopia. Photograph by Marek Poplawski

There are also several stunning rock hewn churches in Ethiopia, such as the Church of Saint George in Lalibela which dates back to the 12th century AD.

Church of Saint George in Lalibela 

Showcasing the richness and diversity of spirituality as well as art, there is a strong Islamic art tradition in Ethiopia and the Muslim city of Harar is famous for its basketry influenced by Islamic decorative traditions.

Indeed, Islamic art is wildly underappreciated in western perceptions of Africa as a whole. Yet across Africa, there are many striking mosques which reveal a history of Islam and intellectualism which is rarely associated with Africa in the mind of the West.  

Church of St George in Lalibela. Source: Brilliant Ethiopia

Devout muslim, Mansa Musa (considered one of the richest men to have ever lived) for example brought architects from Moorish Spain to help design key buildings including his palace and at Timbuktu. Universities, learning and excellence were of great importance.  The Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali (a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site) is home to an Islamic Library and Heritage Centre with texts from the 14th century and is the largest mud-built structure in the world. Positioned in West Africa, from the 14th century to 1951 (and the invasion of the Moroccan Moors) Timbuktu and Sankore Madrasa acted as the two intellectual centres of Africa – comparable to universities in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain and Morocco in terms of Islamic scholarship hub. 

 

Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali

Africa also has a long tradition of sculptural art – examples being the Nok Sculptures, Lyndenberg heads and the Benin Bronzes. The sculptures made by the Nok civilization (one of the earliest found societies to live in what is now Nigeria and Western Africa) further state the case that the African peoples have not just been ‘keeping pace’ but have been ahead-of-the-curve.

The Great Mosque at Djenné in Mali at sunrise. Source: Damon Winter. The New York Times

Nok Sculptures

The first traces of Nok culture appear around 1500BC in the area now known as Nigeria.  Nok people, a culture that were cultivating crops, using iron tools and producing incredible art such as the Nok sculptures. In fact, the Nok people are noted for being one of the few societies that moved straight from stone tools to iron tools without first having to use copper and bronze and noted as developed iron smelting.

These Nok sculptures are known as the Lydenberg heads (seven terracotta heads). They were found in Lydenberg, South Africa and are an example of the oldest African Iron age art which has been found south of the equator.

Fig.1. Nok Sculptures. Source: National Geographic. Fig. 2. The Lydenburg Heads. Source: Ancient Origins

The Lydenburg Heads

The Benin Bronzes are yet another example and are made of brass and bronze and were commissioned for the Obas and Queen Mothers of the Benin Royal Family. Elaborately decorated, they exist as a symbol of royal power and fit into the long history of African bronze and sculptural art traditions.

Benin Bronzes

However, the Benin Bronzes introduce difficult questions around ownership as many of them – despite being intrinsically connected to the Kingdom of Benin – are now displayed in the British Museum and other institutions in Europe and America.

As (begrudgingly) acknowledged by the British Museum, the Bronzes came to the Museum in the context of colonial military action. During the occupation of Benin in 1897 the Royal Palace was looted by the British and thousands of objects of immense cultural, ritualistic, and economic value were stolen – including a case with 900 brass plaques which had decorated the walls of the palace. 

The fact these stolen artifacts are still in the ‘ownership’ of the British museum proves just how important the processes of de-colonisation as well as anti-racism is, as the legacies of colonialism still exist.

Benin bronzes at the British Museum in London. Source: Guardian. Photograph: Adam Eastland / Alamy

Although some would dismiss this by saying ‘its only a couple of bronzes – does it really matter?’ it is important to understand that the denial of culture is an essential tactic of colonialism. It is systematically used to erase cultural ties between the people and the previous dynasty in order to create a culture and knowledge vacuum which can be filled with colonial-approved alternatives. This ultimately enables the colonial power to seep further into the colonized state. There are still examples of this in the ‘modern age’, one need only look to how the Nazis actively sought to destroy and steal art in the 20th Century to understand that culture is recognised as an important social tool.

The fact that many of the Bronzes are not only still in the British Museum but that they are still ‘owned’ by the British Museum reveals not only the legacy of colonialism but the ways in which the colonial home country (Britain) continues to repress the culture of previously colonised peoples. It is a good thing that people don’t have to travel all over the world to ‘see’ the world, and there is an argument for culturally important pieces not to always be in their country of origin, however we would state that ‘ownership’ of these pieces should remain with their country of origin – especially when there is a recent history of colonization.  Organisations such as the British Museum could then ‘loan’ these pieces for display and exhibition purposes, which would also mean financially recompensing their true owners. This would allow art from around the world to be seen around the world, but also acknowledges its true heritage and ownership.

 In Western art and art scholarship there has also been a tendency to further erase African culture as the art history has been whitewashed and African influence re-historicised. It is little-known by anyone outside ‘the art world’ that African sculpture style heavily influenced Western artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Cezanne, and Gauguin who adapted it to create the cubist shapes central to early modernism. Without African influence, Western art would be unrecognizable.  

That the general view of the West is that Africa’s art is ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’, and ‘lesser’ is no accident, but rather by design. Consider your perceptions and ask yourself where these have come from. Sadly, due to the limits of words, my whistle-stop tour of a mere fraction of African art and culture must stop here. However, I hope this article has planted the seed for further exploration of all the art and culture Africa has to offer and prompted some questioning of the narrativization of Africa as ‘primitive’, British museum ownership and the whitewashing of art history. A question to leave you with – how many famous Black artists can you think of? Are you wondering why now?

 

For further education;

Precolonial Black Africa by Cheikh Anta Diop

This comparison of the political and social systems of Europe and black Africa from antiquity to the formation of modern states demonstrates the black contribution to the development of Western civilization.

The Black History Buff Podcastcovering the full historical tapestry of the African Diaspora, you’ll hear tales covering everything from African Samurai to pistol-wielding poets. More than just a podcast, the show is a bridge that links communities throughout the African diaspora and enlightens and empowers its friends.

A History of the World in 100 Objects – perhaps ironically, perhaps obviously by the British Museum. Broadcast in 2010 this series only touches on the topics of ownership however the objects shared highlight our shared history and are a great place to begin to unpick the human story.  

Art UK – The Outrageous Neglect of African Figures in Art History  

Sources:

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-africa/african-art-introduction/overviews-of-the-art-of-africa/a/historical-overview-to-the-1500s?modal=1

Sources:

Africa’s Great Civilisations – Henry Louis Gates Jnr

Dr Richard Leakey

Dr Emma Mbua – National Museum of Kenya

Dr Christopher Henshilwood

Dr Rebecca Bradshaw

Dr Wendy Black

Iziko Museum – Cape Town

Dr Colleen Darnell University of Hartford

Dr Alice Stevenson – Petrie museum – UCL