Sub-Saharan Art

Introduction

Summary

Summary of Sub-Saharan Art
Egyptian-based art ancient Nubia
Byzantine-based art Ethiopia, medieval Nubia
wooden sculpture masks, figures
non-wooden sculpture Nok clay figures, forest kingdom bronzes
architecture rock-cut churches (Ethiopia), Saharan style buildings, Great Zimbabwe enclosures
painting rock painting, weaving

Settlement vs. Nomadism

Prior to the development of agriculture, all humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. While most adopted settled life once it became available, many retained nomadic life, either by remaining hunter-gatherers or becoming herders. Artistic traditions are inherently limited among nomadic peoples, given that all possessions must be constantly transported; nomadic art is thus generally limited to the decoration of functional objects (e.g. tents, clothing, animal gear).

Pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa may be roughly divided into two "lifestyle zones". While settled agricultural life was widely embraced throughout West and Central Africa, the remainder of the Sub-Saharan region tended to retain nomadic life (mostly herding). Consequently, West and Central Africa are responsible for the majority of Sub-Saharan sculpture and architecture (and other forms of art inhibited by nomadic life).H598,15

Regions of Sub-Saharan Africa

Main Article

Sub-Saharan Civilization

Ancient Sub-Saharan Africa featured two civilizations (urban cultures): Nubia and Ethiopia (see History of Sub-Saharan Africa). Then came Sub-Saharan Africa's age of pre-colonial civilization, which spanned ca. 650-1880. The civilizations of this age can be divided into three types: traditional, Christian, and Islamic.

Sub-Saharan Africa's 'Age of Pre-colonial Civilization'

While only the most powerful Islamic civilizations are noted on the above map, Islam actually spread across the entire northern half of Africa. Thus did Nubia and Ethiopia become islands of Christianity in an Islamic sea. While Ethiopia managed to retain its independence (and Christianity) up to the present day, Nubia was eventually conquered and converted to the Islamic world.

These religious distinctions are crucial to understanding the art history of Sub-Saharan Africa, since artistic traditions were imported along with religion. Christianity, for instance, arrived in Nubia and Ethiopia from the Byzantine Empire. (Specifically, Christianity arrived via Egypt, which was part of the Byzantine Empire.) Consequently, Byzantine-style art was imported to these regions. Likewise, Islamic art was carried to the northern half of Africa (by the Caliphate).

It should be noted that the arrival of foreign art did not necessarily extinguish native traditions, which flourished alongside (and influenced) imported aesthetics. Only in the southern half of Africa, however, did traditional Sub-Saharan art continue to thrive undisturbed. This remained true until the coming of European powers in the modern age, which eventually converted the southern Sub-Saharan region to Christianity.

Religion in Present-day Africa

Egyptian-based Art

Sub-Saharan Africa's first civilization was Nubia. The Nubians lived along the Nile, to the south of ancient Egypt; the land of Nubia corresponds to present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Throughout most of the ancient period, Nubia was subject to the political and cultural dominance of the Egyptians; consequently, ancient Nubian art (of which the main surviving forms are sculpture and architecture) is strongly Egyptian-based.

Nubian Statue
Nubian Relief
Nubian Pyramids
Ruins of a Nubian Temple

Byzantine-based Art

In the medieval period, Christianity spread to Sub-Saharan Africa: first to Nubia, then to the young kingdom of Ethiopia. Byzantine-based art subsequently flourished in Nubia (until the Islamic conquest, at the end of the medieval period) and Ethiopia (up to the present). Surviving forms include architecture (namely churches), sculpture, and painting (namely murals, icons, and manuscript illumination).

Medieval Nubian Mural
Medieval Nubian Relief Sculpture
Medieval Nubian Column Capital (from a church)
Ethiopian Church
Page from an Ethiopian Manuscript

Sculpture

The primary traditional art form of Sub-Saharan Africa is wooden sculpture, of which the most common types are masks and small figures. Other forms include vessels, staves, and architectural decoration (e.g. carved doors). African sculpture, like that of other regions around the world, is sometimes decorated with paint, beads, or cloth.

Sub-Saharan sculpture tends to be quite stylized (see Realism vs. Stylization), often via dramatic elongation or enlargement of body parts. Sculpted figures are typically forward-facing and roughly symmetrical. Sub-Saharan masks, which may simply cover the face (face masks) or the entire head (helmet masks), sometimes feature an attached headdress.D553,16

Today, much sculpture is produced for the tourist market. One should remember, however, that traditional Sub-Saharan art (like most traditional art throughout the world) had explicit spiritual functions, as opposed to simply being appreciated for its aesthetics. Sculpture was often meant to serve as a spirit home (for an ancestor or natural deity) and/or an instrument of magical power, the latter of which might involve influencing the weather, communicating with the deceased, healing (or harming) living people, or foretelling the future.E22,16

The context in which artworks were originally experienced should also be noted. Today, works of traditional art are often viewed in display cases; while this method of art appreciation should not be underestimated, full appreciation is impossible without considering how the artwork would have been experienced by the culture that created it. Sub-Saharan masks, for instance, are often used in elaborate ceremonies, worn by richly costumed people dancing to lively music.

Sub-Saharan Wooden Figure
Sub-Saharan Wooden Stool
Sub-Saharan Mask
Sub-Saharan Mask

Given its perishable nature, only a tiny fraction of wooden sculpture has survived. Correspondingly, sculpture made from more durable materials (e.g. clay, stone, ivory, bronze) has survived in disproportionate abundance. Two groups of non-wooden Sub-Saharan sculpture are particularly famous.

The first group is the Nok sculptures, a collection of terracotta (baked clay) figures with elongated heads. These figures comprise the oldest known Sub-Saharan sculptures of indigenous style (i.e. not Egyptian- or Byzantine-based).15 The Nok culture, which produced these figures, was a non-urban farming culture that flourished ca. 500 BC-200 AD in Nigeria.

The second group is the forest kingdom bronzes, which consists of figures, busts, and relief plaques made from cast bronze. These sculptures were produced by the forest kingdoms: a cluster of kingdoms (including Benin and Ife) along the southern coast of West Africa. While most of the bronzes are quite stylized, some exhibit startling realism, an unusual quality of non-Western art.

Nok sculpture
Nok sculpture
Nok sculpture
Forest Kingdom Bronze Plaques
Forest Kingdom Bronze Bust
Forest Kingdom Bronze Bust
Forest Kingdom Bronze Figure
Forest Kingdom Bronze Figure

Architecture

Most remnants of pre-colonial Sub-Saharan architecture are Christian or Islamic in nature. While great buildings (e.g. palaces) were indeed constructed by traditional African civilizations, these were generally made from perishable materials. Between the ravages of time and European invasions, little indigenous architecture has survived.

The scarcity of large-scale architecture among traditional African civilizations is also explained by their religion. Whereas Christians and Muslims have erected countless churches and mosques (for religious assembly and ceremony), traditional African religion is practised chiefly outdoors. Consequently, large religious buildings never developed (though small shrines were built to house sacred objects).30

As noted earlier, the arrival of Christianity and Islam in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa entailed the arrival of foreign aesthetics. Nubia and Ethiopia built churches in the style of those found in the Byzantine Empire, while Islamic regions built mosques in the style of those found in the Middle East. Indigenous Sub-Saharan traditions influenced the appearance of these buildings to varying degrees.

By far the heaviest Sub-Saharan influence is found in the Saharan style (aka "Sudano-Sahelian style") of architecture, found in northernmost Sub-Saharan Africa (specifically in the southern Sahara Desert and the grasslands south of the Sahara). The Saharan style flourished especially among the Saharan empires (Ghana, Mali, and Songhai) of West Africa.

Derived from the style of local indigenous houses, Saharan style buildings are composed of mud brick, and feature thick sloping walls, flat roofs, and conical spires. Grids of structural wooden beams extend far beyond the building's exterior.16,30 The most famous Saharan style building is the Great Mosque of Djenné (Mali), the world's largest mud building.17

Great Mosque of Djenné
Mosque in Timbuktu

The most extraordinary works of Christian architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa are the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia, hewn from solid natural rock.25 These buildings were constructed during a medieval cultural revival in Ethiopia.

Rock-cut Church in Ethiopia
Rock-cut Church in Ethiopia

The foremost architectural ruins among traditional (as opposed to Christian or Islamic) Sub-Saharan civilizations are the massive stone enclosures erected by the "southern kingdoms" of Southern Africa. Hundreds of these defensive walls, which surrounded the settlements of various cultures, have been discovered. Many were erected by Great Zimbabwe, mightiest of the southern kingdoms. The largest ruin of this civilization, known as the Great Enclosure, contains a tower that may have served as a granary.G407

Ruins of the Great Enclosure
Ruins of the Great Enclosure

Painting

Painting is a relatively minor traditional art in Sub-Saharan Africa. The most common form is painted decoration (e.g. upon sculptures, practical objects, houses, or the human body), as opposed to painting as a standalone art. Like many traditions of decorative painting throughout the world, Sub-Saharan decoration typically consists of vibrant geometric patterns.

Exceptions do exist, however; perhaps the most fascinating is rock painting, which can be defined as "painting on natural rock surfaces". Sub-Saharan rock paintings, which have been discovered throughout the Sub-Saharan region (mainly in desert areas, where artwork is preserved by the arid climate), sometimes feature animals and (less commonly) humans. These works date to all phases of African history, some back to the Stone age.G407,H601

Sub-Saharan Rock Painting
Sub-Saharan Rock Painting
Sub-Saharan Rock Painting
Sub-Saharan Rock Relief

As noted above, Sub-Saharan painted decoration typically consists of geometric patterns executed in vivid colours. This description also applies to the designs of Sub-Saharan textiles, which flourish throughout the Sub-Saharan region, especially in West Africa. Along with sculpture, textiles are the most renowned form of African art. (Textiles are included in this section since they could be described as "fabric paintings".)

West African Textile Patterns
East African Textile Patterns
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