A recent visit to a local antiquity shop has changed my perspective about the human existence. I mean it’s one thing to see ancient art and antiquity in magazines, newspapers, on television or even on the web and it’s quite another to stand in the same room with objects purported to have been used by our ancestors over half a millennia. This is simply overwhelming – bronze masks, wooden pestles, bowls and spoons, fertility dolls, tables, chains used to bind slaves, statuettes in the form of animals – these are not only expensive art pieces but also the crudest of their kind. The most compelling stories are often imprinted on domestic objects, such as wooden spoons or ladles or beds which, from looks, were obviously hand fashioned.
Anyone of African descent or anyone with an interest in Africa should have the time to visit Africa and see these things. Sometimes an artifact can tell a thousand tales at once. These objects that I saw have both historical and sentimental value; tears well up when an attendant showed me the chains in which slaves were shackled and sent to the land of doom. The slave trade has such great lessons for the black race. If only we knew what went on in the dungeon in Cape Coast, if only we knew how many slaves were thrown overboard either because they were ill or attempted a rebellion, we would read and read and employ ourselves to learning how the world works. But sadly these things are not even taught in African schools today. It is very unfortunate that I couldn’t take any photographs because notices were clearly affixed to the walls that said photography was not allowed inside.
One of the questions which has repeatedly been raised by art critics in the western world is that indigenous African art is not understandable or rather difficult to understand. I first heard of this as an art student attending a colloquium hosted locally by a delegation from New York University, in I think, 2007. The main point of my discourse is this: One fails to understand art unless one can look at it from the perspective of the artist or unless one shares a common archetype or experience with the artist. Art gives clues to some basic truths about life although it itself doesn’t lead to the truth.
When you look at a wooden fertility doll of any of the tribes of Africa, you will not see anything realistic. The proportions are unreal, the figures themselves look stiff and highly symbolic and most body parts are not fully designated except those which the carver wants to draw attention to. This is because the artist is not interested in simply replicating nature. He is creating the doll for a purpose, not simply for decoration. Consider the following dolls from different parts of the world and you will notice similarities in anatomy- they all emphasize feminine features. These crude figurines tell the observer that different ideas about life developed in different places at the same time.
“Venus or woman of Willendorf” (Named after the site in Austria where it was unearthed)
Steatopygous Idol from ancient Greece. Also probably a fertility doll.
Wooden fertility statue of the Akan tribe of Africa
African fertility dolls are mostly used for performance of rituals usually for young girls when they reach puberty. The doll usually has feminine qualities such as breasts, hips and buttocks emphasized, like all three images above and of course this creates what the western critic will call distortion or irrationalism to which I completely agree. But art expresses the inner significance of things not the outer (Aristotle, 384-322 BC). Unlike the Corinthian statues of Zeus or Aphrodite which are realistic and life size, African art is highly symbolic and symbolism is the end product of imagination. Look at the Akuaba fertility doll and you get to know how the artist was feeling and thinking the whole time and the purpose to which the doll will be put. Moreover the doll itself was considered a good luck charm for barren women desirous of children, so it solves an emotional problem in the larger cultural context. In conclusion, the art forms of Africa are a tool, an aid to everyday living. The purpose or use is of higher priority than mere beauty and this why they appear symbolic or even bizarre. There is no logic but there is truth – emotional truth.