From the Rock to the World: Evolution of African Art
At the culmination of the idea of Africa and art, are the words vibrancy, storytelling, celebration, and expression. Whenever you think of art, you probably think of a nineteenth-century middle-aged man making a painting, or someone sculpting remarkable characters from Biblical times, and that would not be an entirely strange thought. But art in itself carries the hearty heritage of culture, history, and innovation. And these factors are the very nature of the African continent. Someone might even suggest that Africa is not only the cradle of humankind but the birthplace of artistic expression. From the rock art in Namibia to debuting traditional artworks of the Ndebele tribe in Southern Africa on vodka bottles, for the whole world to marvel at. African art has gone through various stages while telling the story of the African people and remains a tool of not only self-expression but a tool of knowledge production. Get ready to go on a journey, not quite from a place to another place, but from a time to another—a time that dates back thousands of years ago…
Art the Storyteller
Africa’s oldest known paintings are small stone plaquettes with paintings of animals on them. Dating back approximately 25 000 years ago, the paintings were excavated in Southern Namibia in 1969, the same year the first spacecraft landed on the moon known as the Apollo 11 (TARA, UNESCO & World Heritage Centre, 2019). The paintings were later given the same name. Rock art was a way of documenting the world as seen and known by African people. From the paintings of cattle to human-like figures holding what looked to be spears, rock art told stories, preserved tradition and created knowledge that would soon be passed down to many generations to come. Today rock art is the adhesive that keeps the knowledge of the world we know now, and the history and heritage of the many generations before us. To the Khoisan people of South Africa, the rock art remains as the foundational knowledge of their culture and history. The San Bushmen also painted on walls (cave walls particularly) to tell stories as far back as 1984 BCE (Brand South Africa, 2017). We can imagine one could recall the tale of a memorable hunt, draw military strategies, or even maps on the walls to faraway lands. Similar art styles were actually present in ancient Egypt too, the difference was that they used hieroglyphics (like symbols and alphabets) whist the San Bushmen did not, though theirs seemed to be on much larger scales. Rock paintings in caves in an art that is engraved at the core of various African societies, regardless of where these societies form within the continent. Rock art is a common language African people quite literate in. As the late president Nelson Mandela said, “Africa’s rock art is the common heritage of all Africans, but it is more than that. It is the common heritage of humanity”.
Not only did African people incorporate rock artwork as part of their way of life, but tribes from West Africa such as the Nok residing a few kilometers away from the Benin Kingdom at that time. Renowned for its artistic sculptural style, Nok culture has attained popularity and fixed space in the history and evolution of African art. These sculptures (like in the image below), also called Terracotta figures, were made from fired clay and were used to reveal the respect and significance held for certain people—such practices were also observable in the Benin Kingdom (Contemporary African Art, 2018). The erection of a statue in a public square was also used to put importance on certain people or events, the creation of terracotta figures in both Nok and Benin cultures was to serve the same purpose, particularly of kings and queens. Valorous characters were born that deserve recognition till today. People like Queen Amina of Zaria, warriors of the Ashanti Kingdom, and great men and women of profound crafts and traditional knowledge, were preserved through verbal or visual art for their courage, leadership, or story. From just hundreds of years ago, we can see how art was used to reveal respect for people, and even till today, recounts history up until many decades ago.
Art the Weapon
Since the 19th century, the nation we now know as South Africa had been on a tangent to one of the most profound events in its history, giving birth to some of the most admirable leaders the continent has ever seen, but also in the history of African art. In the 1980s to the 1990s, resistance art was directed at the white elite’s oppressive exercise of power (SAHA, 2019). At this time, the system of racial segregation was at its peak and so were the detriments to the Africans (and foreigners) in South Africa. Resistance art involving singing, marching, dancing, acting, chanting and so on all rose to the fore, unanimously against an oppressive government. The introduction of protest artwork came through the mobilizing of masses and to speak out against the injustices of the Apartheid regime. The concept of art took on a whole new form that would remain deep in the bones of Southern Africans—even those who didn’t experience the apartheid system. During Apartheid, art became the voice of the voiceless and more importantly brought an oppressed nation of people together. The emergence of a highly celebrated white playwright named Athol Fugard, who is best known for his political plays opposing the oppressing system of Apartheid, Fugard worked intimately with black theatre performers such as John Kani and the late Winston Ntshona (Klaff, 2014). Paving the way for award-winning musical films such as Sarafina by Mbongeni Ngema. Sarafina tells the tale of the mobilization of high school students in the township of Soweto rose above the apartheid system, while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island (IMDb, 2019). To this day, there are certain songs that you would play into a crowd of South Africans, certain photographs you would show, certain plays you would dramatize, poems you would recite, and shows you would release that would stir up the soul, invoke emotion, trigger action. If you ever find yourself in the streets of the Mother City also known as Cape Town, be sure to check out the Athol Fugard theatre for a dose of authentic storytelling.
Art the Advocate
The boundless nature of art is truly seen through South African artist, Dr. Esther Mahlangu. Mahlangu collaborated with luxury vodka brand Belvedere by designing a special bottle for the #Makethedifference Campaign. Which is a campaign in support of the fight against HIV/AIDS (Pawson, 2016). The bottle is covered in a traditional tribal print of the Ndebele tribe found in Southern Africa. This takes the idea of art within the continent to a new level of breaking boundaries and while serving the African people. 50% of the profits made from each bottle sold was donated to the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. It is remarkable what African has meant to the continue and the role it continues to play in the growth of the continent. Whether it be listening to the striking sounds of Burna Boy or enjoying a play that tells the story of African people on a world stage, one thing is undeniable. The art is within us and should remain with us.
Art the Celebrator
We have seen how art functioned to interact with surroundings, tell stories, recount history, reveal respect, resist injustice or even itself across many of the times and locations on this side of the globe, and art is working out its purpose on the African continent now. Regardless of colonial influence, African art still remains a powerful medium in the world. What we advocate for is the consideration and integration of art in our various societies. Art should be a subject in schools because that would improve the quality of our citizens as it aids learning! Art should be a legitimate career choice parents should encourage their offspring to pursue. What good would the continent be if we only had bankers, lawyers, and engineers? Art, in all its forms including culinary, martial, visual, performing, literary, should be promoted by governments for the development of a good and healthy society—many art forms are therapeutic, charitable to the mind and body. Interestingly, many works of the ancient African dexterities, possessing ample culture and rich portions of skill, story, and history, lie on display in European museums…but that’s another story.
Let art be our way of celebrating who we are and saying to the world, “we have arrived”. For centuries, our story has been told by others and certainly not for us. Let us take the reins and celebrate the energy, culture, history- whether good or bad and take delight in progress made. In the words of Marcus Garvey, “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture are like a tree without roots”. Let art be the gravity that keeps us rooted in OUR way of doing things and let art be the foundation of our innovations.
- TARA, UNESCO, & World Heritage Centre. (2019). Apollo 11 Cave (Namibia) c. 30,000 BP. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from https://africanrockart.org/rock-art-in-africa/periods-and-styles/apollo-11-cave-namibia/
- Klaff, J. (2014). Acting against apartheid: the enduring power of South African protest theatre | Jack Klaff. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/jun/20/acting-against-apartheid-south-african-protest-theatre
- SAHA. (2019). SAHA – South African History Archive – A State of Emergency. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from http://www.saha.org.za/ecc25/ecc_under_a_state_of_emergency.htm
- Pawson, H. (2016). Make the difference: Belvedere continues fight against HIV/AIDS – The Moodie Davitt Report. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from https://www.moodiedavittreport.com/make-the-difference-belvedere-continues-fight-against-hivaids/
- Brand South Africa. (2017). South African art. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from https://www.brandsouthafrica.com/south-africa-fast-facts/arts-facts/overview-history-south-african-art
- Contemporary African Art. (2018). African art history. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from https://www.contemporary-african-art.com/african-art-history.html
- IMDb. (2019). Sarafina! (1992) – IMDb. Retrieved 16 December 2019, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105316/