The art traditions of African ethnic groups and nations are often underestimated in the West, and the vast majority of the population of the US or of Western Europe is not aware of cultural and art features of the African continent. Nevertheless, the culture of African tribes is extremely rich and their artworks represent various spheres of life of those nations. Such a lack of knowledge might happen because the concepts that African and Western arts are drastically different. The point is that the African art tradition, unlike Western one, provides no separation between fine art and crafts. Therefore, the European conception of “art for art sake” is not accepted (Willett). The artworks of the pre-colonial Africa always had some practical purpose (they might be used for rituals, household work, or for any other purposes). It does not mean that such works were not sources of aesthetic pleasure, but initially they were created for practical usage. The great role in the African culture plays so called royal or leadership art, it includes a variety of objects – regalia, national clothes, masks, sculptures, drums, etc. These artworks served as an evidence of a pedigree and demonstrated a ruler`s power and control over important resources of a tribe (Bortolot).
The first artwork for the analysis is a sculpture of the Egyptian Pharaoh Menkaure with the goddess Hathor and his wife, Khamerenebti. Ancient Egypt is one of the most ancient civilizations, and various forms of art were highly developed on this territory. Evidently, royal art was enormously valued in ancient Egypt, the main proves of that are majestic pyramids in the Giza valley, which served as graves for Egyptian monarchs, huge sculptures of gods and members of a royal family, and various images of Pharaoh, his relatives, and divine protectors at other visual artworks. Egyptians believed in an inextricable connection between gods and the royal dynasty, therefore a Pharaoh was considered to be a son of god. The hierarchy of Egyptian society is depicted at any visual artwork: usually the biggest figures were gods, priests, Pharaohs, and other members of the royal family, figures of other social classes’ representatives were smaller and the size of figures revealed the social status of a person. That is why, statutes and sculptures of Pharaohs and their relatives were huge and impressive, such images proved divinity and power of a monarch.
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Peter Dorman in the article “Egyptian Art and Architecture” points out:
Artistic achievement in both architecture and representational art aimed at the preservation of forms and conventions that were held to reflect the perfection of the world at the primordial moment of creation and to embody the correct relationship between humankind, the king, and the pantheon of the gods.
This quote explains another very important feature of Egyptian art, the depiction of human beings in their perfection. Therefore, all people depicted in visual artworks have perfect bodies and ancient artist created particular standards of beauty, both for men and women.
The conventions of representation indicted above can be easily recognized in the sculpture of the Pharaoh Menkaure with the goddess Hathor and his wife. The Pharaoh is the central figure in the composition, he embodies kingship and ideal male forms. He wears a crown, specific to Upper Egypt, a long artificial beard and a kilt with a central tab; all these elements prove that he is the most influential person in the state. The things he holds in his hands are probably the symbols of his office. The typical feature of men`s image in Egyptian sculpture is an advanced left foot, which can be observed in this sculpture (“King Menkaura (Mycerinus) and Queen”). To the right of the Pharaoh stands Hathor, an important goddess in the Egyptian pantheon, responsible for birth, rebirth, creation, and fertility. She was considered to be the Pharaoh`s divine mother and protector. Her image is similar to an image of an ordinary woman, except for the hair dress with horns of a cow and a solar disk between them, which are the symbols of her divinity (“King Menkaura, the Goddess Hathor, and the Deified Hare Nome”). To the left of the Pharaoh stands his wife, her figure is the smallest one in this composition. The bodies of both women are slim and have perfect forms; both of them embody ideal female beauty. This sculpture reveals a strong connection between gods and the Egypt royal family and emphasizes the power and social status of the Pharaoh. This sculpture is a true masterpiece and proves that the leadership art in Ancient Egypt was well developed.
The next work for the analysis is a sculpture made by one of the most famous Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise, who lived at the end of 19th – at the beginning of 20th century. The sculpture depicts a Yoruba King and his wife. Yoruba is one of the largest African ethnic groups; its general population all over the world is approximately 40 million. Yoruba originates from the west coast of Africa and can be found in Nigeria and in the Eastern parts of Benin and Togo. Yoruba culture has ancient history and with time they managed to create extraordinary and highly valued artworks. During the course of history the ethnos established 20 different kingdoms and, therefore, royal art was a considerable part of their national culture (Mullen 9 – 11). Examples of artworks related to royalty are crowns, various textiles, swords, sculptures, and architectural buildings. The distinguishing feature of Yoruba visual images is naturalism, “except for bulging eyes, flat, protruding, and usually parallel lips, and stylized ears” (Willett). For instance, the sculpture of King and his wife by Olowe of Ise is a good example of naturalism in Yoruba royal art. Similarly to the Egyptian tradition, the size of figures reflects their social status, thus, figures of the royal family are much bigger than figures of their servants. However, a surprising feature of this sculpture is that the figure of the wife is significantly bigger than the figure of the king and her role in this sculpture is to support him. Such a disproportion shows the importance and high social position of women in Yoruba society. There exists a cult of Mother Earth, a deity that h sustains life in the physical world. Female figures symbolize plenty of positive things in Yoruba culture. For example, it means some good news as being appointed to the office, exonerated from blame, or given special favors. If female figures are worn on the body, they serve as talismans, which could ease the pain (Klonowski 19). Despite the fact that Yoruba is a patriarchal society, where the man dominates in the institution of kingship, people of this ethnos always tried to create healthy gender relations and ensured the respect for women. There are two main reasons why women were highly respected within this society – firstly, the preservation of humankind depended on the role of females and, secondly, Yoruba believed that women had access to the mystical power (Klonowski, 21). Hence, the sculpture of the King and his wife reflects the important role of a woman, as a person who helps a King to keep his power. Furthermore, the sculpture is a bright example of Yoruba ancient traditions of visual art, even though it was created by a relatively modern artist.
The next subjects for the analysis are more complex, since they are not single artworks but photos of Kings, which contain various attributes of royal power. In the first photo, there is the King of Ashanti, the largest sub-group of Akan people, Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II, and in the second picture, there is Kuba King Nyimi Kok Mabintsh III. Akan is a culture widespread in Ghana and Ivory Cost and within this group Ashanti is the biggest and most developed ethnos. Since the establishing of Ashanti Federation in the 17th century, art in this area flourished and this development was enhanced mainly by kings and upper classes of the society. Back then, the art acquired symbolic meaning and became a medium of communication between representatives of Ashanti culture and their enemies, allies, and even spirits of their ancestors (Garic). In the picture of Anshanti King Otumfuo Nana Opoku Ware II, on can see a lot of royal symbols. The most important one is a ceremonial stool, on which the King is sitting. Usually this stool was “carved with an arched sit set over a foot, referring to a proverb or a symbol of wisdom” (“Tribal African Art. Asante”). Such stools were used for special occasions (for instance, when the ruler enters the office) and they are decorated with beads, copper nails, and sheets. Furthermore, in the picture, a lot of golden articles and jewelry can be seen. The income of the Ashanti Empire mainly depended on the gold trade with European countries and northern African Nations, so gold was the major good and currency of the Empire. Therefore, golden articles were the symbols of the power of the royal spokesman and they were covered with gold foil as state swords. Moreover, Ashanti weavers created amazing textiles and they used imported silk for manufacturing (“Tribal African Art. Asante”). The clothes of the King and his servants prove that Ashanti textile is indeed of great weaving mastery.
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The next picture shows the King of Kuba people, an ethic group widespread in Congo. From the very first glance at this photo the attention of the viewer is drawn by the magnificent cloth of the King. Indeed, Kuba culture is one of the most developed in Africa and it is very famous for its textiles. Kings and other people performing functions of public servants had very prestigious clothing that indicated their ranks or positions. Different parts of the dress emphasize the sacred role and importance of kingship. Bwaantshy it the name of kings’ dress, it is usually made of skins, cowries, and patterned mats. The most important part of this clothing is a tunic decorated with cowries and beads. Moreover, the King has a thirteen feet- long belt, which wraps his waist. The key symbols of the power and influence are the sword, which the King holds in his right hand and a lance in his left hand (Visona? et al. 383). These pictures prove that clothing and regalia play an extremely important role in African societies. All these symbols aimed at showing the high status of the person in an office and each element has its unique meaning and is an evidence of a king`s connection with divine forces and respected ancestors.
Taking into account the artworks discussed above, the following general features of African culture and art can be indicated:
- Art objects usually serve for practical functions. They may prove the social status or be the objects for ceremonies and rituals or even be used as household tools.
- Craftsmanship is highly valued and appreciated. It also plays a considerable role in royal art, for examples, craftsmen are responsible for creating special clothing for kings.
- The balance between resemblance and likeness. Obviously, African art is characterized by naturalism (as evident from Yoruba artworks), but it means that the figure or image must be easily recognized as a man or woman but not as a specific one. The representatives of African cultures believed that the images of particular people draw their power and, therefore, can be dangerous.
- Lines and forms are visible, clear, and have strong angles.
- The depiction of a person in the prime of life. Usually even old ancestors were depicted as young people; otherwise, it might be offensive or dangerous.
- Art emphasizes the high position and status of a person. The size of figures, colors, ornament of clothes, accessories display the position of a person in the society (Jirousek).
- The institute of kingship provides for great flourishing and development of all art forms.
Evidently, because of the vast variety of different cultures, traditions, and religious believes, it is hardly possible to generalize all characteristics of African art. Every nation and ethnos requires special attention and studying. However, by observing particular artworks that belong to the different cultures, it is possible to indicate some common specialties of ethnic groups, tribes, or even civilizations all over the African continent. Without any doubt, royal or leadership art is one of the richest spheres of African culture, which is represented in various forms.