African Interpretation of the Human Form

In this gallery I plan to show examples of sculptures that exemplify NonWestern artwork, as well as showing that the human figure can be expressed in non traditional ways. The interpretation of the human figure in african artwork is one that I find to be the most unique. These pieces that have been selected caught my attention for a few key reasons. The human form in relation to the face is primarily displayed as masks, and worn in ritual ceremonies. It was interesting to find out that most masks were destroyed after they were used, and I think it says something about the importance and value that is placed on each piece. The other pieces in this exhibit show that the human form is emphasized in key areas to relate to a certain emotion or task. The human form can be interpreted in so many different ways that I believe it's one of the most expressive ways to produce art. Even in my own work I often find myself referencing African artwork of the human figure to then express key ideas and an overall sense of culture. 

This rare wooden sculpture of a horse and rider made over 500 years ago in West Africa, during an age of great kingdoms, raises a lot of questions that require a wide range of inquiry and thinking skills to figure out possible answers. This feature explores a few questions about the sculpture and some of the ways people have gone about trying to answer them. Even if we don’t always come up with absolute or so-called “right” answers, it is important for everyone to ask questions and seek answers using many tools and techniques. Students, historians, artists, teachers, and scientists have a lot to learn from one another. Sharing our ideas with others is a good place to start when seeking answers or solutions to problems.
In the past mukudj masks were danced on stilts in masquerades during funeral celebrations. The mask’s white coloring symbolizes peace, the afterlife, and the spirits of the dead—though today its performances are chiefly for entertainment.
This wooden carving of an abstract human shape was placed on top of a container made of bark or basketry, which housed the skull, bones and other remains of a deceased person. A religious institution owned this particular figure, which honours important community members. The Kota artists covered the surface with brilliant sheets of brass and copper to encourage the interaction between the dead and the living.
Nothing is known for certain about the original use of stone carvings such as this one, since the area in which they were made suffered severe social and political disruption in the 1500s. The crocodile most likely represents an ancestor, and the figure some form of communication between the living and the ancestor. The forelegs of the crocodile merge with the arms of the man, suggesting a deep link between the two. The carver of this figure probably belonged to a group of Sapi artists who also made objects for export, such as the ivory cup in this case.
The Edo figure glorifies the spirit of a deceased king, or oba, who ruled the kingdom of Benin at the height of its power. A motif on the figure's kilt depicting an elephant, whose trunk ends in a human right hand, identifies this work with the reign of the oba Esigie, who ruled from 1504 to 1550. Johannes Segogela's sculpture addresses the South African transition from the armed liberation struggle against whites-only apartheid rule into the new democratic era, born the following year with the multiracial elections that swept Nelson Mandela to power. The work suggests the need for South Africans to cast their weapons into the furnace.
Benin court officials have long worn a variety of brass ornaments as part of their elaborate regalia for ceremonial occasions. Such ornaments were worn on the left hip, covering the closure of a wrapped skirt. The three metal scarification marks on either side of the forehead identify the individual portrayed as a royal Edo man. Similar items of regalia are worn by Benin court officials today.
When seeking a cure for illness many Africans consult doctors trained in Western medicine, but have access to practitioners of traditional medicine who are also religious specialists. These people are also consulted about non-medical problems such as the identification of thieves or the recovery of lost property.The ritual experts or diviners use a range of devices with which to consult the gods or ancestors. The Luba use sculpted figures called bankishi which are considered to be an empty vessel until they are charged with powerful substances by the ritual specialists. These materials are thought to have rare and special powers such as human bones (life force) and the hair of twins (symbols of fertility) which are either wrapped in cloth and inserted into a hole in the figures' head or stomach or into the cavities of the horns.Sometimes the bankishi figures have multiple heads which may signify increased powers of divination and the ability of the diviner to see in all directions simultaneously.T. Phillips (ed.), Africa, the art of a continent (London, Royal Academy, 1995)M.D McLeod and J. Mack, Ethnic sculpture (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)
The Ife head is thought to be a portrait of a ruler known as an Ooni or Oni. It was likely made under the patronage of King Obalufon II whose famous naturalistic life size face mask in copper shares stylistic features with this work. Today among the Yoruba, Obalufon is identified as the patron deity of brass casters. The period in which the work was made was an age of prosperity for the Yoruba civilisation, which was built on trade via the River Niger to the peoples of West Africa. Ife is regarded by the Yoruba people as the place where their deities created humans. These bronze heads are evidence of additional trade since Ife made glass beads have been found widely in West Africa. The copper is thought to be from local Nigerian ores, although earlier scholars believed it to have come from Central Europe, North West Mauritania, the Byzantine Empire, or Southern Morocco.
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