A short introduction into the most widespread interpretations of motives in Traditional African Art:
Revealing the importance behind some of Africa's most beautiful art and culture are four common themes. These themes represent ceremonial honor, mother earth and the people as her children, honor, and portrayal of a stranger. The four themes are described below.
Couples are most commonly shown as freestanding figures of relatively the same size and stature. They may be representative of ancestors, a married couple, twins, or community founders. This is representative of the importance placed on two as one. Most couple sculptures were developed for shrines or for positions of ceremonial honor. Sexual intimacy is rare in African carvings. In most African societies it is rare for men and women to display their affection publicly. The most common theme of the male and female couple is that of strength and honor; not love and intimacy.
A woman and a child
The mother and child couple is often representative of mother earth and the people as her children. African women will generally have a very strong desire for children. The strong desire that a woman has to bear children further shows the strong mother-child relationship that is a vital part of African culture.
A male with a weapon or animal
A male with a weapon or animal (commonly a horse) is produced to show honor to departed ancestors. Animals are rarely sculpted for the purpose of showing the inward or outward beauty of the animal, but to give status to the person. Even today, many in Africa would consider the ownership of a horse to be of greater status than the ownership of an automobile. Showing a person with a horse would then be giving great honor to them. Sometimes people are shown with animals that are not really used; possibly even mythical. The purpose is to show the power given to one who rides such an animal, and the wealth that they must have.
As women achieve significance through their children, men will often be honored in warfare. The one who goes to battle must have physical, emotional and spiritual energy to survive and to conquer. Thus we have the emphasis on weapons and the spoils of war in many African works.
An outsider or "stranger"
In Africa, a stranger is someone from a different country or tribe. They would usually not be welcomed; and the more distorted the portrayal of the stranger, the greater the gap that is normally symbolized. Sometimes strangers, especially white foreigners, are given a form of respect based on their relatively great weaponry or other powers.
As we try to understand what has historically made African peoples who they are; we can find out much of the driving forces within the people represented in these four common artistic themes. This knowledge gives us a deeper appreciation for the heritage and values of African society. Unfortunately, much of African art comes with no explanation of the symbolism behind each piece. When the meaning can be discerned, the deeper understanding gained and fuller appreciation of the cultural heritage can be obtained in a more meaningful and memorable way.
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Winter is coming to South Africa. Last year I got real German felt slipppers ( pantoffels ) as a present from a friend there. They are my most cherished item of clothing for the coming months.
Until next time,