[History]: African art

2 months ago

 Hi friends! 

I really liked the article from the old magazine about African art. I suggest we go into history together. The article was published in the Russian journal in 1970. Before that, in 1969, the all-African festival of culture and art was held. A lot of occupying facts from the history tell the candidate of art V. Mirimanova.

A LONG WAY TO FOREIGN IDOLS - 1970

Last year ended the all-African festival of culture, which was attended by hundreds of researchers and artists around the world.
Millennia and centuries ago, wooden, bronze, clay figures of warriors and gods, cups and vases, silhouettes of dancers and hunters carved on the rocks, created by unknown masters of the Black continent, are now recognized as the property of world art.
...And it is hard to believe that what has become the pride of the largest art collections in our days, at the beginning of the XX century was considered only as ethnographic exhibits of cultures that barely crossed the threshold of the stone age—
We asked the candidate of art history V. MIRIMANOV, who was present at the festival as part of the Soviet delegation, to tell about the history of the discovery of African art.

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I

Albrecht dürer was too old and too wise to trust the diary with words born of random emotions. One of the greatest artists of his time, a pupil and follower of Titian and Giorgione, Palma Vecchi of Giovanni Bellini, he had a long and in horror beheld the overseas works of art, such seemingly bizarre in the atmosphere of a European city, in beholding of the revelation to comprehend the end which even he was powerless... "Never in my life, — he wrote on the evening of April 1520, — have I seen anything so pleasing to my heart as these objects. Looking at such amazing creations, I was amazed by the refined genius of people of foreign countries".
At the time when dürer made his record, "these objects" in private museums and "offices of curiosities" was still quite small, and they seemed as mysterious and incomprehensible as the country from which they were brought. Statues, vases, and bracelets were as exotic to Europeans as ginger and parrots, dark-skinned slaves, and sailors ' tales of the rainforest. And, as on any exotic, on them there was a fashion. They even gradually turned into an object of import: Portuguese traders ordered the captains of ships going to Africa, all sorts of ivory. And, like any exotic, they caused amazement and delight. Poems were dedicated to them.
But Europeans admired exotic — not art. Few people were then given to see in the products of foreign masters "refined genius" — dürer wrote these words for seventeen years before Pope Paul III in his bull graciously "gave" the inhabitants of the newly discovered lands "the property of real people."..
This "gift" was offered to Africa by the Vatican in 1537. Its meaning, of course, was not to "equalize" the rights of Christians and pagans before God. By no means. The Pope's bull was a signal for missionary activity, which for Africans was no less destructive than the slave trade — missionaries did everything they could to destroy the structure of African society, its cultural and social traditions. And when in the XIX century began a new stage of colonization of Africa (counting for the initial period of its "discovery" in the XV—XVI centuries), "Europeans find here only the remnants of States - writes French Africanist Jean Lod - morally and materially destroyed — the result of four centuries of ruthless exploitation of the continent, justified by the "savagery" of Africa and its "inability to civilization".
The reflection of this barbaric attitude to other cultures was reflected in the practice of scientific research in Africa in the "enlightened" nineteenth. Classification and study of works of art of African artists engaged only ethnographers. The founder of the Berlin Museum of folk studies Adolf Bastian appeals "to acquire everything possible to save the works of primitive cultures from destruction and to concentrate them in our museums". In fact, it was a call to plunder the national cultural values of Africa, even though it was covered by the words "salvation".

But it was not the worst of what threatened the works of African masters.
Since the second half of the XIX century in Africa as a result of the activities of missionaries begins the mass destruction of folk sculpture. Masks, cult figurines and fetishes are piled up and burned. Thousands and thousands of unique monuments die in such an auto-da-fé, great art disappears, and with it the thousand-year-old traditions that nourished the work of folk artists. In Northern Angola, for example, by 1872, the oldest monuments of art had been completely destroyed.
Ethnographers did not take part in this, but often after them on the ground there was nothing more or less valuable of what was created by the ancient original culture. Many ethnographers of that time can be compared with the Klondike gold miners, who did not calm down as long as there was a grain of gold in the ground.
To all other ethnographers interested in that period often only what would help the "practices" of colonialist activity in Africa. Ethnographic materials, including works of art, were not considered as artistic values, they just had to facilitate the study of African life: African masks and figurines, which are now the pride of the largest art museums in the world, were estimated by most researchers as rough crafts "savages", "approximate inept images of people and gods", as a kind of visual AIDS for future colonists.
And the works of African masters were too alien to the canons of European art of that time. It was difficult to expect from any of the European "tastemakers" recognition that an elegant statue of marble and carved from wood "primitive" idol can equally be works of art.
And so, four centuries after the day when dürer discovered the "refined genius of the people of foreign countries", in one of the encyclopedias clearly and dispassionately stated: "The Negroes, who, like all the races of Central Africa, far behind in the field of art, find idols depicting people and reproducing with grotesque fidelity the characteristics of the African race".
But just a year after the release of the encyclopedia before Europe appeared works of magnificent bronze Benin.

II

It was one of the most powerful States of tropical Africa, and the capital city of Benin its size, landscaping, size of buildings and palaces struck European travelers... "The city - wrote in the XVII century Dutch physician and historian Olfert dapper - together with the Royal Palace has a circumference of 5 or 6 miles. On one side there is a high wall 10 feet high... The Palace has a quadrangular shape. It occupies the same territory as the city of Haarlem (1 City in Holland.), and surrounded by a special wall. It is divided into numerous luxurious facilities, it leads to the beautiful long and square galleries at the dimensions are the same as the Amsterdam stock exchange. The city has thirty perfectly straight streets, kept very clean...»
At the end of the XIX century, England decided to take over Benin, which in the XV century established trade relations with the Portuguese. In 1897, several Englishmen came to the Holy city during a religious holiday in spite of the ban. Two of them were killed. And then her Majesty's punitive expedition came to the walls of Benin. Kernels and land mines destroyed the thousand-year city.
And, raking in search of prey still Smoking ruins of the Beninese Palace, the British soldiers found about two thousand bronze figures...
Soon these sculptures appeared in antique shops. Researchers of ethnographic museums in Europe was struck by the perfection of products of African metallurgists, which, as recognized by scientists, are not inferior to the samples of The Renaissance and... in some ways they resemble them. It seemed incredible.
And then there was an assumption that the origins of the Beninese art of bronze processing should not be sought in tropical Africa, and in the Mediterranean sea, where ancient civilization began. It was even believed that once Beninese masters learned their art from the Etruscans. More cautious researchers came to the conclusion that the Benin bronze is of Portuguese origin. There were also suggestions that it is a reflection of Indian civilization.
European science and art history were simply not prepared for this discovery, which for centuries destroyed the emerging idea of Africa.
Meanwhile, the discovery of African sculpture has just begun. When the researchers began to study the history of Benin, it turned out: in the XVI century, Portuguese sailors and travelers who visited this city, recorded the legend that Benin was once ruled by the kings of the more powerful city — IFE, the capital of the Yoruba people, and that it was from there that the art of bronze casting came to Benin. Legends even called the name of the first Metallurgist who came from IFE: igve Igha.
And in 1910, the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius, based only on these legends, began excavations in IFA (Nigeria). Frobenius's expedition to IFA lasted only two months, but what was discovered during that time exceeded all expectations. Literally in the first days of excavations near the dilapidated Palace of one of the rulers, archaeologists found pieces of terracotta sculpture depicting a man. "These were traces of very ancient and beautiful art, — Frobenius wrote in his diary.  These scattered remnants were the epitome of symmetry, liveliness, elegance of form directly reminiscent of Ancient Greece... The value of the discovery leaves no doubt: it points to something definitely exotic, the existence of an unusually ancient civilization... A little more, and I can confidently say that we are now where once stood the sacred abode of Poseidon...»
The fact is that Frobenius was convinced of the existence of Atlantis — and the perfection of the sculptures found in IFA seemed to him undeniable proof that it was "the country of Yoruba with its lush vegetation, with its chain of lakes on the coast is Atlantis, the birthplace of the heirs of Poseidon, the God of the sea, called Yoruba O l OCU nom, the country of people, of which Solon said: "they extended their power up to Egypt and the Tyrrhenian sea". And when Frobenius in the sacred grove of Yoruba, where, according to legend, was the spirit of the sea God Olokun, found a bronze, covered with a centuries-old patina beautiful sculpture, different in the manner of execution from the Beninese figures and surpassing them in technical skill, the last doubts of the researcher disappeared: "Before us lay the head of amazing beauty, wonderfully cast from antique bronze, truthful in his vitality... It was indeed Olokun, Poseidon of Atlantic Africa."
I must say that even then few people took seriously the theoretical constructions of Frobenius about Atlantis in Africa. But the works of art he found, different from Benin's products and from the "traditional" wooden African sculptures, the art of a classically clear style reminiscent of the best times of antiquity, were a sensation.

Who made them? When? What is their meaning? And most importantly, where are the origins of the skill of their creators? After all, the sculptures of IFE in their qualities and honed artistic techniques are so perfect that there could be no doubt about the existence of an even more ancient art school, which brought up its traditions of IFE masters.
In 1938, in Nigeria eighteen bronze heads were accidentally found — again very close to ancient art. This time, however, amazed even, and a definite portrait sculptures. And again began disputes. And again, many derived the origins of open culture from the shores of the Mediterranean.
However, several years pass, and not far from IFE, archaeologists discover many ceramic products of the same culture, as well as the burial with five terracotta heads, two of them are made in a stylistic manner, typical of African sculpture, as it was presented before the discoveries in Benin and IFA, and the other three — in the style characteristic of these open monuments. These findings have left no doubt that the art of IFE owes its origin to local African traditions, and its seeming singularity for Africa suggests only that science, in fact, is still very little known about African art.
In 1943, in one of the tin mines of Northern Nigeria, near the village of NOK, under an eight-meter layer of rock fragments of ceramics were unexpectedly found. English archaeologist B. Fegg, carefully examining the mine dumps, dug up a huge number of previously unnoticed fragments of clay products: terracotta heads, figurines... A radiocarbon analysis showed — these sculptures were made in the early I Millennium BC. In other words, the art of the NOC was more than a Millennium older than the bronze and clay sculptures of IFE.
Another important fact soon became clear: this culture was not concentrated only near the village of NOK. The total area of its distribution was equal to about 180,000 square kilometers!
The discovery of the NOC culture has dramatically expanded the chronological framework of African art. And allowed, at least in General terms, to trace the perspective of historical and artistic development of African sculpture.
It seemed that an insurmountable gap separates the long-known works of the so-called traditional African sculpture from the oldest examples of African plastics, which can be compared in style with samples of high antiquity.
But it was the discovery of ancient monuments of African art that made it possible to draw the final conclusion with certainty: in its proportions, individual methods of face, eye treatment, even the tradition of surface treatment, and the sculpture of the NOC, and the later bronze of the IFE, and the somewhat special art of Benin, and the folk wooden sculpture — all links of one chain, the beginning of which goes back thousands of years.
Researchers now believe that many modern tribes along the Gulf of Guinea have retained the same religion as the tribes that created the NOC culture. This religion — cult of the mythical ancestors of the tribe, carriers of "life force", which applies to the living. It can be assumed that the statues of the NOC performed the same function of communication between the other world and the real world, as modern wooden ritual figures depicting ancestors.

III

"If the amphora refuses to go to the source, she deserves to be ridiculed by the pitcher," wrote Victor Hugo.
Many European artists of the second half of the XIX century understood that the modern so-called academic art is reborn in the factory of false beauty, elegant scenery, isolating man from the real world.
The search for a way out of this situation was carried out in different directions. Some artists, for example, tried to contrast the established academic canons with the fleeting unbalance of the state of the depicted objects, as if dissolved in air and light. But this direction, opening up new possibilities of artistic representation of the world, led to the loss of clarity and completeness of style, making it impossible to create a full-fledged artistic images'. More and more artists begin to understand that the main thing is not a fleeting state, no matter how perfect it may be displayed, but the deep essence of things, not the reflected flicker of light, but the "weight, rudeness, visibility" of the real world, internal and external. And therefore it is not a coincidence that it was during the years of intense search for new possibilities of fine art that the language of folk sculpture, including African, still silently resting on the shelves of ethnographic museums, was heard — the language in which the African master conveyed by purely plastic means specific ideas and concepts close to him, those that could not be expressed by simply copying the external features of nature.
For example, the mask depicting at first glance, the man's face. But if you look closely, you can distinguish here the obvious features of the beast, birds and fish. It turns out that this mask depicts a fantastic creature, symbolizing both the earth, water and sky — the main components of the world around the artist, and therefore carries specific information about the cosmogonic views of its author.
This is one of the striking features of folk — and not only African — art, due to the entire course of its history from the ancient rock paintings, Dating back thousands of years, to modern products made of wood, clay, metal, due to the utilitarian function that it performed — to transmit information, store specific knowledge, legends.
This function is more or less performed by any art, but with the difference that the art of peoples who did not have a written language, carries an increased information load.
What the African sculptor sought to Express by plastic means could not be conveyed by a simple naturalistic representation.
The styles and visual forms of African sculpture that have evolved over the centuries have an extraordinary capacity: combining several plastic forms into one, the African sculptor creates a plastic ideogram that is grasped by the viewer directly, intuitively — the way we perceive the content of a dance or a musical work.

IV

Now it is difficult to cover everything that modern world culture owes to African art. Its significance is not only in the fact that the world science has opened the millennial traditions of original art, without which it is now impossible to imagine the history of world culture.
Perhaps one of the main meanings of African art is that it has once again proved that there are no gifted peoples and "mired in savagery", there is and can not be incompatible cultures — the culture of "white" and the culture of "black". There is a great chain of development of human culture, some links of which — "refined genius of people of foreign countries" and ancient times.

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Around the world magazine / July 1970

 Until next time, @r3benok   

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