African Art – Use Of The Human Body

The human figure has long intrigued artists from all over the world and across many centuries. Likewise, African artists have held the shape, form and features of the body as their main theme. This has been a symbiotic relationship; the body has both exuded and been subject to certain features which have effectively been used to convey very specific messages and / or ideologies.

One of the ways that African artists conveyed such ideologies is the manner in which they represented a human body. Shiny skin and a fit form conveyed the fertility and vigour that was required of such rural ones in order to survive and look after one’s family efficiently. This applied for both men and women. However, a human figure will also frequently have somewhat of a belly, indicating that they are eating well and are, therefore, prosperous and healthy, not starving. In addition, a sense of self-control (a much admired quality) is conveyed with a bowed head and rounded shoulders. This indicates to cultures all over the world what the ‘perfect’ body looked like to African cultures, and how important it was, and still is, in terms of the stature and priorities of such societies.

Depiction of the human body is best expressed in sculpture. This is also the favoured medium of most African artists, so the two factors converge in perfect agreement. Sculpture is 3-dimensional, and draws the viewer in, around and through it far more effectively than a flat canvas. This invites spectators to experience the human form, explore it and interpret it with the same ‘natural’ eye of indigenous African folk, not with preconceived ideas about beauty or perfection dictated by the media.

African artists use tools such as symmetry, proportion and shock to convey messages. Therefore, while the sculpture may be symmetrical, there are frequently parts of the piece that are completely disproportional. These draw attention to the feature and convey a specific idea to the viewer without having to say a word. Likewise, animal qualities are sometimes given to the human form with the intention of bestowing some of the qualities of that animal upon the person or tribe being represented. Therefore, presenting a chief or king with a human body with distinctly lion-like qualities (claws, mane etc…) will convey the idea of royalty, strength and power to that person.

African artists have achieved the balance between focus on a particular subject, the human body, and the ability to convey a myriad messages and ideologies by incorporating aspects and elements of their lives and surroundings into each piece. It is such ability, natural and untrained, that has influenced Western art significantly.

Effects Of Climatic And Environmental Changes On Ancient African Civilisations

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the entire planet earth looked very different to what modern man experiences today. Continents were not yet divided, and the vegetation and animals were different. Significantly, the climate was also vastly different to what it is today. Climate plays an integral role in determining the plants and animal that live in a certain areas, as well as how habitable a place is for human beings.

In fact, even the theory of the evolution of man was dependent largely on the climatic influences on our ancient ancestors. It is hypothesised that the ancient versions of man were forced to walk upright, lose body hair and develop their coordination for survival in a changing environment. New skills also needed to be learned as farming techniques and living habits had to be adapted.

Ancient Africa experienced major vacillations between mega-droughts and Ice Ages, although these fluctuations occurred over thousands and thousands of years. As humans continued to develop and evolve through these phases, they needed to make major adaptations, not only to their ways of life, but also to their personal body structure. Prior to 135 000 years ago, the whole of Africa was lush and fertile, with a tropical climate. Then, the most intense mega-drought ever to occur hit the continent in the period referred to as the early part of the Late Pleistocene epoch. This is believed to have led to the migration of most of our human ancestors into other areas that were more habitable and fertile. Lake Malawi has been used by scientists as a rain gauge to ascertain water levels in ancient times. Research has shown that, during this mega-drought, the lake’s level dropped at least 1968 feet, or 600 metres! Evolutionists claim that this severe lack of water not only pushed ancient man from the area, it also forced aquatic animals (such as fish) to develop the facilities to be able to survive on dry land, thus evolving into land animals.

As people flocked out of the continent, only a very small proportion of this specific generation remained. Humankind as we know it is widely believed to have come from these few remaining on the continent, who evolved significantly and in response to the climatic changes.

These conditions continued until about 70 000 years ago, when the climate was again characterised by wetter conditions. These led to the growth and renewal of fresh vegetation, as well as an increased water supply to the region. More people were in the area during this time of abundance, and the population grew. This increase in numbers eventually led to migrations due to space limitations and the ownership of land.

Then, about 20 000 years ago, an Ice Age overcame the entire earth. This meant that the planet underwent a long-term period of cold temperatures over most of its surface. In places like North America and Eurasia, giant ice sheets covered enormous proportions of the land, making it impossible to farm and, sometimes, even live in these areas. This final Ice Age lasted for about 9 500 years. It forced most of the populations to migrate to the highlands, where they would be relatively protected from the ice sheets. Again, these civilisations had to adapt their farming methods, and change their diet, social habits, clothing and migratory patterns. This forced an evolution to a certain extent. Body hair was necessary to keep people warm, their skin lightened due to a lack of the harsh rays of the sun that they experienced during the mega-droughts, etc…

When this Ice Age came to an end 10 500 years ago, areas like the Sahara were left fertile and healthy. This made it and the other areas like it the ideal spots in which to settle as ancient man began to descend from the highlands. Animals and plants thrived in this environment, which made it very desirable in the eyes of mankind. The abundance of food, water and sunshine again changed the habits and physical structures of our earliest forefathers.

These conditions lasted for some time, but the Sahara in particular continued to experience fluctuations between humid and dry conditions. These eventually left the entire area unable to yield crops or sustain life for any extended period of time. Today, it remains a large stretch of desert. Then, approximately 2500 years ago, the group of people who had made their home in the Sahara began to follow the direction of the Nile River, which held promise of a rich water supply. The arid conditions of the Sahara and its surrounds continue to the present day.

Africa has, since prehistoric times, proven to be a place of fascination, life and evolution. Changes in the climate were often dramatic, and these were, to a great extent, responsible for determining the ancient civilisations that inhabited this vast continent. It is no wonder that many researchers and scientists maintain that Africa is the Cradle of Mankind, and research continues to yield fascinating evidence of this theory.