Characteristics Of African Art

While African art is one of the most all-encompassing and non-definitive art forms in the world, there remain some aspects of it that have been common denominators throughout the continent and over extended spans of time. These characteristics signify the artists’ priorities, ideals and values, as well as that of the society that has moulded him or her.

The first characteristic that occurs in most sculptures and paintings is that the subject RESEMBLES A HUMAN BEING. This is significant as not all subjects are actually human. However, by assigning human characteristics to the figure, the artist ensures that his or her subjects are able to identify and thus relate to the subject and the art piece as a whole. Human figures are used to symbolise living and dead and can also be used to convey the idea of a spiritual being. Many African artists inter-morphed figures of humans and animals to create a kind of hybrid being.

Image of African Mask from Mali, made of wood and embellished with hammered brass.
African Mask from Mali, made of wood and embellished with hammered brass.

The second common denominator is that of YOUTHFULNESS. A young, healthy figure, whether male or female, represents vitality, health and fertility. This was especially important in the times when African people lived off the land. Men needed to be strong and fit so that they could hunt and build, providing for their family. Women needed to be fertile and energetic so that they could care for the children and household duties efficiently.

Thirdly, the skin of the subject is generally LUMINOUS and UNFLAWED. This was achieved by polishing stone or clay, or by the use of certain paints and varnishes. Flawless skin reinforced the healthful, young appearance and further enhanced the ideology of youthful health.

The subject of the painting would often appear RESERVED, with head bowed, shoulders curled and a gentle manner. This did not represent weakness or cowering submission on the part of the subject, but a control of his or her self, perhaps amidst turmoil and stress. This self-control is perceived as a strength amongst many African cultures, a weapon that can be more powerful than an aggressive assault.

Finally, African artists place much import on BALANCE AND PROPORTION. However, this is not always achieved by having a perfectly realistic approach to depicting a human or animal subject. Rather, proportion is achieved using colour, material and balance in terms of scale. By being aware of these traits across the African art spectrum, spectators are able to interpret and understand the message being conveyed by the piece.

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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.