East African Art

East Africa is made up of many different people, cultures and languages, each with their own unique identity. Art is an expression of the personality, ideals and context of the artist as well as of the society that defines him or her. East Africa comprises of, amongst others, Mozambique, Sudan, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This presents a truly diverse well from which artists can draw their inspiration and base their repertoire.

Image of Detail of a beaded necklace worn by a tribal woman from Kenya.
Detail of a beaded necklace worn by a tribal woman from Kenya.

East Africa is best known for its beautiful beadwork. Beads are used extensively to decorate the human body and frequently represent a marital status, age, accomplishments or ability by their colours and patterns. They are draped over the body in the form of jewellery or accessories, or incorporated into clothing and even hairstyles.

Significantly, in centuries past, Arabs played a major role in the cultures of East Africa. These traded with one another in materials, weapons, textiles, consumables and even slaves. Their contact was regular and based on close relationships with one another. Therefore, the Arab influence has permeated much of the artwork in certain areas. It also influenced the religious affiliation of many of the Africans (whether willingly or forced, as was the case with slaves). Churches have, in fact, borne some of East Africa’s most exquisite artwork in the form of architectural designs as well as stone carvings. On the other side of the spectrum are the wooden masks, poles and carved forms that are used in the traditional methods of African worship, celebration or mourning.

Image of a A hand-carved bowl from Kenya, Africa.
A hand-carved bowl from Kenya, Africa.

An interesting influencing factor for East African art is the fact that many of the tribes inhabiting this area were once nomadic. This meant that everything they owned would need to be transported on a regular basis. For this reason, art was designed to be both functional and light in weight. These artists used everyday items, such as headpieces, baskets, cooking implements and clothing, and created an art piece out of them. This created a certain element of convenience and usability to East African art. This can still be seen in some modern pieces today.

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.