FDA Three Dimension Design.
Contextual Studies: Style and Meaning.
The Craft Reader. Amadou Hampâté Bâ. ‘African Art: Where the Hand Has Ears’.
“‘Art’ was not something separate from life. It not only covered all forms of human activity, but also gave them a meaning. Ancient Africa’s view of the universe was an all-embracing and religious one, and acts, particularly acts of creation, were seldom, if ever, and carried out without a reason, an intention, or appropriate ritual preparations “ (Adamson 2010 379). This extract is the basis of the essay, African Art: Where the Hand Has Ears’, Amadou Hampâté Bâ. Published UNESCO Courier (February 1976).
The ancient African way of thinking about art is very different to how it is thought of today in modern society where art is often created for purely aesthetic reasons.
The traditional belief of Africans was that our world was a shadow of a higher world where the souls and thoughts of men linked to our world and through this link found expression through men’s hands but it was perceived in this higher place where knowledge was handed down by ancestors.
In this essay, Hampâté Bâ, points out that traditional Africa “had no division between the sacred and the profane” (ibid 379). They believed that all things depended on each other and were interconnected. They believed that through their acts and gestures, the unseen forces of life would come into play and therefore performed rituals whilst creating things. These rituals were thought to be paramount to avoid upsetting the balance of these forces that they believed they were guardians of. When craftsmen performed a ritual they would often go into a trance and on emerging from this trance, they would create. The objects created were not considered to be a creation of the craftsman as they saw themselves only as the instrument that the knowledge was transmitted though.
Africans believed objects to be the “repositories of power” (ibid 382). They gave form to the impressions they drew from the cosmos. Nothing was made by chance. They had no belief in fantasy, everything had to have a purpose. The rituals they performed brought them to a state of harmony that they believed entered the aura of the object. The object would then be empowered to move all who saw it. “A thing that has not kindled beauty in you”, an old adage says,” cannot kindle beauty in others who look upon it” (ibid383). Africans believed the object produced was an outward manifestation of an inner beauty that was a reflection of the beauty of the cosmos (ibid 383). Therefore the whole creative process was not something that could be bought. This is not to say that all of their art was lovely but that they had the ability to move the viewer. They could be instilled with an ability to attract or repel.
Many of the symbols and patterns present on the objects created by Africans had precise meanings, these were regarded as necessary for the transmission of ancient knowledge. Hampâté Bâ concludes that traditional African art was not produced arbitrary. Objects had sacred meanings – religious, educational or entertaining and these objects ‘spoke’ on many levels. He states the importance of viewing them on several levels as well as listening to the stories and teachings of these people. “Everything which is, teaches through mute speech. Form is language. Being is language. Everything is language” (ibid 384).
Although rare, secular art differed from religious art, it was not seen as ‘consecrated’ and not ‘loaded’ with spiritual power (ibid 383). Hampâté Bâ asserts that these secular artworks do not have the same impact on the viewer as religious artworks do. Secular art has advanced since the colonial era. Authentic, spiritually ‘loaded’ items are extremely rare to find. Some objects, like religious wooden masks, are considered so hallowed that they are hidden from sight, taken out only for great ceremonies. Some masks are only taken out every sixty years for the great Sigui ceremony (ibid 384).
The sacred African art has almost disappeared and has been replaced by art at a ‘folklore’ level. There are still some traditional custodians of the skills, arts and sciences. Amadou Hampate Ba states that these could be retrieved and rescued if we were willing to listen to what these custodians tell us. He asks young African artists to consider the meaning of their heritage and hopes they will be more receptive to the silent message of ancient African art so that it does not become lost forever.
“The old African saying goes: Listen! Everything speaks. Everything is speech. Everything seeks to inform us, to give us knowledge or an indefinable, mysteriously enriching and constructive state of being” (ibid 385).
On reading this essay I was initially sceptical but after researching sub-consciousness I realised that what these ancient Africans were doing could be explained by quantum physics. To explain further… The brain or the ‘mind’ controls the physical functions while the sub-conscious mind is an area where everything that the conscious mind receives is stored and where thought processes are started. Thoughts are actually an electrochemical, physical process. It is unseen energy. When this unseen energy is transmuted to the brain, the unseen or non-physics becomes real. There is then a super-conscious mind which is a unified field. These three aspects of the mind are collectively joined. Chuck Danes, author of The Power of The Sub-conscious mind, states “ALL of these seemingly separate means of discover are intricately interconnected…EVERYTHING at its core consists of pure energy and EVERYTHING, both the seen (physical) and the unseen (metaphysical) is intricately interconnected with EVERYTHING else at this level of causation which is a continuously vibrating mass of pure energy” (Danes. 2005-2012. The power of the subconscious mind. http://www.abundance-and-happiness.com/quantum-physics.html. 16/11/2014.).
Anyone can develop, through learning, a heightened awareness and can utilize skills to consciously control the sub-conscious. By relinquishing control of the conscious mind they can tap into the sub-conscious and through this then access the super-consciousness or universal consciousness.
By entering trance-like states, Africans entered their sub-conscious which allowed them to tune in to the universal consciousness where they perceived ideas which they could then give form to. They may have had a primitive understanding of the power of the unconscious.
To add to this I also feel that African art has a lot to offer to the modern aesthetics of the western world.
Adamson, G (2010) The Craft Reader. Oxford UK, Bierq.
Danes, C. The power of the subconscious mind (2005-2012). http://www.abundance-and-happiness.com/quantum-physics.html (16/11/2014).