The Tribal Icons Of African Art

The sculpture shown on this page is part of an exhibit, 'Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa' on display at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., until Sept. 3. ONE of the most interesting and instructive functions of art is to introduce us directly to the values of cultures unlike our own. European artists like Picasso and Modigliani demonstrated how the modes of African art could give freshness to the Western art tradition. But we need to appreciate African art on its own terms and for that we must to go to the original sources. A trip to Africa is not necessary unless we insist on viewing the objects in their own community or ethnologic settings. Accustomed to seeing our own Western art in museums and out of context, we can also enjoy and try to understand African art in the museum setting.

The two examples on this page embrace a span of many centuries of the art of the sub-Saharan region and several of its timeless themes. An exhibition at the National Gallery of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., titled ``Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa,'' is extremely informative. The term ``icon'' is used for certain figures which recur throughout the centuries in that extensive region's art and have great meaning to the community.

The handsome terra cotta equestrian figure is from the Inland Niger River Delta region of Mali and represents ``the rider'' iconic motif. The piece has been loosely dated in the period from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The fact that the dating spans four centuries indicates the persistence of fundamental themes in African art. ``The rider'' signifies political or social status and wise leadership.

Naturalistic rendering has never been a goal of African art; clear signals of the symbolic messages are. The so-called African proportion cares little about the actual size of the parts of the body. The head is the most important part of man or beast and is usually emphasized by exaggerated size or greater detailing. The torso, the location of the heart and other vital organs, is next in prominence. The arms and, especially the legs, are very little regarded and are either undetailed or much shortened.

The horse as well as the camel seems to have arrived in Africa with the Romans. After crossing the Sahara, horses became well established in the compatible climate around the Niger River flood plain from around AD 1000. During the long interval of history in which the equestrian figure shown here is dated, small native expansionist empires depended upon cavalry to establish themselves. ``The rider'' thus gained power as a symbol.

The horse here is decked out with a fancy collar, a necklace of bells and an elaborately worked bridle indicating the esteem in which the beast was held. The rider wears a helmet, a necklace, a short garment, and either a symbol of authority or a weapon strapped to his back, the ornamented straps crossing over his chest. His pose is one of stately presence which the proudly alert horse reflects.

It is conjectured that this work may have been the focus of an important shrine, or perhaps a representation of the office of the hogon. The hogon had to be a man of great wisdom who acted as a peacekeeper and a judge. He exercised great spiritual authority.

Such equestrian figures were carved well into this century, giving the rider figure perhaps a thousand years or more of continuity in African iconography. Interestingly, ``the rider'' is seen not only on a horse, but may also be mounted on such powerful beasts as the lion, leopard, elephant, antelope, and even the crocodile.

Later the palanquins and hammocks which carried important personages appeared in art work. Still later - and this demonstrates both the tenacity of this symbol as well as the flexibility of the artists - bicycles and motor scooters were used.

Another icon common to African art is ``the Stranger.'' While European incursions and colonization leap to mind, the concept as a fundamental icon is far older than that. Neighboring tribes who do not speak the same language also considered each other ``strangers.''

Although there does not seem to be any specific surviving African art objects depicting the Romans, they may have been the first strangers of power to cross the Sahara. The Berbers and Tuaregs of Northern Africa also made the journey, riding animals acquired from Romans. Mounts and burden-carriers hastened the development of trade and the exchange of techniques, materials, and styles among artists.

When Islam expanded in all directions from Arabia after the 5th century AD, a curious development occurred in the kingdoms of Ghana, Songhai, and Kanem. Each had twin chief cities. The indigenous people with their Islamized king lived in one, and Muslim traders lived nearby in another. In some cases, this coexistence lasted for long periods until a militant Muslim enforced complete Islamization and eradicated the tribal icons.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish a beachhead on the coast for trade. There are 16th-century examples of art from the coastal tribes which use the ``European Stranger'' as a subject. The Portuguese were looking for gold and a sea route to the lucrative China trade. They established friendly relations with various African kings, bringing Christianity with them. By the mid-17th century the Portuguese monopoly had been broken by the British and other Europeans.

It was not until about 1800 that the Europeans were able to penetrate inland from the coastal sections. From that date European influence appears in African art with ever-increasing prominence although grafted onto traditional art forms.

The colorful complicated wooden sculpture shown here dates from the 1930s. The influence of the ``European Stranger'' is immediately evident in the dress of the male figures and even in the use of imported paints. Elaborate works such as this are called ``display pieces,'' as opposed to pieces intended to be kept sequestered in cult shrines or private rooms in houses.

The sculpture was probably commissioned by one of the Igbo people's men's associations to be used as a rallying point for the male dancers in a competitive tribal event. Its intricacy and handsomeness indicate the intensity with which the members of the contending associations must have vied with each other in the event.

The marvelously lively tumble of figures and beasts continues unabated all around the work. Nearly five feet tall, each of the many components were carved separately and then joined together on a central wooden armature. There is no information as to whether it was the work of a single artist or several working together on design and execution.

Around the base of this African microcosm are armed figures in European soldier hats. The mid-section bulges with bird and animal life, as well as a few spotted snakes.

Of the three figures at the apex, two are male riders, one in the pith helmet of the foreign trader, the other in a European soldier's hat. The female figure in the middle has a traditional African headdress. It is characteristic that the male figures wear the garb of ``the stranger,'' indicating their grasp of the advanced technology and power of Western civilization. The female remains in African dress - probably showing that women have not the economic pressure to adopt European styles and, as the base of family life, should maintain the African tribal heritage.

The male figures may be in European dress but they are not necessarily intended to represent European strangers. Mythological archetypes are customarily represented with white or pink skins. The marks on the cheeks represent tatoos or scarification.

However much the influence of the ``European stranger'' seems to appear in African art, that art has demonstrated its ability to maintain its own dynamic. It has accepted outside influence more with a wry acknowledgment of ``the stranger's'' powerful presence and technology, but it has not directly imitated his art forms.

A companion piece, a review of a book on the art of West African women, appears today on Page 13.

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