Posts Tagged ‘African art’

Art History

January 4, 2015

Professor Christopher Roy of the University of Iowa opened my eyes to the place of African efforts in the art world pantheon.  His lesson began with a look at H.W. Janson’s quintessential art history text book “The History of Art.”

The historical overview in Janson’s sweeping tome went like this: Chapter One: Magic and Ritual, the Art of Prehistoric Man, Chapter Two: The Art of Egypt, Three: the The Art of the Near East, then the Aegean, the Classical Greeks, the Romans, Mediaeval art, the Renaissance, the Mannerists, etc. on up to today.  Here was humanity’s aesthetic progress rising from primordial beginning to sophisticated present.

Janson’s opening “prehistoric” chapter included several images of African wood carved sculptures alongside images of Paleolithic cave paintings.  Professor Roy pointed out that all the African sculptures had been made within 50 years of the book’s publication.  Hmmm.

Here was a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

Later, when studying redware, I found that old sources of information can offer more than stale, ossified opinions.  For example, there is something fresh in reading about “current trends in American pottery,” including an “up and coming” woman named Adelaide Alsop Robineau.

Of course, it doesn’t always come out roses.  Charles Fergus Binns holds a respected position as the founder of Alfred University’s vaunted ceramics program in 1900.  Might a pottery book in his words offer interesting kernels of insight?  His opening chapter on pottery’s historical overview mirrored Hanson’s ‘primordial to sophisticated’ trope.  Binns began with a discussion of American Indian pottery:

“It must always be an open question how much credit for artistic feeling can be given to primitive races…  Crude and unprepared clays were used for the most part but the makers could scarcely have been conscious of the charming color-play produced by the burning of a red clay in a smokey fire.  The pottery of the Indians is artistic in the sense of being an expression of an indigenous art and much of it is beautiful, though whether the makers possessed any real appreciation of beauty is open to doubt.”

He then proceeded from this ‘primordial’ beginning to Classical Greek pottery, then the Romans, etc. etc. etc…

Old knowledge is a valuable resource, not to be ignored lightly.  Just never confuse old knowledge with bankrupt ideas.


The History of Art, Second Edition.  H.W. Janson.  Prentis Hall/New York.  1977.

The Potter’s Craft.  Charles F. Binns.  Van Nostrand Co./NY.  1910.


February 13, 2011

The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I is considered one of the main causes of World War II.  Nazi leaders used the economic and political stress imposed on Germany to push their twisted program to it’s disastrous conclusion.  But harsh terms have been exacted from the vanquished throughout history, leading to the observation that wars are never won or lost.  They just continue.

The victors write history, but the vanquished remember it…

Anyway, up until the mid 19th century in northeastern Congo and southern Sudan, another form of tribute was exacted.  Vassals were required to give pottery to their overlords in Azande and Mangbetu controlled territories.  This “tribute pottery” was a unique class of unusual, individualized earthenware bottle forms.  These bottles weren’t made for any other purpose.  And their makers generally specialized in crafts other than pottery.

Azande rulers in particular didn’t collect this tribute to hoard away or show off.  They used tribute pottery as gifts to members of their court, neighboring chiefs, and visiting dignitaries such as European explorers, missionaries and medical personnel.

By the 1920’s European colonial rule replaced Azande political power.  Pottery as tribute ended.  But the allure of what was formally a uniquely prestigious possession kept production of these forms alive.  The expressive qualities of tribute pottery allowed potters to explore whole new ways of creating forms beyond the traditional categories that previously defined their work.

It would seem that tribute pottery was a gift that kept on giving.

Just imagine the world we would be living in if, instead of billions of dollars worth of unpayable reparations and huge chunks of territory, France and England demanded shipments of Meissen porcelain and Westerwald stoneware in 1919.

First Art: Historic African Ceramics. Douglas Dawson.    C & C Printing/Hong Kong.  2009.

A World at Arms.  A Global History of World War II. Gerhard Weinberg.  Cambridge University Press/Cambridge, England.  1994.