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The H3O/Art of Life Blog

  • Writer's pictureThe H3O/Art of Life Blog


By Arlene Turner Crawford

Presented by Omni-U Virtual University

Historically, the art of Africa has won its own place among the great art traditions of the world. The content of African sculpture has been studied and is the predecessor of many European and Western art movements. The influence of African art on Expressionism and Modern art have brought to light the scope of its artistic genius.

The nature of African art is directly related to the religious concepts on the continent. The Bantu philosophy is at the base of numerous cultural/tribal beliefs. In the center of this philosophy stands the conception of a “vital force”, a universal omnipotent energy, around which all thought and action revolve. An imperative arises; life is to be lived vigorously, for active force is existence and existence is force. “Growth of life” means that existence can become either stronger or weaker. “Influences upon life” means that one force can exert an effect upon another; and, “gradation of life” indicated that forces are graded hierarchically, the higher one exerting an influence upon the lower- are the extensions of the Bantu concept. [1,2 Leuzinger] This definitely suggests that a continuum of existence is inherent in their thought.

The Africans' religious consciousness is strongly connected to metaphysical beliefs and the influence upon life concepts would explain the need for ritual acts to strengthen forces and restore order once it had been disrupted. To the Africans, art serves to make the invisible visible. Their approach has been noted for its emotional vigor and clarity of form. What inspires the artist is a vision which cannot be expressed purely in naturalistic forms; the artist coordinates naturalistic, abstract, and expressionistic elements into a new unity. The style is by no means primitive, rather the development of a mature expression. The technical skill is the product of centuries of development – early pieces found of the Nok culture, in the south Sahara, are dated from 400 B.C to A.D. 200 [3. Bascom].

The two major categories in historical African art are: ritualistic art and craft art. However, the category of craft or ‘applied art’ in African thought is not to be distinguished from the original unit stalk [4. Locke]. In Africa, things can be beautiful and objects of utility at the same time. Art has never been divorced from the vital context of everyday life, it embodies and vindicates one of the soundest and most basic of aesthetic principles- beauty in use (5. Locke). This clearly points to the functional aspect of African art. The African artist, though a great craftsman or technician, is forgetful of self and fully projects self into the function and traditions of the article on which they are working. [6. Locke]. It is anonymous, by age-long tradition, reflecting a collective aspect of the work that was generated. The African artist of sculpture is concentrating upon unrestrained variety and directness of three-dimensional effects. This goes directly to the heart of creation and, thus, the artist realizes the distinctive potentialities of sculpture. The artist produces work comparable to its spiritual severity. “One comes to regard their sculpture ,not as a distorted copy of the natural form but, as a purposeful creation of mass design, with free distortion of nature shaped into highly stylized form, expressing abstract design.” [7. Locke] There is an emphasis on the essential, consistent, three-dimensional organization of structural planes in sequence, truth to material, and achieved tension between idea or emotion; expressed through representational and abstract principles. [8 Locke] In short, creation in African art is not imitation of nature but free creative improvising on themes taken from nature to convey ,forcefully, a selected mood or the intended idea, all of which is committed- from inception to end- to the African metaphysical outlook of life.

During the Black Arts Movement (BAM), the Black artist's role was to create art, not for the self, nor for the sake of art, rather the artist must create for the liberation of the minds of all Black people – students, workers, parents and the whole of community; art which will address the positiveness of values that can strengthen a people, committing them to themselves as a nation. The Black Artist who is committed to himself l, as a Black person of a Black nation, had a specific purpose: that of creating an art that is functional, collective, and committed; using forms and images that define, identify and direct.

In May of 1970, CONFABA (Conference On the Functional Aspects of Black Art), was held on Chicago’s Northwestern University campus. The participants represented a Who’s Who of Black art, at that time. The conference was also attended by students, faculty and guests; of various art forms, including music, theatre, dance and literature. Participants came from across the country, as well as from outside the USA. The purpose of the conference was divided between six Task Forces, to develop foundations and directions for Black Art. The Task Forces were as follows: (1). Education, (2). Research, (3). Resources, (4). Dissemination, (5). Philosophy, and (6). Aesthetic.

One of the major documents, the Report of the CONFABA Philosophy Task Force, speaks directly to the intention for the Black artist, that of having specific goals and common directions. The following excerpts are from that document.

“We saw that our goal would be not to crystalize a philosophy but a movement towards a philosophy. We recognize that this philosophy is timeless and we are concerned with continuity and change… Black art should be… relevant to each era in which it exists. The point of reference is always the Black community wherever it is, Africa or the new world. We should provide a platform on which future generations can stand and achieve a balance between what has happened and what can be achieved in the future.

Action is communication. Communication not only informs, reveals, and educates but, it affects psychic change both personal and social. When sense rations change, men change and art – this action –is a key to our people’s perceptual world ,the lever for raising the consciousness of our people. The relationships are always towards creative unity and embrace the relation of POWER TO LIFE…

The heart of the Black artist’s ideology is the dedication of his Art to the cultural liberation of Black people. It is in this sense that Black art is decidedly functional- politically and spiritually… Our art – The art of Black people- speaks to,for, and of the soul forces which have survived… Black art… proposes to establish- not only in the sphere of art- but, in the sphere of human behavior an ethical attitude towards human existence… and the relationship to the entire universe. …but perceived from the specifics of our own historical cultural, social and political experiences… In order to truly liberate, it is necessary to develop a world view that both takes into consideration the effects of historical oppression,i.e., cultural imperialism, but also transcends that oppression. The artist is an integral part of the larger Black community…each person has aspects of his personality that are precious, unique and original. He is never, however, alone… we can never create for ourselves. The richness comes when each individual contributes to the tribal chorus…The Black artists must engage themselves actively in the transformation of the environment – buildings, the community, the streets we walk on, the wall that encloses us, the schools…our homes, the churches…etc. We must make the Black communities sing and dance with color and vitality…

It should be obvious here that the implications of the Wall of Respect do

not merely embrace the visual art but extend throughout the whole range

of Black experience.” [9. CONFABA]

Recommended Reading


In text


“Afri-Cobra III”; September 7 to September 30, 1973, catalog; University Art Gallery;

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Atkinson, J. Edward; ed. Black Dimensions in Contemporary American Art: New American Library, Time Mirror, publisher; New York city; 1971.

Bascom, William; African Art in Cultural Perspective: W. W. Norton and Com.; New York city; 1973 page, 3-27.

“CONFABA”, Conference On the Functional Aspects of Black Art; Northwestern University; Evanston, Illinois, May 1970.

Fine, Elsa Homig; The Afro-American Artist; Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., publisher; New York city; 1971.

Gayle, Addison, ed. The Black Aesthetic; “Black Cultural Nationalism”; Ron Karenga; Doubleday & Company, Inc., publisher; Garden City, New York; 1971l pgs. 31-38.

Leuzinger, Elsy; Africa: The Art of the Negro People; Crown Publishers Inc.; New York, 1960, pgs. 13 – 60.

Locke, Alain; Negro Art: Past and Present; Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington D.C. 1936.

Locke, Alain; Negro in Art; Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington D.C.; 1940.

Porter, James A.; Modern Negro Art; Arno Press and The New York Times; New York city 1969.

Shapiro, David, ed; “Social Realism: Art as a Weapon”; The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art; Diego Rivera; 1932; Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York city, pgs. 54 – 65.

Sommer, Robert; Street Art; Links Publisher; New York city, 1975.

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