Abstraction in West Africa

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Art and design
The human form
Perfection and Abstraction
We want to give a form to a god or spiritual being
We want to represent ourselves
We want to commemorate an ancestor
We want to define our own identity
We want to experiment with our bodies
Why do we create objects in human form?
We want to entertain
We are interested in ourselves
We want to portray emotions and feelings
We want to communicate the power of an individual
We try to understand and record unfamiliar or new
peoples
We want to depict the people we admire – heroes,
heroines, idols
We strive to create a perfect human
We wish to celebrate and remember a person
We want to give our children something to play with
What are the basic features of the human body?
head
body
arms
legs
On the right is one of the earliest examples of a representation of the
human form.
It is over 10,000 years old and comes from Jordan in the Middle East.
It is made from lime plaster stuck onto bound reeds and twine.
Even though it is simple, it is immediately recognisable as a human.
The human form: art and design
Perfection
The ideal body
All cultures have their own ideas about perfection and the ideal body.
We can learn a lot about a culture and society by looking at what they thought
was the ideal human form.
• What are some examples of the qualities of perfection of the human form in our
society?
• What do these tell us about our society?
• Which figures or people are represented in ideal forms?
• How are these images and values spread around society?
Gilded bronze figure of Tara, a Buddhist goddess
Sri Lanka, 8th century AD
In the Classical world (ancient Greece and Rome),
there were strong and well-known ideas about
what made the perfect form.
These ideas were revived and spread during the
Renaissance 1500 years later.
Muscular and
strong
Symmetry and
harmony in the
body
Michelangelo, Study for Adam, a drawing study for the ceiling of the Sistine
Chapel
Italy, about AD 1510-11
What similarities can you see
here?
Are these still considered desirable today?
‘Discus thrower, mid 5th century BC
Roman copy of bronze Greek original
Marble, Height: 1.7m
Ideal forms in West Africa
This is a brass head of a king from Ife in Nigeria, from around the 12th –
14th centuries.
How would you describe this head?
Is it realistic? Is it idealised?
What other words can you find to describe its form?
How has the face been decorated?
Why is a king a good figure to examine when considering ideal forms?
Ideal forms in West Africa
This figure is wearing a crown and a plume.
The face appears to have been enhanced with scarification – the thin
vertical lines you can see were probably signs of status.
The holes around the mouth may have had additional ornamentation
attached, possibly a beard.
Compare the realism of this head with the stylised sculptures and
mosaics from Medieval Europe of a similar period.
Ideas of perfection
in West Africa
Both scarification and body paint are used to enhance the natural human body
to attain an ideal form – without it, the body is incomplete.
Examine this figure from the Ekkpo society.
Can you find the following?
• raised facial scars
• filed teeth
• bracelets
• black and white body painting
How is strength and power suggested?
The human form: art and design
Abstraction
Abstraction in West Africa
Ideal forms vary widely from region and period in time.
This is a fertility doll from the Asante people in Ghana.
If an Asante woman could not have children, she would consult a
priest who would give her a doll. She would carry the doll on her
back, in the position a real child is carried, until she became
pregnant.
Which features appear important on this doll?
Abstraction in West Africa
Did you identify…
• the broad forehead?
• the prominent eyebrows?
• the small mouth?
• the long, ringed neck?
• the breasts?
• the navel?
Why do you think the dolls were flat?
These dolls represent ideal forms of beauty for the unborn child.
In many African sculpting traditions the head is elongated to reflect its
importance.
Abstraction in ancient Greece
The human body can be suggested very simply.
• Look at this sculpture: how have the features of the body been
shown?
• When do you think this sculpture was made?
• Are there any clues in its form to suggest why it was made?
Abstraction in ancient Greece
This is a sculpture from ancient Greece and is between
4000 and 5000 years old. Sculptures like this were
often placed in graves.
They fascinated 20th century artists who admired them
for their simplicity and elegance of form.
Look at the work of Henry Moore
who studied and sketched in the
British Museum.
The inspiration he found in the
British Museum was critical in his
development of monumental
sculptures which are abstractions of
the human form.
The human form: art and design
Additional images
Youth carrying a wine jar
painting on a pot
Athens, Greece
About 480 BC
Lithograph and relief print in red,
yellow ochre and black, on pinkcoloured tissue paper
by Stella Steyn (1907-1987)
About1933
© Estate of Stella Steyn, courtesy of the
Gorry Gallery, Dublin
Painted wooden board of a figure
Papua New Guinea
20th century
Papercut made of bark paper
Mexico
1990s
Visit the main Museum website
www.britishmuseum.org
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