Africa and Artistic Language

abavusi-bingoma-komiwebPeople tend to dismiss art as yet another hobby, even when faced with its prominence and importance in today’s and yesterday’s world. This is an especially widely spread view in the Afrikan middle class, especially while discussing career options with their youths. For example, some may see arts as a foolish, moneyless distraction from the education supposed to provide you with a passport to a good job in (western) businesses. This is a very interesting view in light of the enormous profit generated by the artistic industries, the overflow of talent among Afrikans, and the cultural importance art has had in our far and near past.

I could expand on how this sort of mentality is another consequence of colonization and that whole conversation, but there is another point I prefer to speak on: the usefulness of art.

Art is communication. We know that photography or paintings can freeze landscapes, events or persons in time for people to appreciate it long after, but that’s not all. Style expresses a lot of things concerning the culture, the occupation, the interests and the mind state among other things. People don’t dress the same way at a wedding and at a burial, and they choose their level of ‘classiness’ according to the importance they give to the venue.

Writing is another form of communication, and not only through stories and poetry. Calligraphy itself is drawing: letters evolved as simplified drawings symbolizing sounds organized in a specific code for each culture. This brings a new perspective on the claim that societies without written language were uncivilized, since it is discriminating them for not having developed a specific art form. The argument could easily be countered by saying that maybe those societies were so flooded with artistic talent that they did not need to simplify any of them. In that perspective, a portrait is the equivalent of a descriptive paragraph.

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Brianna_McCarthyThe griots were always the singing historians of Afrika, keeping a close record of family histories, chronologies of kingdoms and empires, edicts and laws. Those claiming that history singers can be biased and modify history must show me the unbiased humans who wrote the history they find so reliable. Coming back to clothing, dress codes also communicate, and one doesn’t need to look far because gang cultures in the Diaspora show a contemporary example: a specific code for colors and props that communicates visually to anyone aware of it. And if such a code appears in a portrait or a sculpture, it can tell a lot about the person represented. In the Asante Empire, patterns on one’s clothes carried specific messages.

Everything from dances to drum rhythms to utensils may be coded for communicative purposes. On plantations, braid patterns were used by house slaves to tell the field slaves when a good opportunity to escape or revolt was coming, so even hair speaks (it was the reason why hair relaxing techniques were invented, since the masters had to find a way to counter those communication means). In Djenne, Mali, an architectural code was used to provide information about the household.

Since all of this and even more can be used to communicate, there is no reason for our people to have nomophobia. There is no reason why art should be discarded or disregarded because it communicates the culture, and since man is a social being, culture is fundamental to his interactions with other humans. Art speaks with feelings, and you can see the power of this communication in the influence that the music and movie industries have in the world to-day. So let us not fall prey to a mindset praising only science, which is essential but dry without creative application, or domains that deal with things non-existent outside human minds (I won’t name any); let’s appreciate art fully and explore all the avenues it provides us. In essence, we are art and art is us. Embrace yourself.

By I Lex


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