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How Ancient African Art Influences Contemporary Culture of Identity Exploration

African art is a rich tapestry of diverse cultures, experiences and philosophies. Through a variety of representations by different artists in painting, sculpture, textiles, music and other traditional crafts, African art helps its audience to rediscover its roots. This rediscovery is born from the place of questioning and learning by those who desire to understand Africa and Africans through the lens of their art. It comes as a source of healing, therapy and of embracing the deep relationship between humans and the natural environment. The environment serves as a storehouse of materials made available by God for artistic explorations.

Rediscovering Ancient Narratives

When the sculptor makes carvings upon the wood, the painter strikes brushes upon the canvas and the musician travels his hands upon strings and drums, each is making a testament of rebirth and reconnection with the past. The African artist sets on a journey towards self-discovery, and by so doing, walks into the past to resurrect and invoke the myth, the legends and the crafts of the ancients. From the beaded craft of East Africa to the sculpture of West Africa and the stone art of the Sahara, African art invites individuals to look into the past as a way of understanding their identity and appreciating the beauty that is their origin and the artistic insights that are symbolic of freedom, of self-worth, of beauty and strength. This art seeks to show the rich cultural heritage of Africa from the lens of modernity through thousands of years of ancient artistic culture and traditions. Through a recollection of the past, the modern individual can trace an age-long lineage and also have a sense of belonging. They can learn about their ancestors’ way of life, traditions and beliefs by studying these ancient pieces of art. The Saharan rock art, as an example of such, depicts daily life through hunting, dancing and warfare. In other places, it depicts animal and human figures, as well as ritualistic iconography. This echoes the notion that the modern era is, in some ways, a revival of the past.

Tadrart Acacus, Libya about 7,000 years ago
Gravure Rupestre, Algeria about 5,000 BC

Embracing Diversity and Unity

African art is an embodiment of different cultures, and by implication, its artistic museum is a collection of differing representations of sculptures, textiles and music among others. But from the different cultures, there’s a portrayal of universal human emotions of pain, joy, lamentation and happiness. It mirrors a culture that is different in symbolism from other cultures, yet its art speaks to every individual. This commonality enables people to see beyond stereotypes and to be able to embrace other humans for who they are. It calls individuals to an understanding that we must not necessarily come into uniformity in our art for us to be united with people from cultures other than ours.

Lamingo Dam. Jos, Nigeria (Credit: Wazani Ijarafu)

Art as a Reflection of Personal Experiences

African artists have come to nurture and birth their artistic offerings through their experiences of pain and happiness and by their careful meditation and communion with mother earth. They express their views through modern themes of climate change, social justices and the history of their becoming. As a result of this fusion, contemporary artists have found themselves revisiting the works of ancient artists, in their endeavor to fathom suffering and other human emotions. This revisitation awakens the quest for the rediscovering and tracing of the stories that enable the artist to understand themselves and the struggle of their communities When the artist is faced with war, it is epitaphs and elegies that flow from the tip of the pen. When it is a festival, new year celebration, or celebration of a newborn it is hymnal songs that fill the artist’s imaginative store house. 

The Expression of Beauty

From the history of the beauty expressed through the ancient African arts, the modern artist is able to question the attribute of what beauty is and what it is not, as it is defined by the modern popular culture of only a queen being attributed to characteristics of beauty.

One contemporary African Artist from a pool of many that have sought to explore the rising cultural issue of identity, albeit unconsciously, is Doug Kazé, a Nigerian Afro/folk Musician and Lecturer with the Faculty of Arts, English Department University of Jos. In his song titled “Balcony,” he questions “Is it true that the beauty queen is the best and the most beautiful?” For one that listens to the song keenly, you’d come to observe that the question seems to have a duality as it requires an answer while still not requiring an answer. As if to ask who defines what beauty is. Or if people’s self-identity and bodily appreciation should depend on them being nominated and endorsed as beauty queens. This is but an imagery that delves into the past traditions of ancient African art and recognizes beauty therein, then questioning the modern idea of beauty and requesting us to retrace our steps. This represents the core of an African’s identity and image, as being human and beautiful is an intrinsic value, not dependent on merely external affirmations. Even though beauty standards and perceptions of beauty differ across regions, ethnicities and societies, there is a point of convergence for those who discover the wisdom of the old.

Photo credit: Gil Dachomo

Bridging the Gap between Past and Present

For the individual that is trying to navigate modern times and its offerings, African art can be a river that flows between the past and the present, thereby connecting the past to the present. From the rich ancient arts of Africa, the modern individual can appreciate its history and be able to navigate the world, having a sense of belonging. Also, wisdom is drawn from the wealth of sculptures, photographs and songs of the past, which in turn shapes the world of modern society. The artist is able to learn about the arts of ancient Africa – their occupations and how they practiced livelihood from farming, to music, to architecture and their writings. A preamble to such ancient cultures is the Nok Terracotta sculptures discovered in modern day Nigeria which portrays the different aspects of the Nok people’s life, including their hairstyles, clothings and cultural practices. All these depictions are made and preserved through the art traditions.

African art helps the artist to have a sense of identity by fusing tradition and creativity while also embracing the possibilities of the future.

A Catalyst for Intercultural Dialogue

African art has a language that unites people from all walks of life. It invites us to have meaningful and enriching cross-cultural conversations. Cultural exchanges and understanding are made possible through art exhibitions, art festivals and school exchange programs between different nations. It builds up a community of people that respect individuals beyond religion, ethnicity and nationality. The appreciation for the diversity of humankind is also found to be propelled by art. 

By way of conclusion, African art creates a pathway for people to go on transforming journeys of self-discovery. This is made possible by the revisitation of their roots through the intricacies embedded within African art. Recognizing the richness of the art traditions of the modern day and its connection to the past, there is the opening of a new world, of a culture where peace and harmony is promoted as against violence. It inspires people to look deeper into their own history, question and examine their beliefs and evaluate their place in the grand scheme of human endeavors.

Ancient African art influence contemporary identity exploration culture. African artists rediscover their roots, embrace diversity, reflect on personal experiences and challenge the view of beauty through their art forms. African art serves as a link between the past and the present, creating the world of today’s culture while encouraging international communication. Finally, it encourages people to go on life-long journeys of self-discovery. This calls us to return to the home that is African art.

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