Art History:   Grade 6 Lesson 1

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Western Africa


  1. DOGON BOY AND MAN WITH KANAGA MASK, Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, NY, Poster.
    The Dogon live in the West African country of Mali, inland from the great bend of the River Niger. The Dogon (a word also used for the wild grass that no drought can keep from growing) live in seemingly primitive conditions. A people with a lower level of technology would be hard to find. Yet, on closer examination, the Dogon have been found to have a highly developed and complex social organization and a rich and coherent metaphysical system; their version of the world's creation, for instance, has points in common with the Biblical account in Genesis.

    Dogon Kanaga Mask

    Kanaga Mask (34"H x 17"W)

    img0038.jpg (62065 bytes)

    Dogon Village

    The man in the photograph is teaching his son one of the skills necessary for his initiation into the Dogon's male dominated society - How to make a kanaga mask, to be worn during funerals as a shield against the life force of the deceased. The Dogon worship their ancestors who have made possible the development of their society. But they also consider the dead to be dangerous and a misfortune is often seen as a vengeance of the dead. The Dogon believe that when a man dies. his vital energy is released and becomes a threat to the living. Funeral ceremonies, usually lasting three days, redistribute the dead man's vital energy among the living and maintain the harmony between the natural and supernatural worlds. "The masks are awakened, " as the Dogon say, and the dead man's friends mime the actions of his life in dance. Only when the proper dances have been performed with the proper masks can the dead man rest and society feel safe. Women are excluded from participation in public funerals.
    bullet The Dogon Tribe of Mali with amazing photos
    bullet Dogon Country   


  2. DAN JUDGE MASK, "Gaa-Wree-Wre", African Art in motion, Reproduction photograph.
      Among the many peoples of Liberia, and the neighboring Ivory Coast countries, is the Dan. The mask is the main sculptural form. This masked figure functions as one of the leading traditional judges of the Dan and never dances. It appears without musicians, accompanied by a single speaker. When Gaa-Wree-Wre is in the village, the people must pay strict attention to their behavior so that nothing offensive to the traditions of public decorum angers the mask. The mask incarnates forest fierceness (leopard teeth, red cloth at the ears, raffia gown) and human elegance (slitted edges, conical headdress, hairpins, textiles). Its profound authority is furthered by its motions which also stir wonderment wherever it appears. Gaa-Wree-Wre is seated to hear a case. Suddenly, after an illuminated chant, he might rise to walk with strange, short swaying steps, a bell at his hips clanging in time with the motion. When Gaa-Wree-Wre is re-seated, he again deliberates the merits of one side or the other of the dispute; he represents ideal perfect justice. He moves in gravity and splendour, everything centered on his mask as the source of wisdom.


  3. EBIRI BLACKSMITH,  Ivory Coast, Photograph from Elliot Elisofon Archives, Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Reproduction photograph.
    African blacksmiths were considered very special craftsmen. Their work brought them in contact with "elemental substances": fire, air, earth and water. They served the chiefs and kings. The tools they made for agriculture helped their people produce more food; the weapons they made equipped soldiers to defend the king or to attack an enemy. They also used fine metals like gold and silver to make jewelry, which would advertise the wearer's wealth.

    "Lost Wax" casting techniques in Africa were and are used to make jewelry, weights to measure gold in the marketplace and statues at the royal court.

    (see also presentation 7 this page)


    bulletThe artist models in bees wax.
    bulletA mold of clay is applied to the exterior of the model.
    bulletA small opening is left in the mold.
    bulletThe mold is heated by fire to melt the wax, which drains away - leaving a negative of the model.
    bulletThe mold is attached to a crucible containing brass or other metal and is heated to molten (1900F for brass).
    bulletThe crucible is emptied into the mold.
    bulletOnce the metal has cooled, the clay mold is broken away.


  4. BENIN WARRIOR, Early 17th century, Nigeria, Bronze, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reproduction photograph.
  5. CROWNED HEAD OF AN ON, 12th or 15th century, Ife, The Detroit Institute of Arts, "Treasures of Ancient Nigeria" exhibition Poster
    By about the 9th century, in tropical Africa, sophisticated lost was casting techniques had evolved., and by the 12th century, the most naturalistic style known for any tropical African era had appeared. Wood carvings were certainly made in the latter period too, but no examples have survived. In Benin sculpture the head is usually greatly exaggerated, reflecting the view prevalent in much of Africa that it is the center of being and the source of power and intelligence. This distortion was well as the hieratic arrangement of the group indicates that symbolism has greater importance to the artist that photographic realism. The Benin and Yoruba became the most accomplished in the art of figural cast sculptures. The power of these kingdoms depended upon agriculture and the defense of armies. Bronze can be thought of as a proper symbol of power.


  6. CONTEMPORARY ART OF SENEGAL, by Abdoulaye NDiaye.


  7. LOST WAX CASTING, photograph.


  8. AFRICAN TOY, Coconut shell and woven reeds turtle, material
This was probably hand-made by a contemporary craftsman. Details on the shell are wood-burned. In many African, and other cultures, the turtle is a symbol of resilience or staying power.

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