For our 10th anniversary, African Ancestry is exploring the African influence on various areas of African American life today. This month our focus is art.
Our most personal and innate connections to Africa often happen in artistic ways that are subtle and unrecognized. We don’t even realize that there are spiritual beliefs and social purposes that have historically and ancestrally belied the art in our world. From the brightly colored, highly patterned fashions we wear to the “bling” we sport to the tattoos that adorn our bodies, we are Africa.
What do you think of when you think of African art? Do you think conceptually in terms of color, pattern and symbolism? Or do you imagine objects such as jewelry, sculpture and fabric? One of the first things that comes to mind for me is African masks.
Do you know that masks are an African tradition-based art that were actually functional items? They weren’t created to hang on walls, which is how we experience them today. They held unique significance, were worn on various parts of the body and were “danced” during every day rituals and special ceremonies to represent the spirits of ancestors.
Ask any Black man which African tribe he thinks he is from and there’s a good chance that he will say “Mandingo”! The 1976 film is often the impetus for this response.
Do you know that the true Mandinka reputation is one of being fierce, highly skilled warriors? They founded the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Traditionally, the Mandinka face mask is worn by men in Senegal, Gambia and Mali and represents strength, courage, virility and male tribal roles. It is made out of materials such as animal skin, tree bark and calabash and frequently adorned with cowrie shells. Pierced ears are another common feature of the Mandinka mask.
(Mandinka mask courtesy of gallerie Sowei)
Mothers play a special role in African and African American families. Big Mama, Ma’dear and Nana are revered for their female power and wisdom.
Do you know that Yoruba men of Nigeria wear Gelede masks during a special celebration that honors women? The celebration recognizes the power of women as elders in the society. The Gelede mask is worn on the head while the male dancer calls on divine spirits for protection and blessing. Facial adornments are a consistent feature in this mask.
(Gelede mask courtesy of gallerie Sowei)
One of the ancestries that we find most often for African Americans is Mende from Sierra Leone. A large number of enslaved Mende were taken from Africa to farm rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia.
Do you know that Mende women have a secret society, Sande, which initiates girls into womanhood? The Sande society is lead by an elder who is the “Sowei”. She wears the Sowei helmet mask, the only mask worn by women. It embodies the ideals of Mende culture including wisdom, health, elegance and serenity. Rites of passage programs in our communities are often modeled after the Sande and Poro (male) societies.
(Sowei sculpture courtesy of gallerie Sowei)
Africa is in you! I encourage you to celebrate the art of your ancestry and explore the places that it lives and can live in your life. Share your favorite African and African American art with us at email@example.com or facebook.com/africanancestry.