Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How Orwellian : Africa's Great Civilizations on art and civilization

mask of the Ooni note the holes around the mouth and hairline to attach a beard and wig. Also note the odd crease lines on the neck.

PBS's Africa's Great Civilizations clip from episode 3 (about minute 43) :

Henry Louis Gates (host) : This astonishing sculpture is the mask of the Ooni. Obalufon the Second, monarch of one of the most important kingdoms in all of west Africa in the middle ages, the Kingdom of Ife. This is one of 40 or so brass copper sculptures executed with dazzling naturalism under the king's patronage. 
woman : They are technically among the most truly remarkable works of art created anyplace in the world. These are striking heads that are quite naturalistic but they're also this idealized naturalism so that none of the warts and wrinkles of the face is shown. If you look at them there is almost this serenity and calmness in them and give a sense of timelessness which are really, really beautiful.

Henry Louis Gates (host) : While European artists were still grappling with perspective and often struggling with the human form these African artists were making magnificent lifelike sculptures. It's not just the technical achievement of the sculptures its also their sheer artistry...

What he says in bold, taken separately, are true. But when put together he is drawing a comparison between the two and making an equivocation of 2 different things. Drawing and sculpture are 2 distinct mediums.  Being in the round, an object in 3d can be measured from any direction and compared to the model. They can even be put side by side and compare the profiles. Or a pantograph could be used. Or molds taken.

In contrast with drawing a slight shift in position changes the perspective. Even with a camera obscura or a grid window while they could help even a small change in the position of the artist would distort the image.  Even with photography it can take some skill to copy an image well and make an image that doesn't look copied from a photograph.

Let us compare a sculpture from a European artist of the same time period and see how it compares to the Ife artist:
Head of an Angel circa 1250, Paris, France

The sculpture above was carved from a piece of limestone.  I wouldn't call this "struggling with the human form" (assuming the nose was broken off and not forgotten by the sculptor). It is remarkably lifelike and quite subtle. I'm not going to try to puff this up by disparaging the African artist because I think the Ife head is well done.

St Donatus, Meissen Cathedral south wall of choir, Meissen, Saxony, Germany circa 1255-1260
Above is another example, this time a full figure, that I don't think is struggling with the human form (this one has a nose).

Would he have described African drawing as "grappling with perspective and often struggling with the human form while these European artists were making magnificent lifelike sculptures"? The series had several cringeworthy moments where the host takes on the role of cheerleader.


The Great Zimbabwe, mortarless stone walls as high as 36 feet (11m), seen from above

PBS's Africa's Great Civilizations clip from episode 4 (about minute 25) :

Associate ProfessorEdmund Akaba, University of Miami : It tells us that Africans were building cities in the 13th century and 14th century and 15th century contrary to this notion that Africa is, to some people, it's a place where there are animals and you have a couple of villages. But it shows that there was substantial technological and architectural development and that all these exploits were the work of Africans. 
Matenga : There is the debate about what is a civilization. Civilization has been rather sort of wrongly defined as the ability to write, leave text. I believe, in its own way, this place is a text.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : It is a text. (his voice rising)
Matenga : It is a text because a text is about communicating messages.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : mm-hmm
Matenga : So, this is a medium through which you can communicate messages.
Henry Louis Gates (host) : This is a sublime manifestation of the human spirit.
Matenga : Absolutely.

I agree that defining civilization as the ability to write is a wrong definition. Although I am unclear as to why he calls it a wrong definition and then wants to use that definition.

I always thought Civilization is the ability to build a city - to be able to sustain a place with a general civilness beyond kith & kin and beyond a population size where people can all know each other.

Congratulations! Africans built cities. He mentions other African cities and one had 15,000 people and another 20,000. For some reason, unlike the comparison with European artists above, he didn't draw a comparison to the progress of other places at the same time : Paris, France had a population of over 200,000 in 1300. Venice over 100,000, Beijing, China 400,000

"I believe, in its own way, this place is a text."

WTF. and then the host responds "It is a text." WTF.  Just WTF.  So a dog peeing on a tree is sending a message. In it's own way, urine is a text. I look forward to his next documentary series : "Great Civilizations of Dogs"

Writing is about knowledge. Being able to pass on the knowledge of thousands and thousands of people over thousands of years helps to build and keep a civilization.  A written language is not a prerequisite to civilization but I would suggest it is close. I would even suggest that it probably is a prerequisite for a modern civilization. Did a lack of written language prevent societies from expanding and sustaining? I suspect so.


Anonymous said...



Col. Milquetoast said...

Hi 1.618,
Drop me an email sometime