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Discovering Our Cultural Heritage through African Art

African art tells a broader story of African heritage than we often see in media.

When I was growing up, I wished I could pinpoint where my history started. If I go solely by the education I received in my early years, my story began when my ancestors were shipped to the Americas to cultivate a country in which the Constitution called each of them three-fifths of a person.

In her master’s program my mother learned our history beyond slavery, so she made sure I was well educated on my history, even if I couldn’t specifically place where it began. My mother not only spent time teaching me African history through books and lesson plans, but she also filled our home with African Art. So when I visited the expansion of the Fred and Rita Richman Gallery for African Art at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, I felt right at home.

On the lower level of the High Museum, visitors are welcomed by an open floor plan with expansive windows allowing the perfect amount of sunlight in. Although the different pieces create a cohesive gallery, the objects represent the beautiful and rich history that Africa has to offer, from nations including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Republic of Benin, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, South Africa and South Sudan.

The gallery showcases the changing of life in Africa from ancient to contemporary times, but most importantly it reminds viewers that African cultural heritage is much more diverse than what is often portrayed in many forms of media.

Showcasing everything from ancient works of art from West African kingdoms to well-known pieces by famous 20th-century artists like Osei Bonsu, the official Asante carver for three Asante kings, this exhibit immerses visitors in the vibrant art of Africa.

Here are five pieces from the exhibit that showcase not only traditions passed down from generation to generation but also the intricate details of African art.

1. Asafo Flags

African art

African art

Fante artist, Ghana, 19th century, cotton. Via High Museum of Art.

Fante textile artists have been creating these flags for almost 300 years.

The top flag represents the history of warfare, as Asafo groups were once militaristic.

The bottom flag depicts Elmina, a fort that was created in 1482 by the Portuguese. Today Elmina is the oldest European building south of the Sahara, but then it was the first trading post along the Guinea Coast. The stitching combining the forts represents a telegraph wire. The Africa Direct Telegraph Company connected the United Kingdom to the West African companies in 1885. At the time, these flags were made from imported red damask and were embroidered with a brocade pattern from grapes and leaves. One can’t help but notice the Union Jack flag — until 1957, Ghana was under British Colonial rule.

2. Male and Female Figures

african art

Metoko artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th century, wood. Courtesy of the author.

Throughout the gallery, the exhibit’s collectors, the Richmans, have made the subject of couples a special theme. Entering the gallery, I was aware how important it was and is in African art to showcase family, especially when it comes to husband and wife. It’s worth noting that the effects of slavery, and the separation of families, is a topic that still impacts generations of Black families today.

In Metoko societies, figures showcasing husband and wife were used in initiation rites to confer the status of kasimbi. According to the exhibit, kasimbi was one of the highest ranks in the Bukota association. Membership in the Bukota association was equally important for both men and women. The figures showcase not only the importance of healing and peace but also the ideal images for men and woman who were to bear children.

3. Noblewoman’s Ceremonial Overskirt

African art

Mbeengi artist, Kuba Kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th century or earlier, cloth and raffa, Via High Museum of Art.

Women of high royal and social rank often wore these finely stitched clothes. This specific style comes from the Mbeengi region of the northeastern Kuba Kingdom. Although the embroidered ground and design layout link it to the earlier artistic style of Kongo textile makers, its character is distinctly Mbeengi.

4. Counselor’s Staff Finial (Okyeame Poma)

African art

Osei Bonsu, Asante artist, Ghana, 1930s, wood and gold leaf. Courtesy of the author.

Osei Bonsu, the official sculptor for three Asante kings, provided regalia not only for Asante chiefs but also for Akan chiefs throughout Southern Ghana. To showcase wise proverbs, people of the Asante Kingdom covered sculptures in gold leaf. Counselors to kings carried these golden sculptures in public spaces to send messages to audiences. This specific sculpture of the three-figured finial, warns that a leader should not make decisions alone, without his akyeame (counselors).

5. ‘Bus Ride’

African art

Kay Hassan, South Africa, 1996, paper construction. Via High Museum of Art.

This piece, one of my favorites in the collection and featured on a large wall, is a collage made from torn billboard posters found on the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa. At first glance, what stands out is its large scale and vibrant colors. But the piece carries a strong social message. The paper construction symbolizes the daily lives of commuters traveling to the city to make a living, and it communicates even more. According to Hassan, “Our lives have always been torn and put together…but I don’t only reflect what is happening in South Africa; it’s a reflection of what is happening in this world.”

The entire collection is breathtaking, and if you’re a fan of African art or are looking to expand your knowledge, this exhibit will stun you. The beauty of art is that it allows us to look both beyond ourselves and into ourselves. As cliché as it sounds, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I look at this collection, I see home. Even though I can’t specifically trace my roots, through collections like this, I can create a collage of who my people are, and the legacy they leave on this earth besides being slaves. Through this exhibit, I see a rich history that is diverse, bold and full of life. end


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