AfricaReligion And Art
Engelbert Mveng once described black art as "a cosmic liturgy and religious language." African art is primarily the expression of the artistic and aesthetic imagination of individual artists. However, some works of art carry religious meanings. Festivals often incorporate artistic celebrations because artistic work on materials such as musical instruments, regalia, and head-dresses enhances these events. Art objects often point to spiritual and ancestral power. Works of art may be representations of gods and spirits. Art that has religious significance empowers people to live balanced lives and to fulfill their obligations to others. According to Robert Farris Thompson, Yoruba arts are avatars of ashé (divine energy) in ceremonial bowls, staffs, and iron sculptures. "A thing or a work of art that has ashé transcends ordinary questions about its make up and confinements: it is divine force incarnate" (p. 7). Furthermore, Suzanne Blier argues that bocio sculptures, which have been described as "fetishes, idols, gris-gris, devils, ill-formed monsters, villainous maggot, and marmouset (grotesque form) … function in conjunction with … vodun energies … they are … closely identified with vodun power, religious tenets, and philosophy" (1995, p. 4–5).
African art often depicts sacred kingship. Palace construction and royal regalia employ motifs of temple construction. Artworks often convey a sense of security in the community, which can be inferred from the masking tradition that uses reversal to hint at the presence of ancestors and spirits among people, demonstrating a power that can drive away evil. Blier argues that the etymology of the word vodun "constitutes a philosophy which places a primacy on patience, calmness, respect, and order both in the context of acquiring life's basic necessities and in the pursuit of those extra benefits which make life at once full and pleasurable" (1995, p. 40). Bocio sculptures also provide protection from witches.
Art celebrates divine beauty and character. Batatunde Lawal argues that Yoruba aesthetics reveal outer and inner beauty of character and the joy of life, which endears an individual to others and to Olodumare. Artists thus possess iwapele (gentle character) in the manner of the Orishanla, divinities of creation and the primordial artist. Yoruba artists have depicted aye, the world of the living, and orun, the other world, in a spherical carved gourd. Divination trays are often elaborately carved to depict the wisdom of Orunmila, the divinity of divination. Gèlèdé headdresses often feature masks that represent "priests and priestesses to recognize publicly their contributions to the spiritual well-being of the community" (Lawal, p. 212). Rosalind Hackett argues that African art focuses on and shapes an individual's understanding of humanity, destiny, death, procreation, secrecy, power, divinity, spirits, and healing. Ritual art objects such as initiation stools, divination materials, staffs, and musical instruments express religious ideas and elevate spiritual life and experience.
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