Religion and sculpture
Religion is the belief in the existence of a supreme deity and the collective forms of worship that accompany the belief. Most believe the deity or deities of their religion are responsible for the creation of the universe and everything in it including humanity. Deities have been represented in many ways, some religions believe in an omnipresent God while others have their gods represented in sculptures. In ancient Africa, while there was a general belief in the existence of an omnipresent God, the individual regions' worship style and rituals in response to certain events differed. In the midst of a drought a group of worshipers may present burnt offerings during the night or late in the evening believing this to appease the gods.
Sculpture was could be found throughout Africa with the earliest known sculpture dating back to 500bc and the Nok culture of Nigeria. Masks were often used in tribal ceremonies and religious rituals and although believed capable of possessing power, wisdom and energy they were not symbolic of any deity. They were however, considered a way of immortalizing the great leaders. The curving of sculpture maintained their presence and would continue represent them even in death. It was common for leaders to visit other regions and present gifts that had been curved out of wood or soft stones.
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A way of life, religion was observed by almost all of the existing African tribes. Recorded existences of primitive forms of religion date to BCE. It is also found that the regions of Ethiopia and Egypt were largely mentioned in the bible. The influence of Christianity in religious practices was evident. After the first century, various other religions were finding way in many areas in Africa. Of big notice is the introduction of Christianity between the seventh and the sixteenth century. It should also be noted that Christianity was introduced into Africa, mostly northern Africa, in the early first century C.E. Other notable areas where there was religion before the thirteenth century are the regions that mostly bordered the current day Middle East apart from Egypt. These were mainly the northern areas of Africa. This is due to their proximity to the region widely believed to be the origin of Christianity which is in particular areas around Palestine and Israel. Religions that did not encompass the beliefs of Christianity were mainly found in the northern and western Africa where there was a widespread activity relating to the incoming of Arabs who would introduce Islam into the region. In this period, around the fifth century, the popular drive for the Arab invasion was more for slave trade than for the introduction of religion. None the less, they went ahead and intermarried with the natives creating a new set of cultures that was a fusion of Arabic and the native one. A new language was born as was a string of other ideas, one being the intermarriage among the pure Africans. The architecture of these areas also changed. This is widely seen in the coast of East Africa where the Arabic architecture was practiced to bring about buildings whose designs were highly influenced by the Islamic religion. These buildings were built with designs which included high walls around villages for protection from enemies.
The Arabs introduced Islam. The regions that accepted the Islamic religion included the west of Africa, those along the coast of Africa and the most of Northern Africa. The horn of Africa region also accepted Islam though not all of it was covered.
Egypt's surrounding which is known for being the cradle of mankind and agricultural revolution was one of the regions that experienced a rich heritage in the art of sculptures. The sculptures found in these regions were more often than not surrounded by hidden meanings as those responsible for them could not be traced at the time of their location. Other than that, most of the driving force behind the creation of the sculpture could be deduced to be the aesthetic value that they carried apart from the fact that some Africans might have use them for more social and cultural reasons. These can be said to include worship and the immortalization of their leaders in the sense that the sculpting of images in likeness of some of their leaders could create a sense of continuity as the sculpture would serve as the feature that reminded the people about their long gone leaders. Other artifacts that were found on the African continent were in the the Central African of Congo where the art forms were mainly expressed through wood carvings made into the head statues of famous people of that time. Much of it can now be found in the museums in these countries in as much as some of the art forms were sold to colonialists or were given as presents to them. The influence of these art forms was majorly felt in the western form of art. They contributed to the current western sculpture being more subjective. For instance, the creation of sculpture in the western world is more thematic than before.
The people of the Niger region are known to have produced the most ancient sculptures. These are said to have influenced the sculpture of other African regions up till now. The sculpture found in this region were mainly of human beings and animals and also, just like others, lay emphasis on the preservation of the immortalized leadership. These people were not known to indulge in the worship of one god but many though evidence of them worshipping their sculpture is not recorded. Sculpture formed part of their culture in as much as religion did but both had different influences on them. For instance, the gods were mainly responsible for the human nature while the sculpture might have been inspired by the aspect of religion. The people of this region did not practice the representation of their gods in the form of sculpture otherwise referred to as o worship but used sculpturing as a form of continuity as observed earlier.
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Sculpture of was not exclusive to Egyptian Pharaohs. The practice could be found in many areas of Africa. Sculptures of leaders such as Ramese were found mainly in temples and other places of worship and while their worth was more of the sentimental kind. The religion in ancient Egypt records worship of as many as 2000 gods. At times the gods were represented as sculptures while at others, they were deities that were portrayed as omnipresent. The omnipresent nature was brought about by the need of the people to seek explanation for things that happened without them being able to forecast or control. The idol worship varied from region to region as some regions had their own unique representation of their god. The gods had different aspects of life covered as some would represent the aspect of life while others would represent aspects like agriculture and fertility of both human and the land. There was also the existence of goddesses and it is them who were responsible for aspect such as fertility and the feminine aspects of life.
The culture of that time revolved around religion and therefore it is prudent to say that religion wielded more influence on the people of Egypt than sculpture. This is not to say that sculpture had insignificant influence. Sculpture was a mainstay to most of the population as the influence was virtually everywhere. Sculptures of famous people like the leaders could be found almost in every other place apart from the ones in the temple and the areas of worship. Here also, we find that sculpture was used to express the aesthetic value of human in the form of beauty. For instance, sculptures embodied the uncensored beauty of a woman as a way to represent the value of a woman in society. This would go a long way in the portraying woman as a symbol of continuity even in the then patriarchal society. Not only was the woman seen as a symbol of continuity but also as a representation of the family unit.
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Grey, R. the Cambridge History of Africa. c1050-1600 Vol. 3.pp 3-6. 1994.
Willis, R. Ancient Art. Retrieved from http://ryannwillis.com/. 2005.
Morehouse, L. Ancient African art showcased at Catholic museum
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