Chapter 17 - Communications: from Speech to Pictograms and Heraldic signs

Perhaps, more than any other human activity, it is communication that defines us as human beings. Intuitively we can perceive that graphic design is a tool developed for the purpose of communicating a message. However, graphic design also has an artistic element consisting of composition, colors, geometric surfaces, lines, written information, and so on.As in any other tool, the form of a graphic work must align with its purpose of conveying a message. Of course, graphic design is not the only tool for communication. We learn how to communicate when we start to talk, and when we talk we start to think about ourselves and about the universe that surrounds us. Since, almost all of us can speak a language, it would be easier to analyze communication via language. As we will see, there is a close mapping from understanding language to the communication of graphic design.

We often forget that to receive, to decipher, and to understand the spoken concepts in real time is a formidable task for an infant. First, the child needs to recognize individual words from continuous speech. Later in life, they need to associate the sound input with a visual form to read and write. Their education on words continues with abstract concepts and definitions in association with that word. Meanwhile, they have to learn how to ignore or attenuate irrelevant and disruptive elements of the communication signals. Nevertheless, over the years these functions are performed effortlessly by our brains. Any language is also a tool for communication. It has a form which consists of sounds (phonology), words (morphology), sentences (syntax), and recursion.

Mapping Speech with Graphic Design
Phonology, is the technique of producing a sound using lungs, larynx, mouth and nasal cavity. If we map this into graphic design we would speak of lines, colors and surfaces that create an image. Morphology is the study of rules that allows us to combine sounds in order to create a word. For example, the word carelessly is created by a juxtaposition of three syllables or sounds, care, less, and ly. With a minimal modification, we can get the opposite meaning in the form of carefully; or change it from an adverb into a noun in the form of carelessness ; or even qualify it further in the form of over-carelessly . In graphic design, various aesthetic criteria regulate the creation of geometric, organic, or abstract forms. Syntax has to do with how words are combined to form meaningful sentences. This role is assigned to the overall composition and balance of the work. Finally, recursion is a process that allows a speaker to create an infinite number of meaningful sentences from a finite number of words. For example; we can say: "Cezanne can be regarded as the father of cubism and minimalism." We can create a recursive sentence by saying, "Cezanne can genuinely be regarded as the true father of cubism and minimalism in painting and graphic design." We can qualify each of the terms again to have a new statement: "In the western tradition, Cezanne can genuinely but not exclusively be regarded as the true and intellectual father of cubism and minimalism in representational painting and graphic design." Thus, this process can create a seemingly infinite number of possibilities. In graphic design, we can argue that we have also the ability to modify various elements of our compositions to create an infinite array of images. After all, if all the possibly finite combination of colors, lights, forms, composition and so on are tried and exhausted, an artist has still the option of qualifying a work with words- Such as René Magritte did in his works 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' and Ceci n'est pas une pomme . In fact, when Max Ernst defaced one version of Magritte's painting and painted a caged bird in the apple, and wrote underneath 'Ceci n'est pas un Magritte' he was manifesting even further possibilities of recursions in art, although this particular recursion prompted only a forced laugh from the Belgian artist.

Ancient philosophers thought that the words that they used, such as "Love", "Amour", "Liebe", "حب", "مهر", "प्यार" ,"愛", self-contained the 'true' meanings of those words. Modern day linguists, however, think that there is an element of randomness at work when a language assigns a particular word to a meaning. Nevertheless, when a speaker uses a word he assumes and hopes that the listener would associates the same meaning he has in mind to that word. But, even for an adult, communication involves some complicated mental functions. First, in processing language, a speaker needs to select the appropriate word from a list of various mental lexicons, and yet any individual word such as 'bat' (the act of striking something with an object) in our mental lexicon must be distinguished from other words that are similar in sound like 'batt' (a sheet of matted cotton). As well, they must be distinguished from those words that are similar in shape and spelling to 'bat.' That is, 'bat' can refer to a flying mammal, a heavy stick, a fragment of brick, or a whip used by a jockey. Furthermore, the speaker must chose the particular meaning of 'bat' from a list of synonyms like 'bang', or 'belt'. How does a speaker select the appropriate lexical entry from such options? Some linguists argue that the words are chosen by characteristics such as understandability, Iconicity, and economy.

Iconicity and Images

In the world of graphic design, the question of representation appears to be almost identical with understandability, Iconicity, and economy. As the above two images demonstrate, the problems resulting from the various homonyms for 'bat' are rarely of relevance. After all, "a picture is worth a thousand words" . Pictograms and infographics are keystones of nonverbal and multicultural communication. They are used for traffic signs, transporting various materials, and in medical circles worldwide, and are seen by almost everyone. Pictograms, are basically representative images we use to replace words or visualize actions, and are often seen either replacing or accompanying a textual instruction. Infographics, as the name implies, use graphical illustrations to create instructive images, which are aimed to simplify complicated processes. For example, traffic signs do not use words and are able to communicate across various cultures.

Nevertheless, pictograms when are used to represent company logos, political insignia or heraldic badges conjure up various cultural, ethical, and sociopolitical issues of interpretation which would be discussed as we proceed but here it suffices to say that such issues are as complicated as the linguistic issues of communication.


A rebus, from Latin meaning "by things" is a kind of word puzzle which uses pictures to represent words or parts of words, such as "T,4,2" instead of "tea for two". Rebus has played an important role in the creation of alphabets. In 1977, the New York State Department of Commerce recruited Milton Glaser, a productive graphic designer to work on a marketing campaign for New York State. Glaser created this rebus-style icon which became a major success and has continued to be sold for years. The stunning simplicity of this message reminds us of Einstein's razor, A message should be expressed as simple as possible- but should not be oversimplified.

Milton Glaser's career paved the way for design and illustration to be intelligent and to serve causes that have a social impact. His minimal drawing style echoed the iconography of comic books or the dynamic of contemporary Pop Art. During the 1960s, he created images of flat shapes formed by thin, black ink contour lines with color added by adhesive color films.  His approach to sign and symbol is seen in the 1968 ''One Print One Painting''exhibition poster. The work produced at this studio encompasses a wide range of design disciplines. He re-designed numerous magazines, such as "Paris Match", "L'Express" and "Esquire". As well,  he created 'Epigram' for Botanist, a series of playful furniture pieces that are both classic and innovative.  

Paul Rand (1914 – 1996) was an American graphic designer, best known for his corporate logo designs, including the logos for IBM, UPS, Westinghouse, ABC, and the now-infamous Ernon. He was one of the originators of the Swiss Style of graphic design.Rand’s defining corporate identity was his IBM logo in 1956, which as Mark Favermann notes “was not just an identity but a basic design philosophy that permeated corporate consciousness and public awareness." The logo was modified by Rand in 1960, and the striped logo was introduced in 1972. The stripes were introduced as a half-toning technique to make the IBM mark slightly less heavy.He believed that a logo “cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint". The above poster is a rebus he created for IBM, in which M represents the striped logo. But this rebus says something more about the IBM, the eye indicates the visualization of information, and the bee (like the butterfly in Microsoft's window logo) is symbol of search for nectar.

This logo was used in the US as a stamp of authentication or certification for ambulances or emergency medical services. The Star of Life, which is a blue, six-pointed star and features the Rod of Asclepius in the center, was originally designed and governed by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Internationally, "the Rod of Asclepius" represents emergency medical services. Many medical organizations use the rod as their logo since it symbolizes the art of healing. The main advantage of a pictogram is that one does not need to be able to read or to understand a particular language in order to be able to understand the information it conveys. However, in this case one must know the Greek mythology in order to understand why this pictogram represents healing. Asclepius was said to have learned the art of healing from the centaur Chiron. He is customarily represented as a surgeon on the ship Argo. Asclepius was so skilled in the medical arts that he was reputed to have brought patients back from the dead. For this, he was punished and placed in the heavens as the constellation Ophiuchus (meaning "serpent-bearer").

Why, one may ask, we use an obscure mythology to represent a medical service? Is this perhaps a reminder of our tribal instincts to worship our ancestors, or do we want to celebrate the memories of a rich cultural heritage. These are the types of questions a graphic designer should ask.


This is Italian traffic sign for no passing. The red circle around the two cars coveys the idea of "Not Allowed", and is called an Ideogram. The role of this ideogram is determined by the pictogram rules, and is similar to the morphological rule of adding the suffix less to the word care in order to construct the adjective word of careless.

This traffic sign for temporary day time work areas relies on written text and thus is called a Phonogram . Obviously, one needs to be able to read the sign, and to be familiar with the language in order to understand its message.

Unfortunately, as the following images show, the ideograms for warning signs are not yet standardized. Most often a red triangle is used as a warning sign. But in many jurisdictions yellow diamonds are used for warning, while there are others which use a red triangle combined with yellow color. Why the designer of the above sign has used an inverted triangle? Is it because an inverted triangle looks like a downward arrow that indicates a decline sign in stock price charts ?

Heraldry is the practice of designing and displaying ideograms in the form of 'coat of arms' and badges and is common among all nations. For example, Romans used the eagle as their coat of arms, Persians used the sign of their god, Ahura Mazda, and to this day the French still use the fleur-de-lis. The origins of heraldry lie in the need to communicate the family and the rank of combatants when their faces were hidden by iron and steel helmets. Eventually, a formal system of rules developed into ever more complex forms of heraldry.

Examples of Heraldry 

This is a heraldic ideogram of Ahura Mazda: the 'wise lord', the supreme god of the ancient Iranians, whose religion was propagated by the legendary prophet Zarathustra. The Achaemenians also venerated Ahura Mazda. This ideogram was carried in battlefields as the emblem for the Persian empire in 500 BC. It appears that with the emergence of nationalistic sentiments the popularity of this sign has revived among some of the Persian speaking population of Iran in recent years.

This is the imperial coat of arms of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. From the time of Otto the Great onward, the various German princes elected one of their peers as King of the Germans, after which he would be crowned as emperor by the Pope. The last emperor to be crowned by the pope was Charles V; all emperors after him were technically 'emperors-elect', but were universally referred to as Emperor.

The Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom is the official coat of arms of the British monarch.

The shield is quartered, depicting in the first and fourth quarters the three passant guardant lions of England; the rampant lion of Scotland in the second; and in the third, a harp for Northern Ireland.The crest is a statant guardant lion wearing the imperial crown, himself on another representation of that crown. The dexter supporter is a likewise crowned English lion; the sinister, a Scottish unicorn. According to legend a free unicorn was considered a very dangerous beast; therefore the heraldic unicorn is chained, as were both supporting unicorns in the Royal coat of arms of Scotland. The coat features both the motto of English monarchs, Dieu et mon droit (God and my right), and the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shamed be he who thinks ill of it) on a representation of the Garter behind the shield.

After the declaration of independence on July 4, 1776, there were many attempts to propose a design for a seal for the new United States of America. The first was a committee constituted by Continental Congress, which included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.    Finally, in June 20, 1782, Congress approved, as the great seal of the United States, a design recommended by its Secretary, Charles Thomson. The seal consists of the coat of arms, which is officially blazoned in the original approving legislation as:

    "ARMS. Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules; a chief, azure; the escutcheon on the breast of the American eagle displayed proper, holding in his dexter talon an olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, and in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this motto, E Pluribus Unum.

    For the CREST. Over the head of the eagle, which appears above the escutcheon, a glory, or, breaking through a cloud, proper, and surrounding thirteen stars, forming a constellation argent, on an azure field."

Thomson's explanation of the symbolism was also approved by the Continental Congress:
  • The thirteen alternating pales represents the states,
  • Supporting and united by Congress, represented by the blue chief. 
  • The colors signify purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red), and vigilance, perseverance and justice (blue).
  • The olive branch and arrows represent the powers of war and peace.
  • The constellation represents a new state taking its place among other sovereign powers.
  • The eagle as sole supporter signifies that the United States "ought to rely on their own virtue."

The motto is translated, "Out of many, one." In 1885, the Department of State commissioned Tiffany and Company of New York to design and cut a new die for the great seal, which ultimately resulted in the standardization of the arms as used throughout the U.S. government. The artist responsible for this rendering was Tiffany's chief designer, James Horton Whitehouse.

The Coat of Arms of Canada as depicted in 1923. The Royal Arms were adopted by proclamation of King George V on November 21, 1921.

The Ottoman Coat of Arms

The Iranian Coat of Arms

 The Arms of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity are described in heraldic terms as a black shield bearing hands and letters of gold as in their badge, around which emblems run what is known as a double tressure, flory counter flory, of silver.

The 'double tressure' alludes to the 'tie that binds,' the secrets, ideals, and aims of the Fraternity.

The black 'shield' was chosen not only because of it's effectiveness , but also because it is the background of the badge.

The 'crest' consists of an owl surmounting Roman fasces. The owl was assigned by the Greeks to Pallas Athena as an emblem of her supernatural wisdom, and by the Romans to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. The 'fasces,' which the owl surmounts, was a term given to a bundle of elm sticks or branches bound together with leather thongs or lashes, and containing an axe with its blade projecting from the side. These were carried by 'lectors' (public officials attending Roman magistrates), and were symbols of power.

The colors of the Fraternity are represented by a garnet ribbon on the dexter side of the shield, and by a gold one at the left, from which, united below the shield, depends by a ring the Psi Upsilon badge. The supporters are two silver griffins, typifying watchfulness and strength.

The motto, selected from Plato, translates to: "Unto us has befallen a mighty friendship." For a Greek-letter fraternity, a Greek motto is necessary.

Like Western heraldry, Japanese mons were initially held only by aristocratic families, and were gradually adapted by commoners. Japanese traditional formal attire generally display the mon of the wearer. Commoners without mon often used the one mon belonging to their patron or organization. This specific mon is the coat of arm of the Gion Mamori of Japan.

This is the White Rose of York, a white heraldic rose, which is the symbol of the House of York. Traditionally, the origins of the emblem are said to go back to Edmund of Langley in the fourteenth century, the first Duke of York and the founder of the House of York as a Cadet branch of the then ruling House of Plantagenet. The actual symbolism behind the rose has religious connotations as it represents the Virgin Mary, who was often called the Mystical Rose of Heaven

Go to the next chapter; Chapter 18 - Logotypes and Branding

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Chapter 15 - African Art

Table of Contents:



The motives which guide the hands of the sculptors and architects of Black Africa, the strait jacket of ritual and symbolism in which the work of art is confined, the looser framework of institutions which surrounds it, the connection between some works themselves inside a society or from one people to anther - all these factors should be as much subjects study as the actual works themselves. For the arts of the Blacks, just like their ritual, their symbolism, and their social and political organization, are a means of exhibiting a general conception of the universe, its origins, workings, goal and meaning. Marcel Griaule,

Africa is the home to the oldest images in the world. The 1991 discoveries of symbolic geometric designs from Blombos Cave on the southern coast of Africa, in the form of engraved ocher plaques, date back almost as far as the one hundred millennium B.C. The artefacts discovered in Blombos cave were made of the iron ore stone ochre. Small pieces of ochre were first scraped and ground to create flat surfaces. The early artist decorated the stones with a complex geometric array of carved lines. Other finds which indicated a relatively advanced Blombos culture, included ground and polished animal bone tools, dated to the eighty millennium BC, making them some of the oldest bone tools in Africa.

Blombos Cave, early geometric design, seventy five millennium B.C., While excavating the Blombos cave near the southernmost tip of South Africa, the U.S. and South African palaeontologists discovered two pieces of ochre rock with a rather complex geometric design. The cave, is near the southern Cape shore of the Indian Ocean, near Cape Town in South Africa. These are the oldest forms of graphic design ever found. Note how the M-shaped and W-shaped lines are balanced oppose each others and are bounded inside a band, with a line in the middle of the band indicating some sort of equilibrium. It appears that this stone has been reused at least once before as the lighter marks seem to have been erased rather than worn away naturally.

African artifacts are created first and foremost in order to serve particular social functions. They can therefore only be understood in relation to their original context - in political or religious ritual activities, for example. The motifs are often based on symbolic or cultural ideas rather than natural forms, and their meanings are not necessarily accessible to all members of a given society.

The origins of African art can be traced back to long before its recorded history. About thirty millennium BC, rock art was used to depict different aspects of life with imagery appearing on rocks. The rock art which includes paintings, drawings and engravings depicts animals and human figures in narrative scenes. In fact Southern Africa is sometimes referred to as one of the richest depositories of prehistoric mural art in the world. There are at least 15,000 discovered San rock, or Bushmen,art sites in South Africa with many more sites that are still undiscovered not only in South Africa but also in the neighboring countries of Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Later on the rock art of the Sahara in Niger from the fourth millennium B.C. continues this tradition. The earliest known sculptures are from the Nok culture of Nigeria, made around 500 B.C. Along with art of Nubia in the ancient Sudan the cultural arts of the western tribes, ancient Egyptian paintings and artifacts, and indigenous southern crafts also contributed greatly to African art.
One of these sites is the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, which contains many caves and rock-shelters with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa, made by the San people over a period of 4,000 years. These rock paintings are of exquisite quality that through which San people expressed themselves and their universe more fully to themselves and to others. They depicted their spiritual life and their deepest aspirations. In the mid-17th century, when Europeans first discovered the San rock, they described it as churlish and callow, created by a primitive bushman, who was trying to document his savage life style defined by hunting and endless quarrels. Today, however, we have a better understanding and much more respect for this authentic art form, which often depicts the enigma of surrounding nature with abstract interpretations of animals, plant life, and natural designs and shapes. We admire its powerful aesthetics, balanced compositions and harmonious and elegant color schemes. But, more than that, we respect the artists efforts to communicate with us and share with the posterity their wisdom and their sentiments.
White Lady, rock paintings in Brandberg Mountain in Namibia It is considered a (bushman) painting, dating back at least to the first millennium B.C. The artist painted some of the figures in white and red body paint , which are superimposed on older and simpler monochrome human figures in San-style The Brandberg massif is a large granite elevation in the north west of Namib Desert, and host more than one thousand paintings, scattered around in rock shelters and caves.

Twyfelfontein Rock Art in Namibia, Africa. The figures at Twyfelfontein were created over the course of the first millennium B.C., and the site contains more than 2000 rock engraving on 200 sandstone slabs, dating to the Late Stone Age hunter-gatherer culture. The subject of engrvings are mainly animals such as elephant, rhinoceros, giraffe, antelopes, lion, ostrich as well as few humans . The engraving techniques are different according to the tastes and skills of the artists who have created impressionistic designs of these animals. Some have engraved only the outline of their drawings, others have engraved the whole surfaces. Note how the artist has created a harmonious composition using the curvature of the animal bodies. In particular the artist has created an aesthetically pleasing balance of forms by placing the horns of the four cows, in the forefront of the image, in an elliptic arrangement. Moreover, the repetition of the half-circle shapes between the animal legs create a dynamic rhythmical motif.

Painted stone, Coldstream, near the Lottering River, Tsitsikamma Coastal National Park, Western Cape. This painted stone in which three figures with white faces and elongated bodies appear in a ritual dance was discovered near the shoulders of an skeleton in 1911. It is the only known polychrome painted stone from archaeological deposits in South Africa and is preserved at an unusually fine condition. The figures appear to be engaged in a ritualistic dance.The artist has achieved a remarkable proportional space balance by the various movements of arms and legs.

The rock paintings of the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park are a monumental attribute to the San people, who are recognized as the indigenous inhabitants of the sub-continent. They inhabited practically the entire region in the prehistoric times and with their powerful art represented their impression of the world that surrounded them. Within the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park there are some 600 sites, collectively representing over 35000 individual images. Remarkably, the rock art in the park is better preserved than any other region south of the Sahara. The oldest painting on a rock shelter wall in the park is about 2400 years old. The overall minimalistic composition, wonderful use of silhouettes and its striking coloring scheme are testaments to a vigorous and confident artistic mind.

Rock Art of Algeria

Hunter with Negroid features, Tassili n' Agger, Algeria, sixth millennium B.C . The hunter holds an arrow in his right hand and a heavy bow in the left . The cultures of both the Nile valley and of West Africa, have been influenced by the Sahara culture. It is believed that the use of masks is an evidence of this influence. Tassili-n-Ajjerm has one of the most important groupings of pre-historic cave art in the world. More than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara. The Sub-Saharan dried up about four thousand years ago.

Rock Art of the Libyan Desert

In a series of expeditions since 1932 Almásy and Clayton succeeded in entering the three hidden valleys in places like Wadi Hamra, Wadi Abd el Melik, and Wadi Talh. Almásy also reached Regenfeld and a magnificent series of paintings were discovered at Ain Doua at Uweinat, above the well, in caves formed by the gigantic granite boulders lying on top of each other. On yet another expedition, Almásy discovered painted ‘caves’ at the base of the cliff in the western Gilf Kebir, at Wadi Sora (the "Valley of Pictures"), containing among others the now famous figures of the "swimmers". There are innumerable number of powerful rock prints in these areas.

The most spectacular discoveries in Libyan desert were made by a Belgian expedition in 1968. Far from the main concentration of sites, they came unexpectedly on a very large shelter, some thirty meters long, that is covered by superb paintings of the late Bovidian Phase that is thought to have commenced about 6000 years ago, some showing humans in the characteristic Karnasahi style The above painting is one example of these paintings, in which the artist exhibt an astonishing sense of perspective and composition.
The geographical area defined as Western Sudan refers to the stretch of savanna in West Africa to the south of the Sahara and to the north of the great forests. Since the early 20th century archaeologists have been making new inroads into understanding of Nubia or 'land of Kush' these were the ancient people of Sudan. From the evidence recorded by Egyptians at about two millennium BC, we can infer that they were a powerful nation until the fourth century B.C., after which they were defeated by Ethiopians. The evidence of their sophisticated culture has been discovered in the archeological sites. Among them the oldest tombs of Kingdom of Qustul. These thirty-three tombs appear in Nubia before the dynastic period. The art of Nubia is characterized by a variety of stylistic tendencies, although there is a general preference for abstract forms.

In this Meroitic jar dated around the first century A.D. the artist uses the wavelike motion of cobras to create a mellifluous dynamic design that complements the cylindrical shape of the jar. The astonishingly austere pallet has been used with utmost graceful effect. The Meroitic kingdom ruled in Nubia from about 300 B.C. to about 300 A.D.

The minimalist approach in the design of this Nubian Vessel is aesthetically powerful and elegant. The artist depicts a rowing boat with multiple oars, ostriches and undulating lines symbolizing water. 3800-3100 B.C.,Nubia Museum, Aswan, Egypt.

In this eggshell thin, handmade polished ware of Nubian design the artist uses the most simple geometric basket pattern that is painted in red to create a pleasing impact.

The Dogon Wooden Figure Art

The Dogon art is among the most interesting of African tribal art. Dogons live in Mali, on the cliffs of Bandiagara, a remote area high in the hills. They were rather an isolated community that built their villages on steep mountain cliffs. This protected and preserved their culture up to the present time. They flee from the Mossi kingdom and settled on to the cliffs of Bandiagara in the fourteenth century. Like many other African people Dogon artists tend to favor three-dimensional artworks. The Dogon Art embodies all that is fascinating
about Africa; mystical, spiritual, emotive and arresting . It  evokes joy, fear, emotional exuberance or startling enigma. It is aesthetically complex , spiritually illuminating, and in its defining features, beautiful beyond measure.

Seated Figure
Dogon, Mali, 19th-20th Century, Wood, Private Collection

The Dogon art consists of a broad range of forms and styles that are rich in imagery. The artists study their human subjects in all aspects of their daily life, and in a variety of poses. Some works are highly descriptive in their details, others are abstract geometric shapes stripped of all but the barest references to human anatomy. The visual language of the Dogon artists is highly symbolic and depends upon the notion of Nommo, their ancestral spirits.
The Dogon wood figures, Dege,
The Dogon wood figures, Dege, depicting a man and woman on an altar. Most of these wood figures are dedicated to real or mythical ancestors. Every house dedicates an altar containing figurative sculpture representing their ancestors , known as vageu. Ancestors are envisioned as an animating force governing the land of the living and the realm of the spirits. In this sense they are the guarantor of the harmony in the community affairs. The African style, is neither explicative nor emulous, a statue does not represent or describe an ancestor, rather, it suggests an idealized effigy that eulogizes the power of its élan vital. By disproportionate representations of head and trunk; and sexual organs the African style symbolizes the élan vital and fecundity. The rigid but elastic poses of the figures are the indicative of an impending awakening which is suggested by the emphasis on the angular depiction of elbows and knees. The figures usually exhibit a distant dispositions, that can be interpreted, as a state of equanimity and composure, they are emotionless and do not express any particular countenance.

According to the Dogon legends when the first man died, a wooden sculpture was carved and together with a ceramic bowl were placed on the dead man's roof. The carved figure was to provide shelter for his soul and his élan vital (nyama), which were discharged at his death, and the ceramic bowl for libations. This custom then established for all mankind. Not all of a deceased relatives are commemorated on the family altar (vageu). The souls of dead pregnant women, or dead woman when giving birth are regarded as ominous, and the dark forces that precipitate such fatality are exceptionally hazardous. The souls of such women, called "white women" (yaupilu), are buried in a specific repository cave outside the village, which are supervised by a shaman who acts as intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds and uses spiritual techniques to heal illness.

 "I have felt my strongest artistic emotions when suddenly confronted with the sublime beauty of sculptures executed by the anonymous artists of Africa ...   These works of a religious, passionate and rigorously logical art are the most powerful and most beautiful things the human imagination has ever produced."  Pablo Picasso

The Wood Figure Art of Yombe People of Kongo

Wooden Figure of Mother and Child, Yombe culture, Kongo , 19th century.

 The forested region of the Lower Zaire River is important in the artistic history of black Africa, because it boasts the greatest concentration of maternity figures and stone statuary. The vast Yombe area is the focal point of this region, where various artistic styles are profusely practiced. The representation of motherhood is a distinct motif in the majority of African cultures. The African artist celebrates the fecundity of women and cherishes the love of mythical mother who gave life to humankind. The characters of mother figures are generally composed in a seated or kneeling position with a baby at her laps, breast or on her back. The African artist depicts the motherhood in an idealistic state with an abstraction that emphasizes the life-giving, and life-sustaining features of the character .

The African Face Masks


“The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things. And why weren’t the Egyptian pieces or the Chaldean? We hadn’t realized it: those were primitive, not magical things. The Negroes’ sculptures were intercessors… Against everything, against the unknown, threatening spirits. I kept looking at the fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too think that everything is unknown, is the enemy! I understood what the purpose of the sculpture was for the Negroes. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all, they weren’t Cubists! Since Cubism didn’t exist… all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people stop being dominated by spirits, to become independent. Tools. If we give form to the spirits, we become independent of them. The spirits, the unconscious, emotion, it’s the same thing. I understood why I was a painter… Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that day – not at all because of the forms, but because it was my first canvas of exorcism – yes, absolutely!” Picasso as quoted by André Malraux, in La Tête obsidienne (Paris: Gallimard, 1974; pp. 17–19)
The African face masks are for the most part very characterful and vibrant. They are usually made of wood, and are used to cover the face or the head. Many of them are decorated with rhythmical geometric patterns. These artistic masks depict varied expressions and project different pathos. They may suggest a brutish or belligerent look; or a jubilant or amusing expression, and at times convey an air of wisdom and solemnity. Some are part of a traditional costume of festivities, and have been created for specific purpose. Some are created to spell demonic spirits, while others are used to attract favors from the benevolent forces of the universe. The sage Ogotemmeli, the first Sudanese to explicate the meanings of the African culture, has said;
The society of masked men is the whole world. And when it moves in the public square, it mimes the movement of the world, it mimes the system of the world.
To understand the intricacy of these masks' meaning, as Marcel Griaule has argued; they should be studied in the context of their rituals, where "the hole corps de ballet sheds light on the order of the world. The rhythms of the drums are the actual rhythms of the creation 'danced' by the demiurge".

Face mask of the Yaka people of Kongo

Yaka (Bayaka) Face Mask, 1930.
The highly artistic Yaka people reside in Kwango River area in the southwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Yaka carve numerous masks and headgears for use in initiation ceremonies (n-Khanda) and to be worn by traditional leaders.Oral history suggests that the Yaka, along with the Suku, were part of an invasion against the Kongo Kingdom that came from the Lunda Plateau in the 16th century. Among the Yaka, the males contribute to the local economy largely through hunting. They may hunt either individually or in groups and most often use bow and arrow or old rifles. The Yaka follow matriarchal descent patterns, which are overlapped with a reckoning of patriarchal ascent, family name, and land ownership. In their system of belief, the creator who inhabits the sky (ndzambyaphuungu) is responsible for life, death, and all metaphysical questions. They follow no specific religious practices that actively pay homage to this god. Instead, religious celebrations focus on honoring the elders and ancestors (bambuta). The death of an elder is cause for a public ceremony performed by other elders. Bambuta may be honored by recognizing and practicing the traditional ways and through offerings and gifts. 

The initiation ceremony is organized every time there are enough eligible youths between ten and fifteen years of age. A special hut is built in the forest to give shelter to the aspirants during their retreat; the event ends in circumcision, an occasion for great masked festivities including dances and songs. The main feature of these masks are their remarkable personal characters . The above mask is of the popular kholuka form, featuring globular or tubular eyes, a turned-up nose, and an open mouth showing its teeth.

Face Masks of Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)

Baoulé mask, Cote D'Ivoire, 19 Century.

There are more than 60 ethnic groups in Cote D'Ivore, the main ones are the Baoulé in the center, the Agri in the east, the Senufo in the north, the Dioula in the northwest and west, the Bété in the center-west and the Dan-Yacouba in the west. Each one of these groups have their own distinct art. It is said that no one produces a wider variety of masks than the people of the Ivory Coast. Masks are used to represent the souls of deceased people, lesser dieties, or even caricatures of animals. The ownership of masks is restricted to certain powerful individuals or to families. This Baoulé mask is part of ‘portrait masks’ of men and women, Kpan Pre, Kpan Kpan. The masks usually portray a distinguished elder of the village who is celebrated during a ceremonial dance known as “Mblo”. Mblo is an artistic performance in which the guests wear exquisitely carved masks along with a colorful costumes and participate in a ritual dance. The dance celebrates feminine virtues including graceful movements and elegant dancing steps. One of Côte d'Ivoire's most famous festivals is the Fêtes des Masques (Festival of Masks), which takes place in the region of Man occurs in November. Numerous small villages in the region hold contests to determine the best dancers and to pay homage to forest spirits who are embodied in the elaborate masks.
The other important events are the week long carnival in Bouaké each March, and the Fête du Dipri in Gomon, near Abidjan in April. The starts around midnight, when women and children sneak out of their huts and, naked, carry out nocturnal rites to exorcise the village of evil spells. Before sunrise the chief appears, drums pound and villagers go into trances. The frenzy continues until late afternoon of the next day. Only specifically designated, specially trained individuals are permitted to wear the masks. It is believed dangerous for others to wear ceremonial masks because each mask has a soul, or life force, and when a person's face comes in contact with the inside of the mask that person is transformed into the entity the mask represents.

Carved Mother and Twins, Anyi Tribe, 1940.

 The Anyi tribe is part of the Akan residing in the Southern portion of the Ivory Coast. Twins have always been prized among the tribes of West Africa. This figure is of a mother on stool with twins sitting on her knees each holding a breast. It has some encrustation and the neck has rings of white pigmentation. More than likely this was symbolic of fertility.

Face Masks of the Igbo people of Nigeria

Maiden-spirit mask, Eastern Ibo - Igbo (Nigeria).
Igbo are known for masquerades associated with the Iko Okochi harvest festival, in which the forms of the masks are determined by tradition. The festival theme varies each year. The Igbo use thousands of masks, which incarnate unspecified spirits or the dead, forming a vast community of souls.The masks are made of wood and fabric. The remarkable characteristic of these masks is that they are painted chalk white, the color of the spirit. Masked dancers wore extremely elaborate costumes (sometimes ornamented with mirrors) and often their feet and hands were covered. With their masks, the Igbo oppose beauty to bestiality, the feminine to the masculine, black to white. The masks, of wood or fabric, are employed in a variety of dramas: social satires, sacred rituals for ancestors or invocation of the gods, initiation, and public festivals. The white maiden masks, danced by men, have several layers of meanings encompassing spirit characters of different ages. The masks of the eldest daughter and her younger sisters, are characterized distinctively and are decorated with elaborate crested hairstyles. They all have small pointed breasts and wear bright polychrome appliqué cloth "body suits" whose patterning loosely resemble monochromatic designs painted on youthful females in the area. Other characters in the drama are a mother, a father, sometimes an irresponsible son, and a suitor costumed as a titled elder, whose amorous, often bawdy advances to one or more "girls" are invariably rebuffed. 

Among the Igbo peoples it is believed that once a person died communication from the spirit world was possible through funerary masks worn by members of a secret society at the funeral. These individuals are responsible for ensuring that the spirit of the deceased found its way to the spirit world and did not remain in the village to cause trouble. The bright color masks suggest that they are from the South, whereas in the North the masks typically are painted white. Each year during the peak of the rainy season Ibo village groups in the southwestern region stop everyday activities for a full month. This season is dedicated to Owu, the time when water spirits descend to earth from their homes in the clouds in order to dwell and cavort among human beings. These legendary spirits materialize in villages as masqueraders. Two main opponent groups of dramatic spirit characters dance and strut and flog people in the villages most days of the month — hence the cessation of ordinary life.

Igbo Male Figure

The use of bold graphic design with its broad and vibrant application of color that reinforces the strength of the carving are striking features of this African artifact. Among the Igbo such figures are sculpted by men and painted by women. This male figure probably represented a community's founding ancestor or a warrior and was one of a large number of monumental figures kept in the men's meetinghouse to guard the private areas from intrusion. It likely was part of a group that included the founding ancestor's wife and other members of the village, such as warriors and hunters. This is one of only two published terracotta Oshugbo figures; others are copper alloy. (National Museum of African Art)

Face Mask Art of Tsogo peoples in Gabon

This is a Tsogo people mask, which inhabit the Ogowe River region of Gabon. It is dated between the late 19th to early 20th century. The striking disconnect between the divisions of the painted surface of this mask and the underlying carved form is a remarkable aspect of African graphic design that fascinated many Western researchers. When this mask was first exhibited in the 1950s in France, it was wrongly attributed to a different part of Africa. Later research found out that it belongs to the Tsogo peoples. It represents a wider regional tradition of facial divided color surfaces. An American writer who visited a Tsogo village in the 1860s was most impressed by the decorative designs on the doors of many of the houses and commented on the red, white and black patterns of their complicated graphic designs . (National Museum of African Art)

The Bronze Sculptures of Ile-Ife in Nigeria

The bronze head of Olokun, (divine king or Oni) founder of the Yoruba Dynasty. British Museum. The strong realism of this and other magnificent Ife sculptures is in sharp contrast to the usual abstract forms of African art. Ancient Ile-Ife situated at southwest of Nigeria was a splendid walled city covering a considerable area and at its heart was the royal palace. The city had a network of sacred shrines, planned complexes of buildings, streets, courtyards, and patterned potsherd and stone paved roads. In Yoruba mythology the city of Ile-Ife is “the navel of the world,” the place where creation took place and the tradition of kingship began.

T here it was that the gods Oduduwa and Obatala descended from the heaven to create earth and its inhabitants. Oduduwa himself became the first ruler, oni, of Ile-Ife. To this day Yoruba kings trace ancestry to Oduduwa. Of all the centers of African art, there is none so remarkable for extraordinary accomplishments in many fields of art as the ancient town of Ife, the ritual center of the great Yoruba tribe of western Nigeria.

The art of Ile-Ife flourished from about A.D. 800 to 1600 and exhibited great technical excellence and artistic refinement. Between the eleventh and fifteenth century the artists of Ile-Ife developed a highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in terra-cotta or pottery sculpture. Later, this was translated into bronze and brass castings using alloys of copper and zinc. Bronze portrait heads and figures were produced to commemorate deceased kings and chiefs.

Ife Wooden Divination Tray, Areogun of Osi-Ilorin, Nigeria; Yoruba People, about 1880 - 1956.This is a fine example of African graphic design. The tray depicts some of the most important fortunes, that are at the heart of Yoruba philosophy: a healthy long life, wealth, love, children, wisdom and security. All these good fortunes are conveyed by the graphic designer of this tray .Eshu, the god who mediates between the world of the spirit and the human world symbolizes a healthy long life and is carved at the top of this tray. At the bottom, a kneeling woman with a child on her back, presenting offerings in a calabash represents children and fertility. In the left, a soldier stands in guard with a crossbow, he is a symbol of security or victory over the enemies. In the right, a priest of Osanyin, a god of healing and wisdom is depicted. He represents the health, and wisdom . At the lower left, love is represented by a couple making love, and at the lower right, a seated figure, probably a second representation of Eshu closes this circle of life . Representing wealth, a band of cowry shells, formerly used as money in West Africa, runs around the central part of the tray.The diviner sits with the tray in front of him, placed so that Eshu is opposite, facing him.

The Bronze Art of Benin

Benin Head, A bronze sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin. The Benin kingdom was a thriving empire situated in present-day Nigeria. Accruing its economic wealth through commerce with countries north of the Sahara, Benin rose during the 16th century and became the dominant military power and imperial force on the West Coast of Africa. At its political and religious center was a fortified city surrounded by a wall almost ten feet high. The king, or oba , of Benin, was both a political and a religious leader, and believed to be divine. Iconic works of this kind are among the masterpieces of the arts of Africa. To exalt Oba and his lineage, artists created a vast variety of cast-metal objects in the technically challenging ciré perdue technique.

Benin Head of a queen mother wearing a headdress and collar of coral bead. Cast bronze. The ancient Benin kingdom was founded in the early 14th century. The Benin resided in the forest area of southwestern Nigeria. The art of lost wax bronze casting was introduced around the year 1280 and reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. Fabulous bronze castings from this period and later have resided in the museums of Europe since the late 19th century. 

According to the legends, when the first Oba of Benin died his head was sent to Ife for burial. Ife sent back a bronze replica of his head to be placed in the ancestors altar. Fascinated by this artifact the royal house of Benin beseeched the Ife king to send them an artist in order to teach the Benin artisans how to cast in bronze. The Ife king oliged the request and sent the renowned artist Ighea who thought them the ciré perdue technique.

The Art of Ethiopia

This detail from an Ethiopian painting with its line drawing, and coloring scheme anticipates many of the techniques used in modern posters. (end of 17th century). The painting is from the northern wall of the Church of Abbas Antonios, Gondar, Ethiopia and now is in Musée des Arts Premiers, Musée du quai Branly, Paris.

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Sub Saharan Africa. The earliest evidence of Ethiopian history was in around 1,000BC when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon. The first recorded kingdom in Ethiopia grew around Axum between the 1 st and 3rd century BC. Axum was an offshoot of the Semitic Sabeam kingdoms of southern Arabia, it became the greatest ivory market in the north east. Christianity was adopted in the country by a Syrian bishop named Frumentius who grew up in Axum and converted King Ezana; the youth was later made the first Bishop in 330 AD. Ezana declared Axum to be a Christian state , thus making it the first Christian state in the history of the world, and began actively converting the population to Christianity.

An Iilluminated Ethiopian Christian manuscript on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

Axum conquered parts of Yemen and southern Arabia and remained a great power until the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam was expanding which had the effect of cutting off Ethiopia from its former Mediterranean trading partners and allies, Muslims replaced the Egyptians in the Red Sea ports. Ethiopians were allowed to consecrate their Bishops in Cairo and pilgrims were allowed to travel to Jerusalem.

Archangel Raphael, Ethiopian, 20th century, tempera on parchment, collection of Father David Janes, Yamhill, Oregon, Photo: Frank Miller
Featured in the exhibition: Glory of Kings: Ethiopian Christian Art from Oregon Collections

The Art Kabyle, Algeria

Handbuilt pottery made by women, including those from the Kabyle, an older, probably indigenous tradition, dates back 2000 years before the birth of Christ. The vessel depicted here originates from earlier prototypes. To this day, Kabyle women coil and decorate pottery with painted geometric designs for their own household use and for sale. The inhabitants of the mountainous Kabyle region along the Mediterranean coast in northeastern Algeria were superb artists noted for their jewelry making, textiles, mats, basketry, pottery and house mural decoration. In North Africa, wheel-thrown pottery made by men dates from the 7th century B.C. when the Phoenicians introduced the potter's wheel to the Algerian coast. Kabyle women handmade vessels of various sizes and shapes for holding water, milk, oil, cooking and eating food, and oil lamps.

The Art of Cameroon

The Bamelike is the largest of the ethnic groups inhabiting the grasslands of Cameroon. The ancient kingdoms of the Cameroon Grasslands are famous for their splendid artworks – thrones ornamented with precious beads, wooden figures sculptured by unknown masters, enormous drums, finely carved jewelery made from ivory and brass, as well as fabulous masks. These unusual broze, leather, and rafia headdresses would have been used during rituals of planting and harvesting. 

 Go to the next chapter; Chapter 16 - Minimalism

  • Augé, Gillon, Hollier Larousse Moreau et Cie, L'Art et L'homme, Librarie Larousse , Paris, 1957.
  • Susan Mullin Vogel, Baule: ''African Art, Western Eyes'', Yale University Press (October 20, 1997), ISBN 0300073178, ISBN 978-0300073171, Peter Stepan, Prestel Publishing (October 31, 2005), ISBN 3791332287, ISBN 978-3791332284
  • Andreae, Christopher. "African Art: Its Beauty, Form, and Function." Christian Science Monitor IS Apr. 1996, SIRS Inc.
  • J. D. Fage, J. Desmond Clark, The Cambridge history of Africa: From the earliest times to c. 500 BC,Cambridge University Press, 1982, ISBN 052122215X,
  • Werner Gillon, A Short History of African Art, Penguin (Non-Classics), 1991, ISBN-10: 0140136118
  • Jean-Baptiste Bacquart, The Tribal Arts of Africa, Thames & Hudson ,2002 , ISBN-10: 0500282315
  • Ezio Bassani, Arts of Africa: 7000 Years of African Art, Skira, 2005, ISBN-10: 8876242848
  • Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Preston Biler History of Art in Africa, Prentice Hall; 2 edition, 2007, ISBN-10: 0136128726