by

Kristina Bekenova

Sense of aesthetics and gracefulness of the image are not invented and, moreover, are not the privilege of the modern time. And this is proved by spectacular rock art of Africa, which differs from rock art of other places (f.ex. Spain, Australia) by its diversity and antiquity. South African Blombos Caves carry the palm of the most antique rock engravings, dated to 70000 BC. If you look to the map  you will see that from the Sahara to South Africa, the African continent is full of magnificent images and stunning decorated shelters.

Photo credit: najeeb via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: najeeb via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

One of the first ethnographers who was interested in and then classified rock paintings was Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), who during his manifold trips to Africa divided the paintings he saw into two main groups: wild animals, such as rhinoceros, elephants, giraffes, and domesticated animals, mainly buffaloes. But later, when new images with new forms and plots were found out, this classification became obsolete. Let’s review some examples:

  • in Tibetsi Mountains of the Sahara images of ostriches were discovered;
  • the Lope-Okanda Site in Gabon, Nyero site of Uganda, Kondoa site in Tanzania, an various sites in Ethiopia are rich of geometric spirals and circles; and,
  • the caves across Africa abound in human figures and life-scenes (among which, one may recall, that of the warriors from Niger with triangular bodies) which are particularly beautiful.

African rock art has increasingly becoming a specialized research field dominated not only by ethnographers with their recording expeditions (Leo Frobenius, Henri Lhote), but also by scholars from various other fields such as hermeneutics, structuralism, semiotics, socio-politics and gender studies who examine content, symbolism, style, mythology, sexuality, as well as people’s attitude toward animals, social structure etc. reflected in the images. If the first group in this field (A.R. Willcox, The Rock Art of Africa, 1984) was focused on where the rock art is located, how old it is, what is the general content, another group of researchers is more interested in analyzing the rich data collected by previous generation of scholars. In Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art (1989) Lewis-Williams&Dowson, as well as Woodhouse in “Bushman Rock Paintings” (1977) study the spirit world and symbolism of Bushmen paintings (Southern Africa) come to conclusion that Bushman art is art created by shamans when they were in trance and took the body of various animals. Thackeray in “New Directions in the Study of Southern African Rock Art” (1993) also stands for comparative studies that could provide insightful conceptual associations[1].

The thing that captivates the admirers’ attention for these rock art paintings is, above all, their beauty, their power, the grace of their lines, and their composition. From the images you involuntarily understand that it was a time of great people with the highest degree of artistic development, who could enjoy and admire the beauty of the scenery, the harmony of human living within the nature, and who also could admire the artistic shape and form, thus, forcing us “to reevaluate the earliest tangible evidence of human creativity”[2]. So, in that context, maybe, at first sight seemed too simple, the conjecture advanced by Willcox is not too trivial:

The animals… were painted because they were good to see. .. Pleasure in the exercise of skill is the basic motive for the creation of all art; and is sufficient, alone, to account for most of it[3].

The rock art is also, of course, about peculiar sense of the time:

There’s such a sense of connection with the past, with the land, with those people, it’s incredibly humbling. At times it is completely overwhelming to think that this stuff was happening so long ago. It is art that symbolizes, and offers, an extraordinary connection through time[4].

Perhaps, people of that time understood the invisible ties between the present and the future, thus creating the images – scenes from their life experiences and relationships with environment and animals – not only as part of their rituals and admiration, but also to pass certain knowledge from one generation to another[5]. To support this idea, it worth noting the importance that African people attach, especially in the arts (sculpture, music, dance, healing), to the knowledge and skills acquired through apprenticeship:

Parents and grandparents who have knowledge in curving disseminate this knowledge through family lines and it continues from older family members to younger generation. Such precious knowledge resides within individuals minds and can be classified as tacit knowledge[6].

The painting is also an intrinsic story of the humanity, so called “windows of the past”[7]:

This is not just Africa’s rock art, it’s the world’s – Africa occupies that very special position in that we all, ultimately, come from here. Here’s a great news story out of Africa, the preservation of thousands of years of history and culture about which we would know nothing if not for this art[8].

For example, these very rock engravings tell us one of the astonishing facts about Sahara. In the Tassili n Ajjer rock site of Algeria and Fezzan area of Libya, among of dozen thousands of rock paintings, images of elephants, rhinoceros, giraffes, antelopes, gazelles and hippopotamus (!) inform us about abundant wildlife and fertile land with rivers[9]. Could you imagine that in the Sahara we know, with a dry and harsh climate, there were rhinos?! That Sahara belonged to the period between 12th and 7th centuries BC.

But unfortunately, the great importance of the rock art survived during thousands of years does not prevent it from vandalism, erosion, neglect and terrorism, the main reasons of its gradual destruction. To David Coulson, the executive chairman of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA):

The greatest threat we face is neglect… The biggest challenge has been getting people in Africa to engage with what is essentially evidence of their glorious past, something they should be hugely proud of[10].

With this idea in mind, TARA in partnership with the British Museum made available an online archive of more that 21000 images of the rock art all over Africa; together with the Education Section of the National Museums of Kenya develops special educational programs for children to appreciate from the early years the historical and cultural importance of this form of art[11] in order to prevent vandalism and ignorance.

The preservation of the artistic archaeological heritage is the essential topic of any discussion since the first attempt to display ancient art (1994, “People, Politics and Power”, the Johannesburg Art Gallery). The 2010 workshop on “Theft and Vandalism” was resulted in Declaration Addressing The Theft and Vandalism of Africa’s Rock Art, where engaging with local communities and improve local legislature are the priorities[12]. Another institute concerned with preservation and research is the Rock Art Research Unit, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

It’d be very sad, if modern day vandals managed to destroy art forms that survived for thousands  of years. It would show that man only excel in destroying the few good things they have been able to produce in the course of their history.

[1] J. F. Thackeray, “New Directions in the Study of Southern African Rock Art”, African Arts, vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), p. 75.

[2] Merrick Posnansky, “Reviewed Work: Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art by David Lewis-Williams, Thomas Dowson”, African Arts, vol. 24, no. 1 (Jan., 1991), p. 91.

[3] A. R. Willcox, The Rock Art of Africa, p. 266. Cited in “Reviewed Work: The Rock Art of Africa by A. R. Willcox” by Merrick Posnansky, African Arts, vol. 18, no. 2 (Feb., 1985), p. 17.

[4] David Coulson, cited in Mike Pflanz, “No Stone Unturned”, Telegraph Magazine, 21 June 2014, p. 25. Available at http://africanrockart.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Rock-Art-Telegraph-Magazine-21-June-2014.pdf

[5] The idea of passing the knowledge was expressed by W. Mirimanov, “Taina Fezzana” [The Mystery/Secret of Fezzan], in Afrika esche ne otkryta [Africa is not opened yet] ed. by Kobischanov, Moscow: Mysl’, 1967.

[6] A. Coleman, “Preservation of Indigenous wood carving knowledge of African traditional people through the use traditional carvers database framework”, Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, vol. 15, no.3 (July 2016), p.371.

[7] A. Campbell & D. Coulson, “Windows of the Past”, Archaeology, July/August 2001.

[8] David Coulson, cited in Mike Pflanz, “No Stone Unturned”, p.25.

[9] David Coulson and Alec Campbell, “Rock Art of the Tassili n Ajjer, Algeria”. Available at http://africanrockart.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Coulson-article-A10-proof.pdf

[10] David Coulson, cited in Mike Pflanz, “No Stone Unturned”, p. 29.

[11] TARA has a book for children, that could be found here: http://africanrockart.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/I-Love-Rock-Art-Childrens-Book.pdf

[12] 2010 Declaration Addressing The Theft & Vandalism of Africa’s Rock Art. Available at http://landward.org/wac/2011/07/03/2010-declaration-addressing-the-theft-a-vandalism-of-africas-rock-art/