National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Avenue, SW
Writing and Graphic Systems
in African Art
May 9-August 26, 2007
Scripts communicate in many ways--through their appearance, their placement and the very act of writing. Objects dating from ancient times to the present illustrate how African artists have used diverse forms of letters, words and symbols as well as their meanings to create beautiful, empowered works of art. Inscribing Meaning recognizes that Africa's long engagement with written and graphic systems is part of the broader, global history of writing and literacy.
Inscribing Meaning explores the relationships between African art and the communicative powers of language, graphic systems and the written word. For thousands of years, African artists have incorporated writing and graphic symbols into their art with great ingenuity and creativity.
The works of art on view reveal the richness of Africa's artistic traditions and emphasize that objects are aesthetically powerful communicators of history, knowledge, identity and values.
Inscribing Meaning was developed by the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in association with the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
Writing systems have flourished in Africa for thousands of years and have contributed significantly to the global history of writing. In Inscribing Meaning, artworks from a range of periods, regions and media testify to the rich diversity of scripts and forms of graphic communication. They challenge conventional understandings of the written word as something static applied only to paper, and they demonstrate the dynamic ways that artists from many African cultures have creatively used script, or the idea of script, in their works of art.
Scripts are systems of interrelated symbols used to encode and transmit meaning. In Africa, these scripts take a variety of forms. Some are phonetic alphabets, in which letters or characters represent the sounds of a language, while others are ideographic, comprised of abstract symbols that convey concepts, ideas or things. All of these scripts possess a dramatic, visual power that has inspired artists to deploy them in myriad ways and contexts. Whether inscribed on ritual or everyday objects, textiles, the human body or in books, these African scripts are more than technologies of communication. They constitute versatile, aesthetically potent ways of knowing and affecting the world.
The mix of traditional and contemporary works of art featured in this exhibition underscores the versatility of script and its great potential as a social, political, religious and popular art form both in Africa and its diaspora. Indeed, many artists have used script to explore intersections of art and society with intriguing results.
In the arts of Africa, the connection between the human body and written texts has a long, complex history. From early Egyptian works to the most contemporary art forms, artists have used the body as a primary "canvas" for inscriptions--such as scarification or tattooing--or as a site for displaying graphically rich materials found on clothing or jewelry. Of all inscribed surfaces, the body may be the most politically charged template for imparting meaning. Since it moves through space, the body mediates between the public and the private spheres, allowing individuals to address ideas about gender, identity, ethnicity and class through inscribed forms of adornment.
Bodily inscription systems are reflected in Africa's traditional arts, including architecture, figurative sculptures, jewelry, pottery, decorated gourds and personal objects. They also find expression in modernist artworks, such as prints, photographs and sculptures, underscoring how both traditional and contemporary African art-though usually created for different audiences and purposes-at times employ shared aesthetic systems and a common recognition of the power of the inscribed body to convey meaning, memory and identity.
The decorated body holds cultural meaning and conveys specific information to those versed in its visual vocabulary. Body scarification and tattooing have long been viewed in Africa as marks of civilization that affirm ethnic identity, indicate rank or standing within society and signal permanent transition to adulthood. These forms of body enhancement are both rich in content and extraordinarily beautiful in appearance. In the case of scarification, touching plays a role as important as seeing. As tactile scriptures, scarification signifies the body's preparation for adulthood, marriage and the birth of children.
Just as bodies are transformed, idealized and rendered semantically rich through scarification and tattooing, many objects used in Africa are incised with graphic patterns imitating those on the skin, as seen in the pottery jar displayed nearby. These metaphoric bodies reinforce deeply held cultural beliefs about what it means to be human.
In religious traditions the world over, writing and graphic inscription are endowed with sacred attributes, for they are considered both the embodiment of the divine and a powerful means for conveying religious teachings. The capacity of writing to bring about change in people's lives lends itself to contexts of divination, healing and other forms of spiritual mediation, in addition to prayer, devotion and states of heightened awareness.
Inscribed works of art communicate meaning through the visual language of objects as well as the mystical powers and attributes of words, letters, graphic symbols and the very act of writing. Three inscription systems--Egyptian hieroglyphics, the liturgical language of Ge'ez in Ethiopia, and Arabic, used in much of Africa--are selected here to illustrate the long history of African written traditions and the close association of art with sacred scripts.
Both historically and today, specialized forms of writing and graphic inscription in Africa are usually the domain of highly trained (and often religious) practitioners, from scribes and poets to priests, monks and healers. Those who master writing and the ability to employ it for particular purposes possess a specific literacy that enables them to serve as spiritual mediators between ordinary people and the specialized knowledge and powers encoded in scripts.
Unlike spoken language, writing and graphic systems are dynamic, imaginative means for communicating ideas visually. Works of art — ffective vehicles in their own right for conveying meaning--gain visual and communicative strength when they include writing or graphic symbols. Moreover, inscription itself is a powerful, creative act.
In different African social, political and cultural contexts, works of art often incorporate scripts as one way to express how power is accrued through the acquisition of specialized knowledge and skills, such as healing with herbal medicines, communicating with the spirit world and writing. This in turn is frequently linked to the potential for social, political and economic gain and to assertions of legitimacy and control. Over the centuries, Africans have developed their own writing systems or adapted existing scripts to document and represent their cultures and histories.
In creating works of art that serve those who guard and exercise power, such as warriors, leaders and members of religious or political associations, artists rely on the symbolic significance of specific materials, images, performance contexts and, at times, inscriptions to imbue objects with greater efficacy and visual potency.
To document in writing is a direct way to preserve a thought, legitimize a concept or make an idea concrete. African artists often use inscription to detail the discrepancies and ironies of colonial narratives of conquest and to explore how writing has dictated the telling of Africa's histories. They incorporate the language of visual forms to create works that express and often contest the dynamics of power, control and social relationships. Such powerful narratives challenge established structures of authority, shape public perceptions and assert identity.
Many urban artists draw on their print-saturated environments for inspiration. They incorporate texts and subject matter from newspaper and television accounts of current events, recognizing the power of the media to mold public opinion. Others turn to posters and graffiti as a way to stake a public claim to ideas and issues, much as urban graffiti arts take over public spaces. With the global information revolution, computer technology has opened a new chapter in the creative interplay of word and image for many African artists.
Artists' books are visual, tactile and spatial, and their physical qualities are integral to their meaning. Artworks exploring the book form are concerned with language and the cultural importance of writing. African artistic interest in this form is set against the complex backdrop of European imperialism and missionary work--forces that used writing to record, tax and control the lives of local populations. "The Book" is also recognized as a sacred and solemn expression of faith, associated in Africa with both Christianity and Islam.
There are a wide array of artistic responses to and investigations of the influence and aesthetics of books. Some African artists question the very form of the book, moving away from the traditional volume to more animated, multidimensional approaches. Others deliberately fragment pages and excerpts of larger works, separating them for scrutiny and freeing them from convention. Entire tomes may be filled with inventive scripts imbued with personal meaning. In the hands of talented artists, such works illustrate the fragility of narratives, the dismantling of authority and the creativity of human endeavors.
Artistic fascination with scripts and words is profoundly rooted in the desire to manipulate line, form, space, color and perspective. Many contemporary African artists use conventional and invented scripts along with graphic symbols to explore the inherent tensions between visual forms--the way letters, words or inscriptions look--and their meanings both within and outside the artworks themselves. They harness the narrative elements and plasticity of script to create complex, cosmopolitan artworks that address the communicative powers of language.
Artists draw not only upon traditional African uses of scripts but also upon a rich history in modern and postmodern artistic practice that manipulates words to serve multiple aesthetic and communicative functions. Whether working in photography, painting, mixed media or site-specific installations, African artists move beyond simple investigations of script and calligraphy to produce highly personal and poetic approaches to text and image.