Everything ‘speaks’, and to those who know how to ‘hear’, craft is the powerful embodiment of the mystical life force, wrote Amadou Hampate Ba
The meaning we give nowadays to the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’ and the special place they occupy in the modern society do not entirely match the traditional African way of thinking.
‘Art’ was not something separate from life. Art not only covered all forms of human activity, but also gave them a meaning. The Ancient African view of the universe was an all-embracing and religious one, and acts, particularly acts of creation, were seldom, if ever, carried out without a reason, an intention, or appropriate ritual preparations.
In traditional Africa, there was no division between the sacred and the profane, as there is in our modern society. Everything was interconnected because everything was imbued with a profound feeling of the Unity of Life, the Unity of all things within a sacred universe where everything was interrelated and mutually dependent. Every act and every gesture were considered to bring into play the invisible forces of life.
According to the tradition of Bambara people of Mali, these forces are the multiple aspects of the Se, or Great Prime Creative Power, which is itself an aspect of the Supreme Being known as Maa Ngala. In such a context, actions, since they generated forces, were necessarily rituals performed so as to not to upset the balance of the sacred forces of the universe of which humans were traditionally both guardians and guarantors.
The crafts of the iron-worker, carpenter, leather-worker or weaver were, therefore, not considered to be utilitarian, domestic, economic, aesthetic or recreational occupations. They were functions with religious significance and played a specific role in the community.
In the last analysis, in ancient Africa, everything was considered art, as long as the knowledge of some kind was involved. Art was not only pottery, painting, etc. but everything at which people worked (it was called, Literally, ‘the work of the hands’) and everything which could contribute towards developing the individual.
These creative activities were all the more sacred since the world we live in was considered to be merely the shadow of another, higher world conceived of as a mysterious pool located neither in time nor in space. The souls and thoughts of humans were linked to this pool. In it, they perceived shapes or impressions, which then matured in their minds and found expression in their words or the work of their hands.
Hence the importance of the human hand, considered as a tool which reproduced on our material plane (the ‘plane of shadows’) what had been perceived in another dimension. The forge of the traditional ironsmith, who had been initiated into both general and secret knowledge handed down to him by his ancestors, was no ordinary workshop, but a sanctuary which one entered only after performing specific rites of purification. Every tool and instrument in the forge was the symbol of one of the active or passive life forces at work in the universe, and could be manipulated only in a certain way and to the accompaniment of ritual words.
In his workshop sanctuary, the traditional African ironsmith was thus conscious not only of performing a task or of making an object, but of reproducing, by a mysterious analogy, the initial act of creation, thus participating in the central mystery of life.
The same was true of other crafts. In ancient traditional societies in which the concept of ‘profane’ was virtually non-existent, the craftsman’s functions were not performed for money or to earn a living: they corresponded to sacred functions, to paths of initiation, each of which was the medium for a body of secret knowledge patiently handed down from generation to generation.
This knowledge was always about the mystery of the primal cosmic unity, of which each trade was one particular aspect and form of expression. There were a great many craftsmen’s trades, because there were also a great many possible relationships between humans and the cosmos, which was the great dwelling place of God. While the art of the ironsmith is linked with the mysteries of fire and the transformation of matter, the art of the weaver is bound up with the mystery of rhythm and the creative Word acting through time and space.
In ancient times, not only was a trade or art considered to be the embodiment of a particular aspect of the cosmic forces, but it was also a means of making contact with them. To guard against an unwise mixing of powers which might prove to be incompatible and to keep secret knowledge within the family. These various categories of craftsmen came to practise a system of marriage within their group, regulated by numerous sexual prohibitions. It is plain to see how these chains of initiation or ramifications of knowledge gradually gave rise, through marriage within the group, to the special caste system of the area formerly known as Bafour (savanna region stretching from Mauritania to Mali). These castes enjoyed unique status within society.
Let us take a look at the middle class, which particularly concerns us here, namely the class of craftsmen called, in Bambara, the Nyamakala. Owing to the sacred and esoteric origins of his functions, the Nyamakala could under no circumstances become a slave, and he was absolved from the obligation of war service incumbent upon noblemen. Each category of craftsmen, or Nyamakala, constituted not only a caste, but a school of initiation. The secret of their art was jealously guarded within the group and strictly handed down from generation to generation or from father to son. Craftsmen were themselves called upon to adopt a hereditary way of life, with obligations and prohibitions designed to keep alive in them the qualities and abilities required by their art.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that ancient Africa can be understood only in the light of an occult and religious conception of the universe, where there is a living, dynamic force behind the appearances of all people and objects. Initiation taught the right way to approach these forces, which in themselves, and like electricity, were neither good nor bad, but had to be approached in the right way so as not to cause short-circuits or destructive fires. We should remember that the first concern was not to upset in any way the balance of forces in the universe which the First Man, Maa, had been appointed to uphold and preserve by his Creator, as were all his descendants after him.
At a time when so many dangers threaten our planet because of human folly and thoughtlessness, it seems to me that the principle thus raised by the old Bambara myth has lost none of its relevance. After the ironsmith come the traditional weavers, who also possess a high tradition of craft initiation. Initiated weavers of the Bafour work only in wool, and all the decorative patterns on their blankets or tapestries have a highly precise meaning connected with the mystery of numbers and the origin of the universe.
Woodworkers, who make ritual objects, notably masks, themselves cut the wood they need. Their knowledge is thus linked to knowledge of the secrets of the African bush and of plant life. Those who make canoes must also be initiated into the secrets of water.
Then come the leatherworkers, who are often reputed to be sorcerers and, finally, also belonging to the Nyamakalaw, there is the special caste of djeli, or ‘public entertainers’, also known as griots.
Griots are not only musicians, singers, dancers and storytellers. Some serve as ambassadors or emissaries, acting as intermediaries between the great families: others may be genealogists and historians. They have other roles, but those I have indicated are their principal functions.
The griots as a class do not have their own initiation rite, although individually they may belong to particular societies which do have such rites. But they are nevertheless Nyamakala, since in fact they manipulate one of the greatest forces acting on the human soul: the spoken word. While the nobles are bound by tradition to observe the utmost discretion in word and gesture, griots are completely free in this domain. As the spokesmen and intermediaries of the nobles, they enjoy special status in society.
As craftsmen in materials or in speech, transformers of natural elements, creators of objects and forms and manipulators of forces, the Nyamkala occupied a place apart in traditional African society. They fulfilled a major role as mediators between the invisible words and everyday life.
Thanks to them, everyday or ritual objects were not simply objects, but repositories of power. Such objects most often served to celebrate the glory of god and of ancestors, to open the bosom of the sacred Mother, the Earth, or to give material form to impressions which the soul of the initiate drew from the hidden part of the cosmos and which could not be clearly expressed in language.
In the traditional religion-orientated world, fantasy did not exist. A craftsman did not make something in a spirit of fantasy, by chance or to satisfy a whim. The work had a purpose and a function, and the craftsman needed to be in a state of mind which matched the moment of its creation. Sometimes he would fall into trance, and when he emerged from it, he would create.
In this case, the object was not considered to be his handiwork. He was regarded merely as an instrument or medium of transmission. People would say about his work: “God put it into you”, or “God has used you to create a fine work”. Art was, in fact, a religion, a form of particicpation in the forces of life and a way of belonging to both the visible and to return to the very root of African tradition by seeking instruction from the masters who are still alive – instruction not so much in a technique as in a way of ‘tuning in’ to the world.
This would lead them to take a fresh, more understanding and above all more receptive look at the works of art of the past, for these were not only ‘aesthetic’ works (aestheticism had very little to do with African art) but also a means of transmitting something transcendent. Each object from the past is like a silent word. Perhaps the young artists of today, more sensitive and more receptive than most people, will be able to hear that silent word.
The old African saying goes (and perhaps the artist of today can hear it): Listen! Everything speaks. Everything is speech, Everything seeks to inform us, to give us knowledge or an indefinable, mysteriously enriching and constructive state of being.
“Learn to listen to silence.” Says old Africa, “and you will discover that it is music.”
This is an edited extract from the Craft Reader, an anthology of writings on crafts edited by Glenn Adamson, of the Victoria and Albert Museum, published by Berg.
This article is printed with permission from Resurgence magazine, UK.