Contemporary Iconology and African Sacred Symbols
CONTEMPORARY ICONOLOGY AND AFRICAN SACRED SYMBOLS Sophia Oduol, 2011 [email protected] com Introduction The awareness of the power of iconography in communication can be traced back to the earliest civilizations of mankind. Production of type was through scratch marks made on flat surfaces using sharp objects. Twentieth century records show well developed type from Mesopotamia, Chinese calligraphy, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Phoenician alphabet. How do you make any sense of history, art or literature without knowing the stories and iconography of your own culture and all the world’s main religions?
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Polly Toynbee (1947). Contemporary Iconography is significant because it brings attention to civilization within the African continent. African countries have sacred letters and symbols that have been used to communicate written messages. Many of these remain undiscovered by the mainstream theorists. Saki Mafundikwa in his book ‘afrikan alphabets’, has made presentations on African letterforms, and he continues to unearth innovative and little understood symbols. This paper aims to explore how the Ancient African sacred writings have been reborn in to contemporary iconology.
The study is placed in the context of the history, meaning, deciphering and transformation of Iconography. A conceptual framework is constructed, based on critical theory from arts disciplines, notably from the history of African Sacred symbols from the Igbos and the Adinkra. The icon is a primary denotation or representation. Iconology is an interpretation that calls on the unconscious. Intermingling of the icon and the African sacred symbols is considered. This paper finds that written communication has now transformed into informal, colloquial icons, where everyday communication can occur through a sign rather than speaking.
These signs are conclusively a replica of ancient African sacred symbols. The visual framework reveals a changing iconology where symbols may be discerned. An iconology is suggested of dreamlike connotations and magical powers in the collective unconscious. The study provides a model which may be applied to visual aspects of iconology. It would benefit from an assessment of readership impact. The analysis is of interest to design researchers, practitioners and trainees.
It illuminates the ways in which contemporary iconology interacts with African sacred symbols and conveys intangible values that may not be reflected in our modern day lives. Iconography Iconography, according to Dictionary. com is a symbolic representation, especially the conventional meanings attached to an image or images, the subject matter in the visual arts, especially with reference to the conventions regarding the treatment of a subject in artistic representation. Iconology then studies or analyses subject matter and its meaning in the visual arts.
Iconography as an academic art historical discipline is believed to have developed in the nineteenth-century in the works of scholars such as Adolphe Napoleon Didron, Anton Heinrich Springer, and Emile Male, all specialists in Christian religious art, which was the main focus of study in this period, in which French scholars were especially prominent. Erwin Panofsky for instance, codified an influential approach to iconography in his 1939 Studies in Iconology. He defined it as “the branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to form,”
The term is also believed to have originated from the Greek word ikon meaning image. An icon in religion for instance, was a picture of Christ used as an object of devotion in the orthodox Greek Church from at least the seventh century on. Thus icons have come to be attached to any symbol that holds a special meaning to it. Artists used iconography in a range of types to convey particular meanings. In Christian religious paintings, images such as the lamb represented Christ and the dove represented the holy spirit. However in the iconography of classical mythology, the dove was seen to suggest a woman goddess Aphrodite or Venus.
Krautheimer Richard (1942). The meanings therefore relied massively on the context. William Blake, in the eighteenth century invented a complex personal iconography to illustrate his depiction of man and God. To date, much scholarship has been devoted to deciphering it. In the twentieth century the iconography of Picasso’s work is mostly autobiographical, while Joseph Beuys developed an iconography of substances such as felt, fat and honey, to express his ideas about life and society (tate. org). In ancient Africa, hieroglyphics (sacred Egyptian writing) was used to record their historic heritage.
Hieroglyphics were around for upto 3000 years before their meaning was deciphered. Hieroglyphic writing is a system that employed characters in the form of pictures. These individual signs, called hieroglyphs, were read either as pictures, as symbols for pictures, or as symbols for sounds. Scholars generally believe that Egyptian hieroglyphs came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and were possibly invented under the influence of the latter. Sampson Geoffrey (1990). As hieroglyphics developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified the glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic and demotic scripts.
These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 CE by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from 396 CE. Alan H. Gardiner (2005) Sacred Symbols
An anonymous Aboriginal Tribal Elder stated, “They say we have been here for 60,000 years, but it is much longer. We have been here since the time before time began. We have come directly out of the Dreamtime of the Creative Ancestors. We have lived and kept the earth as it was on the First Day. ” Symbols, language of the soul, symbols, an alphabet of human thoughts. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who studied archetypes, proposed an alternative definition of symbol, distinguishing it from the term sign. In Jung’s view, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent.
He contrasted this with symbol, which he used to stand for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise. Carl Jung theorized that we are able to go beyond the artificial barriers imposed by language to speak directly to our unconscious. Symbols allow us to become time travelers as we connect to our past as well as connect to other nations and religions. C. G. Jung, (1992) A symbol is an icon that has a meaning. Jung recognized that the universal symbols common to many world religions are archetypal products of humankind’s natural religious function.
Two of the most important universal symbolic images that he studied for instance, were the circle, or mandala–a symbol of unity and eternity–and the cosmic tree, which can be regarded both as a symbol of the self, or as a cosmic axis linking the underworld, earth and heavens Sacred symbols hold beliefs which are often used as significant tools in spiritual journeys to perhaps gain insight into collective rituals and spiritual practices. Clare Gibson in Sacred Symbols (Saraband Inc. ) wrote, “Because sacred thought involves the intangible and supernatural, it cannot help but be expressed symbolically.
Barbara Biziou (2002) Symbols express concepts by means of visual shorthand. Symbols transcend the barriers of language, they can be instantly registered and absorbed, and most significantly, in the sacred context, it is said to encourage a mystical reaction in achieving a closer communion with the sacred. Symbols are powerful and complex forms of communication despite their graphic simplicity. “In any kind of inner work, whether it be in dreams, meditation, contemplation, guided imagery, or creative visualizations, symbols appear to us as signposts or keys and they function as containers, evealers, or concealers of meaning to enable us to penetrate deeper into the mystery of life. ” Angeles Arien (1995) African sacred symbols Many African cultures for instance, traditionally used animals as symbolism. Animals were viewed as teachers, as each represents a beneficial quality that can help strengthen and educate a person. If they understood each animal’s essence–the specific gifts and strengths the creature represents–they would then incorporate a particular animal into a ritual and ask its guidance. Our ancestors express themselves to us in the sacred symbols of our cultures and religions.
In Burkina Faso, among the Nunuma, Nuna, Winiama, Lela, Bwa, and Mossi, and in Mali among the Dogon, masks are among the most strikingly abstract of African culture. These masks are abstract because they are portraits of the nature spirits. They are symbolic representations of the spiritual beings that give life to the world in which we live. These spirit beings are normally invisible, unseeable, untouchable. But we can feel their presence in the power of nature, in the new life that appears following the first storms of the rainy season.
What more effective way to represent an abstract idea than with symbol. Most African symbols are representative, not representational. The invented spirits these figures and masks symbolize are supernatural, unseen, unknown, incomprehensible, so that the concrete forms that are carved to house them must also be invented. The graphic patterns that cover masks in Burkina Faso comprise a system of communication in which the combination of symbols transmits rules about the moral conduct of life. Each of these masks represents a spirit which is invented by the people when a particular need arises.
This process of inventing spirits and creating masks to represent them continues to be very active to the present day in the lives of the people in Burkina Faso. As new challenges a rise, new spirits are invented, and new masks are carved. This process means that the types of masks and the styles of masks that appear are constantly subjected to change. Christopher D. Roy (2007) The Adinkra symbols were originally created by the Akan of Ghana and the Gyaman of Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa and represent concepts or aphorisms.
African oral tradition dates the arrival of adinkra among the Akan to the end of the 1818 Asante-Gyaman War. However, the Englishman Thomas Edward Bowdich collected a piece of adinkra cloth in 1817, which demonstrates that adinkra art existed before the traditional starting date. Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1993). Historically, King Adinkra, the chief of Gyaman, wore special clothes with patterns on them made up of symbols with special meanings. King Adinkra insulted the king of the Ashanti by copying the design of his sacred golden stool.
King Bonsu of the Ashanti was angry with King Adinkra and killed him, and the Ashanti took the patterns from King Adinkra’s clothes as their own. The Adinkra symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. There are many different symbols with distinct meanings, often linked with proverbs. In the words of Anthony Appiah, they were one of the means in a pre-litrate society for “supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief”.
The Igbo people are one of the largest and most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria. Igbo art is generally known for various types of masquerade, masks and outfits symbolising people animals or abstract conceptions. The Igbo symbolic language was used by John Goldsmith as an example to justify deviating from the classical linear model of phonology as laid out in The Sound Pattern of English. It is written in the Roman script as well as the Nsibidi formalized ideograms which is used by the Ekpe society and Okonko fraternity, but is no longer widely used. Oraka, L. N. 1983). Nsibidi ideography existed among the Igbo before the 16th century, but died out after it became popular among secret societies, who then made Nsibidi a secret form of communication. Scholars of the Igbo cultural symbols, confused the sacred and profane, the religious, social and political. Bishop A. K. Obiefuna testifies to this by saying that “In traditional Igbo life no distinctions were made between the sacred and profane, fact and fiction, history and poetry, all served the same purpose in a world where the natural and the supernatural interchanged hands… He felt that the fact that most social symbols are associated with religion does not ritualize them or make them become religious symbols. Moreover, there is no Igbo cultural symbol that has received an equal attention as the kola nut. ?j? Igbo, – cola acuminata, has more than two cotyledons or seed leaves which is the material that is chewed. ?j? Aw? sa or gworo, – cola nitida, has only two cotyledons. In Igbo traditional rituals and ceremonies, the gworo is not a valid matter: only the Igbo kola, cola acuminata is acceptable.
Ikenga, another sacred symbol, has an important connection to the spiritual and psychical dimension of the culture and the individual; it is timeless and is perceived as a psychic force that underscores success. There is the interpretation that Ikenga is the destiny, which an unborn soul works out for itself with the help of its Chi before it incarnates in the physical realm. In this case the creation and consecration of Ikenga would be the process of activating this destiny and living it out. ” Iconography and African sacred symbols today
Writing as a means of communication has been constantly evolved, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological transformations which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. More so with the advent of digital technologies, for instance the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making the physical motion with the hand. Modern iconography consist two directions: modernist and traditionalist.
Traditionalist, and also the major direction, pleads for the constancy of style and rules, it is conservative, and keep the old templates, generally believing that any deviation from the traditions is regression and wrong. Unlike traditionalist, modernist direction is committed to the modernization of iconography, which should be, in their opinion, witness to the true faith in a modern way, with modern language, modern painting style and materials. The adinkra symbology for instace, has gradually transformed incorporating diverse ideologies and civilizations.
The symbols are also utilized on pottery, metal work, and are also incorporated into modern commercial designs to perhaps give significance to the product. Icons like linguistic signs must be deciphered and like other forms of drawing, they tend to be culturally specific. In contemporary African cultures sacred iconography is most commonly printed onto fabric to represent proverbs and maxims, record history, express ideologies or concepts uniquely related to abstract shapes. Hieroglyphics has also found its way into in our day to day activities.
Most kitchen appliances like microwave ovens (Image 04) and food processors are now encrypted with icons that users need a manual to decipher. Image 04: Modern Microwave User Interface Manufacturers are not printing words anymore, cryptic images are the in thing and many are struggling to cope with this new mode of communication. The user interfaces now have icons such as solid lines or dotted lines, singular or double lines. Developing through picture, transition and Phonetic, hieroglyphics today embraces new evolving styles necessary for the age of industrialization.
Public areas such as toilets have not been spared. Restaurants instead of having the usual man and woman sign could put the man > and woman + symbol. Unless you have some basic knowledge in some biological signage you will be left in utter mystification. Modern day hieroglyphics is now everywhere you look, from your TV remotes, to your portable music players, to your computer monitor settings, there’s so many icons to decipher. Roads signs form another category; we actually have to be educated at the driving school on how to decipher these symbols within split seconds of seeing them.
Icons can also be delivered with minimal time delay, for instance smileys. Icons create the possibility to break spatial boundaries and travel through time, since a word normally spoken could only exist in the time and space it is spoken in. It creates a certain immortality that could not be experienced without it. Socially, icons are seen as an authoritative means of communication especially where language brings barriers for instance one does not need to know German to navigate Frankfrut Airport and you do not need to know Isizulu or Xhosa to navigate the Gautrain.
The growth of multimedia literacy can be seen as the first steps toward a post literate society. Cook & Shanoky Associates in collaboration with the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1974 developed the universal symbol (Image 02) to differentiate the water closets for men and women. These icons are endorsed by the U. S. Department of Transportation. Otto Neurath, a founder of logical positivism, used these Icons in the 1920s for presenting social statistics in textbooks, posters and educational museums.
Consistency determines the uniformity of icons. Icons designed for the Olympics for instance, are a semiotic climax of internationally recognizable motion pictures whereby geometric body alphabets are deployed on consistent grids. Conclusion It is imperative that we understand that these changes to iconography that we call traditional do not represent some period of decline, some sort of decadence, or as Leo Frobenius called it Das Sterbende Afrika the “Death of Africa”. African iconography was not to be static or to symbolize unchanging traditions.
The great Roman historian Gaius Plinius Secundus, wrote in 79 A D , semper ex Africa aliquid novii, “there is always something new out of Africa. ” Africa is characterized by constant dynamism, not by a tradition or conservativisim. Therefore, in Burkina Faso where masks have been used symbolically for centuries as a means of communicating important messages about the relationship to their spirit world and to the world around them, the masks that communicate these messages change as quickly and as frequently as the messages themselves do.
The Adinkra symbols from Ghana are now worn in printed fabric without any attachment to the initial meaning intended but merely for their aesthetic appeal. The scarcity of empirical studies on contemporary African visual art has impeded the understanding of the extent to which African contributions shape contemporary life in the Diaspora. In order to understand the iconography of traditional African religions, one must examine the religious iconography of a variety of cultures and fully understand how visual images represent distinctive ways of experiencing the world for the people of Africa.
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