Abstract Expressionism and Art After World War II


Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52 (photo https://www.moma.org/wp/moma_learning/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/478_1953_CCCR-303×395.jpgv)

After World War II, the focus of much of the art world shifted to New York City. This was in no small part because of the move, either permanent or temporary, of so many European artists to New York during the war. These avant-garde artists shifted discussion of what constituted art in America, and touched off Abstract Expressionism, among other movements.

Abstract Expressionism, which is mainly a movement of painters, is characterized by a focus on abstraction as a means to express personal feelings and emotions. It is important to view these works as a means to express inner thoughts and emotions, as opposed to merely a rejection of the naturalistic style of many previous American art movements, such as the Ashcan School. This movement has often been misinterpreted, especially by critics such as Clement Greenberg and the Formalists, who discussed this movement as the embodiment of the idea of “pure” art in abstraction because of the focus on formal elements. Greenberg, Clive Bell, and the other Formalists often ignored the statements of the Abstract Expressionist artists, who discussed their work in terms of emotions and spirituality, as much as abstraction and the formal elements. This movement is very much the successor to the European Expressionist movements, which also emphasized motion and color as a means to express larger ideas, emotions, and concepts within the works themselves. This movement, though, is not without its issues, as the role of the men that identified with it, both in the 194os and 1950s and now, tends to be emphasized over that of the women. But, many influential female Abstract Expressionist artists were working at this time as well, including Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler is often credited with creating the technique of color field painting.

Action painting: Jackson Pollock, No 1 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950 and Franz Kline, Untitled, c. 1950 (photo https://uploads1.wikiart.org/number-1-lavender-mist(1).jpg and By Nyuifa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are 2 main divisions of painting in the Abstract Expressionist style: Action painting and Color Field painting. Action painting is characterized by the use of gestural abstraction when applying the paint to the canvas, and often uses more simplified colors. The most famous of the action painters is Jackson Pollock, known for his drip paintings, where he would lay the canvas on the ground, and apply paint in thick layers using choreographed gestures.

Color Field Paintings: Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952 and Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51 (photo https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/88/Frankenthaler_Helen_Mountains_and_Sea_1952.jpg and https://www.moma.org/wp/moma_learning/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Barnett-Newman.-Vir-Heroicus-Sublimis1-469×208.jpg)

Color Field Painting can be seen as the “Simple expression of complex thought.” Here, the paint is thinned out with linseed oil, water, or another solvent, and applied thinly to the canvas, often with the painter moving the canvas around to achieve the forms created by the colors of the paints, such as with Frankenthaler’s work or the paintings of Morris Louis. Another type of color field painting involves putting large flat areas of color on the canvas, as with Mark Rothko‘s and Barnett Newman‘s paintings, breaking them only with large or small areas of other colors. Here, as with other color field paintings, it is the colors used that are significant to the understanding of the works.


David Smith, Cubi XIII, 1963 (photo By Undead q – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19577530)

American sculpture in the post-war period is characterized by experimentation with form and material, and the artists often incorporated industrial production methods and techniques. David Smith‘s Cubi series is one example of this, as these sculptures are made from brushed stainless steel in a foundry, and reflect some of the same ideas and concepts of the Abstract Expressionist painters. 

Alexander Calder, The Clouds, 1954, Central University of Venezuela and Le Halebardier, 1971, Hannover (photo By Caracas1830 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4422257 and By Jim Champion from Southampton, UK – Modern art, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3703375)

Alexander Calder, in Paris in the early 20th century began to experiment with art and movement, making mobiles, hanging sculptures set in motion by air currents. These eventually gave way to his Stabiles, which were larger, more stable structures, assembled from steel and iron. These are Dadaist and Surrealist in their playful quality and influence of chance, but more nonfigurative. His stabiles are often also site-specific, made for one particular location.

Louise Bourgeois, Quarantania I, 1947-53 and Joseph Cornell, Suzy’s Sun (for Judy Tyler), 1957 (photo https://www.moma.org/images/dynamic_content/exhibition_page/42776.jpg and http://artnc.org/sites/default/files/Cornell%2C%20Suzy%27s%20Sun%20(for%20Judy%20Tyler)%2C%2078_1_1.jpg)

Other post-war sculptors in America began to experiment with biomorphic sculpture, using forms and materials that resembled the organic to create their abstract works. These often engaged in a dialogue with the viewer about the nature of bodies. Still others began to use assemblage as a means of creating their art work, incorporating found objects and other materials into works that played with some of the same ideas as the Dadaists and Surrealists: word play, chance, improvisation, and the often rigid definitions of the word “art.”

Robert Capa, Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944 and Harry Callahan, Weed Against the Sky, Detroit, 1948 (photo http://media.vanityfair.com/photos/54cad29751062027082043cd/master/w_768,c_limit/image.jpg and http://www.christies.com/lotfinderimages/D56001/harry_callahan_weed_against_sky_detroit_1948_d5600196g.jpg)

American photographers of the period influenced by war and the Great Depression. Many had photographed the War for a number of the news agencies and the Great Depression for the Works Progress Administration, although not all had photographed both events. Many photographers were influenced by abstraction, and used their works as a means to abstract natural forms, moving away from a focus on the photograph as a document.

Alberto Giacometti, The Chariot, 1950 and Jean DuBuffet, Corps de Dame (Château d’Étoupe), 1950 (photo http://www.moma.org/collection_images/resized/788/app_zoom/CRI_246788.jpg and http://imgc.artprintimages.com/img/print/print/jean-dubuffet-body-of-a-woman_a-g-10566904-8880731.jpg?w=671&h=894)

Post-war European art was more directly in dialogue with the experience and aftermath of war. Much of Europe was left in ruins after the war, and everyone there was reeling from the shock of 2 World Wars in quick succession. Alberto Giacometti, who was friends with Sartre and the Existentialists, explored the paradoxical power of emaciated human forms, and the idea of extinction in his works, often creating pieces that showed the human form as fragile and alone. Jean Dubuffet‘s work used the brutal power of expression to highlight the ferocity of the modern world. His work seems rooted in many of the same ideas as the frottage pieces of Max Ernst, which also came out of a sense of chaos and the Surrealist ideas of automatism.

Francis Bacon, Painting, 1946 and Lucien Freud, Girl with a White Dog, 1951-52 (photo https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/44/Painting_1946.jpg and https://www.wsws.org/en/media/photos/legacy/2011aug/a02-freu-girl-480.jpg)


Henry Moore, Three Piece Reclining Figure No. 1, 1961, Yorkshire (photo CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=248756)

Painting and Sculpture in Britain highlighted the importance of the figure. But here too this took many different forms. Francis Bacon‘s works are often disturbing, equating human forms with sides of beef, and deconstructing the figure. These can be read as examinations of the violence and trauma of modern life, and were influenced by biomorphic surrealism. Lucian Freud, on the other hand, has created portraits that reflect his devotion to the physical presence. Henry Moore was drawn to massive, biomorphic forms. Many of this large scale sculptures use the traditional motif of reclining figure and a “mother earth” theme, but it is easy to read into them Moore’s experience drawing the huddled masses in the tube stations of London as they were sheltering from German bombs during World War II.


Werner Bischof, Cologne, 1946 and Robert Doisneau, From the series The Sideways Glance, 1949 (photo http://mediastore2.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/Home5/2/3/5/d/PAR133165.jpg and http://www.staleywise.com/collection/doisneau/doisneau_1_b.jpg)

Photographers in Europe were interested in both the sense of fragility of the era and the absurdity of modern life. Many of them documented the rebuilding of Europe after the war, as well as the division of the continent into East and West as the Cold War began.

This period can be seen as the stepping stone between the experiments of the modernists before and between the wars, and the slow move into Postmodernism by the 1970s.

Installation, Performance, and Video Art


Hugo Ball in costume at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 (photo By Unknown – http://barriochino.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/hugo-ball_barriochino.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6053993)

In the early 20th century, artists began to look for new types of art, using new media. As the notions of what “Art” was shifted, so did the notions of the media that could be used to create it. Many artists began to create works that were ephemeral in nature, or were meant to be shown in one specific place.


Embankment by Rachel Whiteread at the Tate Modern, London, April 2006 (photo By Gryffindor – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=766746)

Installation art CAN be considered sculptural, but it is often much more than just one three-dimensional object. Many artists create installations that are meant for one specific place or exhibition, and are therefore site-specific. Installations often are mixed media works, and can also encompass a video or sound-based element as part of the work. Installations are generally made up of a series of elements that make up a unified whole, and are meant to be seen together. Most installation artists are influenced by Conceptual art, wherein the idea is more important than the finished piece, and is often considered to be the artwork itself. This idea is influenced by Dada, as well as the Neo-Dada movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and is one of the main conceits of much Postmodern art.


Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 9 March – 31 May 2010 (photo By Andrew Russeth (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dada artists of the 1910s and 1920s started creating performance pieces, wherein the art was non-object based, and happened in real time. This idea was seized upon by  later 20th century artists, and the genre of performance art was born. By the 1960s, artists such as Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, and Joseph Beuys were using performance as their main genre. Here the art is the performance as it unfolds, which means it often includes the elements of chance, spontaneity, and improvisation. The main medium is the artist’s body itself, and often the surviving documentation of the ephemeral performance is central to understanding the work itself.


Tony Oursler, Face to Face, exhibition at ARoS, Aarhus, Dinamarca, Spain, 2012 (photo By Mark B. Schlemmer [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Video art became a major genre by the 1970s and 1980s, with the Fluxus artist Nam June Paik as one of its major pioneers. Video artists create art works that rely on the cutting edge video technologies of the day, and often use some of the same techniques as film-making, including editing, scripts, and multiple camera angles. Some video artists, such as Matthew Barney, conceive of their works, for example, his Cremaster cycle, as films, just not the type of films you would see at your local multiplex!

All of these genres represent shifts in art over the course of the 20th century, which continue into the 21st century. Many of these are used to make political statements; begin a dialogue about the place of technology in society; or to call attention to issues.


Oceania: Aotearoa, Hawai’i, and Rapa Nui


Map of Polynesia


Map, Aotearoa

The Maori of New Zealand, which they call Aotearoa, were a militaristic, village-dwelling group with chiefs governing the socially stratified communities. Territorial boundaries led to intertribal conflicts, and most groups were semi-nomadic. War canoes were launched from fortified coastal villages, and held 40-80 warriors. These were protected by symbolic carvings on the prow and stern, which included protective ancestor figures and small birds with curved beaks called manaia, which may represent the backbone of the sky-father, Rangi. Both of these images were symbolic of life and death. The figure at the prow may represent Tumateuenga, the god of war. The intricate patterns carved had both symbolic and decorative functions. The canoes were seen as metaphors for the ancestors and the cosmos. 


David Henry, image from An historical account of all the voyages round the world : performed by English navigators ; including those lately undertaken by order of His present Majesty ; the whole faithfully extracted from the journals of the voyagers ; Drake, undertaken in 1577-80 ; Cavendish, 1586-88 ; Cowley, 1683-86 ; Dampier, 1689-96 ; Cooke, 1708-11 ; Rogers, 1708-11 ; Clipperton and Shelvocke, 1719-22 ; Anson, undertaken in 1740-44 ; Byron, 1764-66 ; Wallis, 1766-68 ; Carteret, 1766-69 ; and Cook, 1768-71 ; together with that of Sydney Parkinson … and the voyage of Mons. Bougainville … to which is added, an appendix ; containing the journal of a voyage to the North pole, by the Hon. Commodore Phipps, and Captain Lutwidge, 1773 and Maori, prow of a war canoe, n.d. (photo by https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/An_historical_account_of_all_the_voyages_round_the_world_-_performed_by_English_navigators%3B_including_those_lately_undertaken_by_order_of_His_present_Majesty%3B_the_whole_faithfully_extracted_from_the_%2814758964636%29.jpg and By Szilas – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49333715)

Maori, Canoe prow, c. 1860 and war canoe post, c. 1890 (photo By Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-31343973-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/215725, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27332262 and By Daderot – I took this photograph., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15690114)


Maori, Whakapakoko rakau, n.d. (photo http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/APICollection/media/248096/640)

Koru designs, or curved lines turning in on themselves becoming circles, were key elements in Maori art, from tattooing to painting and sculpture. These designs may be based on a growing fern frond, and the element pf growth and life seem to be important to the koru. The whakapakoko rākau or god stick had a pointed end so it could be stuck into the ground. It was used as a temporary shrine for an auta (deity) by tohunga ahurewa (priestly experts). Tohunga were often responsible for healing people, and sometimes used god sticks to concentrate the power of a particular deity. Even functional objects were decorated with images of deities and ancestors.

Maori, Waka hula, 19th century and Hei tiki, n.d. (photo By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37182037 and By Szilas (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Maori, Pataka (photo By daryl_mitchell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada – Maori Buildings, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49439293)

Important objects, foods, and other valuables had to be stored in specific ways. Treasure boxes, called papahou or Waka huia, were used for storing valuables. They were hung from the rafters of the house, and were elaborately carved on their undersides. One of the objects stored in them were the Hei tiki, greenstone ornaments that represent ancestors. They were heirlooms that reflected the transmission of authority and sanctity to descendants. Storehouses, called pataka, were used to protect precious foods, seed tubers and treasured objects. Pataka were elaborately carved with figures that represented plenty and fertility, and enhanced the prestige of the village.

Maori, Waiwhetū Marae in Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt, New Zealand and Interior of the Whare Runanga Marae (photo By Stuartyeates – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44379722 and By Sids1 from New Zealand – The Maori Whare Runanga (Meeting Place), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37286245)

The Marae, or the meeting house, because larger and more important after colonization, as the Maori attempted to hold on to their culture in the face of pressure. The building represents a sacred ancestor. Every part of the marae, from the carved panels to the lintels, is carved with symbolic imagery relating to the ancestors and clan history. The interior has pou tokomanawa in the center that support the roof, and pou pou and tukutuku on the sides. The ceiling has rafter paintings with images of koru. Many of the pou pou represent specific ancestors, identified by their facial tattooing. Tukutuku panels are typically women by women with designs that related to ancestor images or their names or plant imagery. The rafters were carved with kowhaiwhai designs. Tekoteko figures were attached to the gable of the marae. They are meant to ward off intruders. Gable masks represent the face of the ancestor the structure represents.

Maori man with a tattooed face, 1860-89 and Gottfried Landauer, A portrait of Te Rangi Pikinga, 1880s (photo By Non identifié/Unknown – Photothèque du Musée de l’Homme via French National Library URL [1] Reference No. Cote :1998-3171-139. Acq. : Museum national d’Histoire naturelle . – Collection Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero, Notice n° : FRBNF38438431, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4323578 and By Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926) – http://www.lindaueronline.co.nz/maori-portraits/kuinioroa-daughter-of-rangi-kopinga-te-rangi-pikinga, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17537787)

Tattooing among the Maori was linked to status, and they were considered tapu during the operation, meaning they were spiritually dangerous, and had to be fed by funnels. Maori facial tattooing was called moko, and the faces were individualized. These designs were used as signatures in the nineteenth century. Women’s facial tattooing was simpler. Other parts of the body were also covered in traditional Maori tattooing, with similar swirling forms.

Hawai’i, ‘ahu ‘uha, late18th-early 19th century and Lerouge and Forget after S. Leroy, after Jacques Arago, artist with French captain and navigator de Frecycinet,. An officer of King Liholiho (Kamehameha II) in full dress, 1819 (photo By Hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28960430 and By Jacques Arago – National Library of Australia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17260495)

The native people of Hawai’i are a Polynesian people, who settled the islands between c. 1200. The feather cloak, the ‘ahu ‘ula, was held in high esteem in Hawai’i. The designs on the cloaks were composed of abstract shapes of solid colors. The crescent shape that was the typical design was formed by the woven coconut fiber lining to which the feathers were attached, and was further repeated by the colors of the feathers. Usually red, black, and yellow feathers were used. The red was a symbol of royalty, and the rainbow, which was another royal symbol. The cloaks were conceived of as rainbows, which symbolized the presence of a chief. The name ‘ahu ‘ula means red cloak. The use of these cloaks were restricted to men of the royal class, the ali’i, and one could only be admitted to this class through birth, but never lost the prerogatives of this class. The material value of the ‘ahu ‘ula lay in the vast expenditure of labor required for collection. The amount of labor involved in collection gave value to the feathers, which yellow being the most valuable. One’s position at court gave greater access to feathers, and the cloaks were worn on ceremonial occasions and into battle. They demonstrated political power and offered protection according to one’s value in the social hierarchy. Along with the capes, chiefs would wear wicker and feather helmets into battle, which mimicked the shape and coloring of the capes. Fly whisks, called kahili, were used at the royal court as well, emphasizing the ka mo’i’s claim to the feathers. Hawaiian ornaments may have carried metaphorical social and sacred power, derived from the materials from which they were made as well as the process of making them.

Class was based on birth, whether you were royal, a peasant (maka ‘ainana), or slave (kuawa) with no land or rights. The ka mo’i was the supreme and absolute chief. This was a position held by men, and was based on rank and the ability to rule, which was in turn based on the number of followers you had and the ability to declare what was kapu (taboo). Kapu was the external and internal force for order in the social and religious life of the community.

Hawai’i,  Reconstruction of ceremonial structure at Kamakahonu known as ʻAhuʻena Heiau and Hale o Keawe (photo By No machine-readable author provided. Sasquatch assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806139 and By Gillfoto – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21217776)

Outdoor temples, called heiau, were religious precincts that held carved images of the gods. Hawaiian deities and their conceptualizations about them express the importance of genealogy, the family, and the elevation of individuals by virtue of their descent from specific ancestors. Small stick gods, called akua ka’ai, were used for personal devotion.  Images of the gods were also made in the same feather-working techniques as the helmets and cloaks. These can also be related to the war god. Some images represented other deified ancestors or lesser deities. These are often called ki’i ‘aumakua.


Map, Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is geographically the furthest east of the Polynesian islands. It is believed to have been settled between 300 & 1200. Moai probably commemorate elevated ancestors. These were placed on elevated stone platforms called ahu, and had hat-like pukao on top of their heads. After the moai were no longer being carved and erected, the Birdman Cult achieved ascendancy. The moai kavakava may represent deceased ancestors or demons, and may have been hung around the neck or from the rafters of the home. Male and female figures, called moai tangata and moai papa, were also sculpted.

Rapa Nui, Moai on ahu platform and Ahu Nau Nau (photo By Bjørn Christian Tørrissenderivative work: George Tsiagalakis – original work by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36590098 and By TravelingOtter – Ahu Nau Nau – Easter Island, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28473627)

Rapa Nui, Petroglyph related to the Birdman Cult, the Make Make god and Moai kavakava (photo CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=681929 and By WereSpielChequers – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7788990)

Oceania: Australia and New Guinea


Oceania is term for islands dotting the seas around the Pacific. In the 18th century, this was divided into 3 parts, not including the continent of Australia: Micronesia (the small islands), Melanesia (the black islands, which reflects European prejudices of the time), and Polynesia (many islands). Although each has specific characteristics, there are some similarities shared by many of the cultures of Oceania, including headhunting, the making of tapa cloth, and a focus on the sea. Tapa cloth, which is considered to be a women’s art form, is made from the bark of the paper mulberry or breadfruit tree which has been soaked and pounded flat. It was was used to make clothing, ritual objects, and funerary shrouds. The designs that are painted on the cloth are generally culturally specific, and contain a protective element to them. In many Oceanic cultures, the more cloth a person was wearing, the higher their status. European explorers talked of instances such as the one in the 1870s where Tui Nadrau, chief of Nadrau, was wrapped in more than 600 feet of tapa cloth for a ceremonial presentation.

Republic of the Fiji Islands, ceremonial or ritual dress Inner bark of the paper mulberry plant, 19th century and A traditional Samoan male tattoo from the waist to below the knees seen from the side and back. (photo By Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-34603986-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/222475, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27333854 and By CloudSurfer – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3660719)

Tattooing was practiced throughout Oceania on both men and women. Often, it was done to contain the mana, or power, of the individual, and sometimes had to do with rank. The designs on a person’s body often formed their signature, and were placed in different places according to culture and gender. The tools used were often simple bone and shell tools, and the ink was generally made from ash mixed with water. Tattooing in Oceania, though, was only one form of body art practiced by the different culture groups. Others included face painting, piercings, and elaborate headdress and jewelry. 


Map of Australian Aboriginal Cultural Territories

In Australia, Aboriginal artists create paintings on behalf of the local community. These artists are custodians of vital community traditions. They typically made art to increase magic, tell the stories of the ancestors, and for initiation and other rituals. Colors were, and still are, very important within Aboriginal art. The typical colors are red, which signifies blood, fire, and power; black, which signifies the earth and ancestral fires; yellow, which signifies liquid and water; and white, which signifies the stars, the sky, and the ancestors in heaven. Most Australian Aboriginal art relates to The Dreaming. The Dreaming is a collection of stories that recount the adventures of supernatural beings in the Dreamtime, a mythical past before people. These stories were given to people by the ancestral spirits, called mimis, by different tribal groups, and passed down through oral and visual tradition. The stories are tied to specific places, and tell the creation stories of the people who live in that area, which helps assert a group’s claim on a certain place. Many of the spirits have very specific powers and attributes, such as the Wandjinas of the north-west Kimberly region of Australia.


Australian Aboriginal, Man with Body art, 2011 and Smoking Ceremony 2 Major Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri elder, in a smoking ceremony, as part of the repatriation of Old People remains, 2009 (photo By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Australia: Aboriginal Culture 001) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By Kevin Walsh [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Australian Aboriginal, Tjurunga and shields, n.d. (photo http://www.alconet.com.ar/varios/mitologia/poesia/fototrdaustraliat.jpg and By Travis from Sydney, NSW, Australia – Ian_Potter_Centre_9, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46850125)

The Aboriginal people, one of the oldest cultures in the world, were semi-nomadic groups who combined a simple material culture with a complex intellectual life. Scarification was practiced for a variety of reasons, including initiation and mourning rituals, social status, and increase one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex. Body paint was also used, and the painted designs were owned by individuals, but could be bartered or sold. Feathers, jewelry, body tassels, and headdresses were also added as body decoration. Most objects that were made were easily portable to fit within the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Aboriginal people. Some 3-D objects were made, including tjurungas used in rituals. These were flat, oval, or circular slabs of wood or stone with complex painted and incised patterns. Even objects such as spear throwers were made beautiful to increase their magical efficacy. The dead were treated with ritualized respect, and their bones were placed in these hollow log coffins. The treatment of the dead varied from place to place in Australia, with the Tiwi people of Arnhem land carving tutini from ironwood as grave markers for the Pukamani ceremony. They represent an number of aspects or associations of the deceased, and high ritual status people have twenty.

Australian Aboriginal, Rarrk Style Bark Painting, 20th century and Rock Art, date unknown (Photo By Unknown – pwHJvKThfLTgLQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21987946 and By Unknown (Australian) – XQHDq0CyBjBcZg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21881654)

On the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station

Australian Aboriginal, Aboriginal rock art on the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station (photo By Graeme Churchard from Bristol (51.4414, -2.5242), UK – On the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30873440)

There are regional styles of painting, and this painting was originally done on bark or the rock outcroppings of the Outback. The paintings done on the rock outcroppings continue to be sacred to the Aboriginal people, and are often repainted, as the Aboriginal groups see these spaces as inhabited by the spirits, and the painters as filled with the spirit’s energy when they paint. The Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land use rarrk, or cross-hatched patterns, within the bodies of their figures. Groups from other areas made dot-style paintings, many of which also served as maps of tribal territory. Many of these paintings have ritual knowledge that only the initiated know, and modern Aboriginal paintings sold in galleries have subtle changes made to them. The motif of a spirit vomiting refers to creation and renewal, and the concepts of transformation and renewal through the cyclical change in nature. The Aboriginal artists represented things with a subjective vision, meaning things were represented as the mind knows them to eternally be, and these designs and spirit images were also conventionalized. Ground paintings are also made of earth-pigments and other natural materials on a prepared ground. These are highly sacred and often secret, although some have been made in a public context.

The performing arts were also important. Initiation ceremonies were performed to sustain the realm of humans. Art was made in an effort to obtain the desired results, and was a conduit that conveyed the needs and wishes of mortals to Dreamtime spirits who are still present in the world, but have changed into landscape features or totemic animals. The body can be a vessel of the Dreamtime spirits during rituals.

Australian Aboriginal, Toas, early 20th century and Yirrkala Bark Petition, 1963 (photo by https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/527/flashcards/2889527/png/screen_shot_2013-05-05_at_125701_pm-13E75A1452112A21D52.png and http://www.mabonativetitle.com/info/YirrkalaBarkPetition.jpg)


Barunga Statement, 1988 (photo http://treatyrepublic.net/images/2009-general/barunga-statement.jpg)

Toas, although described by the Diyari as direction markers at abandoned camps to let people know where they had gone, or as signposts for the next party on the ancestral landscape, appear to be an innovative form of sculpture using the prevailing system of iconography and meaning. These may have been made as a response to European desires to purchase Aboriginal art and objects in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is one example of Aboriginal people using their art and culture as a means to engage in the political and cultural dialogue of colonization. Another is the Yirrkala Bark Petition, created in 1963 to assert Native land ownership and protest mining on Aboriginal native lands. This was the first time a Native petition had been recognized by the Australian Parliament, making them the first documentary recognition of indigenous people in Australian law. These led to the 1976 Aboriginal Land RIghts Act, granting access to ancestral lands (somewhat at least). The Barunga Statement was presented to the Prime Minister of Australia on June 12, 1988. This called for self-management, a natural system of land rights, compensation for loss of lands, respect for Aboriginal identity, and an end discrimination, with a granting of full rights. Contemporary Aboriginal artists continue to create art that is meant as a dialogue between their culture and the dominant European derived one.


New Guinea is a large island divided into 2 political regions: Irian Jaya in the Western half, part of the Republic of Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, an independent nation in the east. This is the largest of the Melanesian islands in Oceania.


Asmat, Bisj Poles and Shields (photo By Marsupium – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49413553 and By Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30147751)

The majority of native people in Irian Jaya are the Asmat, a village-dwelling hunter-gatherer society. They lived without sustained contact with the West until after World War II. They are a warlike culture that still preserve vestiges of a Neolithic culture, and live in lowland, coastal swamps. There are 2 primary themes in traditional Asmat art: ancestor veneration and headhunting. These are the subjects and motivation for making the art, and many of the symbols used derive from creation stories, and include the fruit bat, the praying mantis, and the sago palm. The sago palm is the primary food source of the Asmat, and the mythological material used for the creation of humans. Fruit bats eat the fruit, the “heads,” of the trees, linking back to headhunting, and the female praying mantis eats the head of the male during the mating rituals. Headhunting was associated with male initiation rites. Large, carved spirit poles, called bisj, were used as receptacles for wandering spirits, and have canoes at the base to take the spirits out to sea. This was typically done one a year to collect the spirits of the recently deceased. The poles represented deceased ancestors, and were carved from the roots of the mulberry trees. These were traditionally placed in the sago palm groves after use, and to rot, and therefore symbolically contributing to agricultural fertility. Shield feasts were held before headhunting raids. Man-sized war shields called jamasji were carved from plants of mangrove root for these, and were also typically phallic in shape, and covered in symbols related back to headhunting. The Asmat also had masking traditions. Masks were used in the jipae festival, in which the recent dead are permitted to briefly revisit the world of the living.


Map Sepik River Region, Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, the Sepik are one of the largest, and most artistically prolific cultures. Some Sepik groups practiced headhunting and cannibalism into the 20th century. They are all primarily village-dwelling that subsisted on farming supplemented by hunting and gathering. Men dominate, or at least appear to, public and private life, and descent is partilineal. Women’s status among the Sepik is higher than the ideology implies. Women provide the vital part of creation by giving birth while men are traditionally the takers of life. Art is a semi-specialized occupation practiced part-time. Commissioned artists are paid in food. Most art serves religious purposes, although secular and semi-sacred arts are created, such as neck rests, shields, and hooks. Sepik art reflects a preoccupation with the ancestors, and, in those groups that practiced it, headhunting. Most of the art serves a religious function. The sago palm is also an important food source for the Sepik. Some pottery is made, as are textiles made from crocheting or finger weaving. 


Most religious activities have a graphic component. Art embodies the supernatural and mortal spirits, and symbolizes adult, male, initiated souls. Art is men’s work. There is a general aesthetic disenfranchisement of women and a pervasiveness of phallicism in the art. Red in face paint symbolizes menstrual blood, and white is semen and bones. Society is believed to be endangered on 2 fronts, through female sexuality and hostile neighbors. Men go to great lengths in art to claim superiority. Art is intended as a statement of dominance of men over women and other adversaries. Urgency is indicated by the symbolism of phallic aggression. 

Sepik, Itamul people, Haus Tambaran, c. 2010 (photo By Eksilverman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51350514 and By Eksilverman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51350516)

Sepik (Abelam people), Painting from a Haus Tambaran, before 1975 and Sepik (Abelam people), House post, n.d.  (photo By User:Mattes – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5886602 and By Hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29443692)

One of the most important spaces in the village is the Men’s House, or Tambaran, in which the ritual objects are kept, and the initiation rites take place. These houses are seen as representing the body of an ancestor, and often are decorated with images of the ancestors and of the male creators.  Many of the paintings for these houses are done on palm leaves or tapa cloth. Roof spire ornaments are often carved as bird/ancestor hybrids, and often use female ancestors as their primary image. These are the spaces in which the most sacred ritual objects are held, and access to the spaces and levels within the structure is tightly controlled according to the man’s age-grade and status. Figures which represent the spirits were carved, and had special stools for their display and presentation in shrines.

Sepik (Abelam people), Yam harvest ceremony mask, 1980s and Sepik (Warasei people), Yam cult figure, n.d. (photo By The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15094630 and By hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17402356)

One of the most important rituals centers on the only crop grown by men, the long yam. Yina figures were made for the Yam Harvest ceremonies. These carved heads represent ancient and powerful spirits which when used in a ritual, the village men insert the sticklike base of the figure into a collected yam pile and decorate it with various leaves and feathers.


Middle Sepik, Ambunti Man,Papua New Guinea (photo https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/e4/b2/85/e4b285029f943e495b9809d11b30c719.jpg)

Art is a means of displaying social identity with body art delineating age grades and tribal boundaries. The human body is a medium of aesthetic expression, and is at its most spectacular during village dances and feasts. Sculpture in the round that is made is often also painted, with red being the most common paint color. Geometrics are often curvilinear with painted or engraved multiple outlines.  Canoe prows were carved with powerful images of animals and spirits. Sepik shields continue the theme of powerful, fierce imagery.

Solomon Islands, Canoe prow ornament (nguzu-nguzu), n.d. and Kapkap, early 20th century (photo By Hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17506987 and By hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17413637)

The arts of other peoples of Melanesia reflect similar concerns to those of the Asmat and Sepik. On the Solomon Islands, incised paddles depicting chiefs were probably used ceremonially or may have been created for sale to white outsiders. The nguzunguzu, such as the one pictured on this canoe prow, are supposed to personify the kesoko, a spirit tied to headhunting, net fishing and bonito fishing. The frigate birds were prized for their piratical dispositions and for the fact that they follow schools of bonito. Men were often tattooed with imagery representing the frigate bird. Chiefs on the Solomon Islands wore Kapkaps, high status shell and tortoiseshell ornaments worn on the chest or forehead.

Africa: Lalibela, Kongo, Kuba, and Great Zimbabwe


Biet Gyiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, late 12th-early 13th century (photo By Katie Hunt from St Albans, UK – Bet GiyorgisUploaded by Fæ, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22956371)

Ethiopia is home to a number of ancient cities, and the civilization was heavily influenced by Egypt and Nubia, as well as the cultures across the Red Sea. The cultures of Ethiopia also maintained connections to Judaism, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have been founded over 2000 years ago.


Biet Gyiorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia, late 12th-early 13th century and interior, Biet Emanuel, Lalibela, Ethiopia, late 12th-early 13th century (photo By Katie Hunt from St Albans, UK – Bet GiyorgisUploaded by Fæ, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22956373 and By Chuck Moravec – Lalibela Bet Emanuel 6, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52927543)


St. George Slaying the Dragon from the Church of Debre Sina, Lalibela, Ethiopia, 13th century (photo By A. Davey from Where I Live Now: Pacific Northwest – St. George Slaying the Dragon, Church of Debre Sina, Lalibela, EthiopiaUploaded by Elitre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21920305)


Map, Ethiopia

One of the most important Christian sites in Ethiopia is Lalibela, which may have begun as a royal compound. It was likely built in 4-5 phases of construction between the 7th and 13th centuries. According to Ethiopian traditions, the complex was built by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (r. ca. 1181–1221), either in 24 years or 3 days, with the help of angels. This story tells the importance of the site as a religious pilgrimage site to this day. All of the structures on this site were built by being carved from the rock, which means they were carved from the top down, and then, as the exteriors were decorated, the interiors were carved from the bottom up. This means that each structure is one solid piece of stone, going against typical rules of architecture. All of the decoration inside the structures reflects the stylistic tendencies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the structures reflect the influences of traditional Ethiopian design techniques, the Jewish religion, and the influence of Byzantine traditions.


Map, Kongo Kingdom

The Kongo Kingdom was founded toward the end of the 14th century in south western Africa by Nimi a Lukemi around Mbanza Kongo, the capital south of the mouth of the Congo River. It grew through alliances and conquests, and by 1483 was largest state in Central Africa. The kingdom was centrally organized. In 1491, the Kongo king Nzinga aNkuwa converted to Christianity, and with his son Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga, helped to establish Christianity as the state religion, although this withered after the dissolution of the Kongo kingdom in 1665.The slave trade led to downfall in 16th century.

Flywhisk handle, Kongo peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th century and Chief or nobleman’s headdress (mpu), Kongo, 1800s (photo By Cliff1066 – Flickr [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5029422 and By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48765803)

Kongo, Pfemba, date unknown and Crucifix, 16th century  (photo By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19731724 and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22479610)

Early art of the kingdom proclaimed the sacred authority of the Kongo kings, and often included spiritually charged substances. These substances, called bilongo, could include items that came from animals, plants, shells, or other objects believed to be spiritually potent. Often they were considered to be nkisi (pl. minkisi), which referred to the power within the objects. The patterns woven into the raffia cloths used to drape the king’s throne or for chief’s headdresses were also believed to have this power. Ancestor spirits & lesser spirit beings communicated with human community, not the supreme deity, Nzambi Kalunga. These objects could include the pfemba, which were mother & child images, but after conversion to Catholicism, new types of religious images emerged that reflected a hybrid European and African belief system.

Kongo, Tumba Figure (female), late 1800s and Kongo, Tumba Figure (male), late 1800s (photo By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49739626 and By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49739624)

The Kongo people have elaborate funerary traditions. Commemorative and funerary sculptures were made to allow people to consult with deceased ancestors. Tumba memorial figures (pl bitumba) show the idea of deceased as mediator with the spirit world, while niombo are elaborately wrapped mummies that become a symbolic portrait of the deceased. A muzidi is a mannequin for the deceased, serving as a reliquary for disinterred bones. All of them show the importance of ancestors as mediators for the living with the spirits.

Kongo, Nkisi Nkonid and Nkisi Nkondi Kozo (photo By Royaltribalart – Photos_collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2891850 and By Rept0n1x – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23445760)

Minkisi can also serve nganga (pl. banganga), agents who can see hidden things, meaning healers, diviners, mediators who defend from witchcraft or demands from spirits. Minkisi then act as containers: anything that can hold spiritually charged substances. Often they are anthropomorphic or zoomorphic wooden sculptures, with the bilongo acting as the activating substances. The bilongo was often protected by a mirror or cowrie shell at the center of the figure. The nkondi (pl minkondi) were hunters who could be called upon to protect someone; avenge a wrong; or assist in war. Those with their arms up were considered to be warriors. They sometimes travelled with kozo, which were dogs as hunters in village and forest, considered the home of the dead. Kozo always had four eyes, 2 for this world & 2 for the spirit world, to help track witches. All of these figures, as with most other Kongo sculptural figures, had open mouths, which allowed the spirit contained within to speak and breathe, as well as move around. The prayer or request was symbolized by the nail or iron driven into the figure, and these were often removed after they were perceived to have been granted.



Map, Kuba peoples

Around 1625, Shyaam aMbul a-Ngoong (Shyaam the Great) united a series of groups in south western Africa into 1 kingdom, and reorganized political system. These people were then called the Kuba. The king, or nyim, always came from the from Bushoong group. The Kuba were ruled by a king with a council of ritual speakers and titleholders. Titles were earned, as a means of the distribution of power. Standing within the hierarchy perceived in terms of wealth and rank, with material possessions serving to express status. The current king of the Kuba traces his descent from Shyaam. Each king has his own bwaantshy, state dress, which is symbolic and can weigh up 185 pounds. Previous kings would also commission ndop, royal portrait figures, which were idealized, and believed to contain the souls of the kings themselves.

Kuba, Ndop of  King Mishe miShyaang maMbul, c. 1760-1780 and Janus-Headed Palm wine Cup, early 20th century (photo By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22481288 and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22480320)

Kuba, Mwaash aMbooy Mask, late 19th or early 20th century and Bwoom Mask, 19th century (photo By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22511176 and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21369833)

Much of the art of the Kuba reflected status, as well as close relationships to the king. Cosmetic boxes were used by the elite, and were carved in elaborate status-affiliated patterns. Palm wine cups show the Kuba love of two dimensional surface design combined with three dimensional forms. Masks also belong to king & must be danced with his permission. Three of the most important, Mwashamboy, Bwoom, Ngady a mwash, tell story of Woot, the royal ancestor and mythical founder of the kingdom.

Kuba woman embroidering textiles and Kuba, Raffia Cloth, 20th century (photo By Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20353374 and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22481489)

For the Kuba, textiles are the most widespread types of prestige goods, but they are created and used by all levels of society. There is a high value on production, and these are made from beaten inner bark of certain trees. Men make men’s skirts, women make women’s skirts. But, both men and women work together to make the raffia and felted barkcloth textiles. These are often referred to as Kasai velvets because of their soft texture. Some are also created using a dye technique similar to tie-dying.



Aerial view of the site of Great Zimbabwe (photo By Janice Bell – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42835091)


Map showing location of Great Zimbabwe

In south eastern Africa, the site of Great Zimbabwe is thought to have been the capital of one Shona group, constructed between the 13th & 15th centuries. The word zimbahwe/Zimbabwe originally referred to judicial center/royal palace. The site consists of three parts: Hill Ruin, constructed c. 1250; Great Enclosure, completed prior to 1450, and consisting 2 solid stone towers resemble Shona granaries in form with a roughly circular wall and a low platform that resembles that used by contemporary Shona women in markets; and the Valley Ruins, consisting of a variety of structures. Based on archaeological evidence, the importance of entire complex was based on its status as a trading center with Swahili merchants on East African coast. All of the elements of the site incorporate natural rock formations, showing the importance of local geography. The Hill Ruin incorporates a natural cave that projects sound like a megaphone over the valley. The Great Enclosure was probably the hub of the trading center. Many of the objects found throughout the site related to long distance trade, coming even from China and Southeast Asia. There are also motifs that seem to highlight the importance of birds, crocodiles, and zebras. More recent Shona art has combination of practical and religious uses, and may have been used for initiations.

Shona, Hill Ruins, Great Zimbabwe, built c. 1250 and (photo CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=602780 and By Macvivo at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3594362)

Shona, Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe, built before 1450, with view of some of the valley ruins (photo By Simonchihanga – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54938863 and By Image taken by Jan Derk in 1997 in Zimbabwe. – en:Image:Great-Zimbabwe-2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=132172)

African Art: The Yoruba, Asante, Senufo, and Dogon


Nok, Sculpture, 6th century BCE-6th century CE (photo By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38846349)

Abstraction was the major style, and the human figure was the principle image in African art. Art assisted in maintaining the physical and spiritual well-being of the community. It helped to organize society and solve its problems. Specially crafted prestige items with restricted ownership identified elite groups. The display of certain objects could indicate kinship, political rank or economic success. Dynamic energies roamed freely, interact with the community, and were capable of intervening and offering advice. They occupy inanimate objects when their knowledge or assistance is needed. The dead are important and especially powerful.

In 1884-1885, the African continent was divided among European nations at the Conference of Berlin. This changed the political structure of the African continent, and the groups and nations that lived there. The European nations did not take into account existing tribal structures and enmities, and, in many ways, set the stage for some of the issues extant on the continent today.

Nok, Male Figure, c. 500 BCE-500 CE and Sculpture, 6th century BCE-6th century CE (photo By User:FA2010 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12759419 and By Daehan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38174695)

The Nok culture, from the area of Nigeria,  began creating terra cotta heads c. 800 BCE, a tradition which continued through c. 600 CE. These are hollow, and were probably originally attached to a superstructure of some kind. They were also formed by allowing the clay to dry to leather hardness, and then carving away the forms. Some of these came from the site of Sokoto, and some pieces appear to be bases for larger sculptures.


Ife, Bronze Head, 12th-15th century (photo By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14783256)


Map, Historical Yoruba sites

Ife was a Yoruba-speaking Medieval city that was seen as the center of the world, and the place where humans had been created. After its loss of political control, it remained the city from which kings of smaller states received authority. It was known for a naturalistic style and technical sophistication. Bronze casting here achieved a high level of technical sophistication. Art was created to glorify and memorialize the divine kings, the oni, and members of the palace circle. One’s destiny was believed to reside in the head, so the head was emphasized in sculpture. A fleshy body indicated health and physical well-being. The oni was perfect in body, mind, and spirit because he directed the destiny of his subjects. Many of the objects found represent portrait heads of the elite, which were probably placed on altars after their death or were attached to wooden superstructures, dressed, and carried in ceremonial processions. The statues documented royal lineage by reinforcing oral histories with visual images.

The Yoruba feel that art plays an important part in the social and moral world. Yorubaland is the most urbanized ethnic region in sub-Saharan Africa. It is divided into many kingdoms, and traditionally lacked writing. Formalized court singing and oral literature communicated a wealth of historical information. There are many specialized guilds, although everyone generally farms as well. Kinship and religion are important, and the descent is patrilineal. The clan overshadows the nuclear family, with the oldest male member, the bale, having the most authority.

Bamgboye of Odo-Owa (Yoruba), Orangun Epa headdress, c. 1925 and Yoruba, Crown (Ade), 1900s (photo https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/8b/54/97/8b5497d4c39cd2130d22d4c9688da5bc.jpg and By Daderot (Daderot) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Olowe of Ise (Yoruba), Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife, 1910-14 and Yoruba, Ere Ibeji Figures, late 19th-early 20th century (photo http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/images/standard/WebLarge/WebImg_000339/5178_4025576.jpg and By Brooklyn Museum, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22509609)

Recent Yoruba arts focus on either the clan and family or on royalty.Most Yorubans are Christian or Muslim, but traditional religion is still important, and centers around several types of supernatural beings. Olodumare and Onile are the two most powerful, and she is the owner of the earth and the patron of motherhood. She is attended by the ogbani. The orishas are a large group of beings that are associated with specific natural phenomena, human activities, or are deified ancestors. They directly influence the lives of mortals, and are served by cults of worshipers. The visual arts often occur in the context of performing arts. Religion is the most important purpose of art, but it is also used as a means of communicating social status. Religion and politics often complement one another. Excellent art is public confirmation of elevated political and religious status. The arts constitute an integrated stylistic system. Objects like the Orangun Epa Headdress, made by Bamgboye of Odo-Owa, c. 1925, shown above, were made for the Epa festival, which lasts for a week, and honors the roles of a stable society. The pillar at the center is the ruler, and he supports the entire societal structure. Royal crowns depict ancestors, Oduduwa (the mythical orisha ancestor of the kings), and Our Mothers. The idea of “Our Mothers” shows the importance of women, even though this is a patriarchal society. The Queen Mother is the only one who can look inside the crown, and place the packet of medicine that protects the king inside. Objects, such as the house posts carved by Olowe of Ise for the verande of the palace of the Oni of Ikere in the early 20th century, also represent this idea of the importance of balance between genders. Yoruba masquerades are also done to commemorate the deceased or appease spirits. The egungun masquerade take place over several weeks, with performances within lineage compounds and public spaces. Some depict the spirit of the recently deceased. Another type of masquerade is done for the Gelede society, which represents an offering to Our Mothers. Each orisha has priests, colors and ritual objects associated with his or her worship. As part of the worship of the orisha, the Yoruba will often turn to a diviner, a babalawo, who mediates between humans and Orunmila, one of the mediators between gods and humans (the other being Eshu), who help keep order. Eshu is the trickster, embodying uncertainty, chance, violence and trouble. There is a tradition of the ere ibeji, or deceased twin figures, that are powerful spirits. The sculpture made to represent the twin participates in family activities, and is not visually realistic, but is conceptually logical. It is an appropriate container for an enduring spirit.

Benin, Bronze Head of an Oba and Queen Mother’s Head (photo By Matt Neale from UK – Benin bronze in Bristol MuseumUploaded by NotFromUtrecht, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12656070 and By Jononmac46 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30784292)


Benin, Plaque, possibly 1500s-1600s (photo By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18250953)

Benin was a city founded in c. 1300 by a prince from Ife. It was both militarily and economically aggressive. Benin traded directly with Europeans and gained power. In 1897, a misunderstanding with the British resulted in the fall of the city. The oba refused to see a contingent from the British Navy, as it was festival time. The contingent tried to come the city any, and they were killed by warriors from Benin. This resulted in a puntitive expedition from the British Navy, and the removal of the oba from Benin for a number of years. The oba, or divine king, was magically linked directly with the spirit world. All art was associated with the king and his court, and referred to the oba’s secret powers.The cast bronze heads of the Obas were placed on altars in Benin City after their death. Coral was used often, and signified both the wealth associated with the sea deity, Olokun, and the oba’s right to take human life because of its bloody color. The leopard was the oba’s imperial counterpart in the animal kingdom, and the horse was associated with military strength, political supremacy, and material affluence. Graduated size in sculptural pieces indicated rank not distance. The queen mother was also considered sacred, and is identifiable by her elaborate netted hairstyle and scarification. Cast bronze plaques were placed on the walls of the palace in Benin City, and detailed the importance of the Oba. All art in Benin City referred to the Oba’s secret powers as a divine ruler. Benin art synthesizes naturalistic and geometric styles. This is a living style, the Oba now resides in the capital city of Nigeria, Abuja.

Ashanti, Linguists Staffs and gold weights  (photo By User:Mattes (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By Geni (Photo by user:geni) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Asante, Kente Cloth, early 20th century and Akua’ba,  (photo By Ji-Elle (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By Hannes Grobe – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5571891)

The Asante were a gold-trading kingdom with publicly displayed emblems whose ownership is confined to the politically powerful and socially elite. Divine kings rule with advice from a council of chiefs. Linguists Staffs are used by the principal counselor and spokesman of the king. These men are chosen for their verbal skill, wisdom and wit. Other members of the king’s entourage carry spiritually potent objects related to kingship. One of the most important Asante objects was the Divine Stool, which is believed to have fallen from the sky, and to contain the essence and history of the Asante nation. Prestige objects are non-representational, with a pattern aesthetic overlaid on traditional utilitarian objects. Chairs made in a European style represent contact and trade with the Europeans, especially the Portuguese, and the king’s desire to take on European aspects of kingship in a native Asante. Gold weights were used to regulate the trade in gold dust as an attempt to standardize weights. These were cast in culturally significant forms. Cloths, like kente cloth, are part of the socially significant cloths of the Asante and Akan speaking people. These are strip woven fabrics. Adinkra cloth is stamped with specific, meaningful designs. Batakari tunics were covered in amulets believed capable of protecting and empowering their wearers. Akua’ba (pl. Akua Ma), or child of Akua, sculptures are made for childless women, as charms to assist them in becoming pregnant.  As these objects have become more popular in the tourist trade, their shapes and forms have changed. Lineage, property, and political office pass through women, as the Asante are matrilineal.

Senufo, Female Ancestor Figure, c. 1915 and Kpeliye’e Mask, late 19th-early 20th century (photo See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Brooklyn Museum [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Senufo immigrated to the Ivory Coast from the inland Niger Delta about 300 years ago under pressure from Islamic groups. The Senufo are organized by gender and age, and live in separate, enclosed kinship districts.Each district has its own sanctuaries and branches of Poro and Sandogo, and the loyalty of each person is ultimately to the group.There are also 2 important gendered societies that are used to pass on Senufo culture and mythology. In each, men and women receive training in gender-specific tasks and education in gender-exclusive ritual information. These societies convert the members into civilized, human, responsible, and contributing members of society. Both societies are complementary and mutually sustaining.The Poro association is the men’s ritual association. It teaches men their social, political and spiritual roles in Senufo society. The society is organized by age groups, and initiation takes place in three phases over twenty years. After a man completes the third phase, he is ready for responsibility and leadership in the community, and is considered completely civilized.One of the important Poro images is that of the primordial couple.  The Poro wear masks embodying the female ideal, which affirms ties with the Ancient Woman, the foremost spirit woman in the matrilineal society. Divination is the exclusive province of women, and the Sandogo society, which is the women’s age-grade society. Members are called sando. Women are more responsible for seeking goodwill and blessings of the supernatural world. All powers and positions rest on the supernatural authority. The Poro society is designed to maintain the right relationship with the Deity and Ancestors, and the Sandogo is designed to maintain the right behavior in the district. There is an importance of the male/female dichotomy in all aspects of Senufo life. Many of the masks represent beautiful ladies. Champion cultivators win elaborate staffs that have finials that represent ideal female beauty. The winners gain prestige for themselves, their lineages and their children, and unmarried champion cultivators have their pick of unmarried women in the village.

Banana Village, Dogon, Mali and Ginna (Hogon’s House) (photo By KaTeznik – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62095 and By Senani P at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3376200)

Dogon, Toguna and Post (photo By upyernoz from Haverford, USA – Ende TogunaUploaded by AlbertHerring, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29240060 and By BluesyPete – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33869363)

Dogon, Masked dance (photos By Fasokan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54032472 and By OBERSON – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44206096)

The Dogon also moved from the Inland Niger Delta, specifically the area of the Bandiagara escarpment in modern Mali, in the 15th century. The Tellem flourished in this region from c. 1000-c.1500, and the Dogon seem to have absorbed many of their cultural forms and ideas. One of the most common sculptural forms of the Tellem are these human figures with raised arms. The encrustations on them represent sacrificial offerings that were poured over the figures. Since the late 15th century, the Dogon have been living in villages of cubical houses and cylindrical granaries near the Niger River in Mali. This is an age-grade, patrilinear society. The ginna, or lineage leader’s house, is usually placed highest in the villiage, and has the most elaborate façade. The toguna, or men’s meeting house, is a male domain. But, the support posts are usually carved to represent the female ancestors that come to assist in the mens’ deliberations, reflecting the Dogon belief in the importance of the duality of male and female. Sculpture is characterized by selective abstraction and a minimalist approach. A male with a beard represents wisdom and social prestige, and a female with a lip plug represents good grooming and fashion consciousness. Responsibility and respect are the foundations of the society. Wood is a precious commodity. They respect the integrity of materials, and so images conform to the cylindrical shape of a tree trunk. The Dogon make a number of masks, most of which are used in the dama, or funerary ceremonies, performed every few years to honor those who died in the period between that and the previous dama, and to move their spirits out of the village. Those honored are primarily the high-ranking male members of the society.

Native North America: The Northwest Coast, the Southwest, and California



Chief Mungo Martin (Kwakwaka’wakw), Wawadit’la, also known as Mungo Martin House,Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia, 1953 (photo I, HighInBC [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)


Map Northwest Coast Culture Area

On the Northwest Coast, the principles of balance and repetition were used as a unity of vision in all media by full-time artists. The artistic traditions in this area are antique. Conspicuous displays of goods affirmed the social standing of the individual and their family, and objects with restricted-use decorations were expressions of political power and family affiliation. Wealth and status were legitimized through the public display of art, for which there was an increased demand in the early contact period because of the fur trade. The potlatch was a communal feast celebrated in this area, and characterized by give-aways that affirmed the family’s wealth. Coppers embodied the family’s wealth at the potlatches. Crests were a family’s exclusive property, and were emblems of a family’s totemic ancestor. Crest poles acted as support beams, symbolic doorways, free-standing memorials, burial poles, and visual records of a clan’s history. These documented clan interaction. Crests were arranged in a fluid manner, with transformation emphasized, and with horror vacui. These are generally created frontally with a use of split representation, which divided the 2 equal flat halves. There is also configurative representation which allows the being to be shown in profile in a straightforward manner. The designs are either expansive with some body parts being omitted or redistributed; or distributive, with radical rearrangement of the features and limbs that usually fills the whole space. There are specific elements that make up the basic parts of Northwest Coast design throughout the region. Oviods are made up of curved corner rectangles. A formline is a contour line that swells in shape when they meet other formlines. The artists on the Northwest Coast tend to fill the spaces between spaces to symbolize the fluid nature of existence, and use balance and repetition to enforce order. During the 19th century, the northern style spread south, and the art of the people of the Northwest Coast generally became more elaborate. Many of the masks from this area, especially those of the Kwakwaka’wakw, are very heavily detailed, with elements that move, open and close, or transform into other characters in the story at the appropriate time in the dance. Many of these masks were used in Winter Ceremonial Dances, which were times when initiations, such as that into the Hamatsa society, could be performed, and when the relationships between the people and the spirits could be affirmed.


Tlingit, Hoonah Tribal House Interior, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (photo By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50716247)


Charles and Isabella Edenshaw (Haida), Painted Woven Hat, c. 1895 (photo By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50716247)

Tlingit, Chilkat Blanket and Edwards Brothers, Nass Indian Chief in feast robe, 1902 (photo By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Chilkat Blanket  Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

Kwakwaka’wakw, Crooked Beak of Heaven mask, 19th century and Oscar Matilpi (Kwakwaka’wakw), Raven/Sisutl transformation mask, 1996 (photo by See page for author [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15094609)


Map, California Culture Area

The native peoples of the region of California, which has the largest number of Native groups in any North American culture area, are known for their basketry. Most of the culture groups from this region were nomadic or semi-nomadic, which means that most of the objects they created had to be portable for easy transport from place to place. The basketry was characterized by a rhythmic repetition of pattern and complex schemes of rotational geometry, much of which related to symbols for nature or water. The Pomo are most famous for their ceremonial baskets that had feathers woven into the flat or conical exterior. Red woodpecker feathers were the most highly valued, and abalone or clam shell beads carved by men were added as decoration. Later, trade beads are added as well. There was a deliberate interruption of the design pattern. These sorts of baskets were typically given to young girls or exchanged as part of marriage ceremonies, and were treasured objects. In the late 19th century, baskets were made for sale, and the external market encouraged extremes of baskets that tested the maker’s skill. Many of these were either extremely large or extremely small, and oftentimes basketmakers, such as Dat So La Lee, a Washow woman, could become famous for their baskets.


Edward S. Curtis, Klamath Tule Hut, c. 1923 (photo Edward S. Curtis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Pomo, Coiled Basket, 19th century and Twined Storage Basket, late 19th-early 20th century (photo I, BrokenSphere [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By Hiart (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)


Pomo, Feather Basket, c. 1905 (photo By Bin im Garten (Own work (own picture)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)


Dat-So-La-Lee Demonstrating Basket Weaving, c. 1905 (photo By Unknown – Nevada National Historical Society (http://museums.nevadaculture.org/new_exhibits/nhs-expeople/eth100.htm), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16336841)

southwestcultureThe Southwest was known for settled, sedentary tribes that were matrilinear and relied on farming for food. Corn cultivation was introduced from Mesoamerica about 1500 BCE. The Hohokam, Mogollon, and Ancestral Pueblo groups had a self-defining approach to art and architecture, but shared principles of space planning, construction, and pictorial design. They also shared a common concern of unreliable water sources. Art helped to alleviate the stress of the environment, and engineering was used with ritual, art and architecture to secure the community. Their success eventually led to their demise. Pottery manufacture took hold in the Southwest after 700, although it was introduced from Mesoamerica in the 3rd century CE. Both utilitarian and ritual wares were made.


Map, Southwest culture area, c. 1350

The Ancestral Pueblo people occupied the Southwest from at least 500 CE, and, in the period between then and 1200, moved from pithouses to masonry structures called cliff dwellings. Pithouses were made from supporting wooden posts, with an entrance hole in the roof, and the walls and ceilings were made of sticks covered in adobe. Each had a central sipapu.   After 900, multi-room, multi-storey structures began to be built. Kivas were ceremonial structures in the center of plazas. These were special use structures made to mimic the pithouse form, with the sipapu the most sacred part of the space. The earliest known artifacts are basketry, with designs being created through geometrics. Historic Pueblo peoples are descendants of these peoples. The Ancestral Pueblo people are known for the high degree of technical sophistication of their ceramics, with some groups using vegetal pigments for slip painting and other using mineral pigments. The designs on these pots, much like the designs on the baskets from California, reflect concerns for the natural environment and water.

Ancestral Pueblo, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, (photo By James Q. Jacobs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30405192 and By National Park Service (United States) – Chaco Canyon National Historical Park: Photo Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1554325)


Ancestral Pueblo, Great Kiva, Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon (photo By National Park Service (United States) – Chaco Canyon National Historical Park: Photo Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1536637)

Ancestral Pueblo, Pitcher with Black on White Geometric Design, 900-1300 and Olla with Black on White Designs (photo By Gift of Charles A. Schieren (Brooklyn Museum) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons and By Alan Levine from Strawberry, United States – Rock Art Ranch PotsUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11164452)


Ancestral Pueblo, Saludo Polychrome Olla, c. 1340-1450 (photo By US-NPS – http://www.nps.gov/tont/images/20080217104729.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22970668)

The Mogollon occupied a large territory in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico that extended into present day Mexico. They had close trading ties with the Hohokam, and borrowed painted motifs from both the Hohokam and the Ancestral Pueblo people. The Mimbres branch was active from about 1000-1150, a period marked by unstable weather that undermined agriculture. Pithouses were replaced with apartment-style dwellings in this period, and there was a high level of artistic complexity. The hemispheric bowls were painted with linear representations of people and animals in the Classic Black-on-White style. The Mimbres exhibited a preference of the hemispheric vessel as mortuary furniture. These bowls were often used for food preparation before burial, and both of these functions were important. The designs on these bowls exhibit a shared ideology but not specific prototypes. There was a deliberate breakage of these forms with the “kill holes,” and often multiple bowls were placed upside down over the face of the deceased individual before they were buried under the floor of the houses, a practice that may indicate ancestor worship.

Mimbres, Bowl with Two Human Figures, c. 1000-1150 and Bowl with Bighorn Sheep and Geometric Design, c. 1000-1150 By Photo: User:FA2010 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Photo: User:FA2010 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Hohokam, Casa Grande Ruins, Arizona, c. 1350 (photo By Offworlder (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Hohokam, Santa Cruz Red on Buff Plate, 900-1150 (photo By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39843864)

The Hohokam are the ancestors of the Tonoho O’odam (Pima and Papago), and had their heartland in what is now the Phoenix basin. Their territory extended for about 40,000 square miles, with agriculture sustained by irrigation systems. They were active from about 1 CE through about 1350/1450 CE. Originally they lived in semi-subterranean pithouses with communal plazas. Their garbage piles were coated with plaster, and used as platform mounds. Oval shaped ballcourts were also built, although around 1200, the ballcourts were made into trash pits, and elite houses were built on the mounds. This culture shared the most ties with Mesoamerica, and maintained a long distance trade. Sites along the trade routes were marked with rock art. (A petrogylph is engraved into the rock, and a pictograph is painted) Hohokam pottery is characterized by fine, wavy lines, and a more dynamic composition than Ancestral Pueblo or Hohokam ceramics. The image of the flute player, popular now as Kokopelli in Southwestern tourist arts, also comes from this culture, and was almost certainly a fertility symbol.

Maria and Julian Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Wedding Vase, c. 1929 and Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), Jar, early 1900s (photo By Uyvsdi (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons and By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39842601)

Maria and Julian Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo revitalized the black-on-black style of pottery. This style is created through a reduction firing process. Men painted the pottery that women created in the early 20th century. A number of other Puebloan people also created pottery for sale to tourists coming to the Southwest. The Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo sold her Sityatki Revival wares at the Grand Canyon.


Photograph of a Navajo woman weaving at her loom outside her hogan, 1905-1932 (photo By Pennington, William M. – http://digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15330coll22/id/37005, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1214418)

Navajo, Second Phase Chief’s Blanket, second half 19th century and Transitional Blanket, c. 1880-1885 (photo By Anonymous – Bonhams, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25125756 and By Unknown Navajo weaver, pre-1889 – http://www.statemuseum.arizona.edu/exhibits/navajoweave/historic/blankets/8369_dtl.shtml, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5995800)

The Navajo and Apache migrated to the Southwest after 1300. The Navajo especially borrowed from Pueblo traditions, and used their own multi-sensory aesthetic of the beautiful to create dynamic asymmetry. Weaving and sandpainting were learned from the Pueblos. Men create the sandpaintings and women weave. Silversmithing is a relatively recent craft, learned from Mexican smiths in the middle of the 19th century. Atsidi Sani is one of the first Navajo to learn the craft. Originally horse gear and belts were made, and by the end of the 19th century, turquoise was being inset into silver. By the turn of the century, primarily jewelry was made. The Navajo then taught the Zuni and Hopi. Weavings and silver-work has a cash value that adds to a family’s income. Art, ritual, and music are all characterized as hozho, which is beauty, and has the capacity to change evil into good.   Beauty is found in the act of making the object, rather than the object itself. There is a dichotomy between dynamism and activity and stability and conservatism, with men being the latter and women the former. There is also a pride in the quality of work. Originally, the Navajo wove blankets, with “eyedazzlers” being created in the 1880s using chemical dyes and spun Germantown yarn. There was an experimentation with color and pattern. In the 1890s, trading post owners encouraged weavers to use Persian rug designs, which created the Teec Nos Pos, Two Grey Hills, and Ganado styles. This is also the period when the form changed from blankets to rugs. Weaving is considered to be a sacred activity, a paradigm for womanhood. Hosteen Klah was a singer and weaver of the early 20th century who experimented with the sandpainting rugs. When sandpaintings are woven into rugs, though, elements of the paintings are changed, so that they do not perfectly mimic the ritual sandpaintings. This keeps the yeis from being trapped in the weavings.


Navajo, Ganado Rug, c. 1910 and Sandpainting Weaving (probably whirling Logs from the Night Chant), 1940 (photo By Hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42953815 and By Gilcrease_-_Navajo_Sandpainting_Rug.jpg: Wolfgang Sauberderivative work: JanManu – This file was derived fromGilcrease – Navajo Sandpainting Rug.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19472339)

Native North America: The Eastern Woodlands and The Plains


Exhibition Photograph of Navajo Sandpainters at the  Indian Art of the United States Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, March 26, 1941 (photo by https://www.moma.org/interactives/projects/1999/wilson/images/36.jpg)

Native art was very influential on many of the artistic movements of the 20th century, including Abstract Expressionism. Many of the objects found in museum collections and shown in college classrooms are out of context with respect to their original cultural and ceremonial meaning, which is an important port with regards to understanding Native culture. All cultural systems exist in a constant state of change due to both internal and external forces. Tradition in both culture and art is relative. Tradition is as much based on technique and materials as technology. Changes in technique or tools and substitution or addition of foreign materials do not necessarily alter the total traditional aspect of an object. Conventional designs derive from and relate to technical basis, and are often provided with meanings after creation. They are a deliberate attempt to relate realistic form with another aesthetic tradition. Native American art was rich and diverse. Dress, including body decoration and clothing, was the most important vehicle for artistic expression.


Map of the General Culture Zones of North America

The Eastern Woodlands major borders are the Mississippi River and the Atlantic, the Gulf and up into Canada. This is a very resource rich land. Tattooing was widely practiced, and represented guardian spirits in addition to marking gender and personal beautification. These were settled communities with sophisticated political and religious bands. Trade routes linked all regions.

Aesthetic approaches remained fundamental for over 2000 years, including figure-ground relationships and rounded, organic forms with relatively naturalistic approach to representation. The Archaic Period (8000-1000 BCE) sees earthworks built at sites that often coordinated trade. These required soil to be brought from designated sites.


Archaic Period, Bannerstone (photo By National Park Service – http://www.nps.gov/archaeology/visit/ohio/ohTimeline2.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6305720)

Bannerstones, which weighted atlatls, were carved of exotic imported stones to exploit natural characteristics.  Many of the groups from the Woodlands periods (1000 BCE – 700/1000CE) built large earthworks, or monumental forms built of mounded dirt, immense undertakings that required a comprehensive vision of the planners and a communal investment of time.The Hopewell culture (300/100 BCE – 600 CE), the late Woodlands period, has core sites in the Ohio River Valley. Geometric earthworks defined with embankment mounds that surrounded ceremonial sites. These were linked with roads and long embankment mounds that also surround conical burial mounds of elites who were buried with imported goods. Pure copper was pounded into sheets and formed into various objects that were then embossed and sanded with precision and efficiency.  The Serpent Mound in Ohio, originally thought to date from the Adena culture (1000/800-1 BCE), in the early Woodlands period, because of 3 conical mounds nearby, is now dated to the Mississippian period (1000-1500/1600), c. 1070. This mound has a coiled tail at one end and a mouth filled with an oval shape at the end, and possible represents the sun in eclipse (life renewal) or a comet. It is ¼ mile long, the longest surviving effigy mound in America. The Mississippian culture built in the river valleys, with a major site at Cahokia, the largest ancient North American urban center at 6 square miles with a population peak at about 20,000. This period was characterized by extensive cultivation of corn. The sun represented the ultimate spiritual power from which political authority and sustenance are derived. There was a trade with Mesoamerica, in which goods and ideology are exchanged. There were several types of earthworks at the site within the palisaded central area. The Monks Mound is the largest, and was renewed in several stages to reach a height of 100 feet with 4 terraces. It was the largest pre-contact structure in Native North America. The mounds had wooden buildings at the top. The entire site reflected Mesoamerican space planning, with axial alignment, cardinal orientation, and plaza-mound sequence. The city in Mississippian culture reflected the center of the political, social and religious network. Ideas were encoded visually on shell, clay and copper, forming the basis of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, which had an elaborate iconographic tradition. The most common item was the gorget, a pendant suspended on a cord that was passed through 2 perforations near the edge. These were socially restricted, and defined group affiliations. Gorgets were generally made from shell or clay with symbolic patterns and images engraved on them, and were generally circular in shape with linear designs. Maces, or scepters of power, as well as cosmological maps were carved, and represented the intervention of humans to entreat and manipulate the powers of the upper and lower realms. Relics of high-status ancestors were venerated. Chunkey was a game played possibly for divination. Most Mississippian sites were abandoned pre-contact. There were complementary themes of passivity, harmony and sustenance with aggression, conflict and conquest. Male hunter-warriors were generally represented as 2-d, and female mother cultivators were generally in 3-d and freestanding.

Hopewell, Copper Ornament in the Shape of a Bird and Mica Hand (photo By Uyvsdi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19470150 and Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=487083)


Mississippian, Great Serpent Mound, c. 1070 (photo By No machine-readable author provided. OUBoy~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Missippian, Cahokia site drawing and Monks Mound, (photos By Heironymous Rowe – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52376985 and By Herb Roe, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6866896)


Map of the 5 Confederated Tribes (photo By R.A. Nonenmacher-w:Image:Iroquois 5 Nation Map c 1650.png, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=435661)

The Iroquois were a confederacy that was in power from the 15th through the end of the 18th centuries. The Iroquois confederacy, which was said to be one of the models for the Federal Government, was made up of the Seneca, who guarded the Western door of the Longhouse, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Mohawk, who guarded the eastern door of the Longhouse. The Tuscarora joined in 1722-3. Wampum were shell beads that were strung in designs that signify certain contractual agreements. These were regarded as legal transactions, and the abstract and pictographic designs were formed with patterns of purple and white beads. The display and recitation of the wampum reminded the parties of the agreement. The body was an important space for visual artistic expression through clothing and body decoration.


Iroquois, Wampum commemorating the Confederacy (photo By Unknown – Popular Science Monthly Volume 28, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11467476)


Ojibwa, Bandolier Bag, c. 1900 (photo The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bags were created in the Great Lakes region with images of manitos, or guardian spirits, and later with elaborate floral designs that combined the Native belief in the sacredness of the vegetation with the European Christian belief that flowers were the epitome of god’s beauty in creation. The Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society of the Great Lakes, was a society of shamans dedicated to prolonging life and the accomplishment of a safe journey to the after world. This spread, and saw much innovation in the 17th century. Scrolls were incised with animals and anthropomorphic beings, and were mnemonic aids that codified the society’s oral traditions and ritual procedures.  In the 20th century, the Anishnabe returned to the style to reinforce the continuation of tradition.


Seminole, Big Shirts, 1920 and 1936 (photo By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19074937)

African-American slaves mixed with native Creeks and Muscogees who fled to Spanish Florida to avoid forced relocation by the American government. These groups mixed Euro-American patchwork techniques with African-American cloth appliqué traditions to form the Seminole and Muccosukee patchwork tradition. This was a brightly hued textile tradition that was originally hand-stitched, but became more innovative through sewing machines and the economic stimulation of tourism. In most indigenous areas, there was a post-contact reliance on a mixed economic base partially related to tourism and the sale of art to tourists.


Map of the Plains Culture Area

The Plains represents the last indigenous tradition before the acculturation process of the Reservation Era. This area stretched from Canada to the Mexican border in Texas, and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Many of the people migrated from the Eastern Woodlands, Great Lakes area, and the Great Basin region. The horse culture grew up from about 1700-1870. Most of the peoples on the Plains were involved in extensive pre-contact trade. The exception to this are the Mandan and Hidatsa who lived on the Plains for about 1000 years. These were sedentary people who lived in earth lodges.

George Catlin, Mandan Village, c. 1833 and Ma-to-toh-pe, or the Mandan Chief Four Bears, c. 1833 (photo Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=470506 and By George Catlin, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3534289)

Walter McClintock, Buffalo Tipi on the left, Snake tipi on the right, Star Tipi in center and Blackfoot, Two Women inside Tipi, early 20th century (photo By Beinecke Library – Buffalo tipi on left, Snake tipi on right, Star tipi in back center. 812, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9029790 and By Beinecke Library – Two women inside tipi. Y-1515, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9030080)

Bates, Kiawa (sic) Indian Girls in Buckskin Dress, 1913 and F.A. Rinehart, In Summer Kiowa, 1898 (photo By SMU Central University Libraries – https://www.flickr.com/photos/smu_cul_digitalcollections/5816244224/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53441905 and By BPL – In Summer, KiowaUploaded by Fæ / Upload cutting by –Kürschner (talk) 08:54, 8 December 2012 (UTC), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23076549)

Most of the other Plains groups were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in tipis. Much of the art is both portable and personally emblematic. Buffalo skin was the primary artistic medium. Art was used to publicize personal accomplishments, with the expression of personal identity and achievement through adornment of oneself and possessions one of the most important functions of art. Items were generally derived from or modeled upon the natural world. Clothing also revealed cosmological concerns and secular hierarchies. Men generally painted in a figurative style, while women painted in a more geometric style, and did all of the quill- and beadwork. The narrative style recorded both personal and military accomplishments as well as visionary experiences. Women tanned the hides, and decorated them with geometric and semi-abstract designs. Co-operation was important, with both quillwork and tipi-making organized in guilds.  Quillwork was considered sacred. The exchange of quill- and bead-work was central to maintaining relations among neighboring groups. Styles were assimilated across wide areas. Women’s fine artistic achievements were equivalent to counting coup, and the finished object was less important than the process of making it in the religiously prescribed manner. Beads were often used alongside quillwork, and replaced quillwork in many regions. War exploits and autobiographical episodes as well as personal dream and vision imagery embellished tipis, and were personal property also painted on shields. Narrative painting was done in a flat, semi-abstract style. In the 19th century, ledger art became important, and combined traditional scenes with chronicles of changing lives. Lakota costume pre-reservation was a graphic communication that reinforced the rules and the positions of its societal members. Women produced the majority of clothing. They were skilled in beadwork and quillwork which provided status to themselves and their families. Clothing was a personal identifier.


Sioux Ghost Dance Film from 1894 (credit By William Heise [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The period around the year 1880 is the beginning of the reservation period, which ended the warrior culture, buffalo hunts, and the Sun Dance as the primary religious institution. The native groups were forced to farm and assimilate. In this period, the Ghost Dance, begun around 1889 by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, rose up as a messianic cult that aimed to restore Native culture. The Ghost Dance costume was a form of rebellion against white products and protection against the enemy, especially military bullets.


Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty and Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty,  Give Away Horses Dress, 2006 (photo By Andrew Kuchling (Flickr: Give Away Horses dress) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Women in the Reservation Era maintained cultural traditions through elaborately beaded costumes with increased complexity of pattern, complete beading, the incorporation of new forms, and the inclusion of pictorial imagery in a delicate, nervous line with complex compositions of geometric elements. The beaded moccasin was the foremost symbol of ethnic identity. Both the upper and the sole were fully beaded. Cowhide or cloth begins to be used instead of buckskin, and the fully beaded vest appears as a clothing form for men. Pre-reservation, the representational forms were the exclusive prerogative of men, but after, in an endeavor to maintain the tradition of recording historic events and life, women bead representational scenes. The heavily beaded costumes were produced throughout the twenties.

Native North America: The Arctic


Aivillik woman Niviatsinaq (“Shoofly Comer”) in gala dress (Cape Fullerton, Nunavut, Canada) (photo By Unknown – A.P. Low/Library and Archives Canada/PA-053548, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3802888)

The Arctic was populated by nomadic hunter-gatherers whose main diet relied on fish, sea mammals and meat, with little vegetation. The ancestors of the Inuit, Aleutians, and Yup’ik (Eskimo), first arrived from northeast Asia 4000 years ago, and spread across the Arctic to Greenland. Their near relatives are in Siberia, and they differ genetically, linguistically, and culturally from Native Americans south of the tree line. The bands were scattered over a large area of land. The territory of the Arctic peoples is one of the largest territories of indigenous people in the world. The nomadic bands followed migrations of animals. Relationships of reciprocity and respect bound the human and animal populations together, and bound both to the land.


Map, Arctic Cultural Regions

About 500 BCE, a cultural complex called the Norton Tradition, or the Old Bering Sea Culture, came to the fore in the western Arctic area. In the eastern Arctic, the Dorset Culture is prominent in this period, and was a culture of skilled toolmakers, artists and sea mammal hunters. Polar bears are predominant in their art, and the carving style is rough, expressive naturalism. With these cultures, the beginnings of ceremonial carvings can be found, as well as semi-abstract designs on the surfaces of hunting objects appear. The Old Bering Sea Culture is known for the morphing of designs into one another, called polyiconic. The emphasis is on small-scale, portable carvings.

Old Bering Sea Culture, Figure, 150 BCE-100 CE and Ipiutak, Burial Mask, c. 100 BCE (photo https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/43/e1/2e/43e12ecae2c70e683a8f10a3fb644a0f.jpg and http://image.slidesharecdn.com/americas-120510190251-phpapp01/95/americas-49-728.jpg?cb=1336676959)


Thule Culture, Human Figure, c. 1000 

These cultures last through 1000 CE, then the Thule culture rises to the fore. Contemporary Arctic people are directly descended from the Thule. The Thule were successful whale hunters. Art was made by these people in many media, from ivory, wood and bone carvings to ephemeral works in snow and ice. Most of these were smoothly modeled human and animal forms that were polished, and sometimes decorated with incised dots and lines. Some of these were made as shaman’s tools or children’s toys, but most were utilitarian objects in animal forms or masks. Toys were often used as part of the socialization process as models to practice adult skills. Soapstone lamps were also made. These were crescent-shaped basins with mossy wicks in which was burned blubber.


Léon Coginet, A Woman from the Land of the Eskimos, 19th century (photo By Léon Cogniet – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3339098)

Carving was the men’s art form in the Arctic, and the making of clothing was the women’s art form, with the style and amount of decoration varied by area. Most patterns are geometric, and are created by varying colors and textures of furs. Clothing made from animals was fundamental for survival. The general style was a tailored, slip-on parka, although the tailoring and decorative patterns vary. Tattooing was the most widespread 2-D art form, created mostly by women, with the patterns were made by rubbing ashes into pin pricks or passing a needle and thread covered in grease and ash under the skin. Tattoos, such as on the Inuit woman at the top of the page, enhanced the beauty of features, as did piercings, hair styles, and face painting. The tattoos were aesthetically and erotically appealing. Some tattoos were believed to influence the future, and one’s fate after death. The Yup’ik, of Alaska, also made baskets and pottery. Dance, music and song were important in ceremonial and recreational settings. The subject matter focused on hunting animals and birds and the legendary beings of the mythic past. The dances done were traditional. Storytelling was another important art form. There was a high degree of manual and perceptual skill among the Arctic people.

Inuit, Qarmaq remains and Eskimo building a snow house south of Cape St. David, Cumberland Gulf, Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. (photos By Ansgar Walk (photo taken by Ansgar Walk) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By Frank and Frances Carpenter – http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c03523/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18148262)

There was specific housing for the season. The summer house was a tent of animal hides, called a qarmaq, while the winter house was a snow house. Survival was the primary and overriding concern. Igloos were a recent development limited to the central Arctic groups, and housed 5-6 people. These were used continuously over the winter, even if the original builder moved on. They were only abandoned and destroyed if there was a death inside since this brought in malicious spirits. The word “igloo” originally meant any winter house. More common were winter structures framed with whale bone, stone or driftwood, and insulated with dirt, sod, skins or packed snow. The Kashim was the men’s assembly house, and menstrual huts, child-bearing structures, and houses for the first 3 months a mother and child were together were also built. For the Arctic peoples, there was a symbolic tie between the house and the womb.


Old Eskimo Kashim, or Dance House, on the Bank of the lower Yukon River. The opening to the passageway leading to the interior is shown at the left of the picture (photo by J. C. Cantwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Although media, quantity of production and skill of production varied from area to area, there was a uniform culture, especially in the conceptual and symbolic areas of language, myth and religion. The main concern of Arctic art is with human-animal relationships, and a highly elaborated ceremonial and artistic life. There was also a belief that art exists to make today’s life more livable. As much enjoyment was derived from creation as from the use. The word used for “art,” as well as many other things, is takminaktuk, which means “it is good to look at or beautiful.” Visual art enhanced life by giving pleasure to the creator and by adding sensuous beauty to the environment. Art had a role in religion as well as daily life. Taboos prohibited specific activities. Shamanism is important as a way to cure illnesses, mitigate crises in the environment, and bring harm to enemies. The world was believed to be inhabited by numerous spirit beings, some dangerous, some benign, who were conceptualized in concrete terms, and could be influenced by art. Art was often made in religious service. Amulets were made from hand-carved or naturally occurring objects. These were often homeopathic or sympathetic magic. Arctic world view is broken up into 3 realms: the supernatural, the social and the natural world. Art makes the transformations between these worlds possible. Art created as sympathetic magic relies on its ability to cross boundaries between the 3 realms, and also aids the transformation into death. This is true for both the performing and the visual arts. Art helps define social relationships in this homogenous society with only a few distinct social roles. Body decorations and clothing displays status, and sets apart men, women and shaman. Art also records past events.

Yup’ik, Swan Mask, Shaman’s Dance Mask and Finger Mask (1 of 2) 1883 (photo By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons and By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Masking was highly developed in the Yup’ik area. Some masks represent animal spirits encountered by shaman, and some depict animal spirits in the broader sense. Women rarely wear masks unless they are shaman. Finger masks are worn to accentuate the movements of the hands. Masks were made for 1 occasion, and then destroyed. The baleen basket is an introduced art form made by men. The baleen was cut into strips, and then woven into a basket. An ivory knob was carved as a handle.

Aleut, Men’s Hunting Hat and Gut-skin Parka (photo http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/09/photogalleries/indian_museum_artifacts/images/primary/Aleut_wooden_hat.jpg and https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/56/4e/90/564e901656aa6440292fe4fa8731c8f2.jpg)

The Aleutians are known for gutskin parkas that are lightweight and waterproof, and made from walrus intestine. Carvings on hunting hats are done to please the walrus, and so to make hunting easier. Ivory artifacts signaled the importance of animals, and the powers of the human realm. Clothing also reflected this, and was physically and spiritually protective. Respect for the animal dictates respect for each its component parts. Sometimes the Yup’ik and Aleut used the steamed bent wood technology for hats and boxes. The Aleutian population was decimated by disease as well as capture and relocation during WWII.


Kenojuak Ashevak: Window at John Bell Chapel of Appleby College (Oakville near Toronto 2004) (photo By Ansgar Walk – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3875211)

There was a transformation in Arctic art as a result of contact and the resulting changes in society. Souvenirs begin to be sought after, and made, in ivory, as well as engraved walrus tusks and tradition items. In Alaska, drawings, paintings and baskets are made for the tourist trade. The Inuit begin to make soapstone carvings, reserving ivory for details in mixed media sculptures, and become printmakers. The art production had a major economic impact, and cultural pride is shown through the mastery of technique. There is permanent village settlement in the 1950s, and art becomes a defining feature of Inuit life. Co-ops are used as responses to the breakdown of the traditional economy and the reliance on cash-based system. Few women in the region are stone carvers, most are printmakers. The subject matter of contemporary art is depictions of the part as part of a historicizing impulse. The Yup’ik often open a dialogue with the past while using modern materials.

Pre-Contact Peru


Map of the major archaeological sites in Peru

The Andean cultures were the civilizations from what is now Columbia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and parts of Argentina. The region is defined by the Pacific Ocean and the Andean mountain range, both the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra, the 2 zones of the Andean range. Major cultures flourished on the strip of coastal desert by irrigating fields of corn, beans, cotton and peanuts, with potatoes added to the list of crops being grown in the highlands, where llamas and other camelids were herded. In the highlands, cultivation was done on terraced fields. The cultures in the desert were also dependent on the ocean, and the highlands traded with the jungles for goods. The interactions across diverse ecosystems produced a homogenous artistic expression in a flexible consistent style. Textiles predate ceramics in the Andean region by about 6000 years, appearing in about 8600 BCE. These are the most valuable commodity in the region, and are used as currency, badges of authority, emblems of social status, and guides to family affiliation. Much of their value resided in the time taken to create them. A weaver learned the craft through a teacher-apprentice system, and fine cottons were woven on back-strap looms. Woven cloths were covered in embroidery designs, and the background color was also embroidered.


Chavín Culture, Central Plaza at Chavín de Huantar, Peru, 900-200 BCE (photoBy Martin St-Amant (S23678) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3947612)

The Early Horizon (1200-200 BCE) is the first of 3 periods of cultural unification. In this period, the Chavín culture (900-200 BCE) becomes the major unifying force. This culture is named for the northern highland ceremonial site of Chavín de Huantar, which was the driving force behind the cultural coalition, which was built at the convergence of 2 rivers, which was considered a propitious site for religious activity, tinkuy, a harmonious meeting of opposites.The site was populated by about 2-3000 people in the bottomlands surrounding the public architecture, and used a subsistence economy based on llama herding, rainfall farming, and irrigation agriculture.


Plan of the ceremonial center of Chavín de Huantar

There was a permanent manifestation in the visual arts of architectural features borrowed from both the desert and highland traditions. The structures were granite-faced earth and rubble platforms with stone lined corridors which required vast amounts of human resources and material to build.   The major temple is called the Old Temple, and is a U-shaped pyramid with a sunken circular court between the arms. It is east-facing, and is modeled on buildings from the central coast, with the sunken court from the north-central coast. These forms were popular on the coast for about 1000 years before they were emulated at Chavín de Huantar. By using basic elements of architecture and organization from distant places, the builders symbolically distanced themselves from their own history, and linked themselves with groups with whom the historical connections were limited. This was an invented tradition that was both unique and cosmopolitan. Flat-topped pyramids with sunken courts were not well adapted to the rainy season of the highlands, so the builders created a drainage, ventilation, and stone facing system that helped hold the structures up. Water was believed to circulate underground into the mountains from the source in the vast ocean upon which the earth floats. It was then transferred from the mountains to the sky by the Milky Way, and retuned to the fields as precipitation, then began the long journey back to the ocean. The drainage system therefore also bonds the architecture to the meteorological system, which was influenced by religious intervention. The sounds this made may have been used to the advantage of the shamans and priests,  as the drainage system causes the sound of water to be heard within the sunken temple, an effect that may have been amplified by the use of psychotropic substances in ritual.chavin_de_huantar_canal_06122009

Canal for channeling water, Central Plaza, Chavín de Huantar (photo By Dtarazona – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15794819)


Chavín, Raimondi Stela, Chavin de Huantar (photo ByBy Original drawing by Antonio Raimondi (1824-1890) – The book of Antonio Raimondi, «El Perú», 1875, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1310779)


Chavín culture, Tello Obelisk, Chavín de Huantar

Chavín, El Lanzón, Chavín de Huantar (photo By Reto Luescher – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=985767 and By Dtarazona – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15599115)

The Raimondi stone, whose original location is unknown, has a congested surface of incised lines on the polished granite. The figural style cultivates bewilderment with shifting maze-like images. It is a visually dense piece that is also transformational and reversible. The dominant motif is a frontally posed, standing polymorph (a being assembled with parts from many animals) that is called the Staff God, often later affiliated with the Inca creator god Virachocha, who later appears in both male and female forms. This deity may be either an earth or sky god, and is an assemblage of human and animal parts tied together by contour rivalry, or the simultaneous presentation of multiple images, as well as substitution, the technique of replacing an element with a similar but disjunctive motif. The anaconda, cayman, harpy eagle, owl, puma and jaguar are all used because of their strength, beauty, cunning, and ability to move between water, air, and land. These were often depicted as composite beings, and were the dominant carnivores of the tropical lowlands. This composite being’s duality is expressed through its firm rooting to the earth while descending from the sky. The eyeballs with upward rolling pupils imply a trance, and the mouth has extruded interlocking fangs. The piece is linear, and absolutely symmetrical, with an aversion to blank spaces called horror vacui. The Tello Obelisk was found in the open rectangular plaza in the latest part of the temple, which was probably not its original setting. The piece features plants and animals, with flying caymans donating domesticated lowland plants. There was an exotic focus of the art and architecture, with marine creatures also depicted. The Lanzón, a long granite shaft carved in the image of an anthropomorphic deity, is located in the subterranean chamber at the center of the temple. It faces east, and is probably the central cult image. It is the deity who mediated opposites, and personifies balance and order. It also represents the axis connecting the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. There is a cosmogram at its feet, which also appears in other Chavín art, and is a cruciform design with a central depression. This represents the 4 cardinal directions with the sacred center, and makes the ceremonial center a place of mediation between the heavens and the underworld. The organizing principle is that the cosmos comprises an infinite series of dual but complementary oppositions. There seems to have been a desire to transcend everyday reality and experience. The majority of the stone at the site was quarried some distance away. Often the central event in the religious rituals displayed is the ingestion of psychotropic plants, and mortars have been found that were probably used to grind these plants. These were used in religious rituals to communicate with the unseen powers permeating the natural world. There was a coherent view of human’s relationship to the different domains of the natural world and the cosmos. Chavín cosmology and art were disseminated through trade, and adaptations were made within each region up to 200 BCE.


Chavin, painted textile (photo By Lombards Museum – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12525438)


Paracas Peninsula, South Coast, Peru (photo By Pavel Špindler, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53540065)

In the Early Intermediate period (200 BCE – 500 CE) , the Paracas culture, who inhabited a series of valleys in the South Coast from about 400 BCE, and had a wide geographic spread, rose to prominance. Within this culture, we initially see the creation of adaptation to the Staff God and his assistants in textile form.  The oculate being and its impersonators, possible some shamanic imagery or a deity, was often woven on the textiles, and seemed to replace the Staff God after the decline of the influence of Chavín in this area. Much of what is known from Paracas comes from the mummy bundles that have been dug up in the various necropoli.

Mummy bundle diagram, example, and burial

Paracas, Linear style Mummy mask with the Occulate Being and Fragment of textile with the Broad line style decoration (photo By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19740054 and By Dornicke – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46753077)


Paracas, Ceremonial Mantle with the Block color style (photo By Paracas style (-100 – 100) – 8gFkpt_R76VKXA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21894996)

Textiles have animated contours, and are no longer absolutely symmetrical. The embroidered textiles held a complex visual symbol system in which the images served as ideograms, and made up the ritual language. There are 3 main styles of formal construction: the linear style, which is formally, iconographically, and conceptually abstract; the broad line style, whose formal and iconographic characteristics of depictions reveal a desire to represent ideographs rather than everyday objects; and the block color style, which was used to describe parts of the physically real world as well as ritual dress.The block-color style was a naturalistic, late fiber arts style with the shapes filled in with solid colors, and the figure-ground relationship established. The focus was on the description of tangible elements, which was appropriate for the depiction of specific cult images, and presented information about rank, roles, and occupation within society. The prominence of birds in the landscape is reflected in the textiles, and much of the animal and plant iconography is linked with the metaphysical.   The ecological order of the geographical setting was fundamental to the symbolic system. Human impersonators were depicted with one iconographic unit picked and represented without variation, which gave visual descriptions of actors, and the ritual attire became living, moving cult objects. The textiles were preserved in mummy bundles from high-status burials. The corpse was wrapped in coarse cotton cloth, and placed in a basket with fine textiles, ceremonial clothing, jewelry, and ceramics. This culture was also known for post-fire painted pottery modeled into flora and fauna.

Nazca, Geoglyphs (photo By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42787818 and By Unukorno – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29623932)


Nazca, Stirrup-Spout Vessel, (photo By Rowanwindwhistler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44705745)

Nazca (300/100 BCE – 700 CE) is a culture of the southern coastal deserts known for its ceramics and geoglyphs, or gigantic line drawings made in the desert crust. The culture also built large pyramidal structures for ceremonial purposes and an intricate system of underground canals. The geoglyphs are drawings of animals, fish, birds, geometrics, and anthropomorphs, some of which are over 100 meters long. Many of these figures are also depicted in the ceramics and textiles. The glyphs are formed when the oxidized granite crust is removed to expose the soil below. The lack of rain in the area has helped to preserve the glyphs. There is a concern with the relationship to the natural world, and a dependence on intensive agriculture utilizing irrigation as well as a worship of mountains and springs as life-giving sources. The geometric glyphs could be read as motifs of the water cult, since there is still a belief in the region that straight lines have power. Animals also relate to water or are manifestations of the gods. The anthropomorphs are deities associated with agricultural fertility and water. The weather deities were believed to reside in the mountains, and oversee their domains. The large glyphs were meant to attract their attention, and to invoke an increase in crop fertility though the means of a stable water supply. Ceramics usually have themes of complex figures with feline faces, human trophy heads, and shark or killer whale appendages, which relate to war, the taking of heads, and the use of blood offerings to the earth, sky, and water. Impersonators of these beings appeared in rites to “feed” the natural elements upon which human existence depended. There was a fertility cult associated with the harvest season, and the spider, dog and monkey were associated with this cult.


Cerro Blano (photo By Tyler Bell – Flickr: Huacca de la Luna/Huacca del Sol, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20700662)

Moche, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna (photo By Carl Ottersen – Flickr: 090323 018 Moche, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20700475 and By Carl Ottersen – Flickr: 090323 002 Moche, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20700523)

Moche (50-800 CE) was a militaristic state in the northern Coastal deserts, which are a rich fishing ground. The culture combined a coastal inheritance with intense intercourse with the highlands and the tropical lowlands as well as the north. Rafts for fishing were formed from bundles of reeds, and are shown on ceramics both in naturalistic and mythological scenes, as well as those involving sacrifice.   The sea and shore were important themes, with inversions in nature seen as the multiple related cosmic models at the roots of art. The western sea is seen as the edge of the world, a place of the unknown, death, and the entrance to the underworld, as well as an important source of life. They moved over 200 miles along the coast from the capital at Cerro Blanco, inhabited 100-600, and incorporated communities through conquest or allegiance. Communities were conquered for new land as well as control of the irrigation and sea coast and the acquisition of resources and sacred places. They practiced irrigation architecture, and the major buildings at their sites were oriented to the water sources, mountains, and celestial phenomena. The platform mounds of Cerro Blanco were constructed of sun dried brick called adobe. The Huaca del Sol, the largest solid pre-Hispanic adobe structure in the Americas, was tiered with temples at the top. This was the center of community life and the place of pilgrimage. The Huaca de la Luna is a group of long-low palace-type structures at the base and on the lower slopes of Cerro Blanco. This group was the site of the royal residence as well as a religious center. Both mounds were close to both the river and the sea. The entire site was laid out in relation to this hill.

Moche, Mountain pot and Effigy pot (photo By Rowanwindwhistler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44496142 and By Patrick.charpiat, Own work, 2009-03, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6123185)

The Moche are known for their stirrup-spout ceramics, which had an upright spout attached to an arched, hollow handle. These were originally hand-built, but later were mold made, and were often decorated with narrative paintings. Pottery was the most abundant art, and was considered sacred since it came from the earth and held nourishment for people and the gods. Action was conveyed by wrapping the figures around the vessel. These vessels are often modeled in effigy form as well as painted. The ceramics also often create analogies between the human body and mountains, with finger-mountains surrounding the rites of human sacrifice. This could also explain the origin of rivers with the creator god seated on one side. The art evinces the contact with the highlands and beyond. The Moche are known for their depictions of environmentally specific and night settings. The fine-line painting style is characterized by thin, nervous lines, and is very expressive. Vegetation is a common theme in art, and transformation is an important religious concept. Death and the afterlife were seen to be part of the cyclical process of art. Battle scenes depicted could be either historical or mythological as well as reenactments or ceremonial battles for sacrificial captives. Beliefs about the world were expressed in art, especially ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and murals, with stone uncommon and few large sculptures. Ritual objects and adornments declared the religious and political status of the wearer. Foxes and monkeys were associated with messenger runners because of their speed and agility, and hummingbirds were associated with runners and warriors because of their stabbing beak and speed. These were naturalistic and emotionally expressive, as well as object oriented, and were done in an action packed style with novel poses, detailed settings, and episodic scenes. Rulers used ritual to reinforce their ties with sacred mythological ancestors, and there was a complex ritual life that reflected a complex mythology. Warfare was both ritual and political, and all objects were thought to have life. Everyday reality and mythology were intertwined parts of a whole.


Sipan Lord Burial recreation

At the Moche site of Sipan, intact royal burials were found, which showed the wealth of the Moche elite. This site also gives a sense of how the burials at Cerro Blanco would have looked, before being “mined” by the Spanish. Here, the elite were buried with retainers, camelids, food, and a vast array of ceramics and gold and silver work, which showed the importance of those substances as tears of the sun and moon respectively.


Island of the Sun, Lake Titicaca (photo By Alexson Scheppa Peisino(AlexSP) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1927988)

The Middle Horizon (700-1000) follows severe environmental degradation after a series of El Niños in the 6th and 7th centuries. The Wari-Tiwanaku (also Huari, 500-1000) come to the fore in this period. Tiwanaku is a city on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and had a population of 60,000 at its peak. The site is the convergence of the urco ( the west, highlands, dryness, pastoralism, celestialness, and masculinity) and the uma (the east, lowlands, wetness, agriculture, underworld, and femininity), making it taypi. It was called Taypikhala, the Stone in the Center, with the conceptual and social roots residing in fundamental organizational forms of ayllu, or lineages, and moiety (one of two basic tribal divisions) relationships. It controlled access to precious metals, pastures, and water for canals, and exploited to political dynamics of a symbolic place. It was situated at the point where the mountains and the sea converged. Wari was the twin capital that was built later. Tiwanaku is both a ceremonial complex and a residential center. The city was structured according to cosmic principles, and used symbolism of both sacred and secular power. It was conceived of as an axis mundi.

Tiwanaku, Akapana and Kalasasaya (photo By DeFries – originally posted to Flickr as IMG_1717, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7643092 and By Rafael Gorski – originally posted to Flickr as Cultura pura – Bolivia – 2004, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4396550)

Tiwanaku, Gate of the Sun and Detail (photo By Bgabel – Own work (Original text: self-made), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22956834 and By JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24653966)

Canals were built to channel water to a non-utilitarian moat around the sacred precinct. The city core was surrounded by water, and conceived of as an island, the mythic site of world creation and human emergence. Elite lived within the sacred precinct. Palaces were inside this precinct as were temples, including the large tiered platform mound called the Akapana, which mimicked the sacred mountain. The major structures were aligned to the cardinal points, and expressed the intersection of the celestial and subterranean worlds, which was expressed by the Akapana. The city was also divided into quadrants. There was also a sunken courtyard called the Kalasasaya. Huge stone blocks were shaped and polished for the foundations of the mud-brick buildings as well as for facing the dirt and rubble mounds, and creating processional stairways and gateways. These gateways framed symbolic vistas, and marked both the ruler’s processional path and the sun’s celestial east-west path. The Sun Gate was moved by the rulers from its original location to the Kalasasaya platform near the end of the Middle Horizon from its probable original location at the Puma Punku, which transformed it into a large free-standing sculpture. This gate appears to be post-and-lintel, but is carved from a single block of 9’ tall stone. The lintel is decorated with a version of the Staff God, whose renewal gave the rulers history and legitimacy. This could be a version of the Inca creator god, Viracocha, or a return to the Chavín Staff God. He is in high relief with hierarchic scale, central placement, and a frontal pose, and stands on a tiered platform or mountain with animals coming from the center. He holds 2 spears in one hand, and an atlatl in the other. His attendants are in low relief and profile poses, which gives a clarity of political propaganda, and may be a representation of a deified ruler emulating the Chavín god.

This city became the center of the earth to the Inca, the place where Viracocha shaped the first people out of clay and painted them so each would have identity. Lake Titicaca is the sacred locus of many creation myths. Cosmological time was believed to be cyclical, regenerative, and re-created by human agency. The dominant social reality was cyclical, and turned on the seasonal rhythms of rural life, which was removed from the cosmopolitan world of the elite. Cities were few and special, and were centers of pilgrimage as well as sites of commercial enterprise. They were the focal points of the expressed social order. The practice of taking heads in battle was central symbolic element in warfare and ritual sacrifice. There were specialized workshops that produced both utilitarian and ceremonial pottery. There were also 3 main classes, the warrior-elite that ruled, the class of artisans, and the commoner class of farmers, herders and fishers. The textile emphasis on camelids also presented the state as human order mediating chaos, with camelid herding and statecraft both based on diversification of pursuits in order to mitigate the effects of adverse environmental conditions. The techniques of textile production included tapestry, knotting pile, patchwork, weft wrapping, embroidery, and warp patterning. Quipus here are the earliest known fiber recording devices. They codified oral information through color pattern, and were portable, lightweight, and unbreakable. Pastorialism constitutes an unstable equilibrium, and the fiber has a great premium. The camelids depicted in many media show the primary mediator between nature and the state.


Rectangular Palace at Chan Chan (photoBy Håkan Svensson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73664)

Chimú, Funerary Mask and Ear Flares, 12th-15th century (photo By Dorieo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38444633 and By Ed Uthman – http://www.flickr.com/photos/euthman/2618234729/in/set-72157605827172191/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5008790)

The Late Intermediate (1000-1438) saw the rise of the Chimú in the northern coastal desert. Their capital city was Chan Chan, and they were a militaristic culture with an empire that was eventually absorbed by the Inca.   They mined gold from the mountains, and collected it into the rivers. They then shaped it into ingots, and cold-hammered it into sheets, which were then pounded over wooden forms. These pieces were often painted as well as inlaid with stones, joined by wires or rivets or soldered. The site of Chan Chan is characterized by large adobe palace-structures for the elite that housed their burials and audience halls, as well as treasure rooms.

Inca, Tunic of the Sapa Inca and Military tunic, 1470-1532 (photo Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=394582 and By Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-31961997-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/226964, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27326049)

The Late Horizon (1438-1533) sees the rise of the Inca, one of the largest empires in world history amassed in less than 1 century. The Inca were the last independent pre-Hispanic civilization. They defined themselves in terms of a sacred landscape and the people in it. The Sapa Inca was the divine king, the son of the Sun God, Inti, who ruled by divine right, and lived in Cuzco, the navel of the world located at the center of the Land of 4 Quarters, Tawantinsuya. The empire was founded by conquest and maintained by statecraft. It was built with taxes paid in the form of goods, food, and the mita, or the labor tax that required all to work on government building programs. People were often relocated over huge distances to create colonies of workers. Sumptuary laws marked social divisions in the kinds of objects people could own or use.  The Inca kept quipus, which were corded knots that formed the writing system. Much of the architecture was designed to advance the needs of the state, and included roads and bridges. It was an architecture of power. Natural outcroppings were venerated as huacas, or a place or object in which sacred power was immanent. No mortar was used in sacred or official buildings, and each stone was shaped to fit the contours of those around it, called refined functionalism, or the aesthetic based on the principals of elemental form, pristine surface, and imposing scale. The standards of Incan art were imposed on all reaches of the empire. History was remembered as deeds commissioned or carried out by kings, they did not use dates. The Inca followed a complex religion with a pantheon headed by the sun that had a contractual relationship with humans which necessitated offerings to the spirit world.

Inca, Corcancha and Sacsahuamán, Cuzco (photo By Jofrigerio – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30213088 and By Peter van der Sluijs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21518518)

Inca, Machu Picchu (photo By Pastor3571 – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34950031 and By C T Johansson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26401983)

Pachacuti laid out Cuzco in the form of a puma, which symbolized the Inca dynasty. The feline motif was featured in thrones and ritual offerings, and symbolized the bond between the ruler and the land. Cuzco was a sacred artifact and an enclosure of power. Machu Picchu was a royal retreat built by the first emperor, Pachacuti, several thousand feet above sea level on a narrow ridge in the cloud forest. Incan architecture showed a sympathetic adaptation of human needs to environmental constraints. The act of creating architecture was a metaphor for affirming control, and also memorialized events or religious or historical significance. The use of architecture acknowledged the cultural heritage of the past, redirected the political and religious loyalties, and commemorated sacred space. The city of Machu Picchu, which was the winter palace of the Sapa Inca, was surrounded by concentric rings of terraces that were used for agriculture and helped support the weight of the city.

The Spanish conquered the Inca empire in 1533. The Inca Guaman Poma sent an illustrated letter to King Charles I of Spain in an effort to explain Incan beliefs and culture, and to contrast it with that of the Spanish.