Posts Tagged ‘art education’

Why have art?

The arts are being cut from schools and communities. The reasons for this vary but a common thread is that the arts aren’t important. This arises primarily from ignorance.  if people truly understood that the arts actually improve and enhance learning, and encourage creativity and new ideas, the arts would not be threatened.

Looking at Art is a Process of Observing and Thinking

The Visual Thinking Process teaches the ability to look carefully at a work of art and unlock its meaning and context.

His diverse body of artwork includes driftwood sculptures, totem poles made from beach reclaimed flip-flop shoes, discarded Coke bottles, ocean buoys, and ocean reshaped plastic object assemblages, paintings and filmmaking. His award winning, critically acclaimed art has been featured in numerous art shows, museums and galleries around the world.  A regular on the international lecture and teaching circuit, Dahlsen has also organised environmental art shows around the globe, to further not only an appreciation of art but also to foster consideration for how we (mis)treat the environment.

Interview With John Dahlsen

Rope and Plastic Totem by John Dahlsen. Contemporary environmental art sculpture. Totem made from found nylon ropes and plastic. Abstract recycled art created from rope and plastic collected from Australian beaches.

This video is an in-depth study on the Australian Environmental Artist John Dahlsen’s visual art practice. It was shown on National Television on the ABC arts show.

Lennox by John Dahlsen. Contemporary environmental art wall work, made from found plastic objects, assembled behind perspex. Semi-abstract/Landscape, recycled art created from plastics collected from Australian beaches.

father Frans Claerhout

Image from Dirk and Domminique Schwager (1994)


The Flemish artist Father Frans Claerhout was born at Pittem in the western part of Belgium in 1919. Claerhout completed his training for the priesthood in 1945 and was sent to South Africa in 1946 as a Catholic missionary.  (His other choices had been Brazil or the Congo) Initially he worked in the Transvaal but in 1948 he was transferred to Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. He worked as a missionary among the black villages around Bloemfontein, where his congregations consisted of simple and illiterate people living in impoverished surroundings.

Father Claerhout's Congregation

Father Claerhout’s Congregation

During his first year in Bloemfontein, Claerhout made no contact with other artists and his only artistic activities were little illustrative sketches for his mother. He started painting seriously in 1957, rough sketches, somber scenes in dull colours. In 1960 Claerhout moved to Thaba ‘Nchu where he started painting more. He saw Thaba ‘Nchu as an artisists paradise. He had more time to paint, as he no longer had to travel between districts. In November 1961 he held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg.

In 1979 while in Belgium, he suffered a heart attack. After a bypass operation in Bloemfontein later that year, he experienced what he likes to call his second lease on life. His work became even more colourful – his colours radiating his warmth for and love for South Africa. (Ref)

“I see through African eyes with a touch of Belgium here and there. After all, you can’t put your heritage in a plastic bag and fling it out the window.” Claerhout

Claerhout lived to make other people happy; always smiling, even in the winter of his life.

The nature and the soul – that is a gift … like writing or singing. And I am happy because it was a need to be myself…but then you are happy that somebody say: Ooh, I want it, I like it. I am very happy too that so many people have joy in life through my paintings. Life is beautiful, one must enjoy it fully.” (Ref)

Suncatcher – Image from DS Oosthuizen Gallery

Father Claerhout also authored several books, including four works of poetry. His artistic legacy includes 22 sculptures.  Claerhout continued to paint daily during the last few years of his life at a home for retired Catholic priests. He died in his sleep at the age of 87 in a Bloemfontein hospital after being admitted with pneumonia in 2006.

By using the money Claerhout made from his paintings, he funded the bulding of 20 churches, chapels and church halls, 8 vehicles for the transport of the sick, pensioners, and school children. built homes in the neighbouring town of Botshabelo, sponsored children’s education, and assisted priests financially in building their own churches.


The Wedding

Aims and Characteristics

I like to paint through the eyes of a child. To a child a mother isn’t someone with 10 fingers, but a kiss, love or a bunch of flowers. – Frans Claerhout

Blommetjies vir my (Flowers for me)

Blommetjies vir my (Flowers for me)

Claerhout had no formal art training but came from an artistic family and he belonged to a local art society in his student years. He visited Belgium and toured its museums in 1957 and, on his return, began to sketch and paint with total dedication.

claerhout christ and

His style owes much to Flemish Expressionism. His earlier palette inclines to warm, almost somber, tones; although it has brightened over the years, under the influence of the open Freestate landscape, with flashes of clear blue and yellow illuminating the general ochre-umber glow. The Free State’s stark clarity and wide open skies and its indigenous population with their love of brightly coloured headdresses, blankets and dresses, nudged Claerhout into broadening his palette- adding more red, yellow, green and blue. Through constant experimentation he mastered the colour of his environment. (Ref)

Crucifixion with village mourners

Christus in Tweespruit – Crucifixion with village mourners

He often distorts and elongates his forms for emotional emphasis, but retains the overt visual character of all his subjects.  He doesn’t paint an actual person but he uses his subjects as a representation, as a basis on which he creates the whole idea. (Ref) His artworks are also characterised by their thick impasto paint, exaggerated forms, humour and compassion. He primarily worked with oil paints on canvas or rough surfaces, but he also experimented widely with other media e.g. modeling in clay and wood-carving, wall-paintings, monotypes and linocuts, stained glass set in concrete windows and a prolific stream of drawings in charcoal, pen-and-ink or crayon. (Ref)

In the 60s he began giving added attention to drawings and monotypes. These were usually studies of single figures, in which he freed himself to some extend from the repetitive mannerisms which were beginning to make his  oil compositions all appear familiar.Forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous almost hasty line contribute to the vitality of the sketches. Forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous, almost hasty, line contribute vitality to the little sketches.

To Claerhout the sketch was an easy medium to capture quick impressions and to memorize his tales. However naive Claerhout’s charcoal sketches appear, they flow with understanding of his subject matter. He developed his sketches by rubbing them with oil paint. His tonal values, although dark and somber at times, give a decorative edge to his work. Towards the end, Claerhout only worked with charcoal and acrylics.

Lady Figure with Duck

Lady Figure with Duck

His subject matter are the people, animals and the village scenes around  the mission station at Thaba ‘Nchu. He found the eclecticism of their lives fascinating – the combination of traditional and western cultures. Thaba ‘Nchu was established as a homeland for Tswana and Sotho people under the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, and was characterized by widespread poverty and underdevelopment. The residents participated in subsistence- and small scale commercial farming ventures which mostly involved manual labour.

His donkey depictions are particularly well known. He also achieved particular renown through his child portraits with impersonal faces to portray the spirit of the child. He looks at the soul of the child, whose colour, race, background or civilization is immaterial. The shining faces always constitute the central theme, enlivened with a pretty dress full of flowers.



With Claerhout art and inner feelings are couple, so it is not surprising  that much of his subject matter is religious. Even though he paints the people with whom he works, going about their daily activities, one feels God radiating from them. (Ref) Thus to Claerhout his faith and his painting are indistinguishable: “my belief inspires me.”  Father Frans Claerhout often depicts the everyday scenes he observes around him as Biblical Themes. When asked whether he would continue painting in heaven, he replied; “Of course I shall.  I shall paint what I see.”  (Ref)

Claerhout sees Christ as a man covered in mysticism and he seeks to penetrate him, not as a supernatural being but as a living Christ risen from the dead. Frequently still bearing a crown of thorns, but forever pleading as man and God, moving among his earthly creatures like one of them … (Ref)

Houses, Figures and Donkey


 His early works were greatly  influenced by the Flemish expressionists. Like the German expressionists, the Flemish Expressionists art were a protest art, but Claerhout felt, they had a mystique to their work, which made it more sympathetic than that of their contemporaries. He cites his strongest influence was that of the Flemish Expressionist Constant Permeke, whose paintings from the 1920’s and 30’s, like Claerhout’s, were concerned with peasants and the land they tend.

Constant Permeke – Aardappelrooister 1929

Permeke’s work was not religious, but it was his ordinary subjects, everyday characters doing their daily chores; big hands, big breasts, that Claerhout admired. Claerhout got to know his work through books and he actually met the artist once. Permeke’s style is characterised by powerful contours, dark colours and simplified forms executed in a highly expressive manner. His figures are deliberately distorted and his colours warm. (Ref)

Constant Pemeke Flemish Expressionist

When Claerhout held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg in 1961, the influence of Flemish art on his painting was still evident both in the colour and the atmosphere of these works, and it took a while before the clear blue skies of the Orange Free State and the greens, browns and yellows of its vegetation left their mark on his paintings.

Expressionism to Claerhout is painting only the necessary – I draw mouths, hands, faces, not feet and toes. He does not paint the actual person, but he uses them as a representation, as a basis on which he creates the whole idea.

The donkey camp

The Donkey Camp depicts the community headmen’s residences clustered around the chief’s residence, protectively built to include a ‘kraal’ for housing the animals. Drawing inspiration from the scenery around the Mission Church, Claerhout used expressive brushwork and muted colours to add to the rural character of ‘The Donkey Camp’. The heavy, abstracted figure of the farmer tending to his donkeys as the early morning mist starts clearing, is rendered in a rich earthy brown, emphasising his role as a man of the land. Donkeys, a treasured possession in the rural community, were commonly used as pack animals, for ploughing the fields, and for personal transport, and became one of the trademark subjects in Claerhout’s oeuvre, symbolising a simple, sober way of life. The two donkeys, encircled by the camp’s fence and patiently awaiting their next assignment, are symbolically central to the composition, their role essential to the day-to-day survival in this tough environment. (Ref)

Analysis of his Paintings by Previous Students

The Donkey Cart

The Donkey Cart

In the Donkey Cart Claerhout depicts a rural scene of a woman and child on a donkey cart. Claerhout also made many other Mother and Child portraits.These portraits, often virgin and child, echo the unhampered existence of African women, the natural bonding between mother and child without social restrictions. To him women are the core of families.

Karretjie People

Karretjie People

Although this image could be a depiction of the “karretjie people” found in South Africa, the red halo around the baby’s head immediately tells us that this image depicts a biblical theme, that of Mother Mary and baby Jesus, rather than just an ordinary rural scene. The predomination of blue also gives the painting an overall feeling of spirituality, especially with the contrast of red and yellow which makes the painting glow.

The loose brush strokes, bright arbitrary colours and the heavy black outlines used in this painting shows the influences of the Expressionists and Fauvists. The figures and the donkey’s forms are simplified and distorted to emphasize the emotional content of the painting. The background colour and the predominating colour is bright splashes of blue and turquoise, reminding us of the traditional Christian depictions of Mother Mary where her cloak always used to be blue. The red of the donkey is repeated in the woman, the baby, halo and splashes in the right hand foreground forming a binding element in the painting. As the baby’s blanket is the only white in the image one’s eye is drawn to the baby.

By depicting a biblical scene through ordinary people from the villages around him, Claerhout brings his spiritual vision down to earth. One feels that it reflects his spiritual mission of bringing the gospel to the poor through his own good works.

claerhout suncatcher painting

The Suncatcher

Like in most of his other art works Father Frans Claerhout depicts in The Sun-catcher his personal spiritual beliefs. Father Frans Claerhout writes in his poem, The Sun-catcher: “Die son sal skyn in jou hart as u die steun gee aan die struikelende mens…”  “The sun will shine in your heart if you give support to the stumbling person. The Sun-catcher, also resonates with his philosophy: “If you can catch the sun, you will never die.”

In the Sun Catcher Father Frans Claerhout depicts a seated woman with what looks like a sunflower. His brushwork and lines are loose and expressive, giving the impression that it was quickly sketched but observed with accuracy. The figure is simplified into its simplest elements, appearing almost childlike in its simplicity and in the economy of line used to depict the shapes. Rounded shapes dominate and is repeated in the sunflower, the woman’s belly and head, emphasizing both  the thematic and visual focal point. The viewer’s eye is lead back and forth between sun and the woman’s belly. He uses flashes of blue, green and yellow to illuminate image. In this image he also distorts and elongates his forms for emotional emphasis, like he does in his other works, but he still retains the overt visual character of all his subjects. The forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous, almost hasty, line contribute vitality of the sketch.

Christ and the other person

Christ and the other person

Claerhout explained this particular series as follows: “The series of Christ and the other person is a meditation of Christ and People.  What Christ is, cannot be found in research by the human mind. He was human – with and for man.  I feel I do not know much about him, but what I know and feel, that I like.”

To Claerhout faith is to be delightfully underage, expectantly.” Christ is to him the same in all his encounters with people, but each time different.  A Man for all seasons. He stirred the heart of all people and in this series are a few [of these people]. For the people that we know through the Gospel, who met Christ, He was man, prophet, something grand, an outcast, a sinner, love, forgiveness;  always an emotional sensation, visible and palpable. Almost all thinking people need other people – it is the beauty but also the tragedy of man. The medium here is paint. Color – line … the meditation is bound to the Evangelical text, it is the source … I hope that, with reference to the Gospel text, the 21 paintings will bring us love and growth. The last picture is the secret of faith: Christ alone. Who is the other person, me, you, us? “

The Original Father

The Original Father

In this series of paintings Claerhout’s figures are especially distorted and elongated for emotional effect so characteristic of the Expressionists. Colour is applied in loose expressive brushwork with thick sketchy outlines.

Crown of Thorns

Crown of Thorns

Through these artworks discussed we can get a clear image of Father Frans Claerhout’s spiritual beliefs. Most of his artworks depicts biblical themes but he uses the people and ordinary lives of those who surround him to depict his spiritual vision. Christ and the Other series perhaps most clearly expresses his belief that Christ must be experienced by each individual, in their own way.


Crouse Art

Johans Borman Art

Christy Lee Folkey – Meeting Fr Frans Claerhout’s%20Fr%20Claerhout.htm

Roberts on Art

Dirk and Dominique Schwager, Claerhout – Artist and Priest (1994)

South African History Online

Henry Taylor Gallery

Tributes to Ff Frans Claerhout

Great tutorial from Devionart

Installation art describes an artistic genre of three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space. Generally, the term is applied to interior spaces, whereas exterior interventions are often called Land art.

Installation art came to prominence in the 1970s but its roots can be identified in earlier artists such as Marcel Duchamp and his use of the readymade and Kurt Schwitters’ Merzart objects, rather than more traditional craft based sculpture. Its roots lie in the conceptual art of the 1960s where the artisis’ intention is all important. This is a departure from traditional sculpture which places its focus on form. Early non-Western installation art includes events staged by the Gutai group (means”Embodiment”) in Japan starting in 1954, which influenced American installation pioneers like Allan KaprowWolf Vostell. (Ref)

The installations at AfrikaBurn usually have quite a short lifetime and with the huge amount of effort that is put into the planning, fundraising, building and eventual burning of these art pieces. Started in 2007, AfrikaBurn takes place in the Tankwa Karoo in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa.

Africa Burn

Sculpture (Photo by Photokatz)


Photo Keith Shirlaw

The theme for AfrikaBurn 2013 was ‘Archetypes’  with themed camps, mutant vehicles, colourful costume, and

Also see a Time lapse of AfricaBurn 2013

What is the definition of Spiritual?

Sibusiso Duma, When we were young, acrylic on board

 ‘ … the way some person lived within his or her historical context a chosen religious ideal in sensitivity to the realm of the spirit or the transcendent’. – Walter Principe

The definition by Principe is the definition from which most current definitions of what is spiritual is derived from. What we understand today as “being spiritual” is actually a relatively new but shifting concept to define that which is purely spiritual as opposed to that which is religious.

The modern connotations of what is spiritual originated from the thoughts of several religious thinkers in their attempts to relocate authentic religion outside or beyond the sphere of churches and institutions. The word spiritual was actual very rare in historical texts. (Ref) The attempt to define what is spiritual is parallel to the development of intellectual thinking, or stems from the time when ordinary mortals first realized that we have the power to inquire into the hidden nature of the universe. In earlier cultures there would have been no need to define what is spiritual. The question, ‘what is spiritual’ is thus really a more modern Western concept.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Guardian Angels, 2004, Oil pastel on pape

The word spiritual is derived from the Hebrew word Ruach, the  Latin word spiritualitas and the Greek word Pneuma. All three has the original base meaning of ‘moving air’ – whether in the form of breath, a breeze, or violent storm winds, or that which animates life. Most English bibles translates ruach as spirit. Immaterial beings are called ruachot; such ghosts, and angelic beings and spirits. Ruach has also been translated as ‘mind’, in the sense of thoughts, convictions, dispositions, drive even courage. (Ref)

According to the Greek philosopher Anaximenes, “just as our soul (psyche), being air (aer), holds us together, so do breath (pneuma) and air (aer) encompass the whole world.”

With this in mind one can perhaps define spiritual as shifting definition for that which is transcendent, unseen, except in unusual circumstance, but which nonetheless has a visible effect and without which there would be no life.

More useful concepts for defining spiritual:

What is a Belief?

Whatever an individual is willing to subjectively accept without direct verification by experience or without the support of evidence, resulting in assumption which is taken as a basis for action or non-action.

What is a Belief System?

A belief system is the actual set of precepts or principles, upon which a person base and live their daily life, and governs an individual’s thoughts, words, and actions. Without these precepts you could not function.


Allegory is a device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. Allegory has been used widely through out the history of art, and in all forms of artwork. A reason for this is that allegory has an immense power of illustrating complex ideas and concepts in a digestable, concrete way. For example, this function of the device is possibly most evident in Christian doctrine, where Satan symbolizes evil and God symbolizes good. The concept of goodness is portrayed as a character, and his behaviour and intentions follow suit with this goodness. Therefore, in allegory a message is communicated by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation. Allegory is generally treated as a figure of rhetoric; a rhetorical allegory is a demonstrative form of representation conveying meaning other than the words that are spoken.(Ref)

Useful Questions to ask when analyzing Spiritual Art

What does the artist/culture believe?

In order to find out what belief system an artist operates from, or have adopted, certain questions must be asked. The core of what they believe starts with whether they Truly believe in one of the following.

  • A supreme being,

  • Just an existence beyond the physical of some kind

  • Nothing at all.

For those who believe in a Supreme Being, or God, how is the being depicted? How does the being communicate to people things they need to know, do, and be.
Is it that God only talks to a few people, or to everyone ?
Do you think cultural differences and personalities would affect the message?

Credo Mutwa, The Judgement of the Kings (1983)

Spiritual and religious works of art convey a non-verbal message, whichever form it takes, regardless of culture, religion, date or location. In the past, only the highly educated and members of the clergy were able to read. Visual imagery was thus used to convey spiritual ideas to the illiterate masses.

Spiritual Art

Spiritual Art visually depicts and communicates the artist’s spiritual beliefs, or reflects, or oppose, the spiritual doctrines of the ruling ideologies. It often reflects the desire to push “behind the veil of appearance” to the “other side” to seek “the hidden things in nature and life . . . the inner spiritual side of nature and life.” Mystical Art is created through the guidance of a spiritual being, or through visions received by the artist.


One can very well say that most of the art from art history can be classified as spiritual art. It was only with Modernism and the Avant Garde art movements that spiritual art started to reflect the individual’s spiritual views. The first artists that produced cave paintings were likely to have been shamans or priests. Later religious art reflected the doctrine and symbolism of each particular belief system. Yet, just as each of the major religions will have regional interpretations, just so the religious art reflected the particular historical environment, culture and spiritual interpretations of their beliefs.

Christ Pantocrator, early 17’th century. Portable Icon. Work of Jeremiah Palladas Collection of the 4th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of the Dodecanese.

Early cultures used artwork to worship divine beings, and in the Middle Ages, artwork was used to canonize religious themes and spiritual leaders. During the Renaissance period, painted images began to gradually move away from society’s spiritual ideologies and become more and more individual. In modern times, artists have become completely independent from societal ideologies, and instead of communicating the realities of life, artwork has become a means for the artist to communicate personal ideologies and spiritual themes through visual and other elements. (Ref)

African Art

Lydenberg head, ca. A.D. 500-700

As Spirituality is always culturally formed and informed and the formation of spirituality is always cultural-contextual, Africa’s beliefs and religions reflects its multi-cultural context. Africa is a vast continent, incorporating a wide variety of cultures and ethnic groups. Northern Africa differs totally from Southern Africa.

Traditional African Beliefs

In traditional Africa life is not divided into compartments, with separate “spiritual” and “secular” components. Life as such is spiritual.

In (traditional) Africa, there is no division and/or differentiation between the animate and inanimate, between the spirit and matter, between living and non-living, dead and living, physical and metaphysical, secular and sacred, the body and the spirit, etc. Most Africans generally believe that everything (human beings included) is in constant relationship with one another and with the invisible world, and that people are in a state of complete dependence upon those invisible powers and beings. Hence, Africans are convinced that in the activities of life, harmony, balance or tranquillity must constantly be sought and maintained. AA Berinyuu

It has been suggested that African spiritual beliefs can be depicted as a triangle. At the top, head of all powers, is the Supreme Being. On the sides are the two greatest powers, gods and ancestors. Man is in the middle , and must live in harmony with all powers that affect his life, family and work. At the base are lower forces, with which magic and medicine are concerned. Ubunye (the unity of all reality) is kept intact through Amandla (power), which in turn operates within Ubuntu (community). In African spirituality it is all about the maintenance of equilibrium and therefore guarding against the loss of power.

Sibusiso Duma, Inkanyamba

Sibusiso Duma, Inkanyamba (According to traditional Xhosa beliefs, a strong winds takes the form of a giant winged snake, known as inkanyamba. This being lives in deep water and flies through the air, looking for its mate.)

Traditional African religion is based on oral traditions, which means that the basic values and way of life are passed from elders to younger generation. The elders are the final authority and are trusted completely. These traditions are not religious principles, but a cultural identity that is passed on through stories, myths and tales. (Ref)

Myth and symbol, ritual and rhythm determine everyday life in the African context.  The way people relate to the environment and the nature of inter-personal relationships are all part of the spiritual make-up of Africans. There exists a very thin line between the religious and the cultural phenomena in African cosmology. Religion and culture are inextricably intertwined. Most of the religious rituals are appropriated into the cultural scheme of things and the cultural domain shapes and influences the religious philosophy and practices.

Trevor Makhoba, “Circumcision”

Trevor Makhoba, “Circumcision”

Issues of moral behavioural patterns; natural plagues and disasters; familial inter-connectedness; domestic animals; fields (the land ethic) and several rites are directly linked to particular events in the life of the individual and the community together.

Lonyana Rock, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

In traditional African religion the community is the most important part of someone’s life. This community is made up of people who remember and share the same traditions. This sense of unity with(in) the universe has been embedded in African spirituality since the dawn of time. It is depicted on many of the rock paintings that can be found throughout Southern Africa. In the example found at Lonyana Rock in KwaZulu-Natal the community is dancing around a sick person lying under a karos (animal skin). But the living animals are also there – the food stock. They seem to be moving in and out of the circle. Here, in one artwork, we find community, child care (women accompanying children), religion (expressed in the dance), medicine, work (hunting), etc. in an intertwined spirit of holism. This is indeed African spirituality. (Ref)

Sangoma throwing bones

There are spiritual leaders,who are the equivalent of shamans and priests  in most traditional African religions. These traditional healers have to be called by ancestors. They undergo strict training and learn many skills, including how to use herbs for healing and other, more mystical skills, like the finding of a hidden object without knowing where it is. (Ref)

Although traditional African religion recognises a Supreme God, followers do not worship him or her directly. They therefore ask the ancestors to communicate on their behalf. The Supreme Being is called upon in times of great hardship and need, like drought or epidemic that may threaten the entire community. The Supreme Being is the connection between people and their environment.

Ancestor worship

Ancestor worship and belief is an extension of a belief in and respect for elders. Followers of traditional African religion believe that ancestors maintain a spiritual connection with their living relatives.

Most ancestral spirits are generally good and kind. The only negative actions taken by ancestral spirits is to cause minor illnesses to warn people that they have gotten onto the wrong path. To please these unhappy ancestors, usually offerings of beer and meat are made. (Ref)

Adolphus Opara’s large-format, painterly images of diviners from regions of South-western Nigeria

African ritual art and artefacts

African art is a term typically used for the art of Sub-Saharan Africa, as the art of the North African areas along the Mediterranean coast has long been part of different traditions and for more than a millennium has mostly formed part of Islamic art, although with many particular characteristics. The Art of Ethiopia, with a long Christian tradition, is also different from that of most of Africa, where Traditional African religion(with Islam in the north) was dominant until relatively recently. (Ref)

As opposed to most Western art, African art serves a particular function rather than Art for Arts sake. The object may confer status, or serve a function that may be ceremonial, sacred, or practical. In the cycles of life, the rites of passage between them, are important as events for which objects are made.

Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi). Democratic Republic of the Congo. KaKongo Kongo artist, 19th century. Wood, iron, glass mirror, resin, pigment

For example, African spirituality is about power and empowerment, and often also the disempowerment of your enemies. This can also clearly be seen in African art. In the Congo, for instance, there are sculptures called nkisi nkondi (power figures). An nkisi nkondi serves as a container for potent ingredients used in magic and medicine in judicial and healing contexts. To make an nkisi nkondi, a carver begins by sculpting a male human or animal figure with a cavity in the abdomen. Then a ritual expert completes the work by placing ingredients with supernatural powers on the object and in the cavity provided. He activates the figure by breathing into the cavity and immediately seals it off with a mirror. Nails and blades are driven into the figure, either to affirm an oath or to destroy an evil force responsible for an affliction or disruption of the community. The pose, with hands on hips, symbolizes the nkondi’s readiness to defend a righteous person and to destroy an enemy. (Ref)



Most masks are made not to look like real human faces. They are usually designed and created to provide somewhat of a shock value. They tend to convey various emotions such as sadness, anger or suspicion.

They play very different roles to the various tribes across the continent. They are normally kept in a safe- or sacred place, only to be brought out for important occasions and ceremonies.

Masks were and still are usually worn during various celebrations such as weddings, funerals, initiation ceremonies, and to entertain important visitors.

African masks are normally worn by men, however in some cultures women also own and perform in masks. One example will be during a ritual that initiates them into female society.

Masks can be worn on the head as helmets covering the entire head or as acrest, resting on top of the head, or simply a mask.

Niagara African Dancing Mask

The most common use of the African mask involves ritual dancing. This involves the dancer wearing a mask and full costume. Often there is singing and music in these rituals and the mask becomes a strong spiritual force. During some of these ritual dances, because of the power certain masks possess, some people are not allowed to look at them. (Ref)

Female Face Mask. Chokwe peoples, DR Congo or Angola. ca. 1930s. | Wood,pigment, reeds and fiber.

Main Visual Characteristics

Ife head, Ife, 12th-14th century.

There should be a balance between resemblance and likeness; a figure, for example, should be identifiable as a man, but not identifiable as a specific man. An object that bears a resemblance to the original model draws power from the original, which is desired, but not to be overdone. Individual portraiture is considered presumptuous and dangerous, because of the power that the object may contain.

Pendant Mask, Lyoba, Nigeria

Clarity of line and form. This gives the powerful graphic quality that is so characteristic of African art, and so attracted early European modernists. Strong angular edges to forms, smoothly polished planes and curves, and the angular protrusion of such features as lips, eyes, and nose accentuate these features.

Igbo Mask, Nigeria

Igbo Mask, Nigeria

Proportion; In much of African Art, proportions are scaled according to conceptual significance rather than the physical size. Thus the meaning and function of the object requires that emotional proportion supersede natural proportions. The head, for example in figure carvings, is often one-fourth the size of the body because in many African societies it is considered to be the seat of one’s destiny. It also provides a larger surface for culturally significant details that are conveyed through facial expressions, hairstyles, jewelry or scarification. In figural groups, the larger figures are clearly the most important.

Nok terracotta, 6th century BC–6th century CE

Gesture and Expressions; The stance or facial expression of a sculpted figure often conveys clues into its meaning and significance. Hands resting on the abdomen may suggest the capacity to bear children. Downcast eyes may express dignity and poise, introspection and attention to a world beyond our own, while glaring eyes and a gaping mouth can signify power, trance (especially with bulging eyes), aggression or a call to action. (Ref)

Texture; Artwork’s surface can be smooth from frequent handling or textured from tool marks, paint or added materials. A sticky-looking object may have  received offerings at a shrine, its surface suggesting ritual use. objects that are densely covered with horns or porcupine quills, mud and other materials may represent powers from nature. By contrast a serene figure with polished surface may portray  someone who is stylish, civilized and cultured.

Colour and Pattern; Colours are frequently symbolic of important messages, though the meanings will vary from culture to culture. The most common colours used in African art are red, white and black.  Patterns which may also vary in meaning from culture to culture, provide insights into personal style and culturally specific aesthetics.

Spatial Relationships; How does the artwork relate to the space around it? Was it intended to stand on its own or was it once part of something else – like a place on a shrine? (Ref)

It is considered proper that persons be only depicted in the prime of life. For example, a memorial figure of an ancestor who died in old age must be shown as a young and vigorous person; to do otherwise would be insulting and also possibly dangerous.

The idea of the interrelatedness of forms is expressed through images that carry double, or even triple meanings. This idea reflect the religious idea that spiritual forces inhabit all of nature, all of which is interconnected. For example, a carved headdress from the Ibo people of Nigeria can be seen as a human torso, a bird, or a ram. These visual “puns” carry spiritual as well as humorous meanings.

Some African people do not designate aesthetic qualities at all. Since sculptures are consecrated and holy, all are considered equally beautiful, and it is therefore sacrilegious to pass judgement on the relative merits of particular items. (Ref)

Australian Aboriginal art

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Australian Indigenous art is the oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world. Initial forms of artistic Aboriginal expression were rock carvings, body painting and ground designs, which date back more than 30,000 years. Present day Aboriginals are descended from several groups that came to Australia via Asia when the land bridge still existed.

Art has always been an important part of Aboriginal life, connecting past and present, the people and the land, and the supernatural and reality. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpture, ceremonial clothing and sandpainting.

 Aborigines of all tribes painted and engraved on caves, rock, bark, sand, didgeridoos,  boomerangs and their huts, opossum fur coats & their bodies. Most art was meaningful.   Art was used in place of a written language to instruct in tribal law, religion and history. Each area of Australia has its traditional style of Art and Painting. Dot art is the traditional form of painting around a relatively small area of the Northern Territory and the eastern part of Western Australia. X-ray Art mainly comes from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. (Ref)

Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia


Often, aboriginal designs illustrate the “Dreamings” that underpin Aboriginal spiritual and cultural life. The human and other natural and animal images of Aboriginal art are representative of stories and/or dreams handed down from generation to generation. In Aboriginal art animal images, earth colours, and  drawing in patterns of dots, lines, and shapes are characteristic.(Ref)


Aboriginal symbols are an essential part of a long artistic tradition in Australian Aboriginal Art and remain the visual form to retain and record significant information. Aboriginal people used symbols to indicate a sacred site, the location of a waterhole and the means to get there, a place where animals inhabit and as a way to illustrate Dreamtime stories. Since Aboriginal people traveled vast distances across their country, significant information was recorded using symbols in regular ceremony. Sand painting and awelye (body painting) ceremonies kept the symbols alive and remembered. Later, these symbols were transformed into a more permanent form using acrylic on canvas but the meanings behind the symbols remains the same. Generally the symbols used by Aboriginal Artists are a variation of lines, circles or dots. Similar symbols can have multiple meanings and the elaborate combination of these can tell complex Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories. (Ref)

Aboriginal symbols

Denis Nelson Jupurrula, Kangaroo, Rain, Flying Ant, Possum Dreaming

This painting by Denis Nelson Jupurrula is a good example of an Aboriginal painting rich in Aboriginal symbols. This painting is titled Kangaroo, Rain, Flying Ant, Possum Dreaming. The bottom left of the painting shows the kangaroo tracks around a campfire (white circle). The smoke (white line) rises from the fire into the sky creating rain clouds (purple sky with symbols for rain). In the centre of the painting is the flying ant which migrates to form a new colony when the rains come. The possum tracks are shown on the left side of the painting in the yellow section. The U shape reflects the mark left behind by a person. Groups of U shapes would indicate a meeting place for aboriginal people sitting around a campsite.

Patterns of dots are used to represent many Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories – including stars or native berries. Aboriginal artists often use the technique of over-dotting to obscure meaning and to mask certain symbolism. (Ref)

Buddhist Art and Artifacts

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara.

Buddhist art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama, 6th to 5th century BC, and thereafter evolved by contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world. (Ref)

Aims of Buddhist Arts

Traditional Buddhist arts are intended to be reminders and inspiration pointing the individual towards the Buddhist principles, with no interest in personal fame or originality for its own sake, as this would be counter to Buddhist practice. Traditional Buddhist art forms were made to complement and enhance traditional practices found in temples, monasteries, centres, hermitages, the home and places of retreat.

These art forms can include wall and scroll paintings, sculpture, carvings, textiles, hand crafted ritual implements, illustrated sacred texts and poetry.


Early Buddhism did not portray the Buddha himself and may have been aniconic. The Buddha was only represented through symbols such as an empty throne, Bodhi tree, a riderless horse, Buddha’s footprints, and the dharma wheel. This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body (Ref)

An aniconic representation of Mara’s assault on the Buddha, with an empty throne, 2nd century, Amaravati, India

Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist art frequently makes use of a particular set of eight auspicious symbols, in household and public art. These symbols have spread with Buddhism to many cultures’ arts, including Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Chinese art. (Ref)

These symbols are:

The boy Buddha rising up from lotus. Crimson and gilded wood, Trần-Hồ dynasty, Vietnam, 14th-15th century

1.Lotus flower. Representing purity and enlightenment.

2. Endless knot, or, the Mandala. Representing eternal harmony.

3.The golden fishes symbolises the auspiciousness of all living beings in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously, just as fish swim freely without fear through water.

4. The golden wheel symbolises the auspiciousness of the turning of the wheel of Buddha’s doctrine, both in its teachings and realizations, in all realms and at all times, enabling beings to experience the joy of wholesome deeds and liberation.

5. The treasure vase symbolises an endless rain of long life, wealth and prosperity and all the benefits of this world and liberation.

6. The umbrella or parasol representing detachment from illusion, representing the crown, and protection from the elements.

7. The conch as a symbol which fearlessly proclaimed the truth of the dharma. It stands for the fame of the Buddha’s teaching, which spreads in all directions like the sound of the conch trumpet.

8. Victory Banner. Representing a victorious battle.

In later periods both the major schools of Buddhism have made great use of representational art, though Theravada temples and other sites typically concentrate on a single large sculpture of the Buddha, whereas Mahayana temples have larger numbers of images of a greater variety of figures with varying degrees of spiritual significance. However some schools, such as Zen Buddhism in Japan, have also shown a general tendency towards aniconism, though without specific prohibition of figurative images.

A statue of the Buddha from Sarnath, 4th century CE

Mexican religious art

Mexican Ex-Votos

Small tin paintings known as retablos (literally, “behind the altar”) were often displayed in the homes of devout Catholics in Mexico to honor patron saints. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the increased availability of colour lithographs and other inexpensive reproductions contributed to the decline of this tradition, but one form of retablo, the ex-voto, continues to be produced today by artists in a variety of media.

Ex-votos (from the Latin, meaning “according to a vow”) are offered to give thanks for an answered prayer. This testimonial, while a personal expression of gratitude, contributes to a public affirmation of belief since votive paintings are displayed in churches. There they testify to the efficacy of ritual as well as to the power of faith and the particular church or shrine. A dedication or description of the pictured event is typically written below the painting. (Ref)

From Chucuito, Puno, Peru, Triptych with Virgin of Purification and various Saints. Early XIX century

This art form is found throughout Latin America, though Mexico particularly is known for its use of tin as the painting surface. The Peruvian retablos is normally in the form of three-dimensional wooden boxes, populated by a variegated world of gypsum figures. typically with peaked roofs.

Peruvian Retablo

Origins of the traditions

The tradition of offering a votive object to a god or a holy personage in thanks or petition dates back, in Europe, at least to the ancient Greeks. The Spanish brought the tradition to the Americas. Similar practices have been common in other parts of the world as well.

Retablos with their images of saints served the church’s desire to spread Christianity. Ex-voto paintings are said to have developed out of the need to express problems and concerns of the villagers or townspeople.

Ex-voto, 1894, oil on tin, Inscription; Luz Orosco became gravely ill with typhoid. She invoked the Most Holy Mother of Light and and became healthy, and in proof of gratitude offers this (ex-voto).


Retablos emphasized certain attributes of the saints and were typically copies of other saint images. The imagery of ex-votos, however, was created in response to the expressed desires of the person ordering the painting; style and subject varied greatly.

Ex-voto, 1890, oil on tin, Inscription; On the 31st day of March,1890, finding herself at the doors of the grave, Doña Jesus Coronel for reason of giving birth to a child and not finding any remedy, her husband Juan Pineda, with a true heart, prayed to the Most Holy Virgen Virgin of Sorrows that is venerated in the Santuario de Paila, and (thus) healed and in an act of thanks dedicates this retablo.

The bold use of colours in crafts and other constructions extends back to pre-Hispanic times. These were joined by other colours introduced by European and Asian contact, always in bold tones. Design motifs vary from purely indigenous to mostly European with other elements thrown in. Geometric designs connected to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past are prevalent, and items made by the country’s remaining purely indigenous communities. Motifs from nature are popular, possibly more so than geometric patterns in both pre-Hispanic and European designs.(Ref)

Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado offers this monument of her gratitude to the Most Holy Christ of Encino, venerated in the Church of Triana, and to the Most Holy Virgin Mary of El Pueblo, in perpetual memory of the benefit, due to her piety, that resulted from an operation that took place on 25th of April 1777, when the surgeon Don Pedro Maillé removed six cancerous tumors from her breast, in the presence of the gentlemen and ladies depicted on this canvas. Although the wound closed perfectly on the 25th of July 1777, other accidents befell her from which she died on Friday, the 5th of September, at 3 p.m., with clear signs of the patronage of the Holy Image and of her salvation.

Virgin of Guagalupe

Symbolism and mysticism may seem part of an earlier time, but in Mexico City, notions of magic and spirituality are very prominent pieces of a contemporary lifestyle.  Since 1531 the Virgin of Guagalupe has become the most powerful symbol for Mexicans, and her image is seen throughout the Americas as a figure of hope, peace, and salvation.

Lady of Guadalupe

The Virgin of Guadalupe was absolutely fundamental in the creation of modern Mexico – a uniting force in a tumultuous time of European conquest.  The European Catholic image of the Virgin Mary assumes characteristics of the indigenous religion to create a unique mix of two traditions, like the culture of modern Mexico. La Virgen appeared to a young indigenous man on Tepeyac Hill in 1531 and now, each year, thousands of pilgrims embark on a pilgrimage to honour the woman referred to as the Queen of Mexico.  Pilgrims come from all walks of life and each has their own interpretation on the meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Some pilgrims ascend the hill on their knees to show extreme devotion and penitence, others travel as families. (Ref)

Mexican Ex-votive


Aboriginal Art Treasures

Aboriginal Art Online

Aboriginal Art Store


African Spirituality

D. Alexander, Buddhism and the Arts

David E. Anderson, Anecdotes of the Spirit

All About African Art

Brooklyn Museum of Art

Johan Cilliers, Formations and Movements of Christial Spirituality in Urban African Contexts

Fowler Museum at UCLA

Hebrew Streams, Ruach Studies

How to Look at African Art

Charlotte Jirousek, African Art

Mariolina Salvatori, University of Pittsburgh

South African History – Traditional Beliefs


This a useful chart for alternative descriptive words when you are writing an analysis of an artwork. 

Other ways to say

The visual arts teach important “habits of mind” that can’t be learned in traditionally “core” academic areas. These habits are invaluable to not only in education, but also forms an essential basis for the next generation of careers.

From Texas Art Teacher

Art and 21st Centuary Skills

From Art Inspired


analyzing Art - step by step

From Art Mash

Click here for more in depth guide

Nontsikelelo Veleko was born in 1977 in Bodibe, South Africa, and lives and works in Johannesburg. She was brought up in Cape Town and studied photography between 1999 and 2003 at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown precinct in Johannesburg, an initiative co-founded by veteran photographer David Goldblatt.

Nontsikelelo Veleko

In the last couple of years Veleko has been attracting a great deal of attention with her striking work entitled Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder, a depiction of South African street style. Defying the clichés of what life can be like in South Africa, Veleko captures young people dressed in unique outfits, often with handmade elements.

Nontsikelelo Veleko

Focusing on issues of the identity, she examines how people present themselves to the outside world and thus construct their identities. Through the use of fashion and clothing Veleko questions perceived notions of beauty. She focuses her lens on those around her, but at times she also turns the lens towards herself, posing both in guises of various identities and representing herself in self-portraiture.

Nontsikelelo Veleko

She focuses on the fashion they experiment with and how they use art forms such as graffiti for expression. Lolo says about her Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder series of photographs, “I named my project Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder because other people, when they saw those people dressed up like that, would ask: ‘How can you dress up in yellow pants and a lime green jersey with stripes?’ And I thought the way I see beauty and the way I perceive beauty might be different to someone else next to me … So the project is called Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, because for me they are beautiful. I was excited [by them] I didn’t care what anyone else was saying … It was all about drawing attention around issues of beauty. And it was also about street fashion … But I don’t think that they’re just performing themselves; I’ve lived it. I used to be one of those people…” (Ref)

Nontsikelelo Veleko

By demonstrating various labels she highlights how the culture is shaped by these products. She also uses herself, her identity and her success to understand herself and where she fits into this group.

Nontsikelelo Veleko

Nontsikelelo Veleko was a nominee and finalist of the MTN New
Contemporary Artists in 2003 and has since participated in prominent
local and international exhibitions. In 2006 her photographs were ex

Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko

Further Reading;

Nontsikelelo Veleko’s Wonderland Essay, By Nadia Arnold

Standard Bank Arts