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  • Writer's picturePaul G. Chandler

ArtSpeaks: Africa #4 – Dakar & Saint-Louis, Senegal: “The Embrace of Mother Africa”

Updated: Jun 9

While preparing to travel to Senegal, a friend of mine, who is Nigerian, albeit based in Qatar, wrote me; “My best wishes as you reconnect with Mother Africa. It will be a grounding and rewarding experience.” The words Mother Africa, grounding and rewarding couldn’t have resonated more with my experience of Senegal these last couple weeks.

Spending time in Africa is perhaps one of the most natural ways for me to touch base with the core of my being. In a very real sense, it is a return to my origins, yet in a broader sense, to all of our origins. Revisiting the land of my upbringing has been a powerfully grounding experience, nurturing a sacred connection between my past, present, and future. Reconnecting with our origins can bring about a profound sense of “groundedness” to our lives.

Mother Africa. In a scientific sense, the continent is truly our “mother.” Paleoanthropologists and geneticists have found evidence pointing to Africa as the origin of our species. The oldest fossils that belong to modern humans, dating back as far as 300,000 years, have been unearthed here. Africa is where the oldest stone tools used by our ancestors have been discovered. Human DNA also points to Africa as our place of origin. Recent scholarship and research have concluded that as far back as a million years ago, the ancestors of our species existed in two distinct populations in Africa. If Africa is our mother genetically, I would go so far as to suggest it is our mother artistically and spiritually as well. We all have a tremendous amount to learn from our African sisters and brothers.

This is powerfully illustrated through the lens of African traditional art. While I am here primarily to experience contemporary African art, it has been most inspiring to encounter afresh African traditional art. Africa has a vibrant history of traditional art, dating back thousands of years, rooted in the cultural traditions of tribes across the continent.

Speaking of “origins,” it is fascinating to see how much Africa’s distinct indigenous artistic expressions have influenced modern and contemporary art around the world. African traditional art has been a source of inspiration for many artists globally, leaving a remarkable legacy on today’s contemporary art and a major impact on modern art movements, such as cubism and expressionism. Early 20th century artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp were profoundly inspired by African masks and sculptures, and incorporated elements of them into their own work, thereby influencing generations of contemporary artists, such as the late American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I have found African traditional art a spiritually grounding experience – as the simplified human forms can lead an individual back to the core of life. Picasso saw in African figuration a religious depth that both startled and spiritually moved him. I recall the artist Henri Matisse’s experience: “I was confronted with an art that spoke directly to my soul. It was like a thunderbolt.”

It has been deeply rewarding to enter into the world of African traditional art, from the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, to galleries and shops around Saint-Louis, the former capital of French West Africa. Being immersed in their traditional art, I have been inspired through an interconnectedness of the sacred, the natural world, and one another, as the art reminds us that everything on the earth lives in relationship. This unique art expresses a spiritual dimension that reminds us of the very essence of our existence. It also embodies a spiritual worldview that the ultimate beauty is none other than a “sacred harmony” existing between all peoples and with the earth. Traditional artwork inherently embodies culture, heritage and sacred traditions, and can foster a deepened spiritual wholeness within.

Mother Africa fully embraces whomever opens their arms to welcome her. In those arms of embrace, we can experience a sense of having returned home, echoing the words of the poet T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

-(T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets)

By Paul G. Chandler


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