Monday, October 8, 2012

Stanley Trollip on African Beauty

Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip

Our guest post today comes from Stanley Trollip, who, along with Michael Sears, is half of the writing team of Michael Stanley. This weekend Michael Stanley won the Barry award for best paperback novel at Bouchercon for DEATH OF THE MANTIS, latest in the Detective Kubu series, set in Botswana.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Mr. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. Mr. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. They were both born in South Africa.

Over the past couple of years, I have gazed in awe at the beautiful and spectacular buildings that my fellow bloggers have written about on "Murder is Everywhere." I’ve been blown away by pictures of monasteries on hilltops and by soaring churches and their stained glass windows. When I travel I’m always amazed by the beauty of buildings that are thousands of years old – the Roman and Greek temples and amphitheatres, the pyramids and temples of Egypt, Angkor Wat, and so on. And I’ve wondered why there are no equally beautiful indigenous buildings in sub-Saharan Africa.

Certainly most sub-Saharan countries have beautiful buildings, but they are almost always European in design and function, as in some of those that Leighton Gage has shown in Brazil. But the ruins of ancient buildings in sub-Saharan Africa, although fascinating archeologically, are not as attractive as their similarly aged counterparts elsewhere.

Why is that?

Is it because gods or spirits were worshiped through dancing and singing rather than at a church or temple? That there were no archbishops or high priests? Is it because the great leaders of African tribes didn’t arrange for huge memorials to be built in their memory? Is it because power was diffused more into communities than centralized? Is it because day-to-day structures were made from wood and grass and not more enduring stone or brick?

I’ve no idea what the answer is.

So where is beauty to be found in Africa other than in its landscapes, people, and wildlife? It is found in its art, particularly in its three-dimensional art – its figures and its masks, usually carved from wood, but sometimes of stone, and occasionally molded from clay. Two-dimensional art is rare, other than the rock art of the Khoi-San peoples.

Although I admire the great European and Eastern sculptures, I have always had a greater emotional affinity to the art of Africa –despite my upbringing being very Eurocentric. The only European style I have a passion for is Cycladic art, particularly figures and faces.

Cycladic face

Cycladic face

Cycladic female figure

The inherent lack of realism in African masks (and African art in general) is generally attributed to the fact that most African cultures distinguish the essence of a subject from its looks; the former, rather than the latter, being the actual subject of artistic representation. This means that African art depicts what the artist feels about a subject rather than what the subject looks like. Consequently African art is about emotion rather than realism.

I have a decent collection of African masks and figures, some of which are, to Western eyes, very weird, particularly the spirit sculptures of the Makonde people of southern Tanzania or northern Mozambique. Yet they have always talked to me. It’s their message that I get.

Here are some examples of African art. Remember much of it is relatively recent (about 100 years is regarded as old). This is because most carvings are made from wood and are susceptible to rot, borer beetles, and decay. African art older than 100 years is rare.

Nok (Nigeria) - 1500 years old

Nok (Nigeria) - 2000 years old

Ife (Nigeria) terra cotta - 300 years old

Benin leopard pair (bronze) - 300 years old
Bwa (Burkino Fasso)

Baule (Ivory Coast)

Makonde (Tanzania) spirit sculpture

Makonde (Tanzania) spirit sculpture

Benin (Nigeria)
Songye (Democratic Republic of the Congo - Kifwebe mask

Bambara (Mali)  Chiwara

Fang (Cameroon and Guinea) mask

Needless to say, I have collected African masks and figures for many years. Here are a couple of photos of my Minneapolis apartment. Very African.

Stan's Minneapolis Apartment

Stan's Minneapolis Apartment

Stan's Minneapolis Apartment

Stanley Trollip


  1. Thank you for a wonderful expanding of my horizons with this. Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  2. Stan, What a great introduction to a fascinating subject. Abstract Expressionists also say that they are expressing feelings rather than representing the physical object. I have to say that for the most part those pictures don't do a whole lot for me. The African art you show here on the other hand looks like it really is reality passed through a filter of human emotion. Thanks for this post that helps me begin to understand and appreciate and for pitching in on our blog. I hope you will do it again.

  3. Fantastic blog post!!! What a great collection of art and wonderful wealth of knowledge about this subject!!