Lecture Series Highlights Depiction of Africans in Art Throughout History

By Rebecca Johnson, Howard University News Service

Washington, D.C.– The “Art As Activism” lecture series, in the School of Fine Arts at Howard University, was given by Dr. Lisa E. Farrington. The series, which was called, “The World Before Racism: Africans in European Art.,” was the first lecture in the four-part series. This lecture highlighted how art has played a major role in manufacturing racism.

Early art created by the Greeks showed that Africans were welcomed, and even celebrate by ancient Europeans. Sculptors and painters alike were “enchanted” by their features.

Africans were lauded as heroes among ancient Christian Europeans. Such as the legend of King Prester John. Prester John, or John The Priest, was first noted in history around the mid-1100s and was portrayed in history and art up until the 1700s.

Although he was only a legend, John the Priest was portrayed by ancient Europeans as dignified African Royalty — a stark contrast to more contemporary portrayals of Africans. In the late 1800s, African leaders were portrayed as animalistic caricatures. In addition, there was a surge of science-supported savage-like portrayals of Africans, in conjunction with European art depictions.

During this time, Africa was seen to be a vast continent with no history and a land of “savages,” European explorers used the continent to project their carnal fantasies on many different African communities. Since there was little attempt to research and understand the continent’s rich history and thoughtfully engage with Africans, it was easy for explorers and artist to embellish their narratives of their travels and experiences.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s description of his travels through Africa highlighted the Congo has a vast land full of hungry, mindless people and that there was little civilization. In fact, his time in Africa was quite the opposite. He lodged at a hotel and was equipped with plenty of food and resources during his stay.