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Art and Technology: Precolonial and Contemporary art Practices within Technological Advancement.

picture of Yemisi Shylon museum
Apr 21, 2024

By Charles Udeh

Art has resonated in creative and inquisitive terms, the progressive trajectory of technology in the growth of civilizations over the course of history. From the discovery of fire, which aided the early man to go deep into the dark caves to draw and paint, to the discovery of metal smelting, photography, audio-visual waves as well as the computer and internet. These engagements have so far marked a truth(veritas) that presents art as a logical(cerebral) and expressive consort of technology in its journey and advancement in global civilization. This talk therefore seeks to bring to light the position of this relationship within the African creative and technological scene from the precolonial to the present.

Introduction

The position of art in a society is as imperative as the ideals of that society. Art has over the course of history served as the tangible window through which a society‚Äôs ‚Äúadvancements‚ÄĚ and civilizational growth are viewed as well as holding to core the very tenets that present the society‚Äôs realities. In his philosophy, Hegel presented art as the tier of society that determines its scientific affront and technology. It sounds quite huge, even scandalous for the modern mind to hear. However, a probe into history will express the flow of knowledge that seems from the ends of technology and art in society. The discovery of fire was paramount to man being able to paint in the dark chambers of the caves here therefore technological presence resulted in art advancement. In the same tone, one can argue as seen in prehistoric sites like the Varna civilization in Bulgaria where metallurgy was a technology that spurned from the need to fashion gold ornament as an element of social affluence. The Iron Age saw the rise of agricultural societies, but its most relevant tangible testaments came from artworks that sought to record the people‚Äôs beliefs and culture (Kliner 2018).

In Africa, this situation of ‚Äúconsorting‚ÄĚ between art and technological advancement is not so far either. On its own, technology may appear rustic, gothic, and unappealing should it not be involved with an aesthetic appeal. The civilization of the great Zimbabwe is today hailed not just for being able to create stone masonry, but for being able to express artistic representation of forms beyond forming huge blocks of stones. The writer Ndoro expressed it as ‚Äúmasterful stonework‚ÄĚ which would have not been so masterful without an expressive reality of the art discovered there. In like manner, we can say that the technological advancement of South America and Meso-American pre-Columbian civilization (Kliner 2018) is today appreciated by the artistic rendition of works albeit via technological advancement. These mentioned civilizations among others, have here presented a premises for an argument that art has been the expressive reality of a civilization's technological advancement. This reality is what we seek to confirm (in view of continuity) in the artistic and technological field of art in Africa (a Nigerian example) from the pre-colonial to the present.

Technology and art in pre-colonial cultural Nigerian space.

For a more direct and succinct inquiry into the past of human activities within the area called Nigeria today, the prehistoric findings will not be looked into. The discussion will dwell on the celebrated discovery of civilizations of the Nok, Igbo Ukwu, Ife, and Benin cultures as they relate to technological advancement and art. The Nok culture which dates to as far back as 1500BC (Breunig 2016) for its development age is a beaming light of technological advancement preserved in art, the culture whose ability to self-discover metal smelting rose and declined without much trace. If there is one fact that cannot be argued is that the Nok civilization technology seems to be more obsessed with art creation than anything else. Very few metal blast furnaces have been discovered (Fagg 1969). Few house utensils and objects of everyday life. Rather a massive representation of persons expressing the visual realities of what the people of Nok at the time looked like in terms of fashion and appearance is what dominates the tangible history of Nok. This outright dominance presents to us a people who while discovering a technological process of clay firing, did little (in the face of tangible facts) to produce just an object of utility but rather explored without limit the artistic capability of terracotta firing. Of importance to note are.

  1. The use of hollowed forms to make the work lighter, and less heavy and to avoid cracks.
  2. The use of grog to reinforce the clay body.
  3. The piercing of the nostrils, eyeballs, ears, and sometimes mouth to allow air to move freely in from the hollowed work during firing.
  4. The use of open-air firing at its finest with all-round oxidations.

Igbo-Ukwu civilizations experienced the first group to engage in metallurgy in a novel form with its introduction of metal alloy making and multiple explorations of metalworking techniques. Their use of bee wax was novel and led to the most elaborate and technically advanced artworks of its contemporary within Africa and Europe (Shaw 1970). The Igbo Ukwu just like the Nok, dwelled on using technology to produce works for religious purposes. Here we see the philosophical hierarchy of Hegel playing out as religion influenced the choice of art which in turn influenced the technological advancement of the society. Of importance note are

  1. The introduction of bronze and alloy making
  1. Exploration of the metallurgy technique of welding distinct metals together (ornamental pot)
  1. Use of bee wax to achieve intricate designs (bronze snail shell)
  1. Introduction of the lost wax casting technology to sub-Saharan societies.
  1. Introduction of copper technology.

The Ife civilization brought into the technology and art scene of precolonial Nigeria the use of brass for casting as well as exploring the use of terracotta technology. Building upon the knowledge of preceding civilizations the Ife technology mastered the technical and creative representation of the human forms a standard that shocked the European worlds upon its discovery. It developed a system of glass bead currency independently. The Ife technological breakthrough through artistic representation served as a testament to its growth and existence in history. Of importance to note are

  1. The introduction of brass as an alloy
  1. The use of copper for casting (Obalufon mask)
  1. The mastery of human form representation in a naturalistic manner (Ife Royal heads)

The Benin culture having had its brass tradition taught to them by the people of Ife has expressed extensively the technology of brass casting. They employed the use of brass in making sacred objects of worship as well as war memorials for their victories. Objects of royal use were majorly executed using brass metals. Of importance is their ability to carve ivory tusks as well as give them a high finish and polish for a luster effect. This technological advancement of polishing which emerged as a need for a fine finish in their work marked their craftsmanship as exceptional.

Technology in contemporary art and museum practices

In the contemporary era, art and technology in Nigeria have been moving side by side. The most dominant of these is the use of photography as a technological tool in recording modernity and its realities from the time of colonial occupation to independence. Around Africa, the camera became the window through which people’s realities could be recorded expressed and viewed by other parts of the world (Gore 2015 and Gordon & Jonatan 2018). The introduction of applied art as a field of study in art institutions further elaborated the position art holds in fostering an expressive and creative reality of technology. The absence of fashion designers would make the technology of cloth production vague and austere. In the same manner, the absence of graphic designs would have left the technological breakthrough of the 20th century to appear like a solid unappealing block of stone devoid of any aesthetic that should appeal to the human senses and possibly reason.

In view of these, the creative works of photographers such as Kelechi Amadi-Obi, George Osodi, and T.Y. Bello among others stand out as testaments to this sacred cognitive marriage between art and technology. Amadi-Obi’s work presents divergent ways of expressing oneself using the camera in ways that are beyond lay and conventional approaches (Amadi-Obi 2015). Furthermore, the exploration of the mobile phone camera by some artists and filmmakers further places the position art plays in integrating and presenting a purpose for technological innovations or inventions to become an integral part of man’s everyday life and expression. On its initial development phones were boxes of communication that gave little appeal to the bearer beyond the urgency of speaking with another far away. Hence the need for a more physically appealing appearance, followed by an explorative feature of music playing, and finally the camera compartment. This gradual integration of artistically needed components made the mobile phone a technological tool for the sole aim of self-expression.

In recent times the use of technology and art has brought about an expressive reality that moves beyond the traditional tangibility of art, in an event one can call ‚Äútechno-artistic expressions‚ÄĚ Technological wave bands and amplifiers have helped to generate a new dimension of art which involves the use of sounds, manipulated at specific frequency to produce sound arts and sonic arts. The point is to express the reality of environmental auditory presence which for years many seem not to know existed. Key among its explorative achievements in Nigeria is the sound artist Emeka Ogbu, whose works on city soundscapes of Lagos (Lagos Soundscapes) have helped to transfer a regional sound culture to foreign lands in forms that are invariably different from musical composition (Babatunde 2014). Thus, using technology one can be in Yorkshire England as quiet as the scape may naturally be, and experience the rowdy realities of the Lagos streets. Of notable mention is the photo-kinetic works of Ade Adekola. his works which use color-sensitive light to express the traditional aso-oke cloth in a digital form. The newest arrival into the realm of techno-artistic evolution is the use of token art which is minted into crypto assets as NFTs. This form of art has taken a grand scale involving the production of graphical computer paintings and graphic works as well as the conversion of tangible artworks into mint-able tokens.

While the domain of art projects a truth that has factual backing from history to the present, the place of art institutions towards the use of technology is no different. The Yemisi Shyllon Museum, Pan-Atlantic University Ibeju-Lekki, has in its own way employed the services of technology in fostering the documentation and housing of artworks and artefacts within its collection. The use of the Google culture space as a way of reaching out to many who may not find time for tangible presence to experience the artworks as well as the staging of virtual exhibition spaces that gives the viewer a sense of being in the space albeit in two-dimensional presences. This technological advancement has somewhat presented technology as a space to become expressive and to encounter people away from a point of tangibility thus fulfilling the purpose of its creation.

Conclusion

As history has proven and the contemporary reality has maintained, technology has been, is, and will always be as long as man exists. Yet by its side is art to give the perfect experience to the partakers who need so dearly to express themselves as well as show the level of technicality possible in its present reality. This union is one that has been and will always be. Artists, curators, and other art connoisseurs have but one duty to bring technology to its most expressive form. To give essence to its innovation, to present reality through technological advancement, all these through art.




References

Amadi-Obi, K. (2015). Stories Behind the series. Strip. Rele Gallery, Lagos.

Babatunde O.R. (2014). Nigerian Sound Artist Emeka Ogboh‚Äôs ‚ÄėLagos SoundScapes‚Äô & ‚ÄėThe Ambivalence of 1960‚Äô. Retrieved from www.okayafrica.com on 12th September 2023.

Breunig P. (2016). The Significance of Nok Culture Sculptures in Nigerian Prehistory. Retrieved from www.scientia.com. 10th September, 2023.

Fagg B. (1969). Recent Work in West Africa: New Light on the Nok Culture World Archaeology 1(1):41-50.

Shaw T. (1970). Igbo-Ukwu: An Account of Archaeological Discoveries in Eastern Nigeria, Volume 1. Northwestern University Press

Gordon, R. & Jonatan, K. (2018). Photographs as Sources in African History. Cultural History, Historiography and Methods. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.013.250

Gore, C. (2015). African photography. African Arts. vol. 48, no. 3

W. Ndoro. (2005). Great Zimbabwe. Scientific American Sp 15(1):74-79.