In religious traditions the world over, writing and graphic inscription are endowed with sacred attributes, for they are considered both the embodiment of the divine and a powerful means for conveying religious teachings. The capacity of writing to bring about change in people's lives lends itself to contexts of divination, healing and other forms of spiritual mediation, in addition to prayer, devotion and states of heightened awareness.
Inscribed works of art communicate meaning through the visual language of objects as well as the mystical powers and attributes of words, letters, graphic symbols and the very act of writing. Three inscription systems--Egyptian hieroglyphics, the liturgical language of Ge'ez in Ethiopia, and Arabic, used in much of Africa--are selected here to illustrate the long history of African written traditions and the close association of art with sacred scripts.
Both historically and today, specialized forms of writing and graphic inscription in Africa are usually the domain of highly trained (and often religious) practitioners, from scribes and poets to priests, monks and healers. Those who master writing and the ability to employ it for particular purposes possess a specific literacy that enables them to serve as spiritual mediators between ordinary people and the specialized knowledge and powers encoded in scripts.
Shawabty of King Taharqa
Napatan Period, 690-664 B.C.
H x W x D: 34.2 x 12.7 x 8.8 cm. (13 3/8 x 5 x 3 3/8 in.)
Loan, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MFA 21.2959
This royal shawabti wears a headdress with a cobra and a long false beard. Each hand holds a hoe and a cord, both implements of field work. The figure is dedicated to King Taharqa, one of the three Kushite rulers who gained control of Egypt, assumed the title of pharaoh and ruled a united kingdom during the 25th Dynasty.
Nine horizontal lines of incised hieroglyphic text record a version of the shawabti spell for the pharaoh as it invokes Osiris, lord of the afterlife. A partial translation reads:
O, these shabtie [shawabti],
If one counts off, if one calls, if one reckons Tarhaka justified
At his duty
Now indeed, an obstacle is implanted therewith
As a man at his duty
"Here I am," you shall say ....
Talismanic Qur'an Board
Omdurman City, Sudan
Wood, cord, colored ink
H: 81 cm (31 57/64 in.)
Loan: Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn 22.231
The word Qur'an means "recitation," thus emphasizing memorization followed by narration as critical components to Muslim devotion. In communities throughout much of Africa, children attend Qur'anic schools for specialized training in reading and writing Arabic and for memorizing the holy book of Islam. Inscription of verses on wooden tablets provides visual cues for this process. Memorized verses are erased with water, and new ones are written in their place, superimposing layers of verses. As these traces accrue, so does the potency of the board's active and available blessing.
Mid 20th century
Paper, colored inks
H x W x D: 46 x 14 x 1.1 cm (18 1/8 x 5 1/2 x 7/16 in.)
Gift of Simon Ottenberg
2003-13-5 [squares, dark tan background]
Often the square drawn on a paper amulet is composed of nine "houses" or "palaces" of God. Such a square of nine has ancient mathematical significance, for it can be inscribed with the digits one through nine in such a way that if three numbers are added horizontally, vertically or diagonally, the sum is always fifteen. Since the middle "house" is surrounded by eight others, the client's name is frequently written in the central square, where it is protected and promoted by the evocations and prayers inscribed in the others.
The Man, His Wife and Son in the Mirror
Victor Ekpuk, b. 1964, Nigeria
Acrylic on wood board
H x W: 123 x 58 cm. (48 27/64 x 22 53/64 in.)
Loan of the artist
In his Manuscript series, Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk employed new Qur'anic tablets or, as in this case, large sculptural representations of them. He inscribes the boards with the ideographic system nsibidi along with his own invented script. This combination of forms and shapes emphasizes the power of Arabic and nsibidi as well as the artist's prerogative to use a constellation of signs of his own creation. The nsibidi sign broadcast on this oversized board is that of love and union between two people.
Dimensions: H x W: 182.9 x 8.9 cm. (72 x 3.5 in.)
Private Collection (Robert and Nancy Nooter)
Healing scrolls, rolled and worn on the body or hung beside a patient's bed, meld liturgical traditions and astrology with the mystical powers embedded within letters and numbers. Writing on healing scrolls is based on the ancient Ethiopian Ge'ez script, often in combination with "pseudo-letters" from modified Greek forms.
The parchment used in healing scrolls is made from the skin of a sheep that has been sacrificed for the benefit of the patient. The scroll matches the patient's height and mirrors the patient who is protected from head to toe. It presents prayers against demons or possessing spirits, lines from Gospels, entreaties to the saints for protection and recitations of the many names of God. Texts alternate with visual images, such as angels, demonic faces with large staring eyes, a grid with a central face and the net of Solomon, with which the biblical king caught demons.
Scrolls may be made to order or produced in advance. Areas are purposefully left blank so the patient's name and condition as well as special prayers may be added, often in red ink, after the scroll is purchased.
Judas Iscariot Betrayed our Lord Jesus for R3.00
John Muafangejo, b. 1943, Namibia
Linocut on paper
H x W: 33.65 x 43.81 cm. (13.25 x 17.25 in.)
Loan from Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYC
The visual potency of John Muafangejo's linocuts relies on his effective combination of word and image. These strong black-and-white compositions blend historical, political and religious content that is reinforced through texts written in English, the dominant colonial language of southern Africa. His works adopt both a local and a global perspective, engaging life under apartheid with biblical literature and images to demonstrate the powerful role that liberation theology could play in the struggle for Namibian independence. Muafangejo died before Namibia achieved independence from South Africa in 1990.