The Origins of Visual Thinking: Africa

With this article, we are inaugurating a series of pieces that explore the main sources that have shaped visual thinking as we know it today, using geographical areas and countries as a guiding thread. 

We begin with Africa. Recognized as the cradle of humanity, Africa is most likely also the birthplace of the first forms of symbolic expression.

The discovery of the oldest known graphic trace, an abstract drawing on a rock fragment dating back 73,000 years found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa, testifies to the antiquity of visual thinking on this continent.

The Origins of Visual Communication

Canadian paleoanthropologist Geneviève von Petzinger highlights, in her book "The First Signs", the paramount importance of Africa in the emergence of human communication and artistic expression. She puts forward the hypothesis that the foundations of our visual thinking and our ability to communicate through symbols are deeply rooted in our African heritage.

Von Petzinger proposes a fascinating theory on the origins and spread of the first abstract symbols created by humanity. According to her, it was the hunter-gatherers from Africa who played a key role in the propagation of these signs throughout the world.

When these groups migrated to different continents around 40,000 years ago, they would have carried with them a veritable "mental dictionary" of symbols. In adapting to new environments, they would have perpetuated and developed this system of visual communication, leaving an indelible mark on global rock art.

This theory suggests that the cognitive ability to create and use visual symbols to convey abstract concepts emerged in Homo sapiens while our ancestors were still living in Africa. This "basic repertoire" of symbols would have then traveled with human populations during their expansion into Europe and Asia.  

The presence of similar geometric patterns in caves very far apart from each other can thus be explained by the existence of a form of "proto-writing" shared by various populations of modern humans. These signs would be the vestiges of this primordial system of visual communication.

The Influence of Africa on Modern Art


The influence of Africa is also palpable in modern art, particularly in Cubism. Pioneer artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were deeply marked by African art, notably tribal masks and sculptures. These works inspired the Cubists to deconstruct objects into geometric shapes and reorganize these forms on the canvas, thereby revolutionizing perspective in Western art.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the African Heritage

More recently, the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was also profoundly influenced by African art. This influence is visible in his use of symbols, shapes and colors that embody African culture. Basquiat combined these African references with influences from street art and graffiti to create a unique and powerful visual language.

Basquiat's interest in Africa can also be observed through his use of emblematic colors such as red, yellow and green in works like "Flexible" (1984) and "Portrait of Glenn" (1985).

Victor Ekpuk: Reconnecting with the African Sources of Visual Thinking

Victor Ekpuk is a renowned Nigerian artist, known for his work inspired by ancient writing systems and ancestral signs. His work challenges the stereotypes about Africa as a continent without writing, devoid of innovation and remarkable achievements.

His work is characterised by complex, large-scale compositions that fuse African writing, knowledge and aesthetics with his own artistic sensibility, as we can see in the video below.