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Aniconism, anti-iconism, lack of iconicity?

A container for honey, anonymous Vedda artist, Sri Lanka, no date (from ‘Function and Prehistoric Art’ by Robert Ascher Man (61): 73-75)

While putting together a new course on non-Western visual arts I was struck, once again, by how much attention I give to the notion of absence. People around the world express ideas in the most diverse visual idioms, and there does not seem to be one single society in the world that does not have an expressive culture of sorts.

Attention to the human and animal forms varies from culture to culture, and some groups prefer to convey their ideas through what we would normally call abstract, or geometric figures. For those of us who were brought up as heirs of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment the absence of the human figure among them, is striking. Yet while we ask ourselves why some societies don’t seem to appreciate the human figure as we do, we never ask ourselves why it has been and still is so very important to us?

The imperative of reproducing the world we experience through mimetic realism is neither universal nor dictated by some form of the hard-wired human need to see himself in pictures mediated by what the eyes see. Nor it is mandatory to develop techniques that render it visible. The question still remains unanswered. Why do people express their ideas visually in the way they do?

What prompts Pygmy women to adopt complex geometries to interact with their fertility rituals? Why do Vedda representations of tangible objects to us resemble abstract paintings? What urges Native American Indian women from the Great Plains to divide surfaces in neat colourful blocks?

There are no easy answers, but the absence of humans from many visual representations around the world invites me to probe even further: are these instances of aniconism, anti-iconism, or lack of iconicity?


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