Appreciating Africa’s visual heritage


What is “African Art”?  For the purposes of this article, we define African Art as art produced within the geographical expression of the African continent, and art produced by people who self-identify as Africans. The definition may also include the art of the African Diasporas, such as the art of African Americans.

Origins of African Art

The origins of African art lie long before recorded history. African rock art in the Sahara in Niger preserves 6 000-year-old carvings. Along with Sub-Saharan Africa, the cultural arts of the western tribes, ancient Egyptian paintings and artifacts, and indigenous southern crafts also contributed greatly to African art.

Often depicting the abundance of surrounding nature, the art was often abstract interpretations of animals, plant life, or natural designs and shapes.  In West Africa, the earliest known sculptures are from the Nok culture, which thrived between 500BC and 500AD in modern Nigeria, with clay figures typically with elongated bodies and angular shapes.

More complex methods of producing art were developed in Sub-Saharan Africa around the 10th century, some of the most notable advancements include the bronzework of Igbo Ukwu and the terracottas and metalworks of Ile Ife Bronze and brass castings, often ornamented with ivory and precious stones, became highly prestigious in much of West Africa, sometimes being limited to the work of court artisans and identified with royalty, as with the Benin Bronzes.

The Nok culture appeared in Nigeria around 1000BC and vanished under unknown circumstances around 500AD in the region of West Africa. This region lies in Northern and Central Nigeria. Its social system is thought to have been highly advanced. The Nok culture was considered to be the earliest Sub-Saharan producer of life-sized Terracotta.

Masks, Sculpture, Carving

Traditional art describes the most popular and studied forms of antique African art which are typically found in museum collections. Most African sculpture was historically in wood and other organic materials that have not survived from earlier than, at most, a few centuries ago; older pottery figures can be found from a number of areas. Statues were usually of wood or ivory, are often inlaid with cowrie shells, metal studs and nails.

Decorative clothing is also commonplace and comprises another large part of classical African art.  Masks are important elements in the art of many peoples, along with human figures, often highly stylised.

There is a vast variety of styles, often varying within the same context of origin depending on the use of the object, but wide regional trends are apparent; sculpture is most common among “groups of settled cultivators in the areas drained by the Niger and Congo rivers” in West Africa. Direct images of deities are relatively infrequent, but masks in particular are or were often made for religious ceremonies; today many are made for tourists as “airport art”.

African masks were an influence on European Modernist art, which was inspired by their lack of concern for naturalistic depiction. Later West African cultures developed bronze casting for reliefs, like the famous Benin Bronzes, to decorate palaces and for very fine naturalistic royal heads from around the Yoruba town of Ife, in terracotta as well as metal, from the 12th–14th centuries.

Many West African figures are used in religious rituals and are often coated with materials placed on them for ceremonial offerings. The Mande-speaking peoples of the same region make pieces from wood with broad, flat surfaces and arms and legs shaped like cylinders.

In Central Africa, however, the main distinguishing characteristics include heart-shaped faces that are curved inward and display patterns of circles and dots.

Wooden masks, which might either be human or animal or of mythical creatures, are one of the most commonly found forms of art in western Africa.

In their original contexts, ceremonial masks are used for celebrations, initiations, crop harvesting, and war preparation. The masks are worn by a chosen or initiated dancer. During the mask ceremony the dancer goes into deep trance, and during this state of mind he “communicates” with his ancestors. African masks often represent a spirit and it is strongly believed that the spirit of the ancestors possesses the wearer

Classical African Art

The human figure has always been the primary subject matter for most African art, and this emphasis even influenced certain European traditions. The human figure may symbolise the living or the dead, may reference chiefs, dancers, or various trades such as drummers or hunters, or even may be an anthropomorphic representation of a god or have other votive function.

Another common theme is the inter-morphosis of human and animal. African artworks tend to favour visual abstraction over naturalistic representation. This is because many African artworks generalise stylistic norms. 

African artists also tend to favour three-dimensional artworks over two-dimensional works. Even many African paintings or cloth works were meant to be experienced three-dimensionally.

Distinct from the static form of traditional Western sculpture African art displays animation, a readiness to move. Most societies in Africa have names for their masks, but this single name incorporates not only the sculpture, but also the meanings of the mask, the dance associated with it, and the spirits that reside within.

In African thought, the three cannot be differentiated. Often a small part of an African design will look similar to a larger part. More recently it has been described in terms of fractal geometry.

African Influence on Western Art 

Colonisation and the slave trade in Africa during the 19th century set up a Western understanding hinged on the belief that African art lacked technical ability due to its low socioeconomic status.

At the start of the 20th century, artists like Picasso, Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Modigliani became aware of, and inspired by, African art. This period was critical to the evolution of Western modernism in visual arts, symbolised by Picasso’s breakthrough painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. – Excerpted from The Guardian Nigeria



In a situation where the established avant garde was straining against the constraints imposed by serving the world of appearances, African Art demonstrated the power of supremely well organised forms; produced not only by responding to the faculty of sight, but also and often primarily, the faculty of imagination, emotion and mystical and religious experience. 


These artists saw in African Art a formal perfection and sophistication unified with phenomenal expressive power.


The study of and response to African Art, by artists at the beginning of the twentieth century facilitated an explosion of interest in the abstraction, organisation and reorganisation of forms, and the exploration of emotional and psychological areas hitherto unseen in Western Art.


By these means, the status of visual art was changed. Art ceased to be merely and primarily aesthetic, but became also a true medium for philosophic and intellectual discourse, and hence more truly and profoundly aesthetic than ever before.


Ironically, today much African contemporary art is now seen by Westerners as an imitation of European and American cubist and totemic artists, such as Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse, who, in the early 20th century, were heavily influenced by traditional African art.




Contemporary African Art


Africa is home to a thriving contemporary art fine art culture with Art Bienniales held in Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg.


This has been sadly understudied until recently, due to scholars’ and art collectors’ emphasis on traditional art.


Notable modern artists include El Anatsui, William Kentridge, Yinka Shonibare, Zerihun Yetmgeta, Nnena Okore, Odhiambo Siangla, Olu Oguibe, Olu Amoda.


Overseas, exhibitions at the Museum for African Art in New York, October Gallery, Air Gallery, and Tate in London have gone a long way to countering many of the myths and prejudices that haunt Contemporary African Art and showcasing Africa as at the fore of art: both contemporary and classical. 


Excerpted from The Guardian Nigeria


October 2013
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