Africa being a large continent full of a myriad of countries and cultures, its art cannot be defined under just one heading. “African Art” as a term, therefore, usually refers mainly to the art of Sub-Saharan Africa. The artistic trends and periods of the Mediterranean coast of Africa, or the art of the Islamic and Christian nations of Africa, have their own names, traditions, and art movements.
African Art has many characteristics, some of which include creative expressionism over realism, prevalence of images and sculpture of the human figure, larger focus on sculpture rather than painting, abstract themes and representations, melding visual and performance arts (such as in the case of masks), and non-linear scaling.
African Art Origins and Historical Importance:
Ancient African art dates back at least 6000 years to rock art found in the Sahara. The whole of Africa was influenced by art depicting nature, both real and abstract, created by its many cultures from the Egyptians in the North and craft makers in the South over the millennia.
Kush (modern day Sudan), a Nubian kingdom mentioned in Abrahamic derived religious texts, created relief sculpture to decorate palaces, and also pyramids and monuments, much like their enemies, the Egyptians.
“I really like showing what shocks people. I know that people don’t like to tell the truth all the time, but what people don’t like to say is exactly what drives me to paint.” — Chéri Samba
The West African Nok culture (500 BC – 500 AD) of Nigeria created humanistic clay figures with long, angular bodies.
Around the 10th century AD, art became more sophisticated through the work of the Igbo Ukwu and Ile Ife. The Igbo Ukwu produced bronze and terracotta works, while the Ile Ife worked in bronze, brass, ivory, and precious stones. These artworks were status pieces for the influential and were sometimes associated with royalty.
What is called Traditional African Art is what is most commonly recognized by Westerners. Wooden masks feature heavily in Traditional artworks, and originate mostly from Western African countries. These masks are created to represent human, animal, or mythical creatures and are used for ceremonial purposes. West African Traditional Art is often very colorful and uses plant fibers, stones, gems, ivory, animal hair, and pigments in decorating the wooden pieces, including both masks and statues.
Westerners believed that African art was substandard due to lack of education and poverty until the Avant garde artists of the late 19th and 20th centuries took a major interest in it. These artists saw in the art a focus on the imagination rather than a drive for realistic interpretation. The expression of feeling and emotion that emanated from these works, the colors used, and the abstract execution influenced the Impressionists, Cubists, Abstract Expressionists and other art schools of the modern era.
“African art is functional, it serves a purpose. It’s not a dormant. It’s not a means to collect the largest cheering section. It should be healing, a source a joy. Spreading positive vibrations.” – Mos Def
African Art Key Highlights
- The people of Ghana carry on the Traditional movement with brightly colored, personalized funereal caskets based on the desires and personalities of the deceased. The caskets take the form of fish, cars, birds, and other objects that were dear to the departed.
- Contemporary African Art is often ignored because of the focus of collectors on Traditional pieces, and some collectors mistakenly assume that their art is derived from Modern Western artists such as Picasso, when it is quite the opposite.
- In Zambia, creating art is a prized pastime and artists often use any found objects as media. Artist Cynthia Zukas founded the Lechwe Trust there to support artists and provide them with materials and art education.
- Detailed bronze sculptures are fashioned by the Dogon, but are religious and therefore are kept hidden away.
- In Gabon, the Fang people make Bieri, boxes carved with protective figures to hold and protect the remains of their ancestors.
- Some of the oldest examples of painting come from Botswana and were painted over 20,000 years ago. Painted by the San people, they depict scenes of hunting, human figures, and animals.
- African paintings are often very colorful, moving, and intellectually stimulating.
- Many African cultures do indeed create wondrous wooden sculpture, intricate weaving, and colorful textiles, but this is not the whole of African Art. There are, and have been, many painters and sculptors of other media that have been overlooked because of Western assumption that they do not exist.
African Art Top Works
- Henry Tayali – Destiny
- Bambara People – Bamana n’tomo mask
- Bambara People – Chiwara
- Odùduwà Atewonron “Jingbinni bi Ate’kun”
- Ghanese Fantasy Coffins
- Gilbert G. Groud – Childsoldier in the Ivory Coast
- Makonde People – ebony carvings
- Ibrahim El Salahi – The Inevitable
- Willie Bester – Semakazi
- Cheri Samba – Sida
- Twins Seven Seven – Healing of Abiku Children
- Nicholas Nana Yaw Kowalski – Women