African art is a summary international term for the
traditional visual arts created and created by Africans in
The oldest remains are rock paintings. Some of the most
famous are on the Tassili Plateau in southern Algeria. They
clearly show that many religious practices from the
prehistoric culture of the Sahara (ca. 6,000–2,000 BC), e.g.
fertility, burial and initiation rites, survived Sub-Saharan
Africa into our time.
The monumental stone architecture is rare in sub-Saharan
Africa; one exception is Greater Zimbabwe. The most
important areas from the point of view of art history are in
West Africa, especially in Nigeria, within whose boundaries
all the features of traditional African art are richly
represented. The circular sculpture has been the dominant
art form. The oldest sculptures found are made of terracotta
and come from the village of Nok (about 500 BC – 200 AD).
Stylistic details show that these sculptures have their
characteristic shape from wood models.
Realistic portrayals of humanity are as absent as in the
royal portraits and figures from the city of Ife (ca.
1100–1400 AD). These are either made in terracotta or cast
in cire perdue in copper or bronze. The art of casting in
cire perdue spread from Ife to the nearby town of Benin (c.
1400–1897). There were stylized animals, royal ancestral
portraits and rectangular bronze reliefs depicting important
historical, religious and social events. The most
distinctive features of the later African wood carving art
are already in the sculptures from Benin.
Traditional art from about 1850
African plastic is usually incorporated under the
designation of primitive art. It consists mainly of
religious or social symbols, often influenced by animism.
The religious conceptions are changing. The art-producing
areas are within the agricultural belt that extends across
the continent from the savannah of present-day Mali to
Tanzania. Within this vast area, a large number of ethnic
groups live, each with its distinctive tribal style. The
style of the styles has evolved from a strict convention,
which allows few deviations from the traditional norms. The
visual arts have their own iconography, which is mainly
linked to ancestral cult and fertility. In order for the
objects to work with religious prestige, secret societies
were founded, which included had the task of preserving
their own tribal style.
The lack of written language means that it is seldom
possible to associate traditional works of art with named
persons. Their hallmark is found in the personal
interpretation of the characteristics of the tribal style.
Large variations exist between and within the ethnic groups.
The social role and status of the artist varies from group
to group. Usually, the artist is professional, and the
profession can be inherited. In many cases, however, the
artwork is made by blacksmiths, priests, medicine men, royal
family members or ordinary group members. Talented artists
are treated with great respect, as they possess the unique,
magical ability to give concrete form to collective
spiritual values. Sculpture is made by men, ceramics by
women and textiles by both women and men.
Materials and technology
The wood sculpture is the dominant art form. The
production takes place in different stages with simple
tools. The basic shape is carved with a cross ax and then
processed in detail with knives and chisels. Simple earth
colors in ocher, white, red and black are used in
decoration, but usually the sculptures are black or brown
painted. Polishing with wax and oils gives a soft, dark
patination, which should mimic black skin. Sometimes
realistic effects are achieved by covering the entire
sculpture with thin animal skin.
The art is figurative and often depicts imaginary spirit
beings in human or animal form. In order for the objects to
become active in the cult, they are often inaugurated during
special ceremonies, before they are put into use. The uses
determine the shape and size of the objects, which can be
divided into four main groups: ancestral figures, fetishes,
masks and utensils.
The ancestral figures are stylized symbols of the
spiritual power represented by the ancestors. Their primary
task is to keep history and the influence of ancestors
alive. Such figures can be called idols. God images also
Fetishes are useful figures in human or animal form that
are considered to have supernatural powers. Often, the
fetishes are made especially effective by being "loaded"
with magical materials, which are baked into recesses in the
sculpture or placed in hanging bags, horns or shells. Nails,
mirrors, feathers and sacrificial blood mixed with mud are
other common magic attributes.
Wherever the belief in spirits affects man, masks are
present. The masks can be human-like, animal-like or a
combination of both types. Their form and expression vary
from burlesque grotesque fantasy creations to extremely
soulful women's faces. The masks act as a link between man
and the spirit. These magical tools are historically or
ritually strongly related to dance, song and music. The mask
is usually part of a costume that covers the entire dancer.
The shape of the mask is carefully determined and can only
be interpreted with actual knowledge.
The most common motifs in sculpture art also appear as
embellishments on a variety of objects. Such items are
designed with great skill and elegance, especially when
designed for royal or chieftain families.
Characteristic style traits
The round shape of the tree trunk forms the basic
geometric element that allows African figures to be depicted
straight from the front. Movement is highlighted in the form
of bent arms and legs. The objects are symmetrically
constructed and balanced closed in shape. The proportions
and details mark inherited ethnic messages, where certain
elements are deliberately eliminated, exaggerated,
simplified or distorted to clarify the intention and
expression that the sculpture should convey in a given
ritual context. The result is an advanced stylization and a
pure abstraction that is unique in world art. When African
art objects first came to Europe, they were regarded as
ethnographic and without artistic values. But when their
richness and expressiveness were discovered by European
artists in the early 1900s,Primitivism gave decisive
impulses to cubism, expressionism and surrealism.
Modern art streams
Colonialism, foreign religions (Islam and Christianity),
the liberation war, independence, internal conflicts,
neo-colonialism and urbanization have radically changed the
traditional African tribal culture. Artists' image creation
has usually been adapted to the new situation. In the
fast-growing metropolitan areas, an European art market has
emerged. Western techniques such as oil painting and
graphics have therefore become increasingly common. Since
1945, several major artists have studied in Europe. Some of
them have fully or partially joined modern international
conventions, while others, often following the initiative of
Europeans, eg. Pierre Lods and Ulli Beier, seen as their
primary task of keeping myths and old fairy tales alive.
Traditional art has, among other things, served as an
important source of inspiration for a distinctive
expressionist painting with rich symbolic elements. Even
Senghor's concept of négritude has had a certain
significance for this type of art. A modern form of
traditional sculpture is called airport art. Artists have
also participated in political and commercial contexts.
Monumental embellishments in so-called style africain,
a style inspired by primitivism and social realism, often
occur on public buildings. The shops' need for signs has
given rise to a popular, naive poster art called
signwriter art. The black African states are young
nations with major ethnic problems. When traditional art
disappears, it tries to replace it with a modern imagery,
which is to be a nation-wide art.
Among the modern artists are: Sheik Makhone Diop in
Senegal, Ahmed Shibrain and Ibrahim el Salahi in Sudan,
Christian Lattier in Ivory Coast, Ben Enwonwu and Twins
Seven-Seven in Nigeria, Iskinder Boghossian and Afewerk
Tekle in Ethiopia, Tingatinga in Tanzania, Baby Joachim
Daman-M'Bemba in Congo. Check
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