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African art is a summary international term for the traditional visual arts created and created by Africans in sub-Saharan Africa.
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 appear.
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 Abbreviationfinder for all countries in Africa and all abbreviations about Africa.