The Art of Africa

masks 3       masks 2

African Art embodies all that is mystical, spiritual, emotive and arresting about Africa. It can evoke joy or fear, emotionally exuberant or startled responses… it is fantastical, illuminating, complex… and in its purest form, beautiful beyond measure.

Picasso recognized theinherent quality in African art when he said “these works of a religious, passionate and rigorously logical art are the most powerful and most beautiful things the human imagination has ever produced.”

The aesthetic significance of African art to the world of art today is immense – there is probably no other continent whose study of their arts can shed such an instructive spiritual and intellectual light upon the societal structure of its communities who have inhabited, and presently do inhabit, this amazingly creative, richly rewarding land mass.

Cultural heritage

The art of Africa is a cultural heritage that leads us on both an historical and geographical journey.

The term usually refers to the work of ‘black’ or sub-Saharan Africa, the part of the continent that was originally occupied by Negro people who developed cultures quite separate from those of Mediterranean cultures, both Islamic and Caucasian. This area can itself be broken down again to West Africa, Central Africa, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. Each specific area has its own art disciplines that are more prominently used than in other areas according to geographical environment, influences of climate, selection of and availability of raw materials and natural resources, cultural traditions and spiritual practices.

There are seven major types of art produced in Africa that are widely recognized…


■ Masks

■ Textiles

■ Basketry

■ Figural Sculptures

■ Metalwork

■ Ceramics

■ Painting

Plus the decorative art forms of goldweights, Jewellery, beadwork.

Historically, the most important aspect of an African piece of art has been its function:

 •connecting to a higher spiritual world

 •commemorating a political or social event

 •crafting, embellishing and enhancing a utilitarian object

Traditionally, painting in Africa, has been a form of applied art executed on rock walls to assist in story telling and recording events. Pigment and dyes have also been applied to decorate surfaces on sculpture, pottery, drums or architectural buildings, even bodies and skin. Collectors of African Art however were very taken with form and until recent times, little was known of the community producing the art and the cultural significance and meaning behind the creation of such objects.

Most recently, as more depth in study has occurred, all forms of the art from Africa have been observed in an effort not to impose Western confines and to try and understand the intention behind creating the piece. Visual abstraction ie favouring visual abstraction over naturalistic representation and realism. It usually conveys ideas, the supernatural or spirits and thereby allows itself to be abstracted.

The primacy of sculpture ie with the emphasis on the human figure in a three-dimensional mode, even their fabrics are used as decorative cloths to turn the wearer into a living sculpture.

The Nubian Kingdom of Kush in modern Sudan was in close and often hostile contact with Egypt, and produced monumental sculpture mostly derivative of styles to the north. In West Africa, the earliest known sculptures are from the Nok culture which thrived between 500 BC and 500 AD in modern Nigeria, with clay figures typically with elongated bodies and angular shapes. Later West African cultures developed bronze casting for reliefs to decorate palaces like the famous Benin Bronzes, and very fine naturalistic royal heads from around the Yoruba town of Ife in terracotta and metal from the 12th–14th centuries. Akan goldweights are a form of small metal sculptures produced over the period 1400–1900, some apparently representing proverbs and so with a narrative element rare in African sculpture, and royal regalia included impressive gold sculptured elements.

Importance of performance art – the combination of music, dance, dress and bodily ornamentation, sculpture and masks imparts a general multiplicity of meaning and a multi-layered facet to a primary component of African art, thus making each individual object significant for itself and as part of a whole. The message becomes the art form and the meaning comes out in the context rather than the actual object.

Adornment and decoration of the human body ie scarification, tattoos, body piercing, body painting, wearing of masks and cloths and jewellery, all artistic expressions contributing to the transformation of the human form to another realism.

Africa is home to a thriving and energetic contemporary art culture. Painting, sculpture, metal art, gun art, photography, installation art, contemporary textiles and thread art, recycled art, printmaking, mixed media, all these forms exist in Africa today.

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