African Art

Africa & Art?

Art of Ancient Africa


African art constitutes one of the most diverse legacies on earth. The definition may also include the art of the African Diasporas, such as the art of African Americans. Despite this diversity, there are some unifying artistic themes when considering the totality of the visual culture from the continent of Africa.

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 are found from a number of areas. Masks are important elements in the art of many peoples, along with human figures, often highly stylized. 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 in West Africa. Direct images of deities are relatively infrequent, but masks in particular are or were often made for religious ceremonies. African masks were an influence on European Modernist art, which was inspired by their lack of concern for naturalistic depiction.

Emphasis on the human figure

The human figure has always been one of the primary subject matters for most African art, and this emphasis even influenced certain European traditions. For example, in the fifteenth century Portugal traded with the Sapi culture near Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, who created elaborate ivory saltcellars that were hybrids of African and European designs. This was most notable in the addition of the human figure, as the human figure typically did not appear in Portuguese saltcellars. The human figure may symbolize the living or the dead; it may reference chiefs, dancers, or various trades such as drummers or hunters. It may even be an anthropomorphic representation of a god or have other votive functions. Another common theme is the inter-morphosis of human and animal.

African artworks also tend to favor visual abstraction over naturalistic representation. This is because many African artworks generalize stylistic norms. Ancient Egyptian art, also usually thought of as naturalistically depictive, makes use of highly abstracted and regimented visual canons, especially in painting, as well as the use of different colors to represent the qualities and characteristics of an individual being depicted.

Emphasis on sculpture

African artists tend to favor three-dimensional artworks over two-dimensional works. Even many African paintings or cloth works were meant to be experienced in three dimensions. House paintings are often seen as a continuous design wrapped around a house, forcing the viewer to walk around the work to experience it fully. Decorated cloths are worn as decorative or ceremonial garments, transforming the wearer into a living sculpture. Distinct from the static form of traditional Western sculpture, African art displays animation, a readiness to move .

Nok rider and horse 53 cm tall (1,400 to 2,000 years ago)

The Nok culture appeared in Nigeria around 1000 B.C. and vanished under unknown circumstances around 500 AD 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.

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 of wood with broad, flat surfaces and arms and legs are 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. A sculptural style from East Africa is pole sculptures, carved in human shapes and decorated with geometric forms, while the tops are carved with figures of animals, people, and various objects. These poles are then placed next to graves and are associated with death and the ancestral world.

Emphasis on performance art

Dancing art

An extension of the utilitarianism and three-dimensionality of traditional African art is the fact that much of it is crafted for use in performance contexts, rather than in static ones. For example, traditional African masks and costumes very often are used in communal, ceremonial contexts, where they are “danced. ” Most societies in Africa have names for their masks: 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.

Nonlinear scaling

Often a small part of an African design will look similar to a larger part. Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president, referred to this as “dynamic symmetry. ” William Fagg, the British art historian, compared it to the logarithmic mapping of natural growth by biologist D’Arcy Thompson. More recently it has been described in terms of fractal geometry.

Source: Boundless. “Art of Ancient Africa.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 04 Sep. 2016 from