Understanding African Arts


Plank Mask (Nwantantay), 19th-20th century, Bwa peoples, wood, pigment, fiber, 182.9 x 28.2 x 26 cm, Burkina Faso (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Most work of art serves a purpose and sometimes serves as a means of communicating vital cultural traditions and rituals deemed important to the creators and the cultures they originated from. African arts is no different and to understand African Arts first and foremost is to understand the diverse nature and vastness of the continent itself. Arguably, Africa is considered one of the most diverse continents in the world — diverse in terms of languages spoken, ethnic identities, cultural traditions, wildlife, etc. Read our blog post on the Digitalization of African Languages.

However, the narrative about Africa have sadly been shaped by those who either have not really understood the many cultures and traditions they encountered or are simply myopic or perhaps their perception was altered. This is the danger of a “single story,” when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative and that narrative spreads like wildfire. Single stories tend to tell part of a story, but not the whole story. By definition, they leave out a lot of information and leapfrog over nuance and detail. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Eloquently states, in her 2009 TED TALK, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie argued, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”


African Hunters Sculpture

Alas, the same is true of the wide variety of objects produced throughout the continent that all can be called “African art.” Too often it is suggested that such objects are bizarre or creepy, thereby ignoring their beauty, sophistication, the craftsmanship and skills, hence totally missing their cultural context, meaning, significance and history. Therefore, context matter and we should not risk attempting to deduce a thing into something without comprehending it fully. Nothing exists, and therefore can be understood, in isolation from its context, for it is context that gives meaning to what we think and do. “Understanding the cultural contexts and symbolic meanings of African art therefore enhances our appreciation of its form,” argued Christa Clarke.

Nevertheless, because many tradition-based African artifacts serve a specific function, Westerners sometimes have not regarded them as art, argued Christa Clarke in her book for the Metropolitan Museum of Arts; “The Art of Africa.” “We need to recognize, however, that the concept of “art for art’s sake” is a relatively recent invention of the Western world. Prior to the Renaissance, most art traditions around the world were considered functional as well as aesthetic. The objects African artists create, while useful, also embody aesthetic preferences and may be admired for their form and composition.”


Seated Figure, terracotta, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné peoples, 25/4 x 29.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Although in the Western world, aesthetics is often equated with beauty, artists in some African cultures create works that are not intended to be beautiful. Such works are deliberately made in a not so aesthetic way in order to convey their fearsome powers and thereby elicit a strong reaction in the viewer. Artists and patrons in many African societies express well-defined aesthetic preferences and value skillful work. In a nutshell, when viewing African arts remember that skill and functionality takes precedence over aesthetic.

With now 56 countries on the continent, and each country with multiple ethnicities and each with their own symbolic meaning of the type of art; symbolic meanings of the art can vary based on the form and materials used. For example, African artworks, the head appears proportionately larger than the body. This formal emphasis has symbolic meaning, as the head is believed to have a special role in guiding one’s destiny and success in many African societies. African artists also employ scale for symbolic effect in multifigure compositions, a practice known as hierarchical representation. In these cases, the most important individual is depicted as the largest figure, while those of lesser importance decrease in size exponentially. In another example, A sculpture owned by an elite association holds deeper levels of meaning for its members than for the general public, who may understand only its basic meaning. The painted designs on an Ejagham headdress, for example, represent an indigenous form of writing, the meanings of which are restricted to individuals of the highest status and rank.

African art ranges from what is often labeled traditional sculpture and masks to contemporary painting, photography, ceramics, metal working, and more. Still other forms of African art include personal adornment (made from silver, gold, copper, brass, ivory, wood, clay, animal skin, textiles and beads), as well as intricately carved and woven objects of a practical nature, with some made for everyday personal use and others for only on special occasions. And, of course, there are the objects made for the tourist trade, which can be so authentic-looking, complete with wear and patina, that a collector or buyer needs to be very cautious.


Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba - Nigeria, Court of Benin

Among the most popular African arts are masks and sculpture. One of the more succinct description of masks is by the late Joseph Campbell who’s work in mythology, comparative religion and primitive traditions is one of the most exquisite works you will ever find. Campbell points out that all cultures create "masks", which are the names and images for God, and they serve as metaphors for an "inexpressible transcendence, the being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought.” Read our blog post on the “The Significance of Masks and their Meaning in African Cultures & Traditions.”

African sculpture on the other hand, takes many forms and offers us huge insights into the cultures and tribal communities from whence it came. African sculpture is most often figurative, representing the human form and fashioned primarily from wood but it can also be stylized and abstracted and carved from stone. It can span centuries and be as ancient as the advent of tools and it can be as modern as right now, today, where it is lauded and appreciated as a contemporary art form. They served as a catalyst for the innovations of modernist artists. “Seeking alternatives to realistic representation, Western artists admired African sculpture for its abstract conceptual approach to the human form. For example, the powerfully carved Fang reliquary figure, with its bulbous and fluid forms, attracted the attention of the painter André Derain and the sculptor Jacob Epstein, both of whom once owned the sculpture,” argued Christa.


It’s important to note how African arts came to be in most western museums. After the abolition of slavery in the late nineteenth century then came colonization and with colonization came a lot of African arts being looted or what Trevor Noah call “borrowed permanently by force” by the colonizers who brought them to the west and are being displayed in their museums. If you are African and you have been to one of these museums I’m sure you have felt a bit nostalgic and confused because of the simple reasoning that, not only do you have to pay to enter these museums and view creations made by the ancestors but also, it makes you wonder how they got there. I’m sure you have wondered. Although, there have been much talk about Europeans returning looted African arts to their original countries.

However, not much have been happen so far besides France returning a few. In fact, there have been unsuccessful attempt to remove a 19th-century South Sudanese funeral pole from a Paris museum last June. The demonstrators said the item was looted during colonization—and needed to be returned. The violent theft of thousands of works of African art by mostly-Western powers is well-documented—but the pieces remain in the collections of Western museums. On our next post, we will highlight a few of the Countries in Africa that still have a great deal of art collection.


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