African art in the professional literature and the museum world denotes the traditional, visual art, which is produced by the many different peoples in sub-Saharan Africa. Art in northern and northeastern Africa is often seen as an offshoot of the cultures of the Mediterranean and West Asia with which this part of the continent has had long-standing connections; it is dealt with here in articles on individual countries as well as under Islamic art. The many and very different peoples south of the Sahara, on the other hand, despite their differences, have been perceived as the real and original Africa, their culture as characteristically African and their art as the art of Africa.
Africa’s visual arts include many different art forms. Personal decoration is of great importance and has been developed into refined forms in tattooing, body painting, jewelry and costume art. In addition to the purely decorative function, it often has important social functions.
- Countryaah is a website offering country profiles and lists of of countries in the continent of Africa.
Weaving is performed in many different techniques and materials. Complicated pattern weaving is particularly prevalent in West Africa, for example in Ghana in the Ashtei people’s kente weaves. The Cuban people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are known for their geometrically patterned textiles of raffia bast with “plush” embroidery. Examples of this technique reached as early as the 1600’s. to Europe from Angola. Application is used for the production of figurative motifs in the Fon Kingdom in Benin and in geometric patterns of Central African peoples. A number of different dyeing methods are used to make textile patterns: Batik, binding and stencil techniques have recently become widespread in large parts of West Africa and are performed, for example, by Yoruba people in Nigeria. A special etching technique is characteristic of the Dogon and Bamana peoples of Mali. Fabric prints are made by ashanti people.
Painting is the art that is the oldest evidence of in Africa. In the rock massifs of the Sahara, for example in Tassili n’Ajjer, and in dry southern Africa, rock paintings and carvings with animal and human motifs, made by hunters and nomads, have been found. Some of these paintings are believed to have been made 3000-4000 years before our era. Some are possibly even older, and in South Africa there are examples of rock paintings made by San people in the 1800’s. with Dutch immigrants as a motive.
House decoration in the form of exterior and interior murals occurs in many parts of Africa. These can be figurative paintings with religious motifs or geometric patterns in interaction with the architecture. An example of the latter is found among ndebele people in South Africa.
Ceramics are made and used by most African peoples. The pottery can be quite simple, but the pottery can also, especially when it comes to things for ritual use, assume sculptural forms. Examples of human-shaped pottery are known from the peoples of northern Nigeria and from the ngbetu peoples of the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. An example of non-figurative sculptural pottery is the ritual pottery made by the Igbo peoples of eastern Nigeria.
Real sculptures of solid fired clay appear scattered over a larger area in West Africa. Particularly well known are the archaeological finds in the area around Djenne in Mali and the sculptures from Nok and Ife in Nigeria.
The sculpture is the one of Africa’s art forms that has gained the most attention in the outside world, not least after French and German artists in particular were inspired by it in the early 1900’s. (see primitivism).
The African sculpture belongs to the farming communities of West and Central Africa. But there are also examples of sculptural traditions in East and South Africa.
In addition to fired clay, many other materials have been used, such as stone, bronze, brass, iron and ivory. But by far the most common material is wood. The traditional African sculpture is figurative. The motifs are humans and animals. The image is frontal. The expression varies from idealized naturalism, with a highlight in Ifekunst’s terracotta and bronze sculptures, to extreme stylization, as it occurs, for example, in the tomb figures of the Kota people, whose head and body unite in a mesh-like shape. The sculpture is closely linked to religion, and it plays a central role in society everywhere. It is a means of gaining contact with gods, spirits and ancestors, and at the same time it is a tool for harnessing the power they possess.
The shapes and roles of the sculpture differ from people to people. Pedigrees represent the ancestors. They are close to the gods and will, if you bring them sacrifices, speak for the living and provide them with protection. The gods themselves are rarely depicted in the sculpture, but it does occur, for example, among the Yoruba people in Nigeria. Sculptures to glorify deceased rulers are known from the Cuban people of the Democratic Republic of Congo and from the bronze art at the Benin Court in Nigeria. Some sculptures have very specific purposes, such as the akuaba figures of the Akan people, who are to provide the owner with beautiful children. Fetishes also have precise purposes, protective or destructive. They do not have to be sculpturally designed, but they are, for example, with the Congolese people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo.
Masks can appear in many different contexts and functions. They can produce spirits and ancestors or parody the living. Traditionally, they are often worn by persons in public office who, with the help of the mask, achieve anonymity, while at the same time being able to perform their task with the mask’s authority. Many masks are associated with religious and political societies and are used in their inauguration ceremonies.
The wooden sculptures are made by male artists. Their social position varies greatly in the different societies. In northern West Africa, they often belong to the smithy, which has a low social status but is feared for its magical ability. Elsewhere, for example among the Dan peoples of Liberia and Yoruba, artists can gain fame and reputation. The artist is bound by traditions and rules, but often develops his own style, just as the individual peoples and cultures each have their own characteristic style.
Due to climatic conditions and insect infestations, African wood sculptures rarely reach old age, and it is therefore generally difficult to follow stylistic developments over an extended period of time. However, wooden sculptures from cemeteries of the Dogon people in Mali have been carbon-14 dated to the time around the year 1100.
But the oldest known African sculptures are of more durable materials. Terracotta figures from Nigeria are mentioned above. At Nok in the northern part of the country, terracotta figures have been found from a period, beginning 400-500 years before our era. They bear great resemblance to 12th-century terracotta sculptures, found at archeological excavations in the Yoruba people’s holy city of Ife, and to contemporary Yoruba wood carvings from southwestern Nigeria. In Ife, a tradition of bronze casting developed in continuation of or in parallel with the art of terracotta, which according to oral tradition formed the basis of Beninhoff’s bronze art. It was still in use when an English penal expedition in 1897 conquered the city. Both in Ife and in Benin, there are examples of metal sculptures, which are related to the oldest known African metal sculptures, found at archeological excavations in Igbo Ukwu in eastern Nigeria. They date to 800-t. Such artistic continuity and coherence has so far not been demonstrated in art elsewhere in Africa.
The encounter with industrial culture, with Islam and with Christian missionaries has in many cases weakened the traditional African religions and with them the traditional art. In some places, the tradition is still alive. In many places it is dead. New traditions have emerged, such as the modern sculptures of the Makonde people, which were originally a product of contact with European administrators and tourists. There are also examples that the tourism industry and the demand from collectors have kept alive traditions whose local preconditions no longer exist. Often, however, the new buyers influence tradition in a direction that can hardly be described as African.
For many modern African artists, traditional art is an inspiration, but in these cases there is no real continuation of the tradition.
The most significant Danish collection of African art can be found at the National Museum, where Central African art in particular is richly represented. The museum’s collection was expanded in 1968 with Amalie and Carl Kjersmeier’s large collection. Another important Danish collection of African art was created by the sculptor Poul Holm Olsen, mainly in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is today owned by Holstebro Art Museum.
Africa modern art
Art in the new African states has deep roots in the ancient art. The European and American interest has kept alive the traditional African art, but has also helped to change the conditions for its development.
The art of woodcarving is now also cultivated with sales to tourists in mind, such as the so-called airport art, and other forms of expression survive by export production and by supplying a growing art market, especially in the big cities.
But influences from Western culture have also shaped the development of modern African art. The colonial powers brought their own art with them to Africa, and it was part of the cultural colonization of the countries, based on Christian and Islamic religion.
African artists have traveled and studied in Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union, and they have brought home impulses and techniques from individual countries and from international currents such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Social Realism and Abstract Art.
A significant driving force for art is urbanization, as the public’s and businesses’ need for decoration and signage has helped to create a naive folk art, which is called signwriter art.
In many African countries, art academies and schools have been set up, seeking to develop an art with national distinctiveness and content. Visual art from all parts of the African continent is becoming part of the international art world and still provides inspiration to artists outside Africa.