African art

"African arts" redirects here. For the journal African Arts, see African Arts (journal).
SUDAN basket -tray, tabar of weaved natural plant fibre, coloured in different colours
Mask from Gabon
Mambila figure, Nigeria

African art is a term typically used for the art of Sub-Saharan Africa. Often, casual, amateur observers tend to generalize "traditional" African art, but the continent is full of people, societies and civilizations, each with a unique visual culture. 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.[1]

The term "African art" does not usually include the art of the North African areas along the Mediterranean coast, as such areas had long been part of different traditions. For more than a millennium, the art of such areas had formed part of Islamic art, although with many particular characteristics. The art of Ethiopia, with a long Christian tradition, is also different from that of most of Africa, where traditional African religion (with Islam in the north) was dominant until relatively recently.[2]

Most African sculpture was historically in wood and other natural materials that have not survived from earlier than, at most, a few centuries ago; older pottery figures can be found from a number of areas.[3] 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 of settled cultivators in the areas drained by the Niger and Congo rivers" in West Africa.[4] Direct images of deities are relatively infrequent, but masks in particular are or were often made for religious ceremonies; today many are made for tourists as "airport art".[5] African masks were an influence on European Modernist art,[6] which was inspired by their lack of concern for naturalistic depiction. Since the late 19th century there has been an increasing amount of African art in Western collections, the finest pieces of which are now prominently displayed.

Later West African cultures developed bronze casting for reliefs, like the famous Benin Bronzes, to decorate palaces and for highly naturalistic royal heads from around the Bini town of Benin City, Edo State, in terracotta as well as metal, from the 12th–14th centuries. Eben goldweights are a form of small metal sculptures produced over the period 1400–1900; some apparently represent proverbs, contributing a narrative element rare in African sculpture; and royal regalia included impressive gold sculptured elements.[7] 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 from wood with broad, flat surfaces and arms and legs 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.

Eastern Africans, in many areas shorter of large timber to carve, are known for Tinga Tinga paintings and Makonde sculptures. There is also tradition of producing textile art, .[4] The culture from Great Zimbabwe left more impressive buildings than sculpture, but the eight soapstone Zimbabwe Birds appear to have had a special significance and were presumably mounted on monoliths. Modern Zimbabwean sculptors in soapstone have achieved considerable international success. Southern Africa's oldest known clay figures date from 400 to 600 AD and have cylindrical heads with a mixture of human and animal features.

Thematic elements

Yoruba bronze head sculpture, Ife, Nigeria c. 12th century A.D.
Makonde carving c.1974


Ethiopia: Cross of Emperor Tewodros, early 19th Century

Until recently, the designation "African" was usually only bestowed on the arts of "Black Africa", the peoples living in Sub-Saharan Africa. The non-black peoples of North Africa, the people of the Horn of Africa, as well as the art of ancient Egypt, generally were not included under the rubric of African art. Recently, however, there has been a movement among African art historians and other scholars to include the visual culture of these areas, since all the cultures that produced them, in fact, are located within the geographic boundaries of the African continent. The notion is that by including all African cultures and their visual culture in African art, laypersons will gain a greater understanding of the continent's cultural diversity. Since there was often a confluence of traditional African, Islamic and Mediterranean cultures, scholars have found that drawing distinct divisions between Muslim areas, ancient Egypt, the Mediterranean and indigenous black African societies makes little sense. Finally, the arts of the people of the African diaspora, in Brazil, the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, have also begun to be included in the study of African art. The inclusion of art attributed to non-native influences serves to obfuscate the absence of indigenous artistic merit, in particular the period prior to civilization brought to the continent from cultures with a longer history of development.


Nok terracotta, 6th century BC–6th century CE
Igbo 9th century bronze ornamental staff head, Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria

African art takes many forms and is made from many different materials. Jewellery is a popular art form and is used to indicate rank, affiliation with a group, or purely for aesthetics.[14] African jewelry is made from such diverse materials as Tiger's eye stone, haematite, sisal, coconut shell, beads and ebony wood. Sculptures can be wooden, ceramic or carved out of stone like the famous Shona sculptures,[15] and decorated or sculpted pottery comes from many regions. Various forms of textiles are made including chitenge, mud cloth and kente cloth. Mosaics made of butterfly wings or colored sand are popular in west Africa.


The origins of African art lie long before recorded history. African rock art in the Sahara in Niger preserves 6000-year-old carvings.[16] Along with sub-Saharan Africa, the western cultural arts, ancient Egyptian paintings and artifacts, and indigenous southern crafts also contributed greatly to African art. Often depicting the abundance of surrounding nature, the art was often abstract interpretations of animals, plant life, or natural designs and shapes. 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 that did not lead 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.

More complex methods of producing art were developed in sub-Saharan Africa around the 10th century, some of the most notable advancements include the bronzework of Igbo Ukwu and the terracottas and metalworks of Ile Ife Bronze and brass castings, often ornamented with ivory and precious stones, became highly prestigious in much of West Africa, sometimes being limited to the work of court artisans and identified with royalty, as with the Benin Bronzes.

Influence on Western art

Westerners had long misunderstood African art as "primitive." The term carries with it negative connotations of underdevelopment and poverty. Colonization and the slave trade in Africa during the nineteenth century set up a Western understanding hinged on the belief that African art lacked technical ability due to its low socioeconomic status.

At the start of the twentieth century, artists like Picasso, Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Modigliani became aware of, and inspired by, African art.[6] In a situation where the established avant garde was straining against the constraints imposed by serving the world of appearances, African art demonstrated the power of supremely well organised forms; produced not only by responding to the faculty of sight, but also and often primarily, the faculty of imagination, emotion and mystical and religious experience. These artists saw in African Art a formal perfection and sophistication unified with phenomenal expressive power. The study of and response to African Art, by artists at the beginning of the twentieth century facilitated an explosion of interest in the abstraction, organisation and reorganisation of forms, and the exploration of emotional and psychological areas hitherto unseen in Western art. By these means, the status of visual art was changed. Art ceased to be merely and primarily aesthetic, but became also a true medium for philosophic and intellectual discourse, and hence more truly and profoundly aesthetic than ever before.

Influence on Western architecture

European architecture was strongly influenced by African art. Pioneers like Antonio Sant'Elia, Le Corbusier, Pier Luigi Nervi, Theo van Doesburg and Erich Mendelsohn were also sculptors and painters; Futurist, Rationalist and Expressionist architecture discovered in Africa a new repertoire of proto-symbols; in a formal level, the space is now composed by single forms that do not only refer to human proportions and scale, but to its psychology; surfaces are modelled by geometric patterns. During the 1950s, European architects transformed buildings into big-scale sculptures, replacing unnecessary decoration (so criticized by Adolf Loos), by integrating textured murals and large bas-reliefs in walls. During the 1960s, African Art influenced Brutalism, both in language and symbolism, particularly in the late Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Paul Rudolph. The powerful work of John Lautner reminds of artifacts from the Yoruba; the sensual projects of Patricio Pouchulu honour the bare wooden sculptures of the Dogon and Baoulé. Unlike Europe, African art never established boundaries between body art, painting, sculpture and architecture; thanks to this, Western architects can now extend towards different art expressions.

Traditional art

Traditional art describes the most popular and studied forms of African art which are typically found in museum collections.

Wooden masks, which might either be of human, animal or mythical creatures, are one of the most commonly found forms of art in western Africa. In their original contexts, ceremonial masks are used for celebrations, initiations, crop harvesting, and war preparation. The masks are worn by a chosen or initiated dancer. During the mask ceremony the dancer goes into deep trance, and during this state of mind he "communicates" with his ancestors. The masks can be worn in three different ways: vertically covering the face: as helmets, encasing the entire head, and as crest, resting upon the head, which was commonly covered by material as part of the disguise. African masks often represent a spirit and it is strongly believed that the spirit of the ancestors possesses the wearer. Most African masks are made with wood, and can be decorated with: Ivory, animal hair, plant fibers (such as raffia), pigments (like kaolin), stones, and semi-precious gems also are included in the masks.

Statues, usually of wood or ivory, are often inlaid with cowrie shells, metal studs and nails. Decorative clothing is also commonplace and comprises another large part of African art. Among the most complex of African textiles is the colorful, strip-woven Kente cloth of Ghana. Boldly patterned mudcloth is another well known technique.

Contemporary African art

Africa is home to a thriving contemporary art fine art culture. This has been sadly understudied until recently, due to scholars' and art collectors' emphasis on traditional art. Notable modern artists include El Anatsui, Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Karel Nel, Kendell Geers, Yinka Shonibare, Zerihun Yetmgeta, Odhiambo Siangla, Elias Jengo, Olu Oguibe, Lubaina Himid, and Bili Bidjocka, Henry Tayali. Art bienniales are held in Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Many contemporary African artists are represented in museum collections, and their art may sell for high prices at art auctions. Despite this, many contemporary African artists tend to have difficult times finding a market for their work. Many contemporary African arts borrow heavily from traditional predecessors. Ironically, this emphasis on abstraction is seen by Westerners as an imitation of European and American cubist and totemic artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Henri Matisse, who, in the early twentieth century, were heavily influenced by traditional African art. This period was critical to the evolution of Western modernism in visual arts, symbolized by Picasso's breakthrough painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."[17]

Today Fathi Hassan is considered the early real representatives of contemporary black African Art. Contemporary African art was pioneered in the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa by artists like Irma Stern, Cyril Fradan, Walter Battiss and through galleries like the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. More recently European galleries like the October Gallery in London and collectors such as Jean Pigozzi,[18] Artur Walther[19] and Gianni Baiocchi in Rome have helped expand the interest in the subject. Numerous exhibitions at the Museum for African Art in New York and the African Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, which showcased the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, have gone a long way to countering many of the myths and prejudices that haunt Contemporary African Art. The appointment of Nigerian Okwui Enwezor as artistic director of Documenta 11 and his African centred vision of art propelled the careers of countless African artists onto the international stage.

A wide range of more-or-less traditional forms of art, or adaptations of traditional style to contemporary taste are made for sale to tourists and others, including so-called "airport art". A number of vigorous popular traditions assimilate Western influences into African styles such as the elaborate fantasy coffins in shapes such as airplanes, cars or animals of West African cities, and the banners of clubs.

By country or people


Yombe-sculpture, 19th century

While the world is looking in another direction art flourishes in Zambia on a shoestring. Zambia is arguably home to some of the world's most creative and talented artists. The desire of artists in Zambia to create is so strong that they will use anything. From burlap sacks to car paint, even old bed sheets are often used in the place of canvases as the materials for art. Garbage and detritus are turned in works of art that are often staggering in their scope. The tradition of fine art, in the Western concept of the term, in Zambia goes back to colonial times and has been steadily growing ever since. Thanks to the Lechwe Trust, the Zambia's body of art is assured a home in the country it was created.

The Lechwe Trust was founded by Cynthia Zukas. An artist herself, in the early 1980s Zukas was a friend to many artists in Zambia including William Bwalya Miko, who remembers with fondness how Zukas would return from trips abroad with cases full of art materials to pass on to local artists who had no access to such tools. In 1986, she came into an inheritance and decided it was time to support artists more substantially, and the Lechwe Trust was born. Their aim was to provide bursaries for artists who wished to study formally or attend art workshops and residencies. In addition, they decided to start a collection, ensuring an art legacy for Zambia. The collection houses works predominantly by Zambians, however there are works by those who have lived in Zambia or have a connection with the country. Now numbering over 200 pieces of art from paintings to sculpture, from etchings to sketches the legacy is one of which Zambians should be proud, and yet few know of its existence. Or at least that was the case until the recent exhibition. A lack of promotion of the art scene in Zambia is only one issue artists have to address.

The Lechwe Trust Exhibition

"Destiny" is a prime example of the importance of the Lechwe Trust's work. With Henry Tayali's seminal painting "Destiny" (1975–1980), writ large is the struggle for identity in a time of progress. In the foreground a myriad of figures scramble and work, carrying iron girders, spades, while they are seemingly penned in by a huge, steam obscured modern city. The city itself is painted in muted greys, browns, mauves however the crowd is dressed in bright colours. According to the catalogue for the exhibition and an article by local magazine The Lowdown, this painting has had a long and well-travelled life. In 1966, the painting was sold to Tim Gibbs, son of then Southern Rhodesian governor, Sir Humphrey Gibbs. In 1980, Tayali went to the now independent Zimbabwe to but his painting back. Unsurprisingly, he was turned down but was granted allowance to borrow the painting for exhibitions. "Destiny" did its rounds in London, Zambia and Paris before returning to the Gibbs. By 1989 Henry Tayali had died and "Destiny" was exhibited again in London—enter the Lechwe Trust. It took two years but the trust now owns the painting, a linchpin of their impressive collection.

Artists in Zambia are faced with particular, though assuredly not unique, challenges. Even today, materials such as oil paints, brushes, canvas still have to be imported from South Africa and this makes them prohibitively expensive. A lack of public library facilities and subject specific magazines means artists are deprived of learning from more established artists or feeling part of a wider international community. Until a year ago, if you wished to study art within Zambia there was only one course available in the country—a certificate in art education, which prepares its candidates to teach, rather than make art.

Two paintings from artists of two different generations: Henry Tayali (1943–1987) on the left and living artist Stary Mwaba on the right. Then of course there is the business of trying to sell one's work. In economically more stable countries only a handful of artists can truly claim they make a living by their art alone, this handful becomes considerably smaller in Zambia. This is not merely due to fewer people with disposable income wishing to buy paintings, but also because of an unfortunate preconception by some tourists and ex-pats who look into buying work expecting a bargain basement souvenir only to find the prices higher than they planned to pay. The complaint that artwork is overpriced is a bone of contention. Lusaka is one of the more expensive cities in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of rents and product prices, plus as mentioned before, art materials are particularly expensive. Artists argue that the prices of their pieces fairly reflect their economic realities, plus some artists have shown internationally and feel they are justified in asking for more money. The low numbers of sales reveals how many may sadly disagree. Low sales may also be the result of something else. Very few people outside of the very small Zambian art world are aware of how active the art scene currently is. A look through international art magazines reveals a dearth of coverage of sub-Saharan Africa, only a few artists of sub-Saharan African heritage, such as Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare, have managed to break through. Many contemporary Zambian artists like Zenzele Chulu and Stary Mwaba, both of whom have exhibited internationally, feel this is because the art world wishes to see art from Africa in a very specific, ethnocentric stereotype. As result, they are often asked to participate in African-themed exhibitions, which limits their platform and frustrates them. As Mwaba asks, "Am I an African artist or an artist from Africa?" And more importantly, why does this question still matter?

And yet Lusaka is bursting at the seams with artists and The Henry Tayali gallery—Lusaka's main fine art gallery—is filled almost from floor to ceiling with works of art, and although they only get a small trickle of visitors (some days, I was told, none at all) the gallery is a hub of activity. Why? Well, in a country where opportunities for work are limited, it is better to be an artist and working, than to wait for a job that may never come. School is not possible for a large number of children who cannot afford the fees or the time, which is often spent helping at home. But through art, one can express oneself without the ability to read or write. The community of artists is a warm and friendly one full of people who understand that their richest resource is one another; new members are welcomed into the fold with open arms. There is a more abstract and perhaps rarely articulated motivation also, a pride and desire to depict and explore Zambia using the visual medium. Through their work, Zambian artists exude a dignity and an understanding of the good and bad of their society. They question, they examine and sometimes judge; the conversation shows no signs of abating. Artists here just love art, they thirst after it and it is a crucial contribution to their sense of identity, their sense of purpose.

Zambia's history is full of talent and characters even if their exploits and accomplishments are not always well documented. Take Akwila Simpasa. In his time, Simpasa was an internationally renowned artist, and sculpture and drawing were his favourite media, but it has been reported that art was so deeply ingrained in him that he painted and created music as well. He was friends with Eddy Grant and rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger. Simpasa was a major pioneer. Sadly, he also had mental health problems and died relatively young in the 1980s and has since sunk into virtual obscurity. Those of his contemporaries that are still living remember him well. When asked to comment on his friend Simpasa, artist Patrick Mweemba offered the following remark: "he was the best Zambian artist." Stories of him exist through oral history, which is just as well, as little of the artist and his life seems to have been documented. William Miko and Zenzele Chulu both mentioned how some believe he is still alive, like Elvis he has become legend, and now thanks to the Lechwe Trust, the legend is able to speak through his work.

It cannot be denied that the Lechwe Trust, has gone a great way to tackling many of the problems facing Zambian artists. By buying art at a fair price, some artists are able to stay in Zambia and work rather than leaving the country as many like Henry Tayali did. William Miko was himself helped to develop as an artist by the trust and taught abroad in Europe. He eventually returned to work and to help the trust. Lechwe is the only trust of its kind in Zambia. A country that is full of NGOs, few if any of which are interested in the art scene. Yet, "You cannot have development without also the development of art and culture," argues William Miko. He cites the example of Japan that has a centuries-old and highly respected art tradition. He feels this tradition of inspiration, creativity and hard work has helped turn Japan into the technological powerhouse it has become in modern times. The Lechwe Trust's tireless support of the Zambian art scene could be key to bringing recognition, especially now they have decided to build their own gallery.


See also: Culture of Mali

The primary ethnic groups in Mali are the Bambara (also known as Bamana) and the Dogon. Smaller ethnic groups consist of the Marka, and the Bozo fisherman of the Niger River. Ancient civilizations flourished in areas like Djene and Timbuktu, where a great variety of ancient bronze and terra-cotta figures have been unearthed.


Two Bambara Chiwara c. late 19th early 20th centuries, Art Institute of Chicago. Female (left) and male Vertical styles

The Bambara people (Bambara: Bamanankaw) adapted many artistic traditions and began to create display pieces. Before money was the main drive of creation of their artworks they used their abilities solely as a sacred craft for display of spiritual pride, religious beliefs and display of customs. Example artworks include the Bamana n'tomo mask. Other statues were created for people such as hunters and farmers so others could leave offerings after long farming seasons or group hunts. The stylistic variations in Bambara art are extreme sculptures, masks and headdresses display either stylized or realistic features, and either weathered or encrusted patinas. Until quite recently, the function of Bambara pieces was shrouded in mystery, but in the last twenty years field studies have revealed that certain types of figures and headdresses were associated with a number of the societies that structure Bambara life. During the 1970s a group of approximately twenty figures, masks and TjiWara headdresses belonging to the so-called 'Segou style' were identified. The style is distinct and recognizable by its typical flat faces, arrow-shaped noses, all-over body triangular scarifications and, on the figures, splayed hands.


There are three major and one minor type of Bambara mask. The first type, used by the N'tomo society, has a typical comb-like structure above the face, is worn during dances and may be covered with cowrie shells. The second type of mask, associated with the Komo society, has a spherical head with two antelope horns on the top and an enlarged, flattened mouth. They are used during dances, but some have a thick encrusted patina acquired during other ceremonies in which libations are poured over them.

The third type has connections with the Nama society and is carved in the form of an articulated bird's head, while the fourth, minor type, represents a stylized animal head and is used by the Kore society. Other Bambara masks are known to exist, but unlike those described above, they cannot be linked to specific societies or ceremonies. Bambara carvers have established a reputation for the zoomorphic headdresses worn by Tji-Wara society members. Although they are all different, they all display a highly abstract body, often incorporating a zig-zag motif, which represents the sun's course from east to west, and a head with two large horns. Bambara members of the Tji-Wara society wear the headdress while dancing in their fields at sowing time, hoping to increase the crop yield.


Bambara statuettes are primarily used during the annual ceremonies of the Guan society. During these ceremonies, a group of up to seven figures, measuring from 80 to 130 cm in height, are removed from their sanctuaries by the elder members of the society. The sculptures are washed, re-oiled and sacrifices are offered to them at their shrines. These figures - some of which date from between the 14th and 16th centuries - usually display a typical crested coiffure, often adorned with a talisman.

Two of these figures were ascribed great significance: a seated or standing maternity figure called Guandousou - known in the West as 'Bambara Queen' - and a male figure called Guantigui, who usually appears holding a knife. The two figures were surrounded by Guannyeni attendant figures standing or seated in various positions, holding a vessel, or a musical instrument, or their breasts. During the 1970s, numerous fakes from Bamako which were based on these sculptures entered the market. They were produced in Bamako.

Other Bambara figures, called Dyonyeni, are thought to be associated with either the southern Dyo society or the Kwore society. These female or hermaphrodite figures usually appear with geometric features such as large conical breasts and measure between 40 and 85 cm in height. The blacksmith members of the Dyo society used them during dances to celebrate the end of their initiation ceremonies. They were handled, held by dancers and placed in the middle of the ceremonial circle.

Among the corpus of Bambara figures, Boh sculptures are perhaps the best known. These statues represent a highly stylized animal or human figure, and are made of wood which is repeatedly covered in thick layers of earth impregnated with sacrificial materials such as millet, chicken or goat blood, kola nuts and alcoholic drinks. They were employed by the Kono and the Komo societies and served as receptacles for spiritual forces, and could in turn be used for apotropaic purposes.

Each special creative trait a person obtained was seen as a different way to please higher spirits.


12th Century Yoruba (Ife) bronze casting of Oduduwa

Dogon art is primarily sculpture. Dogon art revolves around religious values, ideals, and freedoms (Laude, 19). Dogon sculptures are not made to be seen publicly, and are commonly hidden from the public eye within the houses of families, sanctuaries, or kept with the Hogon (Laude, 20). The importance of secrecy is due to the symbolic meaning behind the pieces and the process by which they are made.

Themes found throughout Dogon sculpture consist of figures with raised arms, superimposed bearded figures, horsemen, stools with caryatids, women with children, figures covering their faces, women grinding pearl millet, women bearing vessels on their heads, donkeys bearing cups, musicians, dogs, quadruped-shaped troughs or benches, figures bending from the waist, mirror-images, aproned figures, and standing figures (Laude, 46-52). Signs of other contacts and origins are evident in Dogon art. The Dogon people were not the first inhabitants of the cliffs of Bandiagara. Influence from Tellem art is evident in Dogon art because of its rectilinear designs (Laude, 24).

Dogon art is extremely versatile, although common stylistic characteristics – such as a tendency towards stylization – are apparent on the statues. Their art deals with the myths whose complex ensemble regulates the life of the individual. The sculptures are preserved in innumerable sites of worship, personal or family altars, altars for rain, altars to protect hunters, in market. As a general characterization of Dogon statues, one could say that they render the human body in a simplified way, reducing it to its essentials. Some are extremely elongated with emphasis on geometric forms. The subjective impression is one of immobility with a mysterious sense of a solemn gravity and serene majesty, although conveying at the same time a latent movement. Dogon sculpture recreates the hermaphroditic silhouettes of the Tellem, featuring raised arms and a thick patina made of blood and millet beer. The four Nommo couples, the mythical ancestors born of the god Amma, ornament stools, pillars or men's meeting houses, door locks, and granary doors. The primordial couple is represented sitting on a stool, the base of which depicts the earth while the upper surface represents the sky; the two are interconnected by the Nommo. The seated female figures, their hands on their abdomen, are linked to the fertility cult, incarnating the first ancestor who died in childbirth, and are the object of offerings of food and sacrifices by women who are expecting a child. Kneeling statues of protective spirits are placed at the head of the dead to absorb their spiritual strength and to be their intermediaries with the world of the dead, into which they accompany the deceased before once again being placed on the shrines of the ancestors. Horsemen are remainders of the fact that, according to myth, the horse was the first animal present on earth. The Dogon style has evolved into a kind of cubism: ovoid head, squared shoulders, tapered extremities, pointed breasts, forearms, and thighs on a parallel plane, hairdos stylized by three or four incised lines. Dogon sculptures serve as a physical medium in initiations and as an explanation of the world. They serve to transmit an understanding to the initiated, who will decipher the statue according to the level of their knowledge. Carved animal figures, such as dogs and ostriches, are placed on village foundation altars to commemorate sacrificed animals, while granary doors, stools and house posts are also adorned with figures and symbols.

Kanaga Mask Brooklyn Museum

There are nearly eighty styles of masks, but their basic characteristic is great boldness in the use of geometric shapes, independent of the various animals they are supposed to represent. The structure of a large number of masks is based on the interplay of vertical and horizontal lines and shapes. Another large group has triangular, conic shapes. All masks have large geometric eyes and stylized features. The masks are often polychrome, but on many the color is lost; after the ceremonies they were left on the ground and quickly deteriorated because of termites and other conditions. The Dogon continue an ancient masquerading tradition, which commemorates the origin of death. According to their myths, death came into the world as a result of primeval man's transgressions against the divine order. Dama memorial ceremonies are held to accompany the dead into the ancestral realm and restore order to the universe. The performance of masqueraders – sometimes as many as 400 – at these ceremonies is considered absolutely necessary. In the case of the dama, the timing, types of masks involved, and other ritual elements are often specific to one or two villages and may not resemble those seen in locations only several miles distant. The masks also appear during baga-bundo rites performed by small numbers of masqueraders before the burial of a male Dogon. Dogon masks evoke the form of animals associated with their mythology, yet their significance is only understood by the highest ranking cult members whose role is to explain the meaning of each mask to a captivated audience.


A modern fantasy coffin in the shape of a red rooster (cock), Ghana

Kenyan art has changed much in the post colonial years. Painters emerged in the 1950s after training in Makerere University College; they include such artists as Elimo Njau Elizabeth Karuga. The 1970s saw the self-taught African painters mostly inspired by the demand for original African paintings. These include the Ancient Soi, Macua Ngethe, and Moses Gichuiri. Kenyatta University also produced artists but more so taught in western art styles of painting. Among these include John Dianga and Moses Gichuiri. Others include the late Dr. Sylvester Maina, Stephen Mayienga and others. The 1980s produced many contemporary artists. From Teachers Training colleges came Stephen Mbatia, Rix Butama, Shake Makelele, and Meube to name but a few. From the University of Nairobi School of Fine Art and Design came the following artists: Bulinya Martins and Sarah Shiundu. The two by virtue of having learned many basic techniques in design are highly innovative both in style, use of color and execution. Unlike most contemporary Kenyan artist they paint using oils, acrylics and watercolors and/or combination. Pure abstract art is rare in Kenya. Most artists paint semi-abstract with distorted human figures. The initial paintings by Bulinya Martins were a combination of cubism and original African abstractions. The late Mainga's abstractions were 2D and highly embellished on leather. As for material, the use of Acrylics and oil is more frequent than watercolors. Oil paint is by far the preferred medium today and it lasts much longer. The art items in Kenya include sisal baskets, elephant hair bracelets, Maasai bead jewelry, musical instruments, silver and gold jewelry, soapstone sculptures, wooden carvings, tribal masks, Maasai figurines, paintings, prints and sculptures. These art items are available in the arts and craft markets and shops throughout the main tourist centers of Kenya.

Cloth in Kenya also represents interesting art, with batik cloth, kangas (women's wraparound skirts) with patterns and even Kenyan proverbs printed on them and kikois (type of sarong for men) that come in many different colors and textiles. Kenya offers African jewelry containing cowry shells, and soapstone carvings from Western Kenya, carved by the Gusii and Abagusii ethnic groups in Kisii stone.

The Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University has a large collection of traditional art objects from Kenya including jewelry, containers, weapons, walking sticks, headrests, stools, utensils, and other objects available online.[20]


The Fang people make masks and basketry, carvings, and sculptures. Fang art is characterized by organized clarity and distinct lines and shapes. Bieri, boxes to hold the remains of ancestors, are carved with protective figures. Masks are worn in ceremonies and for hunting. The faces are painted white with black features. Myene art centers around Myene rituals for death. Female ancestors are represented by white painted masks worn by the male relatives. The Bekota use brass and copper to cover their carvings. They use baskets to hold ancestral remains. Tourism is rare in Gabon, and unlike in other African countries, art is not spurred on by commerce.


Main article: Botswana art

In the northern part of Botswana, women in the villages of Etsha and Gumare are noted for their skill at crafting baskets from Mokola Palm and local dyes. The baskets are generally woven into three types: large, lidded baskets used for storage large, open baskets for carrying objects on the head or for winnowing threshed grain, and smaller plates for winnowing pounded grain. The artistry of these baskets is being steadily enhanced through color use and improved designs as they are increasingly produced for commercial use.

The oldest evidence ancient paintings from both Botswana and South Africa. Depictions of hunting, both animal and human figures were made by the San people dating before civilization over 20,000 years old within the Kalahari desert.

Burkina Faso

Main article: Art of Burkina Faso
See also: Burkina Faso
Bobo Mask (Nyanga) from Burkina Faso, made in the early 19th century. Brooklyn Museum

Burkina Faso is a small, landlocked country north of Ghana and south of Mali and Niger. Economically, it is one of the four or five poorest countries in the world. Culturally, it is extremely rich. In part this is because so few people from Burkina have become Muslim or Christian.[21] Many of the ancient artistic traditions for which Africa is so well known have been preserved in Burkina Faso because so many people continue to honor the ancestral spirits, and the spirits of nature. In great part they honor the spirits through the use of masks and carved figures. Many of the countries to the north of Burkina Faso had become predominantly Muslim, while many of the countries to the south of Burkina Faso are heavily Christian. In contrast many of the people of Burkina Faso continue to offer prayers and sacrifices to the spirits of nature and to the spirits of their ancestors. The result is that they continue to use the sorts of art that we see in museums in Europe and America.[22]

One of the principal obstacles to understanding the art of Burkina Faso, including that of the Bwa,  has been a confusion between the styles of the Bwa, "gurunsi", and Mossi,  and a confusion of the Bwa people  with their neighbors to the west the Bobo people.  this confusion was the result of the use by French colonial officers of Jula  interpreters at the turn of the century.  these interpreters considered the two peoples to be the same and so referred to the Bobo as "Bobo-Fing" and to the Bwa as "Bobo-Oule."   In fact these two peoples are not related at all. Their languages are quite different, their social systems are quite different,  and certainly their art is quite different. In terms of artistic styles the confusion stems from the fact that the Bwa, "gurunsi'" and Mossi  make masks that are covered with red white and black geometric graphic patterns.  This is simply the style of the Voltaic or Gur peoples,  and also includes the Dogon and other peoples who speak Voltaic languages.[23]

Ivory Coast

"Childsoldier in the Ivory Coast", Gilbert G. Groud, 2007, mixed materials: tusche and wax crayon

The Baoulé, the Senoufo and the Dan peoples are skilled at carving wood and each culture produces wooden masks in wide variety. The Ivorian people use masks to represent animals in caricature to depict deities, or to represent the souls of the departed.

As the masks are held to be of great spiritual power, it is considered a taboo for anyone other than specially trained persons or chosen ones to wear or possess certain masks. These ceremonial masks are each thought to have a soul, or life force, and wearing these masks is thought to transform the wearer into the entity the mask represents.

Ivory Coast also has modern painters and illustrators. Gilbert G. Groud criticizes the ancient beliefs in black magic, as held with the spiritual masks mentioned above, in his illustrated book Magie Noire.


Modern Makonde carving in ebony

Tinga Tinga art has roots in decorating hut walls in central and south Tanzania. It was first in 1968 when Edward Said Tingatinga started to paint on wooden sheets with enamel colours when Tinga Tinga art became known. The art of the Makonde must be subdivided into different areas. The Makonde are known as master carvers throughout East Africa, and their statuary that can be found being sold in tourist markets and in museums alike. They traditionally carve household objects, figures and masks. Since the 1950s years the socalled Modern Makonde Art has been developed. An essential step was the turning to abstract figures, mostly spirits (Shetani) that play a special role. Makonde are also part of the important contemporary artists of Africa today. An outstanding position is taken by George Lilanga.


Persisting for 3,000 years and thirty dynasties, the "official" art of Ancient Egypt was centred on the state religion of the time. The art ranged from stone carvings of both massive statues and small statuettes, to wall art that depicted both history and mythology. In 2600 BC the maturity of Egyptian carving reached a peak it did not reach again for another 1,500 years during the reign of Rameses II.

A lot of the art possesses a certain stiffness, with figures poised upright and rigid in a regal fashion. Bodily proportions also appear to be mathematically derived, giving rise to a sense of fantastic perfection in the figures depicted. This most likely was used to reinforce the godliness of the ruling caste.

See also


  1. Suzanne Blier: "Africa, Art, and History: An Introduction", A History of Art in Africa, pp. 15-19
  2. Carol Kino. "When Artifact 'Became' Art". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-12-12.
  3. Breunig, P. 2014. Nok. African Sculpture in Archaeological Context. Africa Magna Verlag, Frankfurt.
  4. 1 2 Honour & Fleming, 557
  5. Honour & Fleming, 559–561
  6. 1 2 3 Murrell, Denise. "African Influences in Modern Art", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2008. Retrieved on 31 January 2013.
  7. Honour & Fleming, 556–561
  8. Richard Majors; Billson, J.M. (1993). Cool Pose: The Dilemma of Black Manhood in America. Touchstone. p. 56. ISBN 9780671865726. Retrieved 2014-12-12.
  9. Vangheluwe, S.; Vandenhoute, J. (2001). The Artist Himself in African Art Studies: Jan Vandenhoute's Investigation of the Dan Sculptor in Côte D'Ivoire. Academia Press. p. 19. ISBN 9789038202860. Retrieved 2014-12-12.
  10. Suzanne Blier, "Africa, Art, and History: An Introduction", A History of Art in Africa, p. 16
  11. A History of Art in Africa, p. 49
  12. O'Riley, Michael Kampen (2006).Art Beyond the West (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-13-175152-2
  13. Eglash, Ron: "African Fractals: Modern computing and indigenous design." Rutgers 1999
  14. "The Use of Haematite, Tiger's Eye Stone and Ebony Wood for African Jewelry". Squinti African Art. Retrieved 2012-01-15.
  15. "What is African Art". Squinti African Art. Archived from the original on 2012-01-19. Retrieved 2012-01-15.
  16. ""New" Giraffe Engravings Found". The 153 Club. Archived from the original on 12 June 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-31.
  17. Richardson, John (2007). A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-375-71150-3.
  18. Magnin, André (2005). Arts of Africa: Jean Pigozzi's Contemporary Collection. Milan: Skira. ISBN 88-7624-296-1.
  19. Enwezor, Okwui (2010). Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity: Contemporary African Photography from the Walther Collection. Göttingen: Steidl. ISBN 978-3-86930-157-0.
  20. "Indiana University Art Museum Arts of Kenya Online Collection".
  21. Roy, Christopher D. "The Art of Burkina Faso", Art & Life in Africa, University of Iowa.
  22. Roy, Christopher D. Art of the Upper Volta Rivers, 1987, Paris: Chaffin.
  23. "Art & Life in Africa - The University of Iowa Museum of Art". Archived from the original on 2013-06-30. Retrieved 2014-12-12.


Further reading

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