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Art History: African Art

Welcome
back to our series on art history! From the lands of South America, we now venture onward to experience the world of art from Africa.
Let’s see how history significantly affected the art of this time.

Benin Ivory Mask
Benin Ivory Mask

Art From the Sub-Sahara

Africa, the birthplace of humankind. Long before the first written records ever existed, the people, culture, and traditions thrived under the heat of the glaring sun.

Honoring the resources given to them by nature, Africans concentrated their artistic styles around various depictions of animals, plant life, and natural designs.

But with the changing of time also came an expansion in the materials and themes found within their art. And though artists were always captivated by the human form, they also explored many styles outside the norm of traditional African art, like contemporary paintings and stunning handmade textiles.

From the earliest Nok sculptures to the brilliant bronze castings of West Africa, let’s explore the various styles of this enigmatic continent.

Benin Bronzes
Benin Bronzes From Nigeria

Sculptures and Carvings

During the early Iron Age, the Nok people of northern Nigeria brought incredible terracotta sculptures to life, often featuring abstract depictions of early humans and animals as grave markers or charms.

Nok Sculpture
Nok Sculpture

Though much is still unknown about the Nok culture, many clay figurines were unearthed by archaeologists and found to be from nearly 2,000 years ago. Stylized heads decorated with elaborate jewelry just barely survived countless years of water erosion, giving us an inside look into the life of this early civilization.

Queen Mother Sculpture From Benin
Queen Mother Sculpture From Benin

Even today, sculpture is still highly prevalent in African art. Historically, they were often made out of wood or other organic materials gathered by the artists.

West Africans, however, would later contribute to the influx of bronze castings found in this region, as they were used to decorate royal palaces and so much more. 

Masks

Though still considered a form of sculpture, the history of African masks deserves a category of its own.

Commercial African Masks
Commercial African Masks

When combined with religious and spiritual meanings, these masks were traditionally used for ritual dances and ceremonial events. The mask itself inherently lacked any form of realistic human features. And though they were initially shaped as human faces or animal muzzles, the styles varied, with many abstract interpretations.

Mwaash aMbooy Mask
Mwaash aMbooy Mask

African masks that resembled animals were thought to be the spirit of said animal. Buffalo, crocodiles, and antelopes were some of the most common subjects, particularly in the Dogon and Bambara cultures where masks were used by dancers at male initiation ceremonies.

Wabele Mask
Wabele Mask

Many materials other than wood were used as well. Light stones, metal, and even different types of fabric were essential materials for crafting these masks by hand.

Textiles

Vibrant textiles also came from the expansive lands of Africa. The Dogon people of West Africa, for instance, believed that the arts of spinning and weaving were related to human reproduction as well as the concept of rebirth. 

Kente Cloth
Kente Cloth

Each color symbolized a specific quality or attribute from their culture. Black and white kente cloth, for instance, was typically worn at funerals of the Ewe and Ashanti.

Bambara Mud Cloth
Bambara Mud Cloth

And with no restriction in society on who was allowed to weave, both men and women learned how to weave from an early age. Artists dyed their cloth with locally produced dyes that allowed for the most beautiful shades of brown, yellow, red, and indigo.

African Bogolan Cloth Market
African Bogolan Cloth Market

Though Westernization has added greatly to the decline of textile making, it still remains an important fabric of African society. It embodies the history of the continent as many deem, “written in cloth.”

Conclusion

Bold colors and abstract shapes were the definitive styles of African art. And though much of its history is unanswered, its wide range of culture and influence is a true testament to
the evolution of art. I hope you continue to learn more about these
amazing timelines on your own.

For more amazing tales of African art history, dive into the links below for further reading. And
join me next month when we discuss Neoclassical art.

The following sources were also included in this article: