Westerners have 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. African Art demonstrates the power of supremely well organized design, a sophisticated imagination combined with mystical and religious dimensions.
African art is a term typically used for the art of Sub-Saharan Africa.Often, casual 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.
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.
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 can be 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 of settled cultivators in the areas drained by the Niger and Congo rivers” in West Africa. 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”. African masks were an influence on European Modernist art, which was inspired by their lack of concern for naturalistic depiction.
Later West African cultures developed bronze casting for reliefs, like the famous Benin Bronzes, to decorate palaces and for very fine naturalistic royal heads from around the Yoruba town of Ife, in terra cotta as well as metal, from the 12th–14th centuries. Akan gold weights 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. 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. 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.
Traditional African art:
Wooden masks, which might either be human or animal or of 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 mud cloth is another well known technique.