Art from Africa has always been a mysterious and often times misunderstood art form. There has always been a fascination with the human figure in African art and its typically the primary subject matter for both ancient and modern African Art. The human fascination may be a symbol of the living or the dead and may refer to chiefs, ceremonial dancers, or different types of trades such as musicians or warriors. It is also very common for art from Africa to portray an anthropomorphic representation of a god or other spirits. Another common African theme is the combination of both human and animal figures, which show the close relationship between the African and nature. Our African collection contains something for everyone.
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African artists tend to favor art forms that are three dimensional or that promote some sort of interaction with the art piece. Even the beautiful African mudcloths are typically meant to be worn as garments or even crafted into home decorations. African masks are also meant to do much more than just hang on a wall. Many of these masks were originally created to be worn by ceremonial dancers who would use the mask as a tool to communicate with spirits and ancestors. In fact, most African tribal art has its roots in some sort of performance art. The influence of African art can be seen and felt across the globe, and it is even said that some of history’s most influential artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh got much of their inspiration from the influence of African Artworks in all their beauty and splendor.
The wooden African mask is typically the most popular African medium due to its beauty, uniqueness and intrigue. In their original contexts, these masks were used for ceremonial purposes such as celebrations, initiations, battle preparation, harvest or as a means to contact their ancestors for guidance. These African masks were crafted by a master wood carver who would be guided by the spirits and produce a beautiful handcrafted mask. The mask would then be worn by a chosen dancer who would go into a deep trance so that he could communicate with the spirits. These ceremonies were often dramatic and anyone who attended would be spiritually affected by the demonstration.
Most African Masks are crafted out of wood, but they are typically adorned with different materials like shells, beads, animal hair, plant fibers and other pigments. It takes many years of training before an artist can reach the status of master carver and many times these skills are passed down through many generations. These carvers are highly respected not only for their carving skills but also for their spiritual and symbolic knowledge.
Handcrafted masks have been used by different cultures around the world for centuries, but African cultures have perhaps the most abundant amount of tradition and ritual behind their intriguing masks. Whether its the corpse-like Dan masks of the Ivory Coast or the vibrant colorful masks of the Maasai people of Kenya, these masks are full of symbolic and societal meanings. In fact, each mask tells its own story and each African society has their own style of unique masks that symbolize themselves and their own culture.
African Art Intrigue
So what is it about African Artwork that seems to stand the test of time? Ancient art seems to have a mysterious and sometimes dark intrigue to it that is difficult to ignore. This mystery seems to come from the ways that most African Art was used in the past. Many of the traditional art pieces were actually used primarily for communicating with ancestors as well as various Gods. In most cases, these art pieces were actually the very instruments used to bridge the gap between this world and the next.
This type of intrigue associated with primitive art pieces still exist to this day. Even with the contemporary art being produced today, you can still find these types of ceremonial designs as well as human and anthropomorphic features that really evoke emotion and practices of the past. Today’s African artwork is no longer used in ceremonial practices, but it is easy to see the connection to the past and to wonder what would these ceremonies have actually been like?
African artworks today are still a beautiful and unique art form that cannot be imitated. From the beautiful wood carvings to the scary and even demonic features portrayed in some African masks, there is just no other art form that can create such mysterious pieces like we find within African tribal art. The intrigue of the past still heavily influences the African art forms of today, and that will allow for this art form to live on and evolve into the future…
African Art History
We can see the characteristic sculpture style of what is known generally as ‘primitive African Art’ as early as the Nok culture circa 500 BC. This culture is named for the Nigerian village where these distinctive pottery figures were originally discovered. The Nok statuettes are made of terracotta. While they depict mostly human subjects, they show a total disregard for anatomical precision. Still, they show strong formal elements and the unmistakable expressive qualities that put them clearly at the beginning of the sculptural tradition of art from Africa.
Terracotta figures represent African sculpture’s longest surviving tradition. The only other material that can handle Africa’s termites, which are lethal to its carved wood sculpture, is cast iron. In the 12th century, we begin seeing excellent metal sculptures from Nigeria, but this is much later than the first terracotta sculptures. The richest and longest tradition of terracotta figures can be seen in West African art, particularly in Nigeria. They are the superb Nok sculptures that date back to around 2,000 years ago. Around the 1st century AD, there emerged the figures from northwest Nigeria’s Sokoto region, distinctive for their wonderful severity.
In Ife, heads and figures of terracotta that date from the 12th to the 15the century have been found. These were produced at the same time as this region’s cast metal sculptures. North from here in the Jenne region of Mali, superb terracotta figures have been discovered by archaeologists from this region as well. These have unfortunately been looted by thieves. One exception to this mostly West African tradition is the extraordinary terracotta figures found in South Africa. These are the first known sculptures of this region. This collection includes seven heads that were discovered in the Transvaal at Lydenburg. They are from around the 6th century AD and distinctive for their brutally chunky modeling style.
Up until the 19th and 20th century, this traditional style of powerful terracotta figures has continued to be made that show the same characteristics as those which have been discovered from two thousand years ago. Style does not change over the years in African sculpture in the same way that it does in European art. For this reason, it is safe to assume that the astonishing imagination we find in today’s African sculpture also existed in that of the past, even though relics from earlier eras may now have crumbled to dust.
Southern Nigeria’s cast-iron work from around the 12th century presents a unique tradition among the sculpture of Africa. The Yoruba people seem to have achieved the peak of perfection in this form. Figures have been found from the era between the 12th and 15th centuries that are marked by astonishing realism. These figures are cast in brass and sometimes pure copper, a very difficult material to work with, and include masks, life-sized heads and small full-length figures. There is a quiet intensity among these figures that is astounding.
The Yoruba people perfected this craft which has continued since the 15th century in Benin, which is still known as a center for casting metal. The heads from Benin are impressive but lack the impact found in the heads of Ife. They are called ‘Benin bronzes.’ The Benin bronzes are actually made of brass which was melted down from various ornaments, vessels and other goods received through the trading routes with countries in Europe and elsewhere. It is documented that 12,750 brass bracelets came to Benin from Portuguese agents in 1505-7 alone. This new style of work was prompted by the coming of the Portuguese. This style primarily uses plaques of brass with scenes in relief, often containing images of the Portuguese. These plaques are found at the royal palace, nailed to the wooden pillars as decorations.
African Wood Carvings in The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Wood is the natural choice for carving in Sub-Saharan Africa. The tradition of carving wood is still very much alive in the 20th century. There are many examples of this art form that survive from the 19th century, largely preserved by collectors. Most work from before this time has crumbled, rotted or by eaten by ants. Still, the body of art that remains from this era is immensely rich. It shows us in a powerful way how much of this tradition has disappeared. Although we cannot exactly say what African tribal sculptures felt about their art, but it can be assumed that it was not self-consciously made as ‘art’ in the way that European sculpture is.
In tribal societies, carving is done for particular practical purposes. A figure may be, for example, representative of an ancestor and placed on a shrine. Masks are used by shamans, sometimes for only one dance in the entire year. Posts are used as part of a chief’s house, to prop up the veranda or as part of its surrounding palisade. Elaborately carved chairs were used for sitting by the chief. Each piece is carved dramatically and propitiously.
African Cubism in the Twentieth Century
Although it exists for many reasons, African tribal art always shows a display of imagination and power that is astounding. Just like its Western counterparts, the main subject is the human form. But unlike Western sculptures, the tribal artist is liberated from the prison of realism. Although he uses the parts of the body as his sole ingredients, he constantly puts them together in new relationships and dimensions. There is no way to predict how these elements will be arranged from the central features of nose, mouth, eyes, navel and genitals, to the peripheral ears, breasts, legs, arms, hair and buttocks. The strong design’s power counteracts and startling imbalances created.
It is difficult to tell if a certain figure is meant to look frightening or sad, or for that case, neither. This matter is subjective, and any outsider is not likely to understand. However, there is no mistaking the sense of play and energy that transforms the human body in these carvings, distorting the image into a wide array of imaginative creatures. We shouldn’t be surprised at the influence this playful genius has on Picasso, one of the 20th century’s most important artists. Inspired by these distortions of the human form, he was able to find his own direction and develop cubism.
Information sourced from http://www.historyworld.net.