Learn About African Paintings


Many African paintings capture the essence of Africa’s stunning and distinctive vistas and wildlife. In addition, many paintings feature village scenes that range from simple and mundane to dramatic and poignant. The most seminal examples of African paintings are usually quite colorful while tending to veer towards the abstract. In other words, they are not completely naturalistic, despite portraying the real life and culture of Africa.

Thus, those who appreciate this less realistic style of art will likely respond to the unique beauty of African paintings. As stunning expressions of Africa’s rich character (as well as expressions of centuries of history and tradition), the most skillful examples of African painted artwork serve as visual representations of the nation and its people, rituals, symbols, diverse cultures and exceptional natural beauty.

Ancient History

The first African paintings appeared on the faces of rocks and on the walls of stone caves. The most primitive examples were discovered in Namibia, and they are believed to be 27.000 years old. In addition to these Namibian designs, tens of thousands of ancient rock paintings were discovered in the Drakensberg Mountain Range of South Africa.

Historians believe that these paintings were used for myriad purposes. For example, some paintings might demonstrate information or events in order to educate or inspire community members. Other types of paintings might have been crafted in order to communicate with otherworldly spirits.

Early rock paintings were quite realistic in style. Later on, African art became more stylized and abstract, as mentioned above. However, primitive African rock paintings were relatively anatomically correct, in contrast to later examples of African art, such as painting, statues and masks, which often featured elongated limbs and/or heart-shaped faces.

Palettes used in these early rock paintings were decidedly monochrome (one color). Over time, those who produced cave paintings gained access to more tones of dye and also developed their painting techniques in order to create effects that were more layered and colorful. Dyes were derived from berries, animals and plant life.

The first tribe of Africa which became renowned for its paintings was the San (also known as the Bushmen). This culture produced art that celebrated the spirit world. For example, paintings produced by the San would often feature spirits which behaved in magical, strange and adventurous ways.

Other indigenous tribes moved around Africa, searching for fertile land, more pleasant weather, and safety from enemy factions. As a result, these indigenous tribes began to soak in the influences of different cultures. Thus ancient paintings produced by indigenous tribes often featured a broader base of influences. Symbols used in paintings were frequently used to communicate information to tribe members who were “in the know”. By spotting certain symbols, tribe members were able to gather information through the paintings of their fellow tribesmen.

Paintings also evolved when European colonists began to arrive in Africa. Colors and structural elements of people and animals became more creative, and they were designed to expose lighthearted elements of subjects. Art that was influenced by colonialists had a realistic look, in contrast to traditional African art, with its stylized design. However, most African artists used colonial influences sparingly, thereby continuing to instill their art with the beauty and uniqueness of African culture.

General Themes

In order to understand the beauty and resonance which is prevalent in so many African paintings, it’s important to recognize their overarching themes. After all, certain themes reappear in so many examples of African art. Typical themes which predominate include couples, mother and child, men with weapons (and/or animals) and outsiders. Now, let’s take a look at each theme and its unique symbolism.

Couples – In most African paintings, couples are portrayed in standing poses. Usually, couples are of the same height and social status. For example, figures of equal (or close to equal) height may be married, brother and sister, or members of the same tribe, community or culture. It is believed that couple motifs in African paintings demonstrate the concept of two people being “as one”.

This “as one” symbolism is not necessarily romantic. In fact, it is rare to see overly sexual poses in African paintings of couples. The concept of “two as one” may simply refer to a sense of intimacy which showcases the power of different types of couples. In most cases, this sort of art was produced in order to adorn shrines (or to add luster, dimension and resonance to community or tribal ceremonies). Typically, African paintings of male/female couples exhibit a sense of honour and strength, rather than romantic elements or themes.

Mother and Child – The poignant theme of mother and child is also a common sight in African paintings. Since most African women do dream of motherhood and then embrace it wholeheartedly, these paintings capture the maternal spirit of the nation’s females, as well as the innocence, beauty and vitality of babies, toddlers and older children. Mothers and their children may be depicted in a range of poses. Typically, there will be a sense of closeness. Paintings of mothers holding infants are common, as are village scenes where mothers are walking with or interacting with their kids.

Men with Weapons and/or Animals – A man armed with a weapon or posed near an animal is another common theme in African paintings. Equine (horse) figures are common design elements in paintings of African males; however, other types of animals may also be represented. In general, paintings of men are designed to illustrate power and social standing. Since owning animals is a sign of status, painting a man with his horse denotes a significant level of wealth and success. Likewise, weapons are symbols of power. Men who wield or carry weapons in African paintings are invariably portrayed as brave, strong and capable.

Occasionally, paintings of African males may contain supernatural elements. For example, men may be portrayed as riding mythical beasts. Such beasts are perceived as wild and magical. By taming such creatures, men in African paintings appear to be heroic and ultra-masculine.

Outsiders – The last archetype that is traditionally explored via African paintings is that of the outsider. An outsider will typically come from another tribe and then be treated with wariness and caution by a new community. In African culture, the outsider is viewed with distaste and mistrust. Depending on the level of power, wealth and talent that an outsider brings, he may be revered, feared or despised.

Materials Used

Primitive rock paintings may have design elements that were made from mud. Later, dyes were used in order to add more resonance and vibrancy to cave and rock paintings. Berries, animals and plants were common sources of the color pigments.

Contemporary African art may be made from oil paints, acrylics, or any other types of modern paints. However, certain artists may prefer to use traditional dye pigments in order to get a vintage-inspired effect. Backdrops may include stretched canvas, raw canvas, wood or clay.

Typically, other forms of African art are crafted from wood, textiles, pottery (terracotta) and cast metal.

Tinga Tinga Paintings

The painting style known as Tingatinga is well-known, due to its brilliant and saturated colors and sometimes-sly, winking style. This type of art developed during the second part of the 20th century, in Oyster Bay, Tanzania. After its inception, the popularity of this art form spread to eastern sections of Africa.

Usually, Tingatinga paintings are crafted on Masonite backgrounds, from layers of bike paint. Designed to stir the interest of tourists who enjoy selecting African paintings as souvenirs, Tinge Tinga subject matter usually features animals, such as lions or elephants. The style of this touristy example of African art is anything but highfalutin. In fact, Tingatinga art may have a cartoonish quality. Traces of wit and a lighthearted spirit characterize the most authentic examples of Tingatinga art.

First created by artist Edward Tingatinga, who painted famous works of art, such as The Lion, Peacock on the Baobab Tree and Monkey, the designs of Tingatinga were soon imitated by other artists. Today, the original works of Edward Tingatinga are prized collector’s items which invariably fetch high prices at art auctions.

Modern Exhibits

Modern African art was displayed in South Africa during the 50s and 60s. These contemporary displays featured the work of prominent painters, such as Cyril Fradan and Walter Battiss. The Goodman Gallery was a popular venue for these exhibitions.

Another important venue for African art exhibits is the Museum for African Art in New York City. This museum featured a 2007 showing of the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art, which impressed visitors (and art critics) to a pronounced extent.

These days, thanks to the power of the World Wide Web, it’s possible to view and enjoy the beauty of modern (or traditional) African art, simply by checking out collections online. The digital age has ushered in a convenient way for people all over the world to explore the fascinating world of African Art.

Why Collect

Collecting art should be about passion. If you have a passion for Africa, or you have African heritage, you may find that the paintings of this continent really move you. By choosing African paintings that you love, you’ll be able to enjoy art that really resonates with you. However, you may also wish to buy art as an investment. If this is the case, you may expect to pay more for your preferred designs. After all, the best examples of African art may actually be museum-quality paintings that are very valuable, or even priceless.

You don’t need to spend a fortune in order to find quality African paintings. The key to getting the right piece of art work for you is to research the themes and history of authentic African paintings. We’ve provided lots of information in this article. However, there is lots of other information out there. Once you’ve isolated themes and styles of African artwork, you’ll be one step closer to choosing the right painting or paintings for you. You could choose the work of respected artists at a premium, or more inexpensive art that simply looks great to you.

How To Buy

Whether you seek out a piece with excellent provenance (and spend a bit more to buy it) or go for cheaper examples of the comedic Tingatinga style, you’ll find that African art is a fascinating mixture of symbolism, cultural elements and supernatural features. Good provenance (i.e. ownership history) may significantly boost the value of a painting. However, sometimes, with older African paintings, provenance is hard to trace. It will be easier to discover the provenance of modern paintings from Africa.

Now that you know more about African paintings, you’re very likely intrigued by these unique and expressive forms of art. Because the best examples of African art embody the spirit of thousands of years of African history and culture, they are very resonant and powerful. Whether you enjoy paintings with a light spirit or darker depictions of human figures, animals or supernatural creatures, you’ll find that African art provides you with wonderful options that will suit your tastes to perfection.

Adding African paintings to your home or commercial space will be a perfect way to honour your African heritage (or just to express your appreciation for this pleasing form of art). If you like, highlight the beauty of your paintings by adding other, complementary types of African art, such as masks, statues or textiles. Then, you’ll create plenty of African “feel” in an instant!

Collecting African art is a passion for millions of people all over the world. People from all walks of life and income levels are able to select examples of African art that are inspiring, beautiful and highly symbolic. Now, it’s your turn to discover which types of African art are right for you.

We are currently switching artists, and will have new art for you to peruse shortly.  Check back soon!

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