Fine art, as it has been classically understood, consists of art forms developed primarily for reasons of aesthetic, intellectual, and/or conceptual base, which distinguishes it from the so-called “applied arts” which also serve some practical function.
Nowadays, the phrase “fine arts” tends to refer to the visual AND performing arts, however in some institutes of learning, fine art and fine arts are used to refer explicitly to the visual arts. Thus, when speaking about “African fine art”, we are mainly talking about painting and sculpture. The word “fine”, however, does not signify the quality of the artwork, but rather to the purity of the particular discipline the artwork expresses.
Some of the art is made directly by carving; others are fired, welded, molded, or cast. Because sculpture involves the use of materials that can be moulded or modulated, African fine art may be considered one of the ‘plastic arts’.
African art describes the kind of art originating from Sub-Saharan Africa, as the majority of art originating in North Africa along the Mediterranean has been mostly Islamic in nature. Also, the art of Ethiopia is typically different from that of rest of Africa. There it seems that instead of traditional African religion, more of a Christian-influenced art developed.
Many African sculptures that were made with wood or other organic materials centuries ago have not survived. Some old pottery figures, however, have been found in a number of areas. Later African cultures developed bronze reliefs to decorate places and goldweights do signify their local expressions of regalia. Masks and figurines were also made of harder materials such as metal or stone.
Masks and statues are of great importance in African culture and fine art, which are often highly stylized depending upon the region from whence it came and how it developed. Sculpture, for example, is common among the areas near the Niger and Congo Rivers of West Africa as they placed more emphasis on the care given by divine forces. Then again, depictions of African deities, which were originally made for religious ceremonies, are now made for tourist markets due to the changing nature of the continent.
In the eastern Africa, because they often reside in areas lacking in wood materials, locals have tended to make paintings such as Tinga Tinga, as well as Makonde structures. In the south, soapstone carvings are more prominent, including modern Zimbabwe achieving considerable international acclaim.
Africa itself is a vast continent with many different types of tribes, peoples and cultures, each with each unique contribution to the visual arts, but nevertheless casual observers tend to generalize about “traditional” African art, which has some unifying themes when considered as a whole.
The first theme in African fine art is the emphasis on the human figure, which has always been the primary subject matter for African art as a whole. As early as the 15th century, traders from Portugal obtained ivory human figurines from the African people, and that theme has continued until today. The human figure may reference the living or the dead, chiefs, dancers, hunters, drummers, deities, or ancestors. Occasionally you will find an inter-morphosis figure where a human has been combined with an animal shape.
A second theme in African fine art is visual abstraction. African art does not seem to favor naturalistic representation over their abstractions, and often generalize certain stylistic features of their work. Egyptian art, for example, uses different colors and sizes to depict characteristics of individual specimens (human or otherwise), and this is especially seen in their painting. You will often see exaggerated human characteristics such as lips, eyes, or face, in Egyptian art as well as other African art.
A third theme in African fine art is an emphasis on three-dimensionality. African artists tend to favor sculpture and protruding art over their two-dimensional counterparts. Even many African paintings were made to be experienced three-dimensionally, such as house paintings which require the viewer to walk around the entire piece to see its entirety. African ceremonial garments often depict a readiness to move, which gives a lifelike feel to the wearer.
A fourth theme of African fine art is the emphasis on performance art. So many of the pieces you will find in African art were made for use in performance (religious or cultural) contexts, rather than in static ones. African masks, for example, were often used in communal ceremonies where they were danced with, rather than simply worn. Most African societies will signify this with the actual name of the mask, which includes its meaning, the dance associated with it, and the spirits that reside within it as three aspects of the same theme of performance.
African art traditionally takes many forms and as such is made from many different materials, including primarily wood and organic materials as mentioned above. Jewelry is a relatively popular art form and is made from various types of stones and shards, including haematite, sisal, coconut shell, beads, and ebony wood. Sculptures and masks can be wooden, ceramic, or even carved out of stone. Ebony wood is particularly popular for more contemporary African art.
The exact origins of African art are difficult to pinpoint because of the tendency to use perishable materials, such as wood, in their construction. However, the oldest samplings are from the Egyptian and Nubian Kingdoms of millennia ago. The oldest archaeological discovery was near the Sahara in Niger, where there were found 6000-year-old carvings.
The oldest African art often depicts the abundance of nature or the interpretations of animal and plant life. The earliest known sculptures from West Africa are from the Nok culture, where clay figures were found with elongated bodies and angular shapes, dating between 500 BC and 500 AD.
There then seems to have been more complex methods developed for producing art in the sub-Saharan region around the 900s AD, with some bronzework of Igbo Ukwu and the brass castings in West Africa. These were often adorned with ivory and other precious stones and became highly prestigious in the area. Often these artists were limited to working with royalty.
Differentiation by People and Region
The two primary fine African art pieces popular today are statues and masks. Each of these is a three-dimensional piece of artwork that is created by shaping hard material, commonly stone, metal, or wood.
There are a number of masks made by the Bambara people. The first type has a comb-like structure above the face and is donned during dances. The second type has a round head with antelope horns on top and a wide, flat mouth. These are also used in dances, where libations poured over them may have created a layer of encrusted material on the head. The third type of mask by the Bambara is a a decorated bird mask. Other minor types of mask include animal heads utilized by the Kore society.
The Bambara people also create animalized headdresses worn by the Tji-Wara society. They tend to be diverse in design and color, but typically incorporate zig-zags and a head with two large horns. It is said that the Tji-Wara wear the headdresses during a ceremonial dance in their crop fields in hopes of increasing crop yield.
Finally, the statues and figurines play an important role in the cultural life of the Bambara people. During certain annual ceremonies, statues are gathered from their traditional sanctuaries and washed and re-oiled. Sacrifices are then made to them in hopes of obtaining good fortune.
The most prominent of these figures are a seated or standing maternity figure, and a male figure usually holding a knife. Other figures from the Dyo society were female figures with large breasts used to celebrate initiation ceremonies. Finally, the Boh sculptures of the Bambara peoples are usually wooden representations of animal or human figures which have been repeatedly covered with mud or dirt along with animal blood. These efforts worts employed to empower the figures with beneficial spiritual forces, preventing evil spirits from attending the area.
Dogon fine art is primarily sculptures that are not primarily made to be seen publicly, and are commonly hid within the houses of families or within sactuaries. This is because the symbolic meaning behind the pieces and the process by which they are made are a well-guarded treasure of the people.
The Dogon people have many different styles of masks, as much as 80. Their basic characteristics include a great emphasis on geometry, including the interplay of lines (vertical and horizontal), as well as triangular and conic shapes. Each mask will have a variety of color styles covering the features, but many masks have lost their color due to being left on the ground or because of termites or other deteriorative conditions. The masks were often used in ceremonies to lead the dead into the realm of ancestors. They also appear in animal form to signify commonly held mythology, of which the deepest meanings are reserved for the highest ranking cult members.
In terms of statues and figurines, it is common to see bearded figures, women with children, horsemen, women grinding millet or bearing jars overhead, musicians, dogs, and mirror images. As is typical of African fine art, Dogon sculpture art tends toward visible stylization, embodying the cultural myths and rules which govern human life. Thus they are found in typical places of worship, family altars, and in the markets.
Dogon art emphasizes and accentuates the human forms, with elongated or enlarged features found in the figurines. Seated female figures with their hands on their stomachs are common, signifying fertility, and it is common practice for expecting women to offer food and sacrifices to these figures. Horse and horsemen figures are reminders of the culturally held myth that the horse was the first animal to live on the earth. Kneeling figures were often place near the dead to help them be conveyed to the afterword. Often times cubism emerges within Dogon art, with an ovoid head, squared shoulders, thighs on a parallel plane, and hairstyles delineated by three or four straight lines.
Kenyan art is now well-known for its paintings and its wide variety of selection available. Pure abstract paintings or other types of art is rare, but most artists paint semi-abstract human figures, with distortions of the body being common. Kenyan artistic painters use acrylic and oil-based paints as well as traditional water color in their work. In addition to paintings, Kenyan art may also include jewelry, musical instruments, masks, figurines, and wood carvings.
The Fang people of Gabon are known for making masks and sculptures of distinct lines, shapes, and clarity. Certain boxes called Bieri hold the remains of ancestors are often carved with protective figures. Masks are worn in hunting as well as in ceremonies, when the faces are painted black and white. The Bekota people often employ brass or copper to cover their carvings, and baskets to maintain their ancestral remains.
In this region of Africa (often called “The Ivory Coast”) the Baoulé, the Senoufo and the Dan peoples are extremely skilled at carving wood and producing wooden masks in wide variety. The masks often represent animals in certain caricature to depict deity or religious significance, or to represent the spirits of the dead.
The masks in Côte d’Ivoire are held to be of great spiritual power, and it is a taboo for anyone other than specially knowledgeable and trained people, or “chosen” ones, to wear or possess certain masks. The masks are thought to be almost magical– to have a life force, or a soul, and moreover, wearing the mask is believed to change the wearer of the mask into the actual entity the mask represents.
Central and southern Tanzania are where the roots of Tinga Tinga art came from. These paintings involve colorful, exaggerated shapes animals. The Makonde people in this region of Africa traditionally carve household objects, along with statues and masks.
Egypt perhaps has the oldest reknown tradition of African art, from large statues to hieroglyphics themselves. For over three thousand years and over thirty dynasties, the art was centered on the state religion, and produced massive, ornate figures to small figurines, to wall art that expressed the mythology of world origins. Much of the art from Egypt retains a certain upright and stiffness of human and animal figures, in a “regal” fashion, along with strict adherence to mathematical propotions. This was believed to reflect the godliness of the ruling class.
The National Museum of African Art in Washington DC has put on extended displays of fine African art, including their “Land as Material and Metaphor” exhibit, which explored the relationship that African artists had with the land upon which they worked. The display featured over 100 exceptional works from the 1700s to the 2000s.
The Museum also features an ongoing mosaic display, including a large sculpture by contemporary Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow. It is designed to show collecting opportunities and decisions that exist for art museums.
The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) publishes a journal on fine African art called “African Arts”, which presents original research on the expressive cultures found throughout the African continent. It contains richly illustrated articles in full color, and inter-cultural dialogues and interdisciplinary connections between religion, politics, anthropology, history, and language of African studies.
This is just a brief reminder about how to care for the fine art pieces you may acquire. Do not place them in areas that are commonly trafficked by large numbers of people. Place them safely away from potential contact. It is definitely in the collector’s interest to minimize the hand contact that the pieces have, as over time it can dull or alter the piece in a significant way. A high display out of reach but still in plain view, or a display case, is wise for the rarest pieces.
How To Buy
We carry a wide selection of African fine art for you to peruse, include museum-quality, one-of-a-kind statues and masks to add to your collection. We receive new pieces frequently, so stay tuned to the the Fine African Art category for the latest items, and sign up for our newsletter to be made aware of new arrivals.