African Art

Human life, which is understood to have begun in Africa, developed over millions of years and radiated beyond the continent of Africa.  The earliest African art dates to 77,000 years ago.  While interpretation of this art is conjectural at best, the clarity and strength of design and expression in the work is obvious.

6-1a: Early artistic expression of the African continent is found in the rock art of the Sahara and in southern Africa.  Those works depict the animals that lived in each region, human pursuits (e.g., herding, combat, and perhaps dance or some sort of regularized behavior), contact among different groups of people, and the use of technologies (e.g., horses and chariots).

6-1b: The now-deserts of the Sahara were once grasslands and an original source of agriculture and animal husbandry.  As the desert grew, it stretched toward the still well-watered valley of the Nile and the culture of Pharaonic Egypt.  Resulting human migrations carried populations southward into central Africa and eventually across the Congo River Basin.  The arts, major world religions, and international trade routes followed those paths and flourished in patterns of distribution seen in Africa today.

Human beliefs and interactions in Africa are instigated by the arts.  African arts are active; they motivate behavior, contain and express belief, and validate social organization and human relations.

6-2a: Art in Africa is a combination of objects, acts, and events, created in a wide variety of media (vocal, oral, and visual) and materials (wood, ivory, metals, ceramic, fiber, and elements of nature) that are carved, cast, forged, modeled, woven, and combined by recognized specialists for knowledgeable patrons.

6-2b: Art reveals belief systems; it presents a world that is known but not necessarily seen, predictable, or even available to everyone.  These arts are expressive rather than representational and often require specialized or supernaturally ordained capabilities for their creation, use, and interpretation.  African art is concerned with ideas (beliefs and relationships that exist in the social and intellectual world) rather than the with objects of the natural or physical world.  Art is created for both daily use and ritual purposes (such as leadership, religious beliefs, diagnosis and divination, education, and personal adornment).

6-2c: Art forms may be prescribed by a diviner, commissioned by a supplicant, and produced by a specific artist.  The art object comes under the custodianship of the person who commissioned it or a member of his or her family.  Performances of objects are accompanied by costumes and music.  None of these practices is simple or random.  Cultural protocols acknowledge and ensure the efficacy and appropriateness of artistic experience in Africa.  African art is sung, danced, and presented in holistic experiences for designated audiences; it is created for specific reasons and to produce expected results.

Use and efficacy are central to the art of Africa.  African arts, though often characterized, collected, and exhibited as figural sculptures and masks, are by nature meant to be performed rather than simply viewed.  African arts are often described in terms of the contexts and functions with which they appear to be associated.

6-3a: As in all arts, aspects of human experience (such as origins, destinies, beliefs, physicality, power, and gender) are expressed through objects and performances.  Artistic expression in Africa is an integral part of social life, connecting daily practices to beliefs, systems of power and authority, and social networks that link people to their families, communities, and shared ancestors.  African arts mark status, identity, and cycles of human experience (e.g., maturational, seasonal, astronomical, and liturgical).

6-3b: Education, incorporation into adulthood, and civic responsibility are processes marked by the creation, manipulation, and interpretation of art objects.  The arts of authority (both achieved and inherited status and roles) legitimate traditional leadership.  Leaders’ histories and accomplishments are often status, and relationships are delineated by aesthetic choices and artistic expression.  Common ancestors link leaders, sanction social behavior and choices, and define the order of social life.

6-3c: Urbanization and its monumental trappings (both bureaucratic and architectural) often associated with ‘civilization’ take many forms in Africa.  Administrative and liturgical centers exist apart from settlement that is often determined by the spaces required for agriculture or herding.  Seasonal climatic shifts and demands of political relations affect the scale and distribution of built environments and arts that mark them.  The sites of Meroe, Timbuktu, Zimbabwe, Igbo Ukwu, and Kilwa Kisiwani demonstrate that range of monumentalities.

Outsiders have often characterized, collected, and exhibited African arts as primitive, enthnographic, anonymous, and static, when in reality Africa’s interaction with the rest of the world led to dynamic intellectual and artistic traditions that sustain hundreds of cultures and almost as many languages, contributing dramatically to the corpus of human expression.  African life and arts have been deeply affected by ongoing, cosmopolitan patterns of interaction with populations around the world and through time.

6-4a: African histories, often sung or recited, are traditionally the responsibility of specialists.  Outsiders often see those histories as timeless and unchanging.  The Africa we know often comes from ideas promulgated by foreigners since the 9th century- as though history were brought to, rather than originating from, Africa.

6-4b: As they have been traditionally collected by outsiders, African art objects that are similar in form are often grouped with works that come from the same place and are produced by a designated ethnic group.  The name of the artist and the date of creation are rarely acknowledged by the outsiders who collected them.  These gaps in the record do not reflect a lack of interest on the part of those who commission, use, and protect art objects; rather they are the result of ignorance and predisposition by those collecting, describing, and explaining African art.

6-4c: Creative contributions of African life and arts are found in populations around the world.  Artistic practices were convened by and continue to be serviced by African people and beliefs, from Macao to Manaus to Mauritania.  These creative contributions are reflected in diverse art forms, from the practices of Santeria to Japanese screens and the painting of Renaissance Venice.  The literatures of Negritude and Harlem Renaissance expanded the notions of place and race to new levels that are again changing in the contemporary diaspora.  Although traditional Africa art forms are usually described and exhibited, contemporary African arts have increased awareness and understanding of the arts of the continent across the globe.

African Art Presentation


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s