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French Influence on the Art World: African Art

African Art

African Art is a term typically used for the art of Sub SaharianAfrica has a history of art that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. The art forms found on the African continent are as diverse as the African people themselves. Numerous tribes and groups from all over the continent contributed to African art history with unique works of art.

African art history

Unifying characteristics

Some general unifying characteristics of African art may be identified...

Innovation of form: the concern on the part of the African artist with innovation and creativity. There is a high level of inventive originality from area to area and in different timeframes.

Conventionalization: combining a balanced composition and asymmetry, adhering to the aesthetic boundaries of beauty as defined in the 5 elements of African art.

Visual abstraction: favouring visual abstraction over naturalistic representation and realism. It usually conveys ideas, the supernatural or spirits and thereby allows itself to be abstracted.

The primacy of sculpture: with the emphasis on the human figure in a three-dimensional mode, even their fabrics are used as decorative cloths to turn the wearer into a living sculpture.

Importance of performance art: the combination of music, dance, dress and bodily ornamentation, sculpture and masks imparts a general multiplicity of meaning and a multi-layered facet to a primary component of African art, thus making each individual object significant for itself and as part of a whole. The message becomes the art form and the meaning comes out in the context rather than the actual object.

Adornment and decoration of the human body: scarification, tattoos, body piercing, body painting, wearing of masks and cloths and jewellery, all artistic expressions contributing to the transformation of the human form to another realism.

Nonlinear scaling and geometric shapes: often a small part of an African design will look similar to a larger part, most prevalent in textiles, basketry and architectural patterning, also decoration of ceramics and drums. This creates a soothing effect, pleasant to the eye and creating an illusion of simplicity belying the complexity of design skill and technique required to create these patterns. 

Multiple meanings: the artists of Africa love to convey many meanings and messages in their work, not all which are immediately evident to the viewer.


AFRICA FACTS African Art History

African Art Themes

  • Emphasis on the human figure.
  • An emphasis on abstract art over naturalistic art.
  • Artist throughout African history tend to concentrate on three-dimensional (example: Sculpture) artworks as opposed to two-dimensional (example: Paintings).
  • The creation of art for use in performance or ceremonies. Art was usually not created to be hung on walls or set in a corner, a common African theme was to use the art. For example mask were worn in many different types of social activities.


Major types of Art from Africa

There are seven major types of art produced in Africa that are widely recognized...

  • Masks
  • Textiles
  • Basketry
  • Figural sculptures
  • Metalwork
  • Ceramics
  • Furniture

The following decorative art forms can also be added...

  • Gold weights
  • Jewellery
  • Bead work
  • Musical instruments

Historically, the most important aspect of an African piece of art has been its function:

  • connecting to a higher spiritual world
  • commemorating a political or social event
  • crafting, embellishing and enhancing a utilitarian object

African Wood Carving

African wood carving: 19th - 20th century

In Africa, south of the Sahara, wood is the natural material for carving. In the 20th century sculpture in wood is still very much a living tradition. Examples from the 19th century have been preserved in reasonable number, largely by the efforts of collectors. But earlier work has crumbled irretrievably, eaten by ants or rotted by damp.  

Even so, the body of art surviving to us in this tradition is immensely rich. It powerfully suggests how much has been lost. 
It is difficult to imagine how African tribal sculptors have viewed their own work, but they have certainly not seen it as art in the self-conscious western manner of recent centuries.  

Tribal carving is done for a clear and practical purpose. A figure may represent an ancestor, destined to stand in a shrine. A mask may be intended for use by a shaman just once a year in a special dance. A post may be designed to prop up a chief's verandah or to form part of a palisade round his house. An elaborate chair is likely to be for the chief himself to sit on. All of them will be better if carved in a dramatic or propitious way.

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Tribal Art

Tribal art and cubism: 20th century
Whatever the reason for the range of tribal art, the result is an unrivalled display of the power of the imagination. The basic subject, as in western sculpture, is the human body. But the tribal sculptor is liberated from the straitjacket of realism.  

His ingredients may be limited to the parts of the body, but he constantly reassembles them in new dimensions and relationships. From a central axis of eyes, nose, mouth, navel and genital organs, to the peripheral cast list of hair, ears, arms, breasts, legs and buttocks, there is no predicting which of these elements will take the starring roles in any one production. Startling imbalance is restored to balance by the force of strong design. 

It is hard to know whether a particular image may be intended to seem sad or terrifying (or neither, or even nothing), for this is a subjective matter on which an outsider may often be mistaken. But in these carvings there is no mistaking the energy and playfulness with which the human body is turned, by confident distortion, into such a gallery of wonderful creatures.  

It is not surprising that Picasso, the most playful genius of the 20th century, is inspired by these fragmentations of dull reality to find a new direction of his own in cubism. 


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5 elements of African art.

1. Resemblance to a human figure for purpose of conveying ideas. 
2. Luminosity representing shiny and unflawed skin. 
3. Youthfulness representing vitality and fertility. 
4. Reserved demeanor representing a person in control. 
5. Balance and proportion through material choices.