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African Sculpture

Human, spirit and animal forms have been created with great diversity in the hundreds of different sculpture styles in Africa, both traditional and modern. The figure sculpture of dynastic Egypt, and the bronzes and terracottas of ancient Ife and Benin in Nigeria, include examples of realistic individual portraits. Other figure forms, like those of the Chamba carvers in Nigeria, the Bambara in Mali, or the Senufo in the Ivory Coast, combine masses, curves and angularities in a much more stylised way. In the twentieth century, especially since 1950, art movements and art schools have developed in many African countries (such as the Makonde wood carvings of Tanzania and Mozambique, and the Shona stone sculpture from Zimbabwe)

                    Yoruba Shango Staff               Nok head (Nigeria)

The African sculptures that Henriques selected for the University of Leeds probably all date from between 1880 and 1930. They show a much broader range of styles than the masks that he chose. They range geographically from the female Minsereh figures of the Mende of Sierra Leone in the west, to Zulu carvings from the Republic of South Africa in the South. (Metal and ivory figures are discussed separately below).

The most important wooden figure sculpture is a Yombe grave guardian or commemorative effigy from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo Following Leuzinger (Leuzinger, E. Art of the World: Africa, London, 1962,plate 45, pp 168-9) this figure was previously ascribed to the Sundi, but in his extremely detailed stylistic analyses Lehuard assigned such figures to the neighbouring Yombe (R. Lehuard. LíArt Bakongo, Vol 1, Sarcelles 1989, pp 562-270). The cap-like head-dress and the facial marks (probably representing tears) indicate that the figure commemorates an individual of high rank. Priests would make offerings and prayers before these grave figures to receive their counsel, and ensure the continuity of the community. White clay is painted over the body as a traditional sign of mourning.

                    Dan Tankagle Mask                                        Dan spoon

The Kongo power figure or nkisi nkonde represents a more common and better known type of Congo figure sculpture, with its right arm raised to take a model knife or spear (now missing). The mirror-fronted box of powerful charms, which was once attached to the stomach, is also now missing. The local doctor or healer would have looked in this mirror to find the image of the spirit or human ill-wisher who had caused a patientís illness. The figures were used collectively to protect the community, and attack bad intentions.

Other Central African figure sculptures include a small Yaka figure with upturned hook nose, and a cheeky male and female figure pair. From the Kisii of Kenya in East Africa there is a baked clay head, an early example of work for tourists. A large blackened wood figure of a mother and child wearing a beadwork apron, probably comes from South Africa, or Malawi. Zulu figure carving is represented by a small female figure with seed eyes, together with two staffs, one with a tiny bull-shaped knob, the other with a figure on top, and a grasping hand in relief lower down.

                                       Chi Wara headdress (Mali)          Dodon Statue

Elements of the African Aesthetic

Resemblance to a human being:
African artists praise a carved figure by saying that it "looks like a human being." Artists seldom portray particular people, actual animals, or the actual form of invisible spirits. Rather, they aim to portray ideas about reality, spiritual or human, and express these ideas through human or animal images.

The lustrously smooth surface of most African figural sculpture, often embellished with decorative scarification, indicates beautifully shining, healthy skin. Figures with rough surfaces and deformities are intended to appear ugly and morally flawed.

The person who is composed behaves in a measured and rational way; he or she is controlled, proud, dignified, and cool.

A youthful appearance connotes vigor, productiveness, fertility, and an ability to labor. Illness and deformity are rarely depicted because they are signs of evil.

Clarity of form and detail, complexity of composition, balance and symmetry, smoothness of finish:
African artists place a high value on fine workmanship and mastery of the medium.


Egyptian Sculpture

For over three thousand years the Egyptians adhered to a prescribed set of rules as to how a work of art in three dimensions should be presented. Egyptian art was highly symbolic and a painting or sculpture was not meant to be a record of a momentary impression. Apparent differences were the result of subtle changes, not an altered conception of art or its role in society.

                                          Seated Man                             Sabek em hat-leader of priests

Of the materials used by the Egyptian sculptor -- clay, wood, metal, ivory, and stone -- stone was the most plentiful and permanent, available in a wide variety of colors and hardness. Sculpture was often painted in vivid hues as well. Egyptian sculpture has two qualities that are distinctive; it can be characterized as cubic and frontal. It nearly always echoes in its form the shape of the stone cube or block from which it was fashioned, partly because it was an image conceived from four viewpoints. The front of almost every statue is the most important part and the figure sits or stands facing strictly to the front. This suggests to the modern viewer that the ancient artist was unable to create a naturalistic representation, but it is clear that this was not the intention. 

                                                 Falcon of Horus                                  Sacred cat of Bast

Tomb scenes often show sculptors at work, but they never show statues in an unfinished state. However, unfinished statues and their fragments supply important information on the work of sculpors. The general methods seem to have been to take a block of stone with a preliminary drawing of the objects to cut. Stone tools seem to have been used for cutting the block, while details were cut with copper and bronze tools. A last stage was to polish the work with rubbing stones and quartz sand. Finally statues were painted

                                                      Kaper Funeral Offering

Progress and Change in African Art

Africa is a truly unique Continent. With over 50 countries, and about a thousand different languages; this is a land where diversity is normal. While in Africa, one finds different unique ethnic living within ten miles of each other to be the norm. Even though group loyalties run very deep, people still have longstanding relationships with each other.

One of the most astounding things about Africa is the pace of change. Africa today is changing at a pace faster, than has ever been seen in the history of civilization. Changes that took many centuries in Western Europe and North America have taken place in just a few short decades in Africa.

Where else in all of history will we ever see people moving so quickly from tribal societies to modern nations. Progress in African nations has been happening at a rate, and in a manner not experienced anywhere else on the Globe.

The goals of independence and nationalism among many of Africa's people, has speeded up the process of breaking down barriers between tribal groups. This merging of tribal cultures has further weakened the traditions already made weak from contact with Western civilization.

Art is one of the most important parts of any culture. In Africa, traditional art is becoming a thing of the past as quickly as the continent changes. With the disappearance of traditions and other aspects of African culture, works of traditional African art are becoming more and more scarce. The art of previous generations was produced to meet religious and social needs that no longer exist within most groups of Africans today.


Quality works of ancient African art are becoming harder and harder to find. The value of this art has gone up accordingly; and much of the traditional artwork has left the continent for private collections overseas. People living in poverty will often give up family heirlooms; some passed down through generations; in order to survive.

                                      Oil Painting

Artisans who create the art are also adopting new world views which make traditional work of modern vintage somewhat less meaningful and true to the original heritage. Just as the culture of Africa is changing fast, in the same way it's art, as a reflection of that culture also changes quickly.

Water Color Painting

New African art is not by any means inferior however; just different. Just as modern Western art has taken prominence over older forms, so too, modern African art is replacing the traditional; and bringing with it its own new meaning and aesthetic significance. African culture is shown through art in paintings and sculpture, as well as in jewelry and other items of everyday life. 

        Banana leaf Painting


Common Themes in African Art.

When a person views African art, several themes seem to come up over and over again. These themes are representations of different things that are significant to African culture; and reveal the importance behind some of its most beautiful art. In this issue of our newsletter, I will go through four common themes in African art that show African culture. The common themes are:

A couple

A woman and a child

A male with a weapon or animal

An outsider or "stranger"

Couples are most commonly shown as freestanding figures of relatively the same size and stature. They may be representative of ancestors, a married couple, twins, or community founders. This is representative of the importance placed on two as one. Most art of this type was developed for shrines or for positions of ceremonial honor. Sexual intimacy is rare in African carvings. This in that it is rare for men and women to display their affection publicly. The most common theme of the male and female couple is that of strength and honor; not love and intimacy.

The mother and child couple is often representative of mother earth and the people as her children. African women will generally have a very strong desire for children as well however. The strong desire that a woman has to bear children further shows the strong mother child relationship that is a vital part of African culture.

A male with a weapon or animal (commonly a horse) is commonly produced to show honor to departed ancestors. Animals are rarely sculpted for the purpose of showing the inward or outward beauty of the animal; but to give status to the person. Even today, many in Africa would consider the ownership of a horse to be of greater status than the ownership of an automobile. Showing a person with a horse would then be giving great honor to them. Sometimes people are shown with animals that are not really ridden; possibly even mythical. The purpose is to show the power given to one who rides such an animal; and the wealth that they must have.

As women achieve significance through their children, men will often be honored in warfare. The one who goes into battle must have physical, emotional and spiritual energy to survive and to conquer. Thus the emphasis on weapons and the spoils of war in many African works.

A final common representation in African art is that of the stranger. In Africa, a stranger is someone from a different country or tribe. They would usually not be welcomed; and the more distorted the portrayal of the stranger, the greater the gap that is normally symbolized. Sometimes strangers; especially white foreigners; are given a form of respect based on their relatively great weaponry and other powers.

As we try to understand what has historically made African peoples what they are; we can find out much of the driving forces within the people represented in these four common artistic themes. This knowledge gives us a deeper appreciation for the heritage and deeper values of much of African society. Unfortunately, much of African art comes with no explanation of the meaning intended to be symbolized when it was created. When the meaning can be discerned, the deeper understanding gained and fuller appreciation of the cultural heritage can be obtained in a more meaningful and memorable way. 


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