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Since ancient times trade routes from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia disseminated ideas, objects, and cultures—as well as Christianity and Islam—to the African continent. African art, which reflects all of these influences and exchanges, is an important lens through which to view world history, and an important field of study in its own right.
Africa, a participant in the global spread of objects, ideas, and people that characterizes the world today, has produced some of the world’s earliest preserved works of art and some of its most exciting contemporary ones. The study of African art began in the early twentieth century, and for much of its development focused solely on the area south of the Sahara and on art forms rooted in precolonial culture, which was seen as static and timeless. Egypt and northern Africa were seen as separate entities. The colonial and postcolonial eras were viewed as periods of decline in African art, due to what were seen as negative outside influences in materials, techniques, subject matter, style, and patronage. In contrast, recent scholarship takes a more inclusive and historically dynamic view. The continent is treated as an integrated whole and the changes of the past century are seen as continuing the evolution that African art has experienced throughout its history. Research today focuses on the artistic interconnections between geographic regions, ethnic groups, and time periods, and contemporary art is given equal footing with so-called traditional forms.
Ancient African Art
The earliest known works of art from Africa are the paintings of animals found on rocks in the Apollo 11 cave in southern Namibia (so-named because they were discovered in July 1969 when the spacecraft landed on the moon). These have been dated 26,500–24,300 BCE, making them as old or older than the Paleolithic cave paintings of Western Europe. Rock paintings and engravings are also found in East Africa and North Africa, particularly in what is now the Sahara; these depictions of animals and humans document the change from the lush, well-watered grasslands of around 8000 BCE to the arid conditions we know today. As the Sahara became drier, its human inhabitants were forced to move, and many of them settled in the Nile Valley, where they contributed to the development of ancient Egyptian and Nubian culture and art.
The earliest known sculptures from Africa south of the Sahara are those from the Nok culture of northern Nigeria, dated 800 BCE to 200 CE. Despite their early date, the Nok sculptures already show visual elements characteristic of African art from later periods. They depict facial features and body parts as abstract geometric shapes, and they alter the natural proportions of the body to emphasize the head. They portray the elaborate hairstyles and beaded body ornaments that are also an important part of the dress of many later African peoples.
During the first millennium CE the cultural features that characterized sub-Saharan African societies until the late nineteenth century were established, such as states based on sacred kingship, long-distance trade, urbanism (especially in west Africa), and various forms of social and religious organization. All of these contributed to the evolution of African visual arts.
West Africa’s first city, Jenne-Jeno, was well established by 800 CE in the inland delta region of the Niger River in present-day Mali. Sophisticated and expressive terracotta sculptures were produced there, primarily between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some depict figures with the trappings of leadership, others are possibly in positions of prayer, and still others appears tormented by diseases or snakes. Little is known about the function of these figures, since the majority of them have been illicitly excavated. Archaeologists believe they were used in domestic rituals, perhaps to ensure the solid foundation of a house and the family within it. Jenne-Jeno was part of a vast trading network that stretched north across the Sahara and south to the forests along the coast of West Africa. There, the site of Igbo-Ukwu in southeastern Nigeria produced lavishly decorated bronze objects using an indigenously developed lostwax technique. (The technique involves coating a wax model in plaster and clay, leaving a small hole in the bottom; when the model is heated, the clay and plaster harden, and the wax melts (i.e., gets “lost” through the hole. Then the sculptor pours molten bronze into the cavity, and when the bronze cools, chips away the outer layer of plaster and clay.) Made in the ninth or tenth century, these were the regalia of a local priest-king. The city of Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria, still a political and spiritual center today, had its artistic flowering between 1000 and 1400. During that period the city’s artists created sculptures whose pronounced naturalism stands out from most other African art, past or present. Most of these idealized portraits were made of clay, but others were made of brass and copper (which is not found naturally in Nigeria), demonstrating Ile-Ife’s long-distance trading connections.
Christianity and Islam were introduced into Africa soon after their inception and quickly found expression in African art and architecture. At first African Christianity was limited to Egypt and Ethiopia, where the rock-cut churches of Lalibela (in Ethiopia) and boldly colored illuminated manuscripts and icons constitute important contributions to Christian art. The Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia, built of stone in the ninth century, is one of the oldest mosques in existence. The Great Mosque at Jenne, the Muslim city that arose next to Jenne-Jeno, is typical of west African Islamic architecture in its use of sun-dried mud bricks and strongly projecting engaged pillars and towers along its facade.
When the earliest European explorers arrived in Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they found several thriving kingdoms as well as smaller social units producing notable works of art. In the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria, ivory carvers and brass casters produced thousands of works of art for use in court rituals that strengthened the spiritual power, authority, and grandeur of the Oba, or divine king. Notable among these were brass heads representing ancestors, ivory tusks carved in relief with figures from Benin history, and brass palace plaques that depicted the panoply of the Benin court hierarchy. In the Kongo Kingdom luxurious textiles of raffia fiber and fly whisks made of ivory distinguished the rulers and other wealthy and powerful people. Brass crucifixes modeled after European prototypes testified to the adaptation to local styles and ideology of objects introduced by Christian missionaries. At Great Zimbabwe, monumental stone buildings, rare elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, were created as the residences and ritual centers for rulers from 1300 to 1450.
The Modern Era
Most of the African art known today through museum collections and publications was made in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This was a period of great change in Africa, as political, religious, and cultural practices were forced to adapt to new conditions brought about by colonialism and, later, independence. Nevertheless, the art made at this time, and the context in which it was used, have formed the image of “traditional” African art that has dominated the study of the field. The following examples provide only a brief glimpse of the variety and complexity of African art in this period. Many of these art forms still thrive, although they continue to change, as they always have, in response to new circumstances.
The Bamana people of Mali are primarily subsistence farmers who live in independent villages led by male elders. Their art consists of wooden masks and sculptures made for the performances and rituals of men’s initiation associations. These associations embody spiritual powers, and their members wield social and political authority within Bamana villages. One such association, Komo, utilizes large wooden helmet masks depicting fantastic animals with projecting jaws and domed heads. Komo masks are covered with a thick crust of sacrificial materials, such as animal blood, plant matter, and sacred earths. These materials, along with added animal parts such as horns, tusks, feathers, and quills, imbue Komo masks with spiritual force and refer to secret knowledge used to keep the village safe from physical or spiritual harm. In contrast to the mask’s intimidating appearance and serious function, the wooden headdresses of the Chi Wara association are intricate and elegant, and the performances in which they are worn entertaining. They represent stylized antelopes that honor the mythical being that brought agriculture to the Bamana.
Unlike the Bamana, the Akan people of Ghana are organized into highly centralized and hierarchical states headed by hereditary chiefs who have maintained their status and authority, although much of their power has been taken over by Ghana’s national government. Akan arts reflect the wealth derived from the region’s vast gold deposits and the multifaceted concepts of power associated with Akan chiefs. Prominent among Akan art forms intended for use by chiefs: cast-gold ornaments and staffs, and other regalia covered with gold leaf—all of which depict animals, humans, and objects that illustrate proverbs concerning the nature and responsibilities of leadership. Brilliantly colored and elaborately woven silk and, more recently, rayon textiles called kente are also worn by Akan elite to signify their power, wealth, and status.
The arts of the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Kongo are similarly focused on leadership and power. Kuba kings are depicted in idealized portraits carved of wood that are believed to house their spiritual essence. Titleholders wear elaborate garments made of woven, appliqued, and embroidered raffia fiber textiles along with accessories and regalia covered with cowrie shells, glass beads, and feathers. Kuba wood masks, worn at initiations and funerals, are similarly covered with a dazzling profusion of colors, patterns, and textures. It should be noted that versions of all the art forms mentioned in this article—including the regalia intended only for Kuba titleholders—are made for the foreign market.
Works made by the Zulu people of South Africa, pastoralists who rose to power in the early nineteenth century on the basis of their military strength, reflect yet another aspect of African art. The Zulu rarely make masks or sculptures; utilitarian objects, such as wooden headrests, milk pails, meat plates, and ceramic beer vessels, predominate. These are often decorated with chevron patterns or raised bumps that refer to the ancestors and to herds of cattle that confer wealth and status. Garments and ornaments decorated with colorful glass beads in geometric patterns express the wearer’s prestige, gender, and marital status. During the struggle against apartheid, some black South Africans wore beaded garments and ornaments to express their opposition to the white government’s ethnic and racial policies. More recently beaded objects have been made as part of the effort to promote awareness of the problem of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
At the beginning of the twentieth century European avant-garde artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in France and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein in Germany, discovered works of African art in ethnographic museums and curio shops. The geometric forms, freedom from naturalistic representations, and vibrant colors of the African objects corresponded to artistic concerns in their own work, and provided a source of inspiration for European art movements such as Cubism and German Expressionism.
During the colonial period, government policies, the spread of Christianity and Islam, and new forms of education, employment, and health care often undermined the structures of political, economic, religious, and family life that had been the context for creating and using art in Africa. Art forms and cultural practices adapted to the new circumstances. Artists began to incorporate newly available materials (such as oil-based enamel paints, factory-woven cloth, and chemical dyes) and newly observed imagery (such as Western-style clothing and automobiles). These innovations demonstrate the vitality and resilience of African art and exemplify its long history of adapting to changing circumstances.
Trends and New Expressions
These developments intensified after World War II as the movement for liberation from colonial rule gained strength and finally culminated in independence for most African nations around 1960. As more and more Africans were exposed to European modes of education and art production in the second half of the twentieth century, distinctive new forms of (and contexts for) African art emerged. Expatriate Europeans in the 1960s established artist workshops in several parts of Africa. The Mbari Mbayo workshop in Oshogbo, Nigeria, and a workshop founded at the National Gallery of Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), are prime examples. Participants were provided with materials and studio space, but training was deliberately minimal to allow the artists’ innate creativity to emerge. The results, by artists such as Twins Seven Seven of Nigeria (b. 1944) and Thomas Mukarobgwa of Zimbabwe (1924–1999), emphasize abstraction, expressive color or form, and mythic subject matter.
Another trend in modern African art developed out of the painted shop signs ubiquitous in African towns and cities. In the genre known as “urban popular painting,” works are often mass-produced and sold to African patrons as home decorations. They share the flat colors, emphasis on consumer goods, and incorporation of text seen in advertising art, and the intuitive perspective and inconsistent shading and scale of artists without formal art education. Tshibumba Kanda Matulu (b. mid-1940s; missing since early 1980s) of the Democratic Republic of Kongo is one of the most accomplished of the urban popular artists. In addition to landscapes and other idealized subjects, he produced a moving series of paintings on the history of his country.
An increasing number of African artists have studied art in colleges or art schools either in Africa or abroad; their work reflects trends in art that are international in scope. In the 1960s, Bruce Onobrakpeya (b. 1932), Uche Okeke (b. 1933), and other Nigerian artists developed a philosophy of art called “natural synthesis” that was based on the fusion of indigenous African and modern European art styles. Their works expressed both the modernity of their newly independent nation and the traditions of African culture. Similar movements arose across Africa. Since the 1990s, African artists have questioned the relevance of ethnic or national labels and even the relevance of African origin itself. Artists such as Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962 in London, to Nigerian parents), Ghada Amer (b. 1963 in Cairo, Egypt), and Berni Searle (b. 1964 in South Africa) investigate these and other concerns of the postcolonial and postmodern world through the means of conceptual art, using installation, performance, video, photography, and other worldwide contemporary art practices. When seen in its entirety, African art at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a complex mixture of local and global concerns, and ancient and innovative forms.
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