Artworks and Artists of Traditional African Art
Untitled rock painting
Chad's Manda Guéli Cave is home to an array of painted figures and animals, including cattle and camels. This diversity of forms highlights an interesting feature of African rock art. Unlike in Europe, where cave paintings were not created beyond prehistoric times, many African cultures continued to produce this style of painting well after humans had settled in agricultural communities. Because of this, works like the above can be divided into four distinct categories, identifiable by the types of animals depicted. Early paintings tend to include wild animals such as bison and elephants, with later phases incorporating first cattle, then horses, and finally camels.
The depiction of camels in this work places it in the last category of cave paintings, helping archaeologists to date the work. The presence of human figures interacting with animals, meanwhile, confirms this piece as a product of a period of domestication, well after the earliest, hunter-gatherer phase of human development had ended. Again, this suggests that this is a later cave painting.
At the same time, the work also seems to serve as an abstract visual diary, or a series of time-stamps stretching across centuries. The fact that camels are depicted alongside, and sometimes seem to be transposed on top of cattle, supports the ideas that in many African caves paintings were not created during single phases of history. Rather, later groups of artists would have added to existing paintings with their own images, creating a remarkable graphic record of the passage of time and human development: indeed, works of African cave art provide a unique and captivating insight into past cultures in a way few other works of human creativity can match.
Pigment on Rock - Manda Guéli Cave, Ennedi Mountains, Chad, Central Africa
Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba
This artwork is one of a pair of African ivory masks featuring the face of a woman from the African country of Benin. Exquisitely detailed, these are arguably the most important historical works of the Edo people. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, "although images of women are rare in Benin's courtly tradition, these two works have come to symbolize the legacy of a dynasty that continues to the present day. The pendant mask is believed to have been produced for...the king of Benin, to honor his mother, Idia. The oba [or king] may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification."
The details of this sculptural work are highly significant to its symbolic and communal meaning. First, the impression of scarification or tattooing on the face reflects a rite common amongst the Benin people - although the distinct facial features would have been based on the appearance of the individual, regal subject. However it is the headdress and collar that are perhaps the most interesting, as they tell a story of foreign influence. The Metropolitan Museum notes the presence of "carved stylized mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese [sailors]. Because they live on land and in the water mudfish represent the king's dual nature as human and divine. Having come from across the seas, the Portuguese were considered denizens of the spirit realm who brought wealth and power to the oba."
Features like those described show the power of much historical African art to make visual statements about influences on a particular culture or community. This can be compared to the densely allusive references that populate religious paintings of the European Renaissance, for example. At the same time, the ceremonial function of artworks like the above mark them out from the purely ornamental and symbolic value of most Western works from the same era. For this reason, traditional African art provides an alternative rubric for thinking about the very essence and purpose of art, and is of the utmost importance to all who want a better understanding of the subject at a global level.
Ivory, iron, copper - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
This small relief plaque, measuring little more than a foot high and a foot wide, features a warrior dressed in full armor with spear in one hand and shield in the other. His direct and intense frontal gaze is barely visible under his large helmet, fastened with a chin strap. The background is notably replete with detail, including finely inscribed lines in the shape of large three-petaled flowers, or perhaps leaves.
This work is one of thousands of plaques known as the Benin Bronzes, carved in brass by artists from the Benin Kingdom - part of modern-day Nigeria - several centuries ago. These pieces show the role that art can play in communicating a political statement or as a vehicle for propaganda. The Benin people were known for their military might and relief sculptures like this were used to reinforce the impression of this power to friend and foe by depicting warriors and leading military figures alongside the king, his family, and his attendants.
While they should be treasured for their aesthetic and historical value, the Benin Bronzes also speak to a very modern predicament. According to the Ethnologisches Museum itself, these "historical 'bronzes' and ivory objects from Benin are seen as symbols of colonial collecting and their presence outside Nigeria is widely understood as a sign of colonial injustice." During the 19th century, British troops attacked Benin, bringing the kingdom under colonial rule and looting much of its artwork, including these plaques. The Benin Bronzes were amongst the array of artefacts brought back to England, from where many were sold, ending up in private collections and museums around the world. The present-day Nigerian government, alongside innumerable activists, artists, and citizens, are pressing for these treasures to be returned to their native region.
Brass - Collection of Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany
This wooden sculpture depicts a female with an elongated neck, a frontal gaze, and arms bent at 90 degree angles resting formally at her side. A good deal of fine detail is evident in this work, including around her sandaled feet and the marks on her chest and shoulders.This statue was produced by an artist who belonged to the Bena Lulua people in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. The figurative sculptural tradition of this region is diverse in that it features both women and men and distinguishes between citizens, rulers, and warriors. However, all Lulua sculptures tend to bear several important features in common, allowing them to be identified clearly as products of their time, place, and culture.
As African art expert Frank Willett notes, "the figurines of the Bena Lulua are highly distinctive. They show elaborate scarifications and usually have the navel emphasized presumably because it represents the physical link to the ancestors." Such geographical distinctions between artworks, especially with regards to the representation of the human body, indicate the breadth and complexity of historical traditions within African art. This disproves the outmoded idea that African artistic traditions are in any sense uniform or unsophisticated.
It is also worth noting the similarities between the formal distortions of the Bena Lulua figurines and the work of modern European artists known for elongated depictions of the human form, such as Alberto Giacometti and Amedeo Modigliani. This is one of analogies that can be drawn between traditional African art and modern Western art, and another indication of the great significance of historical African art.
Wood with traces of tukula pigment - Collection of Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, Hawaii
Zamble Helmet Crest Mask
This mask is typical of the style of the Guro culture of the Ivory Coast. With its elongated nose and large eyes, its other key distinguishing feature are the striped horns protruding from its forehead. The Guro people shape this type of mask to resemble a mythical creature called the Zamble which, according to African art expert Frank Willett, is "a mysterious being which resembles a beautiful, strong, young man. These qualities are reflected by its form - the beauty of the antelope and the strong teeth of the leopard together with the youthful rapidity of its dance steps."
With its strong association with death, this mask indicates the importance of the spiritual world to the Guro people. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, Zamble masks would be worn "on the occasion of a man's second funeral, which would be organized months or years after the actual burial to commemorate the accomplishments of the deceased. Performances took the form of competitions between mask dancers from two different families."
Works such as this mask show the vital role that much African art plays in ceremonies and religious events. The significance of masks generally extends far beyond that of a prop or performance aid. Instead, they are vital component of the ritual and often endowed with magical powers. In more recent years, masks such as these have been influential on pop culture in the West, and particularly African-American pop culture, influencing the aesthetics of the Marvel film The Black Panther, for example.
Wood and pigment - Collection of Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
A functional piece of pottery, this work shows how African art often combined practical use with artistic design. Most likely used to hold wine, the vessel has also been fashioned to depict the body shape and head of a female, complete with ornate necklace and distinct hairstyle. The elongated facial features are particularly distinctive, indicating the cultural and geographical specificity of the object.
This work is from the Mangbetu culture located in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo and provides a good example of the way figures are depicted in the tradition of that community. As historian of African art Frank Willett explains, "the deformation of the head reflects the...practice of binding their babies' heads to make them long and beautiful." Amongst the Mangbetu, art is created by both genders. However, according to the Cleveland Museum of Art, "women were and still are responsible for the making of terracotta pots....It seems, however, that men added the figurative elements".
This pot is believed to have had a utilitarian function. As author Victoria Rovine explains, it would have been "displayed by Mangbetu leaders as they sat in state or used along with a straw to consume palm wine. Pots of this type were also used to hold a mixture of palm wine and a root called naando, consumed by dancers at ceremonial events to energize them and improve their performance." In the early-to-mid 20th century, modern Western art movements such as Constructivism and Concrete Art collapsed the distinction between artistic and functional objects in the same way as some African craftspeople had been doing for centuries. This is another indication of the ways in which traditional African art predicts the evolution of Western art during the 20th century.
Terracotta - Collection of Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Ohio
African Songye Power Figure
Carved from wood, this figurative sculpture with distinct facial features is embellished with decorative elements including feathers, fur, and even reptile skin. The piece is typical of a type of large-scale sculptural objects known as a "power figure." Works like these had an important ritual function amongst the Songye communitues in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Power figures are also an interesting example of the spiritual and religious significance of much African sculpture.
Intended to act as an intermediary between the spirits of dead ancestors and living members of the community, works like these would be commissioned for particular ritual events. Once carved, this item would have been covered with a sacred substance. According to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, such sculptures "derive their authority from the insertion and application of spiritually charged substances. The identity of these substances is secret to the ritual specialist who applies them and varies significantly. Some of the many documented substances include certain river clay, some herbs, ashes of burnt trees from a battleground and the flesh of someone who has [died by] suicide."
Once used in the ritual, the sculptures would remain part of the community, belonging to no individual person. They would also be used in future rituals whenever the need arose to address, according to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, "communal concerns such as crop failure, widespread illness, or a territorial dispute with a neighboring village. The figure with its spiritual charge was considered a protective entity." As such, power figures provide a good example of art being used to help explain and abate the impact of environmental and social disasters through religious narrative. Works like these provide a vital window on the role of creativity in past centuries and millennia, therefore, and can be used to unravel riddles about the origins of art in many other parts of the world, which would likely also have been in protective magic of various kinds.
Wood, cloth, feathers, fur, reptile skin, metals, pigment - Collection of Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana
Pair of door panels and a lintel
This elaborately detailed and painted pair of door panels is a masterpiece of relief-carved design. Depicting a narrative across five distinct bands, the panels contain both human figures and, in the background, ornate geometric patterns. This is the work of well-respected artist Olowe of Ise who received many important commissions during his lifetime, including from royalty. According to African art specialist Frank Willett Olowe is "probably the greatest Yoruba virtuoso sculptor. His figures lean out from the door, the upper part being carved fully in the round."
The panel was commissioned to commemorate a historical event for the Yoruba - the arrival of the first British official to the area, Captain Ambrose. The importance of his arrival is indicated by the fact that he is being carried in a hammock to King Ogoga by a number of his attendants in the second-from-top right-hand panel. Directly across from him to the left, the king awaits the introduction seated on his throne, his wife stood behind him. The king is elaborately dressed and wears an ornate crown befitting royalty.
Interestingly there is also a visual message depicted on the lintel above the panels. According to the British Museum this "shows human faces whose eyes are being pecked out by vultures, a common motif in Nigerian royal art, ... probably suggesting the fate of enemies." This work, therefore, has a second layer of meaning, indicating a political agenda whereby the artist is attempting to stir up community pride and pugnacity. It is interesting to compare works like these to the elaborate relief carving of religious alters in the European Renaissance - one of many examples of analogies between historic traditions between continents.
Wood - Collection of British Museum, London, England
Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu's stunning portrait shows a woman looking off to the left, staring absently past the viewer. The colors of the background, her head scarf, and even her skin tone are similarly muted, traversing shades of brown, cream, grey, and white. These appear in contrast to the more vibrant - though still soft - blue of the cloth draped over her left shoulder.
The subject of this painting is one of the Nigerian royal princesses, Adetutu Ademiluyi. Enwonwu's rendering of her, one of three likenesses he created of the princess, became highly revered and helped to cement the artist's reputation. According to author Sarah Cascone, "Enwonwu tracked down the princess in the town of Ile-Ife and convinced the royal family to let him paint her portrait...The painting became a Nigerian icon, a sort of African Mona Lisa; poster reproductions hang on walls all over the country". Interestingly, this painting was lost for several decades before being found in a home in London in 2017, a story which only adds to the magic and mystique of the piece.
This painting is an important example of how traditional themes and approaches informed the development of modern African art. Putting aside the historical example of cave painting, two-dimensional art was in relatively scant evidence across the continent until around the 19th century, to which a wide variety of styles can be dated. Enwonwu, born in Nigeria in 1917, worked in the wake of these traditions and became the most celebrated African painter of the twentieth century. His approach was strongly informed by Yoruba and other regional artistic themes and styles, and is therefore interesting to consider relation to the other works of African art.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
A vibrant and colorful work, this painting by contemporary Ivorian-American artist Aboudia, depicts several abstracted and loosely rendered figures with enlarged eyes staring hauntingly out at the viewer. With its sketch-like quality the work resembles graffiti art - the first medium in which Aboudia worked. It also provides an important example of how today's African artists draw inspiration from and contemporize the essence of early African art. In this case, the influence is particularly evident in the abstracted facial and bodily appearance of his figures.
Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, generally known as Aboudia, was born in the West-African country of Ivory Coast, where violence was a significant part of his upbringing. The country's two civil wars during the 2000s and 2010s became a subject for much of his work, as he turned to art to address the impact of the conflicts on his fellow citizens' psychology. As described by Bonhams, "during the 2011 crisis, Aboudia took refuge in his basement studio where he documented the surrounding violence on large scale canvases that channeled the brutal energy and horrors that were happening above ground. Soldiers with haunted, skull-like faces people these works. The artist has been compared to both Goya and Basquiat for his ability to fuse despair and anger with vigorous energy. Aboudia himself has commented that he uses 'colour to transform sadness into happiness'."
For Aboudia, works like these simply reflect his keen desire to record the physical and emotional parameters of the world around him. At the same time, he has also spoken of himself as a mouthpiece for Ivorian culture. He states: "I was simply describing a situation, to create a record of my country's recent history. Artists, writers, filmmakers are spokespersons for an entire nation, their nation, and the world."
Acrylic and oil-stick on canvas - Private Collection