Beginnings and Development
First Africans to Make Art
African is home to some of the earliest evidence of art-making anywhere in the world. The first examples of African art include paintings made on rocks and on the interior walls and ceilings of caves. The earliest specimens are works from 23,000 BCE found in the Apollo 11 Cave in Namibia, including depictions of animals and human figures. While the purpose of these drawings will never be known, the fact that they were made at all indicates their significance to the cultures that produced them, given that early humans were hunter-gatherers who did not stay in one place for long.
What was depicted in these earliest paintings helps to shed light on life in this period, providing a record of the animals that lived and served as a food-source at the time. What is more mysterious about these paintings is the inclusion of many composite creatures with both human and animal features. Their depiction has led many to believe that there was a shamanistic and spiritual aspect to the drawings, and that they may have been used in rituals and ceremonies. At the very least, it shows that prehistoric humans in Africa, as elsewhere, possessed highly developed minds capable of rendering imaginary as well as figurative scenes and forms.
The content of the drawings and the location of these paintings throughout the continent also provide clues as to what life was like for the earliest Africans, including how it changed over decades and centuries. Taking the example of South Africa, African art specialist Frank Willett notes that "the earliest art consists of simple engravings, often scarcely visible....characterized by their peacefulness; the art is moreorless [sic.] naturalistic and there is no recognizably modern subject-matter. The later paintings are less carefully executed and include elaborate scenes of ceremonies, raids and battles. In the early phase of this period the different populations seem to be co-existing peacefully, but the late phase, the paintings of which are mostly concentrated round the south-eastern part of South Africa, reflects a period of constant struggle."
Unlike with European cave art, African art rendered in this style continued to be created long after the Paleolithic period, helping us to reconstruct the story of different communities over a longer timeframe, as well as the history of foreign exploration on the continent. As Willett explains, "it is usually possible to distinguish Bushmen (short stature, painted in yellow, red or brown and carrying bows and arrows), Bantu (tall stature, usually painted in black with ornaments on the arms and legs and armed with spears and shields) and Europeans (recognizable by their characteristic clothing, and often shown with guns and horses). Many allegedly foreign influences have been claimed in the art."
It is important to note that cave paintings were not the only type of art made during early African art history. Some of the oldest examples of African sculpture were produced by cultures associated with modern Nigeria, including Nok figural and animal statues dating back to 500 BCE. The pottery of the Yelwa people, meanwhile, can be traced back to 100 CE and Bura sculptures to 200 CE onwards.
Western Misunderstandings About African Art
For a long time, African art remained unknown to outsiders. It was only during the 15th century that the continent began to be explored - and exploited - by foreign cultures, and African art began to be seen for the first time by Europeans. The artistic cultures discovered often seemed mysterious as they were so unlike anything that had been seen before. This led to misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions about what the art signified, as well as the myth that very little if any art had been made in the centuries prior to European journeys to Africa. According to Frank Willett, "very little art was brought back from Africa until the end of the nineteenth century", and many of the writings produced in that era reflected Eurocentric biases: "they are in some respects fallible guides, for they start from the premise of Western ideas of beauty and all too often express themselves ethnocentrically." It took several decades for a real appreciation and understanding of early African art to begin to be fostered by foreign scholars.
Concepts and Styles
The continent of Africa is vast, and at present comprised of 54 countries. It is no surprise, then, that its historical sculptural traditions are diverse, with significant geographical variations. Speaking of these distinctions, Frank Willett states that: "examples of African sculpture exhibited in museums or illustrated in books on African art are commonly considered to be representative of the style of the people from whom they were collected. William Fagg, for example, writes that 'every tribe is from the point of view of art, a universe to itself. [The tribe] uses art among many other means to express its internal solidarity and self-sufficiency, and conversely its difference from all others.'"
In spite of this diversity, some characteristics are shared in common across the continent. This was especially true during the early centuries of Africa's artistic history. Much of the sculptures and masks produced, for example, were used for religious purposes, whether as ceremonial talismans or, as in the case of Mali's Dogon community, as homes for the spirits of dead ancestors. Many such works are believed to have been originally painted and are small in size to make them portable. As Willett explains, one other feature of historical African sculpture, "which has intrigued scholars from the first is that the head is commonly represented as disproportionately large."
Spiritual Importance of African Sculptures and Masks
African sculptures produced for religious purposes, as elsewhere, can be imagined as having had a magical power to their creators, helping to bring about the wishes of an individual or community. The three-dimensional art of the Loango people in the Congo, for instance, according to Frank Willett, often includes "nails or metal blades", driven in to them "to activate their power to obtain supernatural aid." The Congo's Songye people, meanwhile, believe their figural sculptures can act as intermediaries between themselves and their dead ancestors.
The spiritual qualities of African art perhaps come across most clearly in the rich variety of masks created throughout the centuries. These are often used in ceremonies and ritual performances, and many tribes believe that when masks are worn in this context the wearer is able to communicate with the dead, with gods, or with other supernatural forces. While the style and distinguishing features of these masks often vary with geographical location, an interesting commonality is that most African masks were not intended to be shown or shared outside the community. Sometimes, masks were not even made visible to the community itself except in specific contexts such as ceremonies and celebrations.
As Frank Willett explains, even today "most people interested in African sculpture are unable to see it in use, and must form their own impressions from museum displays. A museum usually possesses only the wooden part of a mask, which it may display under a spotlight which projects a single interpretation of the sculpture. Kenneth Murray has pointed out that masks 'are intended to be seen in movement in a dance; frequently one which is inferior when held in the hand looks more effective than a finer carving when seen with its costume. It is moreover, essential to see masks in use before judging what they express, for it is easy to read into an isolated masks what was never meant to be there.'"
As foreign travel to Africa became more common, these masks were increasingly brought back home to explorers' own countries, and fascination with this striking artistic tradition grew. Over time, the original sanctity of these items has been increasingly forgotten, with copies of masks sold commercially and even displayed as decorative items in homes.
Early Developments in Pottery
While the Ancient Greeks are often credited for their developments in pottery, there is a rich tradition of same practice in Africa. In fact, as Frank Willett explains, "pottery appears to have been made in Africa for longer than anywhere else in the world. It has been dated to the tenth and eighth millennia BC in the central Sahara."
Despite the rich variety of African pottery, as with much of the art of this continent, it took a long time for work to be discovered and valued across the rest of the world. According to writer and curator Diana Lyn Roberts, "until recently, African ceramics has held a somewhat peripheral position in the Western artistic consciousness and in museum holdings. The influence of African art on the early Modernists is a common axiom in the Western canon...but the weight of art history - and the colonial collections that inform it - rests almost entirely on the shoulders of carved masks and figurative sculpture....Yet the prominence of ceramics in traditional daily life and ritual, not to mention indigenous systems of value and connoisseurship, tells a different story of the African engagement with clay and aesthetic continuities between materials."
The types and techniques of African pottery are as diverse as the different geographical locations where it is created and the groups of people who make it. Early on, works were often made without the use of a wheel, instead formed using the older "coil" method. This labor-intensive process, which was mostly undertaken by women, even involved crushing the clay by hand before it was worked to make the pottery. While many works of African pottery are purely functional and often used to carry liquids, others are highly decorative and have a decorative, even figurative, element - these works have generally appealed most to outsiders. This carries true to this day, with pottery still heavily produced in Africa.
While sculptures and masks are arguably the most widely recognized types of African art, textile design and manufacturing have also been an important aspect of art-making throughout the continent's history. The fabrics produced, as well as the processes used, tend to vary by country, as do norms concerning the gender of the weaver.
The patterns, designs, and colors used are of key importance in helping to make many examples of African textile works of art. Indigo is one of the most popular colors, along with shades of red and green. Traditional practices are employed to dye textiles. Resist dyeing, in which wax is applied to certain areas of a cloth and then dye applied to seep into the uncovered areas, is one of the most common techniques. However, other traditions also exist. In Mali, the favored method is mud-dyeing, using the natural mud from ponds to stain fabrics.
As with so much African art, textiles can often have both a functional use, for example, in the home or as clothing, and a spiritual role, used for costumes worn in ceremonies and rituals. While textile-making has been part of life in Africa for centuries, its popularity continues to grow to this day. Today, African textiles have achieved wide global appeal and have influenced both clothing and interior décor across the world. This has led some to consider African textiles to have transitioned in some cases from a type of fine art to a commercial product due to their popularity and use.
Interestingly, African textile production is not without controversy, as some believe the most popular designs are in fact based on designs from the Caribbean which were brought to be traded in West Africa by Dutch merchants. West-African craftspeople began incorporating these styles into their own designs. For some, this prevents many examples of African textiles from being considered uniquely and originally African.
Regardless of the origins, African textile designs continue to evolve today and have influenced many contemporary designers. Outlining the extent of their current appeal, author Franck Kuwonu states that "American artists such as Beyoncé Knowles, Rihanna, Madonna; politicians and world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Ghana's president Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo,...first ladies Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, have all embraced...Afrochic designs."
Later Developments and Legacy
Contemporary Debates Over Ownership of Traditional African Art
Many Africa countries fell victim to the plundering of the colonial era, with works of art taken without consent and placed in museums and galleries around the world. This has resulted in a decades-long effort on the part of many African nations to have historic works repatriated.
Perhaps the most famous case involves a group of sculptural busts and plaques known as the Benin Bronzes. In 1897, it is estimated that thousands of Nigerian works from the Benin Kingdom were taken from the country by British troops. Today, these pieces are in museums around the world, including 900 included in the collection of the British Museum. While works in private collections would be almost impossible to retrieve, serious efforts have been made to have works returned. According to author Alex Greenberger, "for many Nigerians, the Benin Bronzes are a potent reminder of colonialism and its continued effects on African society....Nigerians have continued to demand that museums across the world give back their Benin Bronzes."
While some institutions and governments have begun to seriously discuss returning the Benin Bronzes they own, progress has been slow. It is this inaction that has frustrated many Africans, including artist Victor Ehikhamenor, who has written that "generations of Africans have already lost incalculable history and cultural reference points because of the absence of some of the best artworks created on the continent. We shouldn't have to ask, over and over, to get back what is ours."
Legacy of African Art
Today, Africa can boast a myriad of intersecting artistic traditions, with many modern and contemporary African artists responding to the historical precedents of their nation or community (this is to say nothing of the huge array of African artists working in a more transnational, contemporary or post-conceptual style). Take, for example, the sculptural figures of Peju Alatise, the figures depicted in the paintings of Aboudia and Ben Enwonwu, and the textile sculptures of Nnenna Okore. Speaking of the importance of working in the traditions of her native country and furthering the reputation of African art, Alatise states: "in my opinion, art from Africa remains still largely burdened by negative social, political and economic realities from its mother continent, hence, is unable to be judged by its own merit and without negative bias or condescending patronage. However, Africans must take the responsibility upon themselves to project their own art and learn to value them as one of their greatest cultural exports."
The legacy of African art in the West, meanwhile, cannot be considered apart from the European modernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Artists such as Georges Braque, André Derain, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso found it to be the source of great inspiration because of its distinctions from post-Renaissance traditions of art. According to one historical account, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were emotionally overwhelmed on encountering their first African mask in the studio of their friend André Derain.
The work of these modern artists often clearly shows the influence of African art in the elongation of faces and eyes, while the long necks of figures in Modigliani's portraits bear a striking resemblance to early African masks. In explaining this influence, author Carolina Sanmiguel states that "modern artists were...attracted to African art because it signified an opportunity to escape the rigid and outdated traditions that governed the artistic practice of 19th-century Western academic painting. Contrasting from the Western tradition, African art was not concerned with the canonical ideals of beauty nor with the idea of rendering nature with fidelity to reality. Instead, they cared about representing what they 'knew' rather than what they 'saw'."
Still, African art was so influential on some early modern artists such as Braque and Picasso that they used its forms and structure as the building blocks for the development of the early modern art movement Cubism. According to Sanmiguel, "the impact of African art's intense expression, structural clarity, and simplified forms inspired these artists to create fragmented geometrical compositions full of overlapping planes." An early example is Picasso's iconic painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Often considered to be a work documenting the transition of his work into Cubist style, the faces of the women in the brothel have the distinct appearance of African masks.
Cubism was not the only modern movement influenced by African art. Its impact can also be seen in works of Fauvism and German Expressionism. As Sanmiguel asserts, "[it] is also visible in the bold angular brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. And of course, contemporary artists as diverse as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and David Salle have also incorporated African imagery into their works."
It can be argued that many works of modern art inspired by African art, and even certain movements such as Primitivism, which developed at the end of the 19th century and drew inspiration from African and other tribal arts, helped to perpetuate the myth that African art reflected a state of uncivilized naivety. This was a misconception that would take decades to right, and is still addressed by some contemporary African artists.
Contemporary artists were not, however, the first artists to find fault with the treatment of African sources in modern Western art. Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, for instance, was inspired by African culture but tried to show it differently than many of his European contemporaries. He sought through his work to convey the sophistication and complexity of early African art. According to author Brendan Sainsbury, "for Lam, primitivism meant something more profound. Africa was in his heritage....He even went so far as to align himself with the Afrocubanismo movement which strived...to give greater legitimacy to Black culture by using art to integrate it more deeply into...society."
European modernists were not the only artists to find inspiration in African art. African-American artists were also deeply moved by this art, with its rich legacy of masks and sculptures, and drew on it when developing the Harlem Renaissance art movement. Artists including Charles Henry Alston, Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, and Jacob Lawrence were all influenced by African art, and wanted to build on its legacy by creating artworks that elevated the Black experience in America. As author Shira Wolfe explains, "Douglas combined imagery from African-American history with scenes from contemporary life ... Douglas was influenced by modernist movements such as Cubism, and he and other artists also found a great source of inspiration in West Africa, in particular the stylised sculptures and masks from Benin, Congo and Senegal. They viewed this art as a link to their African heritage."
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
First published on 25 Apr 2022. Updated and modified regularly