Yoruba bronze head sculpture, Ife, Nigeria c. twelfth century C.E.

What is Traditional African Art?

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It is impossible to discuss African art without using words like culture, beauty, function or even controversy. The art scene in Africa is dynamic and has grown over the years with artists finding recognition worldwide. Art fairs, independent galleries and renowned museums are all showcasing talented African artists who produce extraordinary work. It’s been a long time coming some would say. But African art wasn’t always admired and revered. A culture that is deeply rooted in tradition, religious rituals and mystery to those on the outside, will take some time to gain appreciation. Such is the case with traditional African art. In order to appreciate the growth of African art, we must consider the foundation and history. What then is traditional African art? 

Traditional African Art describes the most popular and studied forms of African art which are typically found in museum collections. It brings together the diverse material culture, including everything from sculpture, textiles and functional items, of hundreds of different groups across Africa. African art ranges from what is often labeled traditional sculpture and masks to contemporary painting, photography, ceramics, metal working, and more. Wooden masks, which might either be of human, animal or mythical creatures, are one of the most commonly found forms of traditional African art. In more recent times, while maintaining the basic elements of traditional African art, collectors now mount African wall art as masterpieces in homes and museums. 

Traditional African art is steeped in rich history and dates back as far as 6000-year old rock carvings in the Sahara. The earliest known sculptures are from the Nok culture of Nigeria, made around 500 B.C.E. Along with sub-Saharan Africa, the cultural arts of the western tribes, ancient Egyptian artifacts, and indigenous southern crafts also contributed greatly to African art.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY

People of Africa Batik by Oswald TamakloeAfter centuries of being exiled to ethnological displays and souvenir cabinets, traditional African art entered the European stage as “art” at the turn of the 20th century, in part through its association with the European avant-garde. Artists like PicassoMatisseVincent van GoghPaul Gauguin, and Modigliani were inspired by African art. 

When the established avant-garde was struggling to pull away from the restrictions imposed by serving the world of appearances, African Art became a saving grace. It demonstrated the power of well-organized forms produced by responding to the faculty of sight and often primarily, the faculty of imagination, emotion coupled with mystical and religious experience. These western artists realized that African Art symbolized a formal perfection and sophistication unified with the extraordinary power of expression.

European modernists admired the creativity and appearance of what they termed “Primitive Art,” which at that time reflected the racial and cultural bias against non-White and non-Western cultures. This term was eventually discarded and replaced by the phrase “Tribal Art.” 

By the 1960s and 1970s, when the study of African art in Europe and America took a scientific and anthropological turn, the term was considered a better choice to the offensive implications of “primitive.” Historically, especially as a result of colonialism, African art, like the peoples of Africa, came to be identified as from a particular “tribe.”  While “Tribal Art” is still used by some experts and collectors today, others prefer to make a distinction and so the term “Traditional African Art,” is used. Though this phrase may group diverse cultures under one geographic umbrella, it is generally favored today.

Here is fun fact to consider, today, the largest collections of ancient Beninese art are displayed, not in Nigeria, but in museums in London and Berlin. This is because in 1897, British forces invaded Benin City and carried off to Europe over 2,000 of its most priceless art treasures.

 

TRADITIONAL ART

As previously mentioned, wooden masks are the most common forms of traditional African art. Ceremonial masks are used for celebrations, initiations, crop harvesting, and war preparation. The masks are worn by a chosen or initiated dancer. During the mask ceremony the dancer often goes into a deep trance, and during this state of mind he connects with his ancestors. The masks can be worn vertically covering the face; as helmets encasing the entire head; and as crests resting upon the head, which was commonly covered by material as part of a costume. Masks often represent a spirit, and it believed that the spirit of the ancestors or the god possesses the wearer. Typically, African masks are made with wood, and can be decorated with a number of substances such as ivory, animal hair, plant fibers, pigments, stones, and semi-precious gems.

Statues which are also essential pieces in African art are usually made of wood or ivory. They can be ornamented with cowrie shells, metal studs, and nails. Additionally, further to the utilitarian aspect of traditional African art, decorative clothing is also common. Among the most complex of African textiles is the colorful, strip woven Kente cloth of Ghana. Boldly patterned mudcloth is another well-known example.

 

 

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Yoruba bronze head sculpture, Ife, Nigeria c. twelfth century C.E.

FUNCTIONAL OR BEAUTIFUL – The Controversy 

Creativity and conflict continue to be intrinsically linked. This is evident in the continuous conflict that surrounded perspectives on traditional African art. Some historians were content with relegating this art form to expressions of religious rites and ceremonies. However avid supporters, or dare I say true African art enthusiasts, will go further and say that while there is much respect to culture in traditional pieces, there is undeniable beauty that is also to be appreciated. 

There is evidence to suggest that some works are merely decorative versus the pervasive idea of functionality. Nigerian novelist and critic Isidore Okpewho, suggests in his writings that as we think about the history of traditional African art, we want to avoid a sweeping generalization that all African art is executed due to religious and ritualistic prompts. There is great evidence to the contrary. For example, secular art among the Baule of Cote D’Ivoire and the long tradition of decorative craft on Nigerian pottery show that beauty in African art is cultivated for its own appeal and not just for the sake of religious rites. 

In failing to acknowledge the creativity and exquisite nature of African art, some objects are viewed as bizarre or creepy. It ignores their beauty and sophistication while totally missing what such objects can reveal about cultures, values and history.

We know African art ranges from traditional sculptures and masks to more modern African paintings, photography, ceramics and African wall art décor. This contributes to the idea of traditional African art being both utilitarian and decorative. Traditional pieces that can be found in art galleries are more likely to have been made and used, while contemporary pieces are created for aesthetic reasons. Still other forms of African art include personal adornment made from silver, gold, copper, brass, ivory, wood, clay, animal skin, textiles and beads. These serve a dual purpose of beauty and function.

The Music Of Africa Water based African painting by African artist Oswald Tamakloe

The Music Of Africa Water based African painting by African artist Oswald Tamakloe

American rapper Mos Def, now called Yasiin Bey, once said that “African art is functional; it serves a purpose. It’s not dormant. It’s not a means to collect the largest cheering section. It should be healing, a source a joy.” While he may have been referring to his music, that quote appropriately exudes the feeling we get when we think of African art. It’s not the most revered or cheered, but when we take the time to really observe it, we’ll find that its soothing and therapeutic.

So the next time you visit a museum or encounter a piece, be it a wooden mask from Nigeria, a sculpture influenced by Ghanaian tradition, or wall art that portrays rich African history, be reminded of the dynamic story that surrounds traditional African art. 

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