The art that is generated by the people of the African continent has proven to be as deeply intense, beautiful and complex as the diverse communities that occupy this land. African art is important and exceptional for several reasons.
Firstly, the creation of art, as well as specific styles and media are passed down from one generation to the next. For this reason, certain countries or regions within Africa have become known for a specific type of art (e.g. beadwork or wooden masks). However, each area and, indeed, each artist has a personal touch to his or her artwork.
Secondly, art has been used for hundreds of thousands of years by the African people to depict events and convey information. An excellent example is the many rock paintings in caves all over the continent. Ancient explorers, scientists and modern researchers have learnt, and continue to learn, much about the history of this continent and those that once occupied it. In fact, these paintings and / or engravings have even been used to support evolutionary theories.
Thirdly, African art is particularly meaningful and conveys such meaning in various ways. These ways include the materials used and the methods of preparing these materials. For example, shiny materials are often used in human figures to depict youthful vigour and health. If a shiny material was not available, many cultures developed ways to make their medium appear shiny, such as polishing or painting of dull rock or clay.
There are several common denominators in art from the African continent. One of these is the use of and appreciation for the human body. Many countries use the human body to portray love, life, death, political manoeuvres, contact with the spirit world, etc… Another repetitive theme is the abstractness of life. Rather than representing life or the world using real, natural forms, many African artists opt for an abstract approach. This creates an increased opportunity to convey many of the deeper meanings and implications desired. It also involves the viewer more as it encourages personal interpretation. In addition, 3-dimensional art is generally preferred and creates an interactive piece. Finally, symmetry is seldom maintained in both paintings and sculptures. This again encourages the viewer to consider the art, as well as its intentions and possibilities.
Considering African art is particularly rewarding as it provides small glimpses into the lives, traditions and customs of some of the world’s oldest cultures.
Characteristics Of African Art
While African art is one of the most all-encompassing and non-definitive art forms in the world, there remain some aspects of it that have been common denominators throughout the continent and over extended spans of time. These characteristics signify the artists’ priorities, ideals and values, as well as that of the society that has moulded him or her.
The first characteristic that occurs in most sculptures and paintings is that the subject RESEMBLES A HUMAN BEING. This is significant as not all subjects are actually human. However, by assigning human characteristics to the figure, the artist ensures that his or her subjects are able to identify and thus relate to the subject and the art piece as a whole. Human figures are used to symbolise living and dead and can also be used to convey the idea of a spiritual being. Many African artists inter-morphed figures of humans and animals to create a kind of hybrid being.
The second common denominator is that of YOUTHFULNESS. A young, healthy figure, whether male or female, represents vitality, health and fertility. This was especially important in the times when African people lived off the land. Men needed to be strong and fit so that they could hunt and build, providing for their family. Women needed to be fertile and energetic so that they could care for the children and household duties efficiently.
Thirdly, the skin of the subject is generally LUMINOUS and UNFLAWED. This was achieved by polishing stone or clay, or by the use of certain paints and varnishes. Flawless skin reinforced the healthful, young appearance and further enhanced the ideology of youthful health.
The subject of the painting would often appear RESERVED, with head bowed, shoulders curled and a gentle manner. This did not represent weakness or cowering submission on the part of the subject, but a control of his or her self, perhaps amidst turmoil and stress. This self-control is perceived as a strength amongst many African cultures, a weapon that can be more powerful than an aggressive assault.
Finally, African artists place much import on BALANCE AND PROPORTION. However, this is not always achieved by having a perfectly realistic approach to depicting a human or animal subject. Rather, proportion is achieved using colour, material and balance in terms of scale.
By being aware of these traits across the African art spectrum, spectators are able to interpret and understand the message being conveyed by the piece.