Human Beliefs & Interactions in African Art

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

Learn about beautiful, and diverse, traditional African art. In this lesson, explore the main mediums and materials, examine the relationship between artist and patrons, and discover the importance of art in the interactions, and beliefs, of the people who practice them.

Traditional African Art

Traditional African art is impressively diverse and includes a variety of objects, events, and acts. Among tribal communities, art is closely related to religious beliefs, and social interactions, and is an important part of the culture and daily life.

African art usually refers to all art produced on the continent, both modern and traditional. There is a prosperous production of contemporary art, with significant references to local traditions and values, like the creative fantasy coffins from Ghana, depicting objects from wild animals to shoes to airplanes, and so on, which are intended to help the deceased remember where they came from, and what they learned in this world. Some of the art also has Western influences.

However, the emphasis of art history has usually been on traditional African art, also known as tribal art. It includes pieces created before, and during, colonial times as well as artistic expressions that continue to exist today, among local tribes and communities.

Wooden mask, Yoruba people, 19th century
Wooden mask

Artistic Mediums

Artistic diversity becomes evident in the different kinds of mediums used. Visual, vocal and aural art forms are often interconnected. Tribal art usually favors three-dimensionality, and performance.

Paintings are rare, while sculpture is one of the most significant art forms. Wooden masks are also, a very important artistic manifestation. Jewelry and body decoration are found among several groups. Music and dance artistic traditions that are present in many ceremonies.

It is common for many art forms to come together, combining the performance of masks or other visual objects, traditional costumes, dances, and music.

Common Materials

Traditional African art uses a variety of materials, often locally-available.

Wood is carved for to create sculptures and masks. Since wood is vulnerable to climate and insects, most preserved pieces date from the 19th-century or later.

Clay was one of the first materials to be used, with the oldest known pieces dating from about the 5th-century BCE. However, its use is limited to small objects, probably because of the technical difficulties of modeling and firing bigger pieces.

Mangbetu pottery piece

Fibers are used for weaving beautiful textiles with colorful patterns. Among some communities, basketry is also practiced.

Metalwork is found in different parts of the continent. Usually, brass and gold are used in the production of jewelry, small sculptures, artifacts, and weapons. The pieces are made mostly by casting the metal with the use of clay molds, or by forging it.

Metalwork figures made of cast bronze and iron, Yoruba people
Metalwork figures

The use of ivory has been traditionally limited to a few jewelry objects. Since colonial times, however, figurative sculptures have been made, mostly for satisfying tourist markets; the consequences on local wildlife are regrettable, to say the least.

Importance of Traditional African Art

Art is very important for most communities. Many rituals and practices rely on art for transmitting messages and knowledge. Religious beliefs, social practices, and interactions are bonded by art.

Objects are often created for specific purposes and with anticipated results among some, or all, members of the community.

Art, for daily use, is meant to provide beauty, and to display the status of individuals. Jewelry, elaborate attire, body decoration and even special furniture pieces, are ways to symbolize the status of prominent members of the community. By differentiating the leaders, art validates social organization.

Samburu woman wearing jewelry
Samburu woman wearing jewelry

There is also art for ritual purposes, that is used to express religious beliefs, such as divination, shamanic diagnoses, and many other rituals. These practices are usually meant to inspire specified behavior in individuals. For example, initiation rites often combine the use of wooden masks, special attires, dances and mentoring sessions and are aimed at making young men, or women, to think of themselves as adults and thus start taking other responsibilities. Similarly, an ill person who is liberated from evil spirits by chants is motivated to feel better, and maybe even overcome the sickness.

Ceremony in Benin, combining traditional attires, music and dances
Traditional ceremony

Each culture has created its own artistic style and symbols. However, even within the local culture, art often requires specialized, or supernatural abilities, for creation or interpretation.

Art is understood as an element of cultural transmission. This has made tribal art mostly expressive, rather than representative. It is more concerned with communicating concepts than representing objects from nature.

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