The Global Influence of African Art

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In the 19th century, African art made its way around the globe. What role did African art play in European art movements? Can we see elements of African art in American art? In this lesson, we explore how African art influenced artists worldwide.

African Art: Characteristics and Forms

Let's look at some defining qualities of African art. In terms of geography, this lesson focuses on art from Central and West African cultures, where people lived in settled communities, whereas a nomadic lifestyle was common in other regions. Having structured communities and homes tends to allow more creation of cultural objects.

African subregions. Yellow = Western Africa; Peach = Central Africa
Map of African regions

African art included masks, statues, textiles and paintings. People used materials available in their environment, including wood, shell, ivory, bark, feathers, clay, and raffia. Most items held some connection to religious or ceremonial purposes, and they often merged selected elements of Realism with the supernatural. They featured distorted, exaggerated and elongated figures and items covered with bright dissonant colors (meaning colors clash and aren't complementary or pleasing to the eye). Surfaces were full of repeating geometric patterns.

African objects sometimes represented characteristics from several beings, all combined into one powerful figure. These figures often served as guardians of households, totems with family connections, and sometimes objects venerating ancestors who had died.

Examples of Ivory Coast (left) and Kong (right) sculptures
African sculptures

African Art Arrives in Europe

Throughout the nineteenth century, European powers colonized the African continent, taking control of tribal lands from original inhabitants and exploiting Africa's natural resources for political and economic gain. As soldiers, missionaries, and administrators rotated through these captured lands, they collected objects that they later took back to Europe. By the 1870s, museums and scientific institutions were exhibiting African objects as ethnographic artifacts of less civilized people: these objects were not appreciated for their aesthetic or expressive qualities, and there was no understanding of their meanings.

Organizers of the Universal Exhibition of 1900 (a world fair) in Paris included African statues and masks. Public reaction was a mix of awe and horror at what they perceived to be gruesome savage objects. But an increasing number of artists, many interested in breaking from the norms of the art world at the time, began turning to African art for inspiration. By 1905, artists in Paris and Germany began to reflect influence of African art in their work.

African Art and Modern Art Movements

The increasing presence of African art in Europe came at a time when many Western artists were searching for a new artistic vocabulary. In Paris, artists in movements like Cubism (think Pablo Picasso) and Fauvism, of which Henri Matisse was involved, rejected Realism in favor of bold colors and forms. Picasso and Matisse collected African art and the latter traveled to North Africa in 1906. In Germany, Expressionists like Emil Nolde wanted to explore human psychology and states of mind through art, ideas not effectively conveyed through copying nature. These artists were very influenced by African art, especially sculpture and masks, although they might not have understood the objects' deep meanings to their creators.

Let's look at a few examples:

In Picasso's famous painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, you can see African influence in the faces of two figures on the right of the canvas that have been rendered with the angular features of African masks. It's also evident in the way the human forms and surrounding spaces are fractured and distorted.

Likewise, in a painting of masks by Emil Nolde, Natura morta con maschere III, bold colors and exaggerated expressions, with geometric simplified facial features, echo elements found in masks from African cultures.

Les Demoiselles dAvignon (left) and Natura morta con maschere III (right)
African art inspired paintings

In comparison, look at two examples of African masks, the first with an open bright red mouth, from the Ivory Coast. It also features all-over surface patterning. The second, with more geometric features and horizontal segments of color, is from the Dan culture.

African mask from Ivory Coast (left) and African mask from Dan culture (right)
African masks

Another artist influenced by African art was Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, who lived in Paris the same time as Picasso and Matisse. Modigliani created angular elongated figures with geometric patterning on their bodies that clearly reflect African influence.

Female figure by Amedeo Modigliani
Modigliani painting

African Art and Impact in the United States

African art's influence also stretched to the United States. In 1914, avant-garde art promoter and photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited African art in his New York City gallery. His title for the show reflected the bias of the time: Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art. But the exhibit, which included objects from Gabon and the Ivory Coast, brought audiences into contact with African art.

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