Traditional and Contemporary African Art

Traditional and contemporary African art does not simply beautify the environment, but transmits laws, moral codes, and history; communicates between people and the spirit world; and signifies wealth and status. It encompasses all of life—birth, initiation, work, marriage, childbirth, death, and afterlife. The art is expressed through architectural elements like doors, baskets, costumes and textiles, furniture and furnishings, jewelry and beadwork, graphic arts, masks, pottery, musical instruments, sculpture (metal, stone, terracotta, wood), tools and equipment, toys and entertainment, and weapons and armaments. 

The shaman-artists who carved masks and sculpted figures believed that these objects were crucibles for spirit forces with the power to alter the world and, thus, could absorb negative forces. This spiritual connection allowed a tribal dancer who put a mask over his face to acquire a new identity and enter into the spirit world. African masks and sculpted figures with their grotesquely distorted facial features that ignored Western conventions of perspective and symmetry had a profound influence on Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and other modernist artists who in turn transformed Western art. The masks that hang on museum walls are detached from the full costume, music, and dance so that the fear and beauty captured by a live masquerade is lost. Sokari Douglas Camp (b. 1958) uses her sculpture to capture the full performance of the Kalabari and Yoruba masquerades. 

Cattle, crops, ivory, iron, salt, and gold led to the development of administrative, commercial, and artistic centers like Aksum in Ethiopia, inland Niger delta of Mali (Jenne-jeno and Timbuktu), medieval empires of the western Sudan (Ghana, Mali, Songhai), Guinea Coast of Nigeria (Benin Kingdom, Ife, Igbo-Ukwu), Limpopo River Valley (Mapungubwe and Bambandyanalo), and Great Zimbabwe. Ancient traditions like the stone carvings of birds at Great Zimbabwe inspired Zimbabwean stone sculpture, which emerged in the early 1960's through the work of Joram Mariga (1927-2000) and Frank McEwen (1908-1994). African art has also been used as a political tool during struggles for liberation, in support of apartheid, and for chronicling the despair of blacks in South Africa. In the past 15 years, African art has gone from modernism to postmodernism, from abstraction to figuration, and it is moving again in a new direction where video, sound, and performance are incorporated into painting, printing, and sculpture as artists delve into the meaning of who and what they are. Contemporary African art is moving out of natural history and African art museums as artists like William Kentridge (b. 1955), Magdalene Odundo (b. 1950), and others exhibit their work in modern art museums. 

For more information on African art, go to Africa: The Art of a Continent, Africa Art on the Internet,, African Voices, Africans-Art, Afrika Museum, ArtThrob, Axis Gallery, Bayly Art Museum, British Museum, Brooklyn Museum of Art, CAMA, Chapungu, Chiefs & Spirits Galerie, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Musée de l'Homme, Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, musée du quai Branly, Musée royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Museum for African Art, Museum für Völkerkunde, Pitt Rivers Museum, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, South African National Gallery, Tamarin, and UCLA Fowler Museum.



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