African art

African art’s origin must be researched in central-eastern Africa, in the so-called “Black Africa”, a vast area between the rivers Niger and Congo, in which humanity has taken the first steps. Despite African art is an ancient form of art, close to the origins of mankind, its traces and testimonies previous the vulgar era have not survived to us; for this reason, from the standpoint of archaeological, its artistic events are rather late. In fact, the main factors that have contributed to lose track of the first African art products are: the lack of historical writings by the great African empires; the neglect of the first colons towards this culture; the high degree of perishability of the raw materials (wood and plants, especially), combined with a sub-tropical humid environment. Fortunately, after the change of attitude of Europe towards African art forms, their right high artistic value was recognized.

African Art - STONE 1

Over the centuries, many African tribes, sparsely distributed over a large territory, were able to develop independently a recognizable artistic style. This style, although differentiated in different African ethnic group, revealed as unique compared to other art forms.

The artistic production is dedicated mainly to sculpture. Wood is the most common material used, combined with decorative plants; nevertheless, to a lesser extent, we can find other materials such as ivory, stone, clay, copper, bronze.

African sculpture finds its highest expression in the production of masks and statues, knowing range from fetishes to reliquaries. For the African artist, nature is a great source of inspiration, which can inspire the creative capacity, to create works to worship the ancestors and to pray for celebrations or rituals. The sculptures are also used as tools for magicians, healers and diviners, creating a bond with the sphere of the supernatural.

This artistic dimension not only provided  masks and sculptures to contribute to enrich the status of tribal chiefs and kings, as we can understand from showy accessories used during dances and celebrations. Also, simple daily use tools (such as spoons, stools, containers, doors) were transformed into works of art.

What makes African art unique and recognizable is, above all, its simple and straightforward expressiveness. The artists, who create artworks primarily for tribal worship, following the traditions and beliefs of their own people, stripped their works from insubstantial details, from useless or secondary features, in order to express more vividly their message.

The extraordinary African Art, which knows how to be elementary yet profound, is highlighted by the purpose of each artwork. An African mask or statue always has a well-defined goal. The artwork, in fact, is designed not only as the sculptor’s artistic expression; it also comes with a specific destination: community use, adoration for a deity, for the feasts or for the commemorations, or to represent important social personalities.

The ethnic groups

Ashanti

The Ashanti (the largest subgroup of the Akan people) live in the present-day southern Ghana. The ritual practices of this ethnic group have been passed down orally over the centuries. The Ashanti specialized in creating ceramics and in shaping clay. Their distinctive signs and stylized designs are immediately recognizable. Even today, their works retain a ritual function and are made with the same ancient techniques.

African Art Ashanti
Ashanti

Attie

The Attie people live in the south of Côte d’Ivoire. Once upon a time, their economy was based mainly on gold and slaves trading. Currently, Attie live on fishing and agriculture. Their art is focused on stools (considered as thrones for powerful people), statues and fertility dolls. To a lesser extent, there are also ceramics and decorated fabrics.

Baka Pigmei

The ethnic group Baka belongs to the Pygmies population. It is located in the rainforest of Central Africa, in the territories of Congo, Gabon and Cameroon. For these people (known mainly because of their short stature), hunting is the primary source of sustenance; they demonstrates an extraordinary ability to adapt to the forest.

African Art Baka Pigmei
Baka Pigmei

Bakongo

Once upon a time, the Kongo ethnic group formed a prosperous kingdom, which declined with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500; The Portuguese attempted to Christianize the Kongo people, overpowering their spiritual practices and folk beliefs. The art Kongo has favored issues concerning the worship of ancestors, of the earth, of the sky and of the supreme god Nzambi.

Bambara

Bambara constitute the majority of the population of today’s Mali. Proud of their traditions and of their ancient glory, they managed to elevate a barrier against cultural contaminations. Enclosed within dynamic Muslim ethnic groups, they have kept the traditional cults which still give to Bambara’s art its primary impulse. Without forcing the terminology, we can say that theology always determines their aesthetic. All their works present a common style, easily identifiable. The external appearance reminds of the piece of wood from which the sculpture derives; flat and curved surfaces are associated to angular contours, suggesting a kind of geometry.

Bangwa

Bangwa are one of the minor ethnic groups included in the Bamileke area of Cameroon, which is a large cultural area, where a large number of related populations cohabit. They share many similarities historically and politically, while maintaining their separate identities. The statues Bangwa consist mainly of portraits, kept in shrines along with the ancestors’ skulls. The scary masks, however, are employed by the leader (called Fon) to maintain social order.

Baoulè

Baoulé’s art is one of the most ancient form of African art; it includes the most fascinating works of that population’s sculptors. Baoulé’s art transmits a great expressivity; realism and idealization are merged, the features are refined and all the details are accurately defined, as the elegant hairdos or the raw-boned faces, necks and torsos. Masks have a calm face, whose features are outlined with extraordinary care. The surfaces are polished wiping them with leaves, to give the mask a characteristic appearance, also conferred by the scarifications on the forehead and temples. The polished wooden figurines represent characters with a slender body, usually standing or sitting on a stool, with arms close to the body or hands near the chin. The scarifications on face, neck and trunk are embossed, while a stylized beard lengthens the chin. All the details are carefully defined. Whether standing or sitting on small benches, figures maintain a calm and seraphic attitude.

African Art history Baoule
Baoule

Benin

Benin was one of the largest kingdoms in Africa. It was dominated by the absolute figure of the Oba, the king. Most of the Benin artistic works are made of bronze. Through the fusion of this material, different social representations have been performed. The Oba, in fact, order to carve in his honor various objects: stools and thrones, ceremonial pipes, vessels for food, spoons, combs, fly swatter, supports for the neck. The sacred element was emphasized by an accurate artistic execution. The representations of the monarch Oba are among the most beautiful and expressive ones, as those of the king on horseback in ceremonial apparatus. Oba was worshiped as a deity and all the decorations of the palace were dedicated to him.

African Art Benin
Benin

Bete

The Bete ethnic group, originally from the Ivory Coast, has a patriarchal society, in which agriculture is the main livelihood. This population is characterized by a deep religiosity and superstition, so that the animal sacrifice is still practiced. The Bete masks show the influence of the cultures close to them, such as the Guro. Originally, masks were designed for war. In fact, they were used to instill fear in the enemies, while also providing a magical protection to the wearer. At the same time, these masks were used for funeral ceremonies.

African Art history Bete
Bete

Bobo

The ethnic group Bobo is located mainly in Burkina Faso and Mali; it speaks the same language of Mande and Bwa. Bobo’s main resource is agriculture; they cultivate millet, sorghum, and cotton, which is then worked with the frames. This society has no real central government. There are several sub-groups, in which the older members are the decisional council. The art of Bobo offers big masks, which are used during male initiation rites or during the different religious cerimonies dedicated to the god Wuro, creator of the earth and animals.

African Art history Bobo
Bobo

Bwa

The Bwa (or Bwaba) are an ethnic group from central Burkina Faso and south-east Mali. The Bwa are known for their tribal masks made from wood and leaves and used in traditional rituals. In particular, Bwa believe in the spirit Lanle, whose power is manifested through wooden masks. The masks also represent the bush spirits including serpents, monkeys, buffalo and hawks. The creator god of the Bwa is known as Wuro, Difini or Dobweni. He created the world by setting his creations up in balanced opposing pairs (male and female, domesticated and wild, etc.).

Chokwe

The Chokwe people (or Tschokwe) come from Central and South Africa; they’re particularly present in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Angola and to a lesser extent in Zambia and Namibia. The artists of this ethnic group are masterful wood carvers, able to mold statues, masks, tools for hunting or for fertility rites. Many sculptures are dedicated to the reigning prince. In Chokwe representations, there is always the saltire (Saint Andrew’s cross).

African Art Chokwe
Chokwe

Dan

The people of Dan extends on the north-west of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. This ethnic group lives mainly in forested regions; it’s made up of farmers and growers who regularly move from the forest to create new fields. They can also live by hunting and fishing. The art of Dan is expressed mainly with wooden masks, which give a lot of importance and power to those who wear them.

African Art Dan
Dan

Djimini

Djimini are a sub-ethnic group linked to the largest one of the Senufo people; they are present in Mali, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Agriculture is the most important activity for these people. For a Djimini man, in fact, the largest social recognition is to be considered a good farmer. All cultural ceremonies are therefore linked to the earth and to the cycle of life. The villages of Djimini are always built around a baobab tree, that is considered spiritually beneficial.

African Art history Djimini
Djimini

Dogon

Dogon are one of the few African ethnic groups known as the most ancient black civilizations. Isolated in the region of the cliffs of Biandraga, near to the big curvature of the lower Niger river, until a few decades ago, the population was pristine, because of the access to that zone, which has been difficult for centuries. Dogon’s art applies to every object, from the simple ones to those used for the most important social events. Very few African artistic works reveal that formal nudity and that severe appearance, contrasting with such wealth of meaning. In Dogon statues, the simply descriptive strokes are excluded. The head and torso, with their angular contours, are opposed to flat and curved surfaces; these ones, in particular, have traces of mild signs which evoke elements of the face and body.

African Art Dogon
Dogon

Fang

According to the tradition, Fang’s religion is based on the ancestors’ worship, in particular on the past leaders; even after their death, they continued to influence earthly life. Fang’s artistic productions are deeply stylized, in order to highlight the beautiful and enigmatic expressions of their masks and statues.

African art for sale Fang
Fang

Gouro

The figurative art of the Gouro ethnic group, one of the people present in the Ivory Coast, recalls the Baulé’s art, because of the fine details and the beauty of their masks. These masks present symbols of virility, such as fangs and horns (which are not added later but which are designed together with the rest of creation, being the mask cut out from a single piece of wood). Also notable are the flashy colored surfaces. Many of these masks are not sacred but conceived for the people; the artist is therefore free to vent his artistic expression, realizing phenomenal artifacts, rich in details and nuances.

African art for sale Gouro
Gouro

Grebo

Grebo’s masks represent where the invisible spirits of the forest lie. They are of two types: the first tends to naturalism, while the second one is more geometrical. All masks present the typical solution adopted by African artists, and codified by Grebo’s figurative tradition, that is to say simple but strong features, harmonic and stylized contours (such as the depiction of the eyes, which are cylindrical reliefs instead of holes). Grebo’s art influenced Picasso in some of his various works.

African art for sale Grebo
Grebo

Igbo

The Igbo (or Ibo) are an ethnic group of southern Nigeria, indigenous to the lower Niger River. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Masking is one of the most common art styles and it is linked with Igbo traditional music. Igbo masks can be made of wood, fabric, iron or vegetation and have various uses, mainly in social satires, religious rituals, secret society initiations (such as the Ekpe or Mmo societies). Many other decorative wooden objects are made, including musical instruments, doors, stools, mirror frames, trays, dolls and small figures used in divination.

Koro

The Koro, from Burkina Faso, are mainly made up by farmers; in this ethnic group, men and women have distinct roles during the daily work. The Koro art is found in many everyday items or religious ones. All Koro sculptures are immediately recognizable, being characterized by simple and stylized designs.

Kota

The ethnic group Kota (also called Bakota), whose name means to bind, has developed a cult based on the veneration of the relics of his ancestors. The art of Kota in fact produced many sculptures of their ancestors; flat statues, made primarily of wood, with copper inserts, which was used as a catalyst for strength and longevity. The types and styles of these sculptures are varied. However, the common element is the stylized representation of a human body with an oval face, concave if female, while of convex shape if male. The reliquaries are wooden sculptures, covered with strips of copper and brass, or of metal plates engraved, which outline the facial shape. These reliquaries were a sort of gatekeepers; they were displayed in baskets outside the houses, or were kept on the edge of the village in special huts, accessible only by initiates of the family group. The reliquary cult was carried out at specific times, for example to celebrate a successful hunt, to avoid fertility problems or to propitiate trade.

African art for sale Kota
Kota

Kwele

The ethnic group Kwele is located in all Gabon areas. For Kwele people, it is utterly important to worship deceased relatives. The life of this population centers on initiation rites; they take place in specific periods, in order to bring about the resolution of the life difficulties.

Ligbi

Related to the Senufo, the ethnic group Ligbi lives in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. The Islamized communities, who live among non-Moslem groups in extensive areas of northern Côte d’Ivoire, are known for an institution called “Do” or “Lo”, one of whose most striking public manifestations is colorful masquerade dancing. Though in decline, the custom is still practiced on important Islamic, especially at the end of Ramadan. Maskers’ performances are accompanied by drums and singing.

Lobi

The Lobi ethnic group, coming from Burkina Faso, is mainly populated by farmers; its men and women have different roles during the daily work. The art of the Lobi is found in many everyday or religious items. The wooden sculptures are the embodiment of the spirits; they are placed in sanctuaries and it is believed that they are able to communicate with each other.

African Art museum Lobi
Lobi

Luba

The Luba (or Baluba) are one of the Bantu peoples of Central Africa; it is the largest ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From 1585 to 1889, they founded the Kingdom of Luba (or Luba Empire), which was a pre-colonial state that arose in the marshy grasslands of the Upemba Depression. Very often, Luba art includes the female form, symbolizing respect and the role of women as mothers. In Luba culture, in fact, only women, who have the potential to produce new life, are strong enough to hold spirits and the knowledge associated with them.

African art history Luba
Luba

Luluwa

The ethnic group Lulua (or Luluwa) resides in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It shares language and culture similar to those of Songye and Chokwe. The Lulua give much importance to their ancestors and forefathers, for which they pray in sanctuaries, where there are commemorative statues. This group practices various religious rites focused mainly on the concepts of fertility and motherhood, for the protection of children, or to ensure success during hunting.

Mende

The Mende ethnic group is located in a subtropical area covered with forests, meadows and wooded savannah, between Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This people, who live mainly on agriculture, is divided into two main societies: the Poro, composed of men, and the Sande, composed of women. The majority of Mende’s art is associated with the concepts of birth and healing. The Mende believe in the lord Ngewo, creator of the universe, who is assisted by the spirits of the ancestors. Their masks, used during religious ceremonies, are made to be aesthetically pleasing to the spirits. In particular, the helmet mask Bondu, associated to the Sande society, is the only one used by women of all Africa. These masks are usually used by women during the celebrations of fertility, funeral ceremonies and initiation festivities to become part of the Sande company.

African art for sale Mende
Mende

Mossi

The Mossi are the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso. They are also located in Ghana and Ivory Coast. The four main values characteristic of the ethnic group are: ancestors, land, family and hierarchy. Mossi people use masks during burials and initiations. Masks attend to honor the deceased and to verify that the spirit of the deceased merits admission into the celestial ancestors’ world. In fact, without a proper funeral, the spirit remains near to the house and causes trouble to the descendants.

Mumuye

The Mumuye live in the north-east of Nigeria, in a region bordered by the river Benue, on the border with Cameroon. This population of farmers lies in a difficult access area, because of the rocky hills and the savanna; for this reason, the Mumuye remained isolated until mid-twentieth century, when they were discovered by English colonists. Although at first not recognized, their art has been able to unravel extraordinary statues and masks, used for funeral and initiation rites and for harvest celebrations. The Mumuye art is distinguished by the particular figuration of its artefacts, that are recognizable for their strong styling, in which the body follows the cylindrical shape of the trunk.

African Art museum Mumuye
Mumuye

Namji

The ethnic group Namji is in the north-west of Cameroon, on the border with Nigeria. It is made up by farmers, whose reputation is given mainly by fertility dolls. They have a characteristic geometric shape and they are variously decorated with beads, shells, metal elements, natural fibers and leather. These dolls, with magical power, are dedicated to women who have difficulty conceiving, or used to treat the pain of pregnancy.

African art for sale Namji
Namji

Ndengese

The Ndengese ethnic group resides in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). It is stylistically influenced by the Bakuba group but it is thematically independent. It is well-known for its truncated torsos, representing leaders and elders, with traditional scarifications, as well as for the forks with anthropomorphic handles.

African art for sale Ndengese
Ndengese

Oron

The Oron ethnic group is found in the flood plain of South Eastern Nigeria, with the land mainly intersected by numerous streams and tributaries flowing into Cross River. Oron people have a rich culture expressed in songs, folklore and dances. Besides, they have various traditional cults and societies.

Pende

The art of Pende’s ethnic group is focused on the use of masks, statues and other cultic objects for the various rituals dedicated to call their ancestors or to propitiate fertility. In particular, the artist gives a lot of importance to expressivity and to accurate somatic features. In this way, masks are more realistic; finally they are decorated with colors and geometrical drawings finely crafted.

African art for sale Pende
Pende

Punu

Naturalism and spirituality are the main features of Makuyé masks, which are carved by Punu artists from Gabon. The two elements sum up harmoniously, reaching results of great perfection. These masks used to be shown off during funeral ceremonies, in order to pacify the spirits. The dancers who wore masks were on stilts, so that the white faces seen from below seemed to have like a supernatural aspect.

African art for sale Punu
Punu

Sao

The Sao civilization flourished in Middle Africa, south of Lake Chad; its territory later became part of Cameroon and Chad. Around 16th century, conversion to Islam changed their cultural identity. Today, several ethnic groups claim descent from this civilization, in particular Sara and Kotoko. Little is known about the Sao’s cultural or political organisation, because they left no written records and are known only through archaeological finds and their successors’ oral history. However, Sao artifacts show that they were skilled workers in bronze, copper, and iron.

Senufo

The Senufo are an ethnic group found in the northern Ivory Coast, in Mali and in Burkina Faso. They are characterized by being skilled farmers and craftsmen. Above all, the Senufo are renowned for their ability to shape wood, from which derived their beautiful sculptures and masks, used during tribal dances or religious rituals. The art of the Senufo is so much recognized that their works are among the most famous and imitated in the African world.

African art for sale Senufo
Senufo

Tuareg

The Tuareg are a Berber people, traditionally nomad, who travels across the Sahara desert, mainly in the Mali and Niger regions. For centuries, the Tuareg were recognized as the leaders of the desert, where they lived on agriculture, trade and raids. Even today, they live in tents grouped in a rather hierarchical society.

African Art facts Tuareg
Tuareg

Yaourè

Yoruba

Yoruba’s ethnic group, which occupies the South-West territories of Nigeria, is formed by the most populous tribes of Africa. Probably, it is also the group with the highest presence of wood carving masters. Usually, masks have on their top a superstructure presenting multiple characters; they are produced for secret societies and tribal feasts.

African art facts Yoruba
Yoruba

The different styles of African art

Because of the vastness of the African territory and of its many ethnic groups and tribes, often scattered and isolated, African art development has not been monotonous but it has been expressed with multiple styles, differentiated between them. Even though they may sometimes seem conflicting, they do not exclude each other, so that they can co-exist within the same village. Artworks with diverse shapes, minimalist or minutely figurative ones, form a whole artistic world, connected by a kind of magic that captivates the viewer, who is able to recognize the unmistakable identity of African art.

A first recognizable style of African art is characterized by stylized, almost cubist shapes, in which the artist, inspired by nature, manifests its expression in an apparently simple way, transforming the raw material into a three-dimensional drawing. The natural shapes are not merely copied but accentuated in volumes, in a vivid abstract manner. Nature is portrayed with strong, rigid geometricity. In this style, the trunk is modeled knowing how to exploit any material feature or defect, giving more value to the work.

African Art - STATUE 3

A second style of African art joins a conception of beauty, always inspired by nature, to a realistic reproduction. The style here becomes round. Shapes are copied emphasizing their most significant parts, following a spiritual ideal. Although of realistic impact, the proportions of the volumes are not respected; for example, in the statues some parts of the hair, eyes or lips are emphasized. The round style is mainly used in important places, such as palaces and royal courts.

A third style of African art, inspired by the previous one, is developed in the courts of the ancient kingdoms and in governments palaces. The building art differs from the villages art because it is less tied to the cult and it is more directed towards the representation of rulers’ splendor and power. The task of the building art sculptor is to portray the chiefs or kings in their most significant moments of court life. The achievements are very realistic and distinguished by minute details, such as elaborate hairstyles.

An example of very realistic style with precious details is the depiction of the Baoulé couple. This type of statues, called Blolo Bla and Blolo Bian, represent the afterlife bride and groom. They are commissioned by men or women who cannot find their corresponding partner in the real world. For this reason, in these statues human body’s beauty concept is enhanced, minutely depicting the details.

Another style of African art, which differs significantly from the others, is the colonial style; in it, figures are immediately recognizable because of Western-style clothing. African populations were inevitably surprised by European settlers, even because of the aesthetic and cultural differences; their amazement and curiosity were then reported also in their artistic works.

All African art major styles, and their related derivations, mark as immediately identifiable all the different ethnic groups, which can diversify sometimes because of obvious characteristics and other times because of small details. It is also fascinating to notice similar stylistic appearances in different tribes, sometimes isolated and never come in touch with each other.

African masks

Masks are the basic element of the Western and Sub-Saharan Africa’s culture; they are one of the African art form best known in Europe. In fact, we can say that African art has become well-known thanks to masks, which in the 20th century have inspired art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism.
Mainly, masks are related to initiation rites, through which adolescents become part of the adult world and acquire a new status within the tribe. During the services, the use of masks has spread and diversified: for example, in Angola masks are worn by the guardians of the neophytes, while in Zaire adolescents themselves wear them in a parade coming back to the village after the ceremony.
Masks are also used by secret organizations. These companies commissioned to artists a large number of artifacts, needing them in many situations: funerals, celebrations, events related to agriculture. These masks are different from each other, according to the tribe and to the geographic regions to which they belong.
Even in the art of court, masks are present. Especially commemorating the ancestors of the royal family, they were intended to strengthen the central power and the prestige of the ruler, so they were assigned to specific court’s sculptors.
Ceremonial masks constitute a precise and, at the same time, enormous subject. The theme of these works is the supernatural, in all its manifestations: from the buffalo, a spirit very prevalent in West Africa, to the bust of a woman, who represents the goddess of fertility.
In general, African masks are covering cultural and representative functions in the broadest sense of the term. Taking inspiration from the human being (ancestor worship) and the superhuman (the worship of spirits), masks are intimately connected to the tribal society. The carved representation, in fact, is the highest manifestation of respect, as well as the only way to fix the spirit to the earth.