African art, art created by the peoples south of the Sahara.
The predominant art forms are masks and figures, which were generally used in religious ceremonies. The decorative arts, especially in textiles and in the ornamentation of everyday tools, were a vital art in nearly all African cultures. The lack of archaeological excavations restricts knowledge of the antiquity of African art. As the value of these works was inseparable from their ritual use, no effort was made to preserve them as aesthetic accomplishments. Wood was one of the most frequently used materials—often embellished by clay, shells, beads, ivory, metal, feathers, and shredded raffia. The discussion in this article is limited to the works of the peoples of W and central Africa—the regions richest (because of the people's sedentary lifestyles) in indigenous art.
Western Sudan and Guinea Coast
In this region the style of woodcarving is abstract. Distortion is often used to emphasize features of spiritual significance. The figures of the Dogon tribe of central Mali stress the cylindrical shape of the torso. Some wooden carvings were made by an earlier people, the Tellem. Sculptures such as masks carved of soft wood are homes for the spirits and are discarded once they have been used in rituals. The Dogon have three distinctive styles of sculpture: masks incorporating recessed rectangles, ancestor sculptures carved in abstract geometric style used as architectural supports, and freestanding figures made in a cylindrical style. High-ranking Dogon families often had carved doors on their granaries.
The Bambara people of W Mali are famous for their striking wooden headdresses in the form of stylized antelope heads. The art of the Baga of NW Guinea includes snake carvings, drums supported by small free-standing figures, and spectacular masks. Poro society members in Liberia made ceremonial masks notable for their size, color, and vitality of expression. The Dan are known for their quasi-naturalistic, smoothly carved masks that represent materializations of spirits of the forest. Many of their masks are used to instruct initiates and relate to various social responsibilities, such as fighting fires and making peace. The Dan also carve large wooden spoons with anthropomorphic features used in ceremonies to show the importance of women.
The Baule of Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) carve figures to house the spirits of the dead or to represent a spiritual spouse or soul mate. These have precise renderings in high relief of ornate hairdresses and scarification patterns (see body-marking). The art of the Guro of Côte d'Ivoire consists almost entirely of human masks and of loom pulleys. Senufo masks represent human features with geometric projections and legs jutting out from each side of the face.
The Ashanti kingdom of Ghana employed (18th and 19th cent.) a system of brass weights based on a unit that was used to weigh gold dust, the state currency. These weights are small figures, many less than 2 in. (5 cm) high, which were cast in the cire perdue (lost wax) process found in many W African regions. They portray human and animal forms with a liveliness and spontaneity unusual in African art. Many are associated with proverbs that provide cultural continuity. The artists of Dahomey produced appliquéd textiles, including banners using colorful materials that often depict historical events.
From the north the remarkable Nok terra-cotta heads, most of them fragments of figures, are the earliest African sculpture yet found (c.500 BC–AD 200). Characteristic of these works are the impressive simplification of facial features and the pierced pupils of the eyes. The art of S Nigeria reveals considerable contrasts. Yoruba work is often brilliantly polychromed. The world-famous Ife portrait heads in bronze and terra-cotta (12th–15th cent.) are unique in Africa because of their naturalistic detail, perfection of modeling, and control over the cire perdue process. Nothing certain is known of the artistic sources or the function of the heads.
The art of Benin arose from the needs of the royal court. It was largely commemorative, ritualistic, and ceremonial in function. From Benin city came thousands of objects dating from the 15th to the 19th cent. The earliest bronze portrait heads date from the first half of the 16th cent. Such models of human heads were considered representations of past kings, or Obas, who were held to be divine. They were also fitted with carved elephant tusks atop the head. In the Benin palace were bronze plaques of figures against floral backgrounds. Abundant descriptive detail and sharp, precise lines are characteristic of Benin art.
The Igbo, Ibibio, Ekoi, and Ijaw of SE Nigeria carved wooden masks for use in their rites and secret societies. Ekoi masks were modeled after human skulls, with deep eye sockets, carved exposed teeth, and emaciated faces. On the banks of Middle Cross River are about 300 monolithic carvings, supposedly Ekoi ancestor figures from between 1600 and 1900.
Cameroon and Gabon
The small tribes of the Cameroon grasslands display a fairly homogeneous style. Sculpture is bold in execution and vital in expression. Wood carvings include large house posts, masks, and other ritual objects. Among the Mangbetu people of Gabon, the decorative motifs on stringed musical instruments, drums, and spoons emphasize the human figure, often elongated with smooth surface planes. Some figures are said to act as guardian spirits over ancestors whose bones are kept in boxes. The art of the Bakota people is best known for highly stylized wood and metal figures that were placed in reliquaries.
The Congo Region
The sculpture of the Kongo kingdom is usually characterized by naturalism. Each of the culture's ancestor figures represents a personalized portrait and reveals details of body decoration and dress. The best-known art works of the Bateke of the W Congo are small power figures. These figures stand with arms close to the body in a stiff, frontal pose. The Bapende sculptors of the W Congo give a fluid surface to their ivory pendants portraying human faces. The Bembe created small-scale sculptures in wood meant to contain the spirits of the ancestors. Typical of these figures are thick lips and beards and eyes often inlaid with porcelain.
In the Bushongo kingdom statues of royalty were carved (17th to 19th cent.). The king was shown in a pose of static aloofness, wearing a flat crown and often holding a ritual sword. The Basonge of the central Congo carved small standing power figures and masks, bold in proportion and anticipating cubism. The Baluba of the SE Congo produced bowls and stools supported by slender figures. Small ivory masks and neck rests were made in the E Congo. The art of the Chokwe of S Congo and Angola consists of freestanding figures, ceremonial staff heads, masks, and carved stools. The dynamically carved figures are particularly outstanding.
Influence on Western Art
African art came to European notice c.1905, when artists began to recognize the aesthetic value of African sculpture. Such artists as Vlaminck, Derain, Picasso, and Modigliani were influenced by African art forms. Interest in the arts of Africa has flourished, and many modern Western artists have rediscovered the enduring qualities of African art. In the latter part of the 20th cent., African art has come to be appreciated for its intrinsic aesthetic value as well as continuing to be a source of inspiration for the work of Western artists.
In the United States, fine collections of African art can be found in the National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian Institution); the Michael C. Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Field Museum and the Natural History Museum, Chicago; the Peabody Museum, Harvard; the Univ. Museum at the Univ. of Pennsylvania; and the Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles.
See general books on African art; M. Huet, The Dance, Art and Ritual of Africa (1978); M. Adams, Designs for Living: Symbolic Communication in African Art (1982); S. Vogel, African Aesthetics (1985); R. Seiber and R. Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life (1988); K. Ezra, Royal Art of the Benin (1992).