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African Art: Discovering the Beauty, Symbolism, and Diversity of Traditional and Contemporary Masterpieces

African Art: Discovering the Beauty, Symbolism, and Diversity of Traditional and Contemporary Masterpieces

Queen Idia of Benin - Afrocritik

Whether it is the ancient terracotta wonders crafted by the Nok culture, or the contemporary wizardry of augmented reality in the hands of today’s artists, African art remains a sparkling source of global inspiration, conversation, and admiration.

By Joy Chukwujindu

It is common knowledge that the renowned Spanish painter and sculptor, Pablo Picasso, who pioneered Cubism in the early 20th century, drew inspiration – through the use of flat planes and stylised human features characterised by bold contouring – from African art, particularly traditional masks from West and Central African region, as well as Egyptian art. This inspiration was exemplified in landmark works such as the 1907 oil painting,  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which depicts five unclothed women with distorted features. Notably, the faces of two of the figures bear a striking semblance to African masks, and their angular features disrupt the traditional portrayal of femininity in art. Beyond Picasso, African art reached other Cubist artists, influencing the likes of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and Italian artist, Amedeo Modigliani, as well as, fauvism artists such as Henri Matisse, ultimately giving rise to the modern art era.

It is only natural that a continent often hailed as the cradle of humanity would house art that dates through the ages, asserting influence in art history and persisting into the present. Artwork from regions in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central, East, Western and Southern Africa, including religious art such as the Islamic art of West Africa and the Christian art of East Africa, are grouped as African art, excluding art from Northern African countries along the Mediterranean Sea, such as Algerian, Arabic, and Libyan art, among others. 

Amid the ongoing challenge of reclaiming African artwork – once considered primitive and overlooked as mere trophies and artefacts from past colonisers – it is easy to overlook the beauty and symbolism inherent in traditional African art. This artistic legacy spans various countries, ethnicities, and tribes, and is manifested through diverse mediums of expression. It stands as a testament to the skillfulness of ancient artists and is ever-relevant for the historical significance it holds, and the cultural heritage it embodies. 

Rock Art

In ancient African societies without written records, art played a vital role as a conduit for documenting, offering insights into significant events of the past. Rock art, one of the oldest forms of African art, proved the existence of early humans on earth. 

The diversity of rock art transcended geographical boundaries, spanning the Southern African region, across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, and South Africa. Rock surfaces were primarily inscribed with natural materials such as charcoal and ochre, with engravings that depicted human and animal forms, as well as hybrid figures merging human and animal features. Notably, the  Apollo 11 cave stones, found in the Karas Region of southwestern Namibia, harbour an engraving believed to represent a supernatural creature with feline features, two horns, and human hind legs — a creation attributed to ancient hunter-gatherers. Similarly, the Kondoa district in modern-day Tanzania and the San people in modern-day South Africa and Botswana created rock art predominantly consisting of supernatural beings, showcasing a communication between the mundane world and the spirit world. Moving northward, the Saharan people left engravings portraying wild animals and therianthropic figures. 

apollo 11 stone 870x671 1
Apollo 11 Cave Stones. Image from Smart History website

(Read also: Seven Ancient African Civilisations You Should Know About)

Funerary Art

Several African Kingdoms believed in life after death and practised funerary rituals, using masonry to create tombs for their kings, masters, and royal members. During the Old Kingdom – spanning across several dynasties between 2700 and 2200 BC – the Egyptians perfected the art of pyramid building, creating masterpieces such as the Pyramids of Giza, built for three pharaohs — Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure – who were thought to become gods in the afterlife. The art and hieroglyphs on tomb walls narrate the lives of the Kings and their families. The Egyptians also created art to glorify their gods, such as the reclining statue of the Great Sphinx of Giza, a  mythological creature with a lion’s body and a human head, believed to be Haremakhet, the Sun God.

Egyptian art has been around since around 3000 B.C. and has influenced Western art,  particularly Greek art. An early life-sized depiction of the nude female figure in Greek history, Aphrodite of Knidos, sculpted by Greek sculptor, Praxiteles, had traces of Egyptian influence. This sculpture featured a front-facing posture and a hieroglyphic inscription, traits commonly found in Egyptian artistic traditions. It usually appeared flat, with fine lines and uncomplicated shapes, employing an artistic approach that established a sense of balance. Egyptian art prioritised symbolism over mere aesthetics, as their belief in Ma’at, the goddess of harmony and balance, created notions of dualities and order: life and death, rain and sun, good and bad. The Nemes and headdresses worn by pharaohs and queens alike were usually represented with simple straight lines such as the iconic gold funerary mask, Mask of Tutankhamun, and the stucco-layered bust of Nefertiti made of limestone.

Mask of Tutankhamun - Afrocritik
Mask of Tutankhamun | Wikipedia
African art - Queen Nerfetiti - Afrocritik
Nefertiti | Wikipedia

Similarly, in Uganda, the Kasubi Tombs (now reconstructed after being destroyed by a fire in 2010) was built in the 19th century as a burial ground for the past four Kings of Buganda and is regarded as the sacred hub of the Baganda people. The central tomb is uniquely shaped like a dome, with the use of vegetal materials like wooden poles, reeds grass grown on marshlands, and sticks mixed with earth and clay. In West Africa, the Akan people in modern-day Ghana also performed funeral rites to communicate with the departed in the afterlife, accompanying their dead with carved terracotta vessels and clay figures, such as the memorial portrait, Nsodie. The decorative reliefs of these art pieces were either fancy or simple, depending on how rich and important the person being remembered was in the community. The artwork often depicted the dead as distinctive individuals.

Sculptures

Way before modern abstract art became popularised, the ancient Nok people who lived in present-day Southern Kaduna, Nigeria, left an indelible mark with art that deviated from the normal forms and shapes. They shaped figures in a stylised way; eyes were in triangles and oval shapes, the heads and chin were elongated, and hairstyles were exaggerated, all the while using terracotta, which has now lasted for thousands of years. The clay figurines depicted people with swollen features (believed to be afflicted with elephantiasis) and displayed beautiful figures wearing ornaments, considered to be a symbol of beauty. Some sculptural works portrayed indigenous people from different social classes and with different occupations.  For example, the Seated Male Figure is a recurrent sculpture in Nok art. It is a figure of a male in a seated position, arms crossed, usually representing an ancestor, community leader, or a divine being. There were also figures with slingshots and bows, representing the hunters among the Nok people. The Nok culture is thought to have influenced the people of Ife in Southern Nigeria and Eastern Benin, who were hailed for their sophisticated and naturalistic sculptural works made of terracotta, stone, copper, and brass. The 14th or 15th-century sculpture, the Ife head, is one of the renowned sculptures unearthed in 1938 – with its beaded headdress, potentially symbolising a crown – thought to be the Ooni of Ife, the spiritual head and traditional ruler of Ife.

Thinking man NOK - Afrocritik
The Seated Male Figure is recurring in Nok art | North Carolina Museum of Art
Ife Head Ori Olokun - Afrocritik
Ife Head Ori Olokun | Khan Academy

Fashioned through a distinctive lost-wax technique, molten metal was skilfully moulded to craft the renowned Benin Bronzes, originating around the 16th century in the West African Kingdom of Benin. These sculpted treasures have captured the admiration of many, adorning museums in Nigeria and in the West. The collection consists of decorated cast plaques, commemorative busts, and sculptures portraying both animals and humans, along with regalia and personal embellishments.

The Benin Bronzes were used for many purposes; such as being used as decorative pieces at the Oba’s palace, placed in the tombs and altars of past Obas, and being used in rituals and honouring ancestors, Obas, and Queen Mothers. The Bronze Head of Queen Idia is a masterpiece of the Queen Mother wearing a Ukpe-okhue, a crown made with red coral beads. The queen had helped her son, Oba Esigie, to secure the throne and she wielded military power through her accomplishments. The Bronzes also depicted the early contact of the Benins with the Portuguese; the Portuguese traders and their soldiers were portrayed wearing Western clothes, with slender faces, long-pointed noses, and facial beards.

Queen Idia of Benin - Afrocritik
Queen Idia of Benin | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the 9th century, the bronze metal-working art of the Igbo Ukwu in present-day Anambra, Nigeria, was flourishing. Artwork found includes the Human head pendant with evidence of facial scarification, Ichi, which indicates the male figure had passed through the initiation process and is now conferred aristocratic titles. The Igbo Ukwu pottery and sculptures were usually adorned. The artists used expressive techniques to craft embellished ornaments and intricately designed cords interwoven with each other, exemplified by their remarkable, bronze vases. Peter Garlake, a Zimbabwean archaeologist and art historian, has drawn parallels between Igbo Ukwu art and European artistic traditions, particularly noting resemblances to the Rococo style. The aesthetic convergence between Igbo Ukwu and Rococo, as highlighted by Garlake, underscores the shared nuances of artistic expression in these diverse cultural contexts. 

Traditional Masks

Another iconic art that continues to influence artists from around the world to this day is the traditional masks. These masks feature a unique artistic design made of wood or metal, either worn directly on the face or positioned atop the head. Often, these masks carry symbolic significance, embodying the spirits of the departed as well as totemic creatures, and are used for events such as ceremonies and rituals, and by masquerades across regions spanning West, Central, and Southern Africa. The N’tomo masks, for example, are worn by boys who pass through an initiation process to become men among the Bambara people of West Africa. These boys pass through six rites, the first of which is called N’tomo Dyo, before completing circumcision on the sixth rite. 

ntomo-ntomokum-mask-bambara-mali
Ntomo Mask | Héritage Galerie

Some of these masks are fashioned for women, too. Just like the bronze of Queen Idia, many traditional art pieces acknowledge women. For example, the Senufo masks worn by people in Cote d’Ivoire are considered feminine due to the soft features and oval shape of the masks compared to the masculine Senufo helmet specifically made for men.

Contemporary Art

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Contemporary art in Africa began during the last lap of the colonial era and entered into the post-colonial period. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, contemporary art is used to criticise colonialism, promote African culture, and explore themes anchored in African histories and social contexts. Absorbed by the international art community in the 1980s, this artistic movement is built on traditional art, drawing inspiration from traditional practices, colonial legacies, post-colonial realities, and cultural heritage. 

Noteworthy artists include Nigerian-British artist, Yinka Shonibare and Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, who utilise their art to initiate conversations on the nuances of the post-colonial landscape. Anatsui’s 2003 wall-hanging sculpture, Adinkra Sasa, made of recycled liquor bottle caps representing European influence in Africa and fabric designs for mourning handcrafted by the Akan people of Ghana, conveys sorrow over the balkanisation of Africa by the colonial powers. Shonibare’s life-sized sculptural mannequin, Ruins Decorated, with globes for heads and clothed with Dutch wax and African textiles, expresses how Western empires grew and declined, the struggle for African independence, and the cultural exchange between countries. These artistic expressions serve as not only aesthetic creations but also as agents fostering discussions and shaping narratives around African realities.

adinkra sasa - Afrocritik
Adinkra Sasa by El Anatsui | elanatsui.art
Ruins Decorated by Yinka Shonibare - Afrocritik
Ruins Decorated by Yinka Shonibare | creativefeel.co.za

Nowadays, conventional artistic forms like painting, sculpture, and pottery seamlessly blend with contemporary approaches, such as digital art, installations, mixed media, photography, and performance art. Artists like Ife Olowu, Oladapo Ogunjobi, and NeeC Nonso are integrating augmented reality into their art, elevating interactivity and pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. Worthy of mention is Nigerian artist, Alex Peter Idoko, who paints with fire on wood using the pyrography technique. This fusion of traditional and cutting-edge elements not only reflects the evolving nature of African contemporary art but also enhances the viewer’s immersive experience. 

Alex Idoro fire on wood
Alex Idoro, fire on wood | Bored Panda

(Read also: Oladapo Ogunjobi is Harnessing Augmented Reality to Redefine African Art)

Performance and Photography arts are becoming a growing and evolving form of art in Africa. Between 1968 and 1985, Nigerian J.D. Ojiekere used photography to document the ways women styled their hair into monumental headdresses. Also, Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits features the artist’s fourteen self-portraits, portraying and reinterpreting iconic people like Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Martin Luther King Jr. Fosso’s portraiture depicts iconic figures that triggered discourse on civil rights and independence within the Black and African communities. In 2023, the West African international art fair, Art X Lagos 2023, exhibited a historical cartoon documentary, Graphic Stories, from the 1940s through to the 1980s, which carried critiques of the events occurring in society during that period.

In recent years, African contemporary art has gained global recognition and influence, transcended geographical boundaries, and enriched the global art scene. International exhibitions, art fairs, and galleries have dedicated platforms to showcase the works of African artists, exposing them to wider audiences and fostering cultural exchange. This increased visibility has led to collaborations with artists from diverse backgrounds, creating a global dialogue that exceeds borders and promotes a deeper understanding of African art and culture. Recently, Julie Mehretu’s works such as the Walkers with the Dawn and Morning have gathered international recognition for breaking world records for the highest sale of artwork by an African artist. Similarly, African diasporan artists are making waves in the global art scene and are using their art to portray themes of cultural identity and honouring traditional art. In 2019, Kenyan-American visual artist, Wangechi Mutu created four sculptures of women made with bronzes, The Seated, commissioned for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Whether it is the ancient terracotta wonders crafted by the Nok culture, or the contemporary wizardry of augmented reality in the hands of today’s artists, African art remains a sparkling source of global inspiration, conversation, and admiration. 

Joy Chukwujindu is a Nigerian lawyer. When she is not lawyering, she doubles as an art and culture writer for Afrocritik.

Cover image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

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