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What is Meant by ‘African Art’?

By on July 2nd, 2019 in African Art

When we say ‘African Art’, what do we actually mean? Africa is an enormous continent, home to a huge variety of cultures, approaches, influences and ideas. With that in mind, the term ‘African art’ can appear to be a little, shall we say, broad. So, what are we touching on? What can we expect from African art and what themes and commonalities can be found across the form?

What does the term ‘African Art’ cover?

‘African Art’ refers to both the modern and historical paintings, sculptures, installations, and visual media created by either native or indigenous artists from the continent of Africa. That might seem obvious, but many consider the umbrella term ‘African art’ to also cover regions such as north Africa, Egypt, the Caribbean, and some art created in the African style, or by African artists in America. However, despite its huge geographical range and the diversity of the art created, there are some unifying artistic themes when considering the totality of the visual artistic work created in the name of ‘African art’.

Commonalities in African Art

The majority of African art is created within the following popular mediums; masquerade, metalwork, sculpture, architecture and pieces created with natural materials. Although some contemporary artists are now moving away from religious focus, the majority of the art created across the continent has, historically, been heavily influenced by the two main religions practiced across Africa; Islam and Christianity.

Sculpture, traditionally, was widely created in wood. Masks and figures were, and still are, popular as part of African sculpture, and are highly exaggerated and stylised across the board. Sculpture is also a considerably more common medium than painting in most communities.

Another commonality in African art is in the purpose of it, whilst we a small collection of sculptures for re-sale. In general, art is not created simply for display or for commercial gain, it is generally created for the use and appreciation of the wider community; from everyday pottery to intricate pieces for weddings and funerals.

Examples of Commonly Found African Art…

Mask Work. Any display on African art would seem odd without the presence of beautiful masks produced by the sub-Saharan African communities. These were generally created for ceremonies and celebrations. The older the mask, the more impressive, as they are traditionally made from wood, a material that tends to decay with ease.







African Terracotta ArtTerracotta Figures. West Africa, Nigeria in particular, is very well know for this art form. The earliest examples of terracotta figures have been traced back to the Nok civilisation who lived between 500 BC and 200 AD in Nigeria.








Rock PaintingAfrican Rock art and paintings. The oldest rock paintings are thought to be around 27,000 years old. The ancient Africans produced these artworks in caves and on rock faces, generally depicting everyday life. The best examples of these can be found in the Drakensberg Mountain Range in South Africa. It is estimated that this range is home to around 30,000 individual rock paintings.

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