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African Art

From Egypt to South Africa the art of Africa is rich and diverse on a scale second to no other continent. The art is a cultural heritage that has sustained a race of people over millennia. This paper will focus on the art of the 200-year span of 1400-1600 CE.

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  It was during this time period that the European Renaissance flowered, and saw such masters as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael arise.

It likewise covers the time period that Rembrandt and the Dutch masters worked. Comparisons will be made between the two disparate cultures, examining the differences between how the art of Africa and the art of Europe relate to their culture and mores. It will examine the utility of both art genres.

While the art appears to be radically different, the underlying usage for the art produced is essentially the same, with Renaissance art and African art both serving their culture’s religious beliefs and mores.

For those not accustomed to abstract art it can appear to be different from what they even consider art. A large portion of all African art is abstract. Abstraction is the way the artist chooses to create a representation of the ancestor or the spirit with whom he wishes to communicate. By tradition the art is religious or mythical, so their option was to make a representative figure. Abstraction is the way to create such.

European art of the same era solved this problem by opting to create a realistic likeness of their saints and even their god. . Europeans did not paint landscapes or sculpt animals except to give a setting to their holy families and saints.

Art was for religion and for custom, culture, and mores in both cultures. “The beauty of African art lies not only on the surface or physical features of the artwork but the meaning or lesson that it tends to emanate” (All-About-African-Art.com par. 3).

African art of the period under discussion is virtually always three dimensional and not only of wood. The Yoruba discovered lost-wax and cast their statues in metals by the 14th and 15th century (Mullen, par.10). John Reader, writing in Africa: A Biography of the Continent, discusses the use of metals in the art of the African tribes. In Sub-Saharan Africa iron and copper were the most highly valued of metals.

Interestingly, he reports that the 14th century tribes would exchange their gold for copper at a rate of two-thirds gold to one of copper (287). This iron and copper went into weapons, naturally but much of it found its way into art because of its permanence was associated with the longevity of ancestors as well as the immortality of the spirits.

It became then a part of their art, which is synonymous with their religious beliefs and culture.

The most noticeable thing about African art is its ubiquitous nature. It permeates the lives of the African people more so than European art. The emphasis in African art is on the human figure much the same as European art between 1400 and 1600 CE. It is also a part of everyday life and relates to the culture and values of the tribes that produce it by serving as constant reminders of ancestors and traditions.

The tribal masks are objects of veneration, brought out on ceremonial occasions to be ‘danced’. These masks are not simply ornaments but rather they are sacred objects.

They are given names. This name is significant as more than just identifying the individual piece, but also identifies the meaning of the work. Each has a history and a dance is designated for each. The mask embodies living spirits. In African culture the meanings of the mask, the associated dance and the spirits that dwell within it are inexorably linked together.

African art’s use of the human form is so pervasive that its adoption by European nations is taken as proof of the contact between the two cultures.

The Church of Rome commissioned much of the great art of the European continent during the 1400-1600s. The statues and portraits of the biblical saints portray a likeness. Jesus is depicted in stone and pigment and the image is to remind the faithful of his deeds.

The priests face a crucifix and make the magical signs when chanting prayer in the general direction of such art. There may be the argument that Christians do not pray to the effigies, still, the casual on-looker would have a difficult time determining the subtle difference.

In this sense, the masks of African tribal art serve the same function within the community as do the pietas and crucifixions of the Italian Renaissance.

Christopher Roy, Professor of Art History, University of Iowa, states that, “most African art is representative, not representational. Very little African sculpture is intended to recreate the features of a human being, either living or dead” (par. 6).

Roy relates that African art, particularly the mask, is not meant to be a likeness of an ancestor, nor is it meant to be an image of a beloved, revered, or even feared leader of the tribe. The mask is a home for the spirits, invented by the maker of the mask.

The mask, a work of art, becomes a haven for the supernatural, the unseen, the unknown, incomprehensible, so it follows that the physical home created for them must be a creation of whimsy (par. 6).

In a land where diseases are rampant and life is relatively cheap the people often turn to the spirits for protection. In the years of the Black Death in Europe the people turned to the church. In Africa, where flies can carry death and swimming the rivers can infect people with deadly parasites, the spirits are all that stand between the tribe and death at times.

It gives the tribe solace to know that they have a way of making the spirits visible, and they do this in their art. Art in the form of the mask gives a tangible reality to the unseen spirits. When the mask is then danced in the ceremonies and rituals of the tribe this makes the spirits accessible to the tribe.

This art can span the gap between the world and the unseen realm of the spirit. The medium literally becomes the message as the diviner in the mask opens a channel to the spirits and can communicate the needs of the tribe to the only beings capable of giving aid to the tribe (Roy par. 2).

Western African art in the form of wooden masks most often take the form of humans, animals, or fanciful beings. Their use in religious rites range from such as tribal initiation ceremonies to various celebrations of tribal good fortune or auspicious anniversary dates.

They are danced in celebration of a good harvest as well as danced to request that their crops thrive. They are also danced in preparation for war. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to equate these icons with the religious paintings of the Sistine Chapel and the pope’s private quarters.

While some statues holy to the Catholics are brought out to view by the public on high holy days and venerated as talismans of the true cross or some other belief. The static art of the frescos can be viewed on a regular basis, and is used to put the supplicant in the proper frame of mind to believe when he kneels to ask a boon or blessing of his creator.

The masks of African art are used as a gateway to ease both the wearer and his audience into a nether world where the spirits dwell. The Catholic art of the Renaissance and the centuries immediately following it are for the same purpose.

The Fang tribe of Gabon are famous for their creation of guardian figures that are then affixed to the boxes containing the bones of their ancestors. Their leadership, according to The Africa Guide online website, is inherited and the leader is supposedly a direct descendant of the ancestor who founded the village.

This leader is not only secular head of the tribal village, he is the spiritual leader, and can communicate with the ancestors through the wearing of masks, which are an important aspect of Fang art (par. 4).

The art of Africa discussed herein is made for utilitarian purpose, making it, at first glance seem different from European art of the same time period. Yet while the pope may not put on a mask of Christ and dance it before the masses, he certainly carries a rod with the representation of Christ when he is seen in public.

He has decorated his church and his private apartments with the figures of biblical characters to serve as a reminder of the holy word. From the Creation of Adam to the Last Judgment, artists of the European school created work to please the church.

They created to invoke memories and remind the faithful of their culture and spiritual roots in the same way as the African mask. While the art appears to be radically different, the underlying usage for the art produced is essentially the same, with Renaissance art and African art both serving their culture’s religious beliefs and mores.

Works Cited

All-About-African-Art.com  Abstract African Art is Mainly Considered

To be out of the Ordinary 9-29-08


Mullen, N.  Yoruba Art and Culture 9-29-08 Wysinger Homestead 2004


Roy, C. Signs and Symbols in African Art: Graphic Patterns in Burkina

Faso 9-3-08 The University of Iowa no date