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African Art: Key Concepts

Understanding African Art

Key concepts:

  • African art has purpose. It was not created as art.  European concepts of art do not apply.
  • To fully understand African art we must understand its cultural context.
  • African art is frequently an object through which a spiritual world was manifested and influenced the lives of the people. 
  • African art has authority and power and is used to transmit cultural values and maintain social control.
  • African art is principally symbolic rather than representational.

Bak-Roc-006African Art and everyday tribal life

Traditional African art is functional. It was inspired by religion, government, education, work and entertainment. All of the arts in African cultures were deeply woven into the fabric of social life and played a central role in binding together all members of the community through community activities.

Religious rituals

Sculpture is an important part of many rituals in African life giving social cohesion through common belief and participation in ceremonies. Masks and figures used in rites are not worshipped; rather it is believed that the world is inhabited by many unseen spirits, each with its own powers and personality. These spirits involve themselves in the lives of human beings in a great many ways for both good and evil. Figures and masks are the vehicles through which these spirits make themselves seen and their presence known in the world of men.

Authority and social control

Masks representing spirit forces are important at ceremonies marking the major changes in the lives of individuals or community events such as initiations into adulthood or funeral ceremonies. At initiation ceremonies the masks frequently lead the boys into the "bush schools" where initiations take place. At funerals, spirits of the masks not only pay final respect to the deceased but also guarantee safe passage into the world beyond.

Sculpture also serves to symbolize authority and plays an important role in maintaining social control. Figurative staffs are sometimes carried by representatives of chiefs and kings, symbolizing their power and authority. Often they speak for him and represent him through visual proverbs as having the power, strength and courage of such creatures as a leopard, water buffalo or elephant.

Sometimes it is advisable to call upon the spirits to settle disputes too intractable to be settled by normal temporal authorities. In such cases the spirits are thought to make themselves known through the masks, and the decisions announced by the maskers are accepted as having the weight of spiritual authority. Maskers also maintain social control in more subtle ways. Often masks serve as teaching aids, augmenting the authority of the teacher himself and by symbolizing the ideas or values he wished to teach.

While masks are always treated seriously, their appearance is often accompanied by great merriment, and humor is often built into their teaching roles. Chiefs and elders might be criticized for pompousness or abuse of authority through seemingly comic ridicule and caricature by a masker. In a similar vein a masker might deliberately act in ways not normally tolerated in the society in order to teach by negative example. In this sense even what might appear to be pure entertainment often has a more serious purpose. 

Symbolic art 

 Perhaps because African masks are carved to be worn in performance and most figurative sculpture is also designed for ritual use, African art is principally symbolic rather than representational.Song-Zai-004

The motivation for this art is a concern for visualizing concepts or abstractions rather than a detailed portrayal of human faces. Sculpture is often highly stylized with conventional female beauty shown through elaborate hair styles and breasts; and male genitalia to convey ideas of serenity or fertility; bold powerful shapes, such as the horns of animals to symbolize strength and virility; and frightening, expressionistic visages to inspire awe and fear for the enforcement of social custom.

Similarly the artist often deliberately distorted proportions in order to emphasize those elements he wished to show as important. In most African sculpture, for example, the head, seat of wisdom and personality, is usually enlarged so that it accounts for about one-fourth to one-third of the total height of a human figure instead of the one to seven ratio that it is in nature. In contrast, the hands and feet are generally regarded as unimportant and hence show little detail or attention. 





The material most frequently available to the African sculptor was wood. Climate, insects and use persistently destroyed these objects. As a result few objects of any antiquity have been preserved. Most existing African wooden masks and sculptural objects date from the 20th century. Occasionally, wooden sculptures do survive and some have been found among the Dogon of Mali where the dry climate has preserved them for up to four centuries.


Stone was used much less frequently than wood, probably because much of the stone found south of the Sahara is volcanic and crumbles easily. Nevertheless, some of the oldest existing pieces of African sculpture are in stone. Among them the stone figures of the Sherbro or Bullom of Sierra Leone date from before 1500 and those of Akwanshi and Esie in Nigeria may date from the fourteenth and twelfth centuries respectively. Bam-Mal-205


Ivory was used extensively in the manufacture of jewelry and side-blown trumpets, many with elaborate geometric detail. Figurative sculpture in Ivory was never common traditionally, however. The one exception was at the court of the Kingdom of Benin where the altars of the kings used ivory extensively. Only since the end of the 19th century has figurative carving in ivory been common elsewhere, and then primarily to meet the demand of the tourist trade.


The oldest art objects found anywhere south of the Sahara are the terra cotta figures discovered at Nok in Nigeria, many of which date from five centuries before the birth of Christ. These figures and heads are exceptional not only in terms of age and beauty but in size as well. As a general rule, clay was seldom used for figurative sculpture, probably because of the difficulties of firing large pieces.


Brass and bronze casting have a long history in Africa. All brass and bronze and most casting in gold was done by a very sophisticated technique known as the "lost wax" process. The artist first fashions a model in beeswax and then forms a mold of moist potter's clay around it. After the clay has hardened, the wax is melted away and molten metal is poured into the mold through vents left for that purpose. Once the metal has cooled the clay is broken away to reveal the finished casting. Thus each casting is unique, the mold having been destroyed in the process.

Aesthetic skill

Though the forms and styles of African art differ from those we are familiar with in the West, a closer look reveals that the artists have a remarkable degree of aesthetic skill and technique. As we learn more about the role that this art played in the social-life of the community, we see more clearly that the art met in particular ways the social as well as the creative needs of those communities that produced it.


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