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Art Gallery the Eye and the Hand


Context of African sculpture
Places of traditional African sculpture
Canons of African sculpture
Techniques and creative
Role of African sculpture in the middle
Universal impact of African sculpture


Never has been written about as much ink as traditional African sculpture. Ever, despite all attempts, the man has managed to evacuate his mental field, much less its history, that is to say of his encounter with the other. It has been a cornerstone to measure the "civilization" of the black man and his ability to create capacity variously appreciated throughout history until early this century, cubism helping, the unanimously begins to make the exceptional nature of African sculpture that was always confused with African art which it is a party, probably the most important, if one were to judge solely by the number Parts created that we have reached.

Context of African sculpture

We can talk about African sculpture in isolation from the rest of the arts of Africa south of Sahara. Every word in this area is responsible not only meaningless but history, and if we chose the term "African art" is to fully assume all we have inherited from the past in this area because the terms to denote the same reality have changed often. Whether it's art "primitive", "negro", "Black African", "colonial" or finally "first", it does indeed refer to the same reality colored by ideas of the moment.

Thus it may be interesting to ask what is meant by the epithet contiguous to primitive African art. The adjective is the result of the theory of evolution very popular in the nineteenth century. The scholars were so convinced of the universal and compulsory laws of evolution that applied in all areas including that of societies and cultures all advancing to the Western cultures and civilizations, the apex of evolution ... we know TODAY 'Today no culture is primitive and often, through ignorance of reality always very complex as it simplifies and describes as primitive. The word has been abandoned by most anthropologists, but it still has its defenders and the average Westerner is still attached. Other epithets convey so much history. Each time he came to give the most accurate view of these creations. But all these terms fall under the Western conception, often, Africans have felt a pejorative they sometimes have carried their strength: for example negritude has recovered all of the derogatory word related to "negro" to make it the basis of claims of equality, freedom march, opposition to colonialism, to affirm the world to be black, or even of its superiority over others.

We can not make these arts ignoring timing problems they pose. The dates are rare, despite the progress that is with the accompaniment of knowledge as related archeology. It is not vain to know that we have found in Angola's oldest piece of wood and is dated from the seventh century, a sign that since then there at least, sculpture was practiced on the continent. But the dates if they can measure the historical depth is not everything. The value placed in this account to these creations as much as the meaning and functions they have. Finally, art historians were able to classify all the creations based on their origin. They affirmed the existence of centers of styles in sub-Saharan Africa. The style implies the end of trial and error and research of mass balances in sculpture, it takes time to build that features constant and quasi-permanent and which are used to distinguish it from any other part from another workshop or center. There is an element of timing that dare not speak its name. From there to consider the styles that often are confused with names of ethnic or social groups as forms of expression hermetic any loan there is a need not avoid crossing. Barriers to movement are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move, ideas and art forms are the same.

Like all art, African sculpture is nevertheless "structured", ultimately, through the eyes of another for which he is doing: he is indeed the projection of the imaginary black man who s exposes the light, the trial and appreciation of others. African sculpture has its own specificity, its own signature under the guns are different from those developed by other cultures, and these rules are sufficiently strong and consistent for that throughout history, it never allows himself to "assimilate" reduced to something else than it is. We can always recognize her from one continent to another, even if it shares a family resemblance to all the arts "first".

This article will introduce you, briefly it is true, major characteristics of African sculpture. You'll find tools to help you in your turn to recognize a piece signed by Africa. You can also begin to appreciate the aesthetic qualities and you seduced by its forms, always different, despite the fact that they are carried by the same cultural matrix. You can finally complete your introduction with a physical encounter with the sculpture in places of culture as ethnographic museums that have been able to preserve not only memory but also the physical reality.

Places of traditional African sculpture

What is meant by "traditional Africa"? If we consider only the sculpture, it must be acknowledged that such Africa is inhabited by blacks whose basic religious traditions are "animists." Such excluded Africa North Africa or "Maghreb". But again, caution: the arts defy boundaries, how should we understand the integration of Sudan in North Africa when we know that this country has two regions inhabited by men, one white-skinned, Muslim and the other by men with black skin whose religious traditions could be close to those of most blacks? Islam is it sufficient here as a classification? Nor is it clear that the division into states with the boundaries imposed by the Berlin Conference of 1885 - that is to say yesterday - and colonization which normally lasted less than half a century are relevant criteria for cutting: people with similar cultures overlap. Faced with these questions, we took advantage of writing for today's man: it refers much more to states that large areas whose boundaries are blurred for him. We preferred the major groupings in West Africa, Central Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa. "They have the advantage of smoothing the weight of geographic factors on art. They deny the geographical determinism that underlies the classification African forests, savanna and Sahel, for example. After all, membership of Mali and Burkina Faso to the areas of the Sahel savanna or have not prevented the production of masks as complex as those of forest areas or In principle, the raw material, wood is more abundant. If there has been created in these cases, it owes much to the will and freedom of man as an outer packaging, if binding is he said.

We also observed that the sculpture was practiced on a large scale, as in sedentary societies, living off the land. Africa is no exception to this rule: the nomads, mostly Muslims, forced to carry and maintain all of their furniture and carve gods do not ... We tend to believe that the sculpture requires a certain stability conditions life in society and the existence of cults compatible with the representation of gods.

Canons of African sculpture

African sculpture hit first by the great diversity of materials used to make it as varied forms. Statuary and masks are the two major genres. The statuary was particularly expressed in materials as diverse as wood, copper alloys or simply fired clay, ivory and bone or stone. The sizes also vary greatly: the weights for weighing gold country Akan eg small side with the Nok terracotta, copper alloy creations of Ife or nomoli of Guinea or the standing statues found everywhere in Black Africa.

The body of the man, alone or combined with an animal like the horse, is the main theme. In each case, the technical mastery is real: for example copper alloys require a good knowledge of the melting temperatures of various metals and the proportions of the mixtures must be done. There is also the mastery of fire and energy source. Various reasons have led to the choice of material. Wood for example is chosen not only because of its strength but also for ceremonial reasons dictated by tradition. It is likely that the hardness has guided the choice of stone, bone, ivory or iron. Copper alloys were probably chosen because they have the color gold rare in some areas, but they shine like him when they were political: African kings of the Gulf of Benin have adopted no doubt that quality.

African sculpture is characterized by frontal: most of the time, we can divide it into two using a median line. However, there are exceptions where the asymmetry is the rule of construction. Another feature of this sculpture is the weight given to the head: it is the third or fourth of the whole play, not because the artist has no knowledge of proportions, but because in most African cultures, the head is so important that there are special ceremonies to be understood. The formal characteristics of this sculpture can also be judged according to the tension of the joint surfaces or volumes angular, round or sometimes cubic example. The two major trends in art, naturalism and abstraction, are also expressed in this sculpture, to varying degrees of a "center-style" to another. Ife, in some parts of copper alloy, has adopted a naturalistic style of classical close to what can be found elsewhere in the Graeco-Roman example. It was concluded erroneously that these forms were introduced by foreigners, without ever being able to prove. The story says that though there who wants to know that classicism is a tendency of the human mind and it appears as soon as he realizes a large enough balance between the various components of society where the artist lives. This balance, the art knows translate beautifully regardless of racial or geographic bias.

It can be said of the masks. In principle, they represent only the head. But the forms of it are not only different from one region to another but sometimes within the same socio-linguistic group: Dan masks include several types such as carved depending on the use and role that society gives them. It is possible that the way to wear them - covering the face or head - were taken into account by the sculptor concerned about what he would give to see the viewer.

Techniques and creative

African sculptors use on the continent, the same techniques in a few details. Firstly, most of them work in isolation from the crowd. They surround themselves with secrecy or solitude are known to facilitate the merger. But another reason for them to do so: they often command is sacred and initiation which everyone has no access. Wood carving, the main purpose of this article is subtractive: it collects wood sides for the appearance forms part.

The tools are almost always the same: the ax to cut timber, adzes of various sizes, scissors increasingly frequent, and sometimes punches for punching. It is not uncommon that the sculptor is also forging knowledge so that it is easy to use fire to perfect his creation.

Finish request that the surfaces are polished, they were traditionally the leaves of trees today, the sandpaper is known to all. The color is often used. Formerly, plant pigments and minerals were the main components, today, few sculptors of traditional pieces even know and we prefer to use chemical paints available in all major cities and in every market.

African sculpture also uses the technique to obtain additive volumes in pottery and clay sculptures to express the unique character of certain deities and pantheons. The technique allows additive probably greater flexibility in the transformations and changes. The secret of night work can perhaps show greater manual dexterity.

In most cases, we do not know the individuals who created the pieces of sculpture. Estimated in West Africa and Central, for example, that the sculpture is a male occupation, initiated at either worship of their own society. Often they are both versatile and can carve the wood forge iron. It is not uncommon that their wives are potters. By cons, it is rare that they only live for their art. However, it should qualify the anonymity of the African sculptor, ignorance of the names and precise origins of the first collections is due to the negligence of the first ethnographers and collectors. Most of the time, they also engaged in another trade, agriculture primarily.

Most artists in Africa believe in using a supernatural being partly responsible for their inspiration, their technical skill and their donation. In his Benin, such a genius is called "Aziza". Aziza is a genius civilizing and beneficial: it teaches the secrets of all the techniques and knowledge necessary to man. He is responsible for the care provided by plants as know how blacksmiths example. No wonder he lives in forests and do not see themselves as hunters who have reached the top of the hierarchy of the brotherhood.

All these considerations mean that the artist is often in African societies, an individual a little margin, that we tolerate the "whims" and eccentricities. While it is bound by the rules of assessment on the part developed by his company, but it also has the right to innovate and surprise.


It has long doubted that a governing aesthetic African arts in general and sculpture in particular. Since the 80s, more and denials are made stronger in the non-existence of an aesthetics of African art. It is likely that in the coming years, the number of stylistic regions studied in this regard increases so that we can afford a comparison. Until then, we will build on what we know about the Yoruba in which research has revealed the existence of a specific vocabulary and Rules of the sculpture and the criteria for an aesthetic inexorably linked to the critical art and is expressed by thirteen criteria: the median or on mimesis, visibility, relative brightness on a shiny polished surface, the proportion emotional, layout, composition, delicacy, roundness and contour partial masses, angularity pleasant, straightness relative symmetry, Ephèbe, and skill of the sculptor (Thompson, RF, 1973 :31-57). These criteria may overlap with other proposals made by other sculptors in other parts of Africa. And Crowley (1973 :246-247) he speaks of double symmetry, polishing surfaces, master's tools, the preference for coins and foot beauty. Suzanne Vogel (1985: XII) speaks of symmetry, beauty, delicacy, richness of materials such as gold and ivory and James Fernandez (1966: 56) focuses on the balance. In most African societies, adding a decorative element is considered to give more value to the piece. However, in the opinion of most authors, the beauty of African works of course lies in their form but also in the ability of parts to be involved in rituals aimed at concrete results. Contemplation in which any masterpiece of African art can also be used to support, comes after, and it is for those whose eyes and sensitivity have been educated in that direction.

There is no aesthetics without criticism, it is carried on by sculptors and by older members of society that can disqualify a room. So that it does not happen too often, learning the rules for transmitting know-how. It is more or less long and depends primarily on the learner's intelligence and maturity.

Role of African sculpture in the middle

African sculpture could not withstand time because it plays a role in the societies that created it. The two main types that we defined previously, statuary and masks have always been associated with religious rites or initiation. It can safely be said that the mask allowed the personification of a deity or entity from another plane, the wearer of the mask is at the service of the superior force and reflects the through movements and gestures he does. The costume without the mask which is incomplete and helps to disguise even if insiders do not err on the real identity of the dancer, they admit it can be "possessed" during the time of wearing a mask and is another man and that means the gods also need men to be heard and seen. Never appear without the mask that the gods do not want. It is also rare to occur without the accompaniment of music which can lead to trance. We are often in full dramatization.

This is not a coincidence that the main theme of the sculpture is the man. The statues are often the personification of extinct ancestors, immortalized in this way. "Confidentiality" which may allude to some authors (Delange, 67) then more easily be understood as explained then that the sculptor can not claim authorship of his creation as it is rooted in a myth that has been transmitted by word of mouth for many generations. There he will have to draw the forms of its representation. The resemblance can not be the rule: it would imply that we have previously seen the features of what we represent. This is not the case. Since it is to feel the spirit, the hieratic attitude will be the most appropriate and this is apparent rigidity desired, the artist plays with the volume to feel the life that keeps s express through the material. This art is highly symbolic, and it must constantly be interpreted with reference to the knowledge that we can have the company that created it. Beyond form, it means a speech that essentially transcends the company itself but the reassuring and allows them to continue living in the present.

Universal impact of African sculpture

African sculpture is characterized primarily by a desire to go beyond the outer form to reach the essence of being. This desire has led most of the time the artist not to be satisfied with the realism. Abstraction, as was imposed because of this reason. Joined at the heart of African art she so deeply affected that she was led naturally to the Western painters of the early twentieth century. They found in these forms apparently defaced the realization of their aspirations at odds with the realism advocated by the academic surrounding that time. Cubism was born from this encounter with African art and European designers, the most famous is Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). To defy those who wanted to confer an inferior status to African art - that were referred to as negro art - he had this quip "African art? Not know" to make clear that this is not the African character which mattered most but the artistry. Gombrich (1990: 456), like many historians of European art, is not dissertation on the fertilizing impact of this contact, he did not write unless Pablo Picasso began to study art primitive people, incited by the example of Gauguin and perhaps that of Matisse. " Kahnweiler (1966) is much more explicit when he wrote in an article negro art and cubism as "the cubist painters discovered in some masks of the Ivory Coast, signs that, renouncing all imitation, loaded the perception of the viewer to imagine the face with the masks did not imitate the real forms. " It is recognized almost unanimously today that "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Picasso painted in 1906 owes much to African masks. We know he had a few copies of which mask Wobé he studied extensively. Western art has thus "Africanized" and he remains today as he continues to live on the momentum from the fruitful encounter. What would remain of European modern art if we excluded the meeting with the other, it is called primitive, savage or barbarous, whether from distant Asia or Africa where the old Rabelais said "You know how as that Africa always brings something new." The recent entry of "primitive art" at the Louvre seal the alliance. It took a century of waiting, the wait made of silence furnished only by the results more convincing research in the field from which arise masterpieces ever more numerous.

Only Africa, steeped in Old World wisdom, the secret to such patience; it ends, as the water drip corrode the hardest stone, for justice to the beauty of the masterpieces of continent and the recognition that if Africans have invented "or the powder or the gun" they created for all of sculpted masterpieces.

The first art in the Louvre repeats to anyone who will listen that among African peoples and among primitive peoples in other continents also genius has existed and it shines in the course of which the most artistic creations are still talking sculptures. The recognition of this contribution to man of all time is also seen in the prices of auctions for most European cities until the art markets also move in Africa. Is not it better not to have invented the gun but bridges between people? The art is good for this, African sculpture in particular.

Of all the arts of Africa south of Sahara, the sculpture will remain for a long time an art major, a royal way of the creation which is expressed by the creative potential of Africans but also the consubstantial link that connects us the past. Long time she has a good chance to remain an essential reference for those who want to know African art, as expressed in the South of the Sahara. Admittedly, its form may at first confuse those who are accustomed to other guns, but the audacity of African sculptors is such that we always end up admiring what he has under his eyes, fascinated by the combination shapes in the volume, always respectful of the constraints of the material. The wide variety of styles allows each, once past the initial resistance, to feel so at home in the world of sculptural art in Africa.

Joseph Adande

By "traditional African sculpture" means that which comes from an environment where old traditions mark the object socialized by rites, authenticated by misuse, an association dedicated to the sacred, or initiation.


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 WILLET, F, (1991): African Art, Thames and Hudson, 288 p, ill, maps


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