African art constitutes one of the most diverse legacies on earth. Though many casual observers tend to generalize "traditional" African art, the continent is full of peoples, societies, and civilizations, each with a unique visual special culture. The definition also includes the art of the African Diasporas, such as the art of African Americans. Despite this diversity, there are some unifying artistic themes when considering the totality of the visual culture from the continent of Africa.
* Emphasis on the human figure: The human figure has always been a the primary subject matter for most African art, and this emphasis even influenced certain European traditions. For example in the fifteenth century Portugal traded with the Sapi culture near the Ivory Coast in West Africa, who created elaborate ivory saltcellars that were hybrids of African and European designs, most notably in the addition of the human figure (the human figure typically did not appear in Portuguese saltcellars). The human figure may symbolize the living or the dead, may reference chiefs, dancers, or various trades such as drummers or hunters, or even may be an anthropomorphic representation of a god or have other votive function. Another common theme is the inter-morphosis of human and animal.
Yoruba bronze head sculpture, Ife, Nigeria c. 12th century A.D.
* Visual abstraction: African artworks tend to favor visual abstraction over naturalistic representation. This is because many African artworks generalize stylistic norms. Ancient Egyptian art, also usually thought of as naturalistically depictive, makes use of highly abstracted and regimented visual canons, especially in painting, as well as the use of different colors to represent the qualities and characteristics of an individual being depicted.
* Emphasis on sculpture: African artists tend to favor three-dimensional artworks over two-dimensional works. Even many African paintings or cloth works were meant to be experienced three-dimensionally. House paintings are often seen as a continuous design wrapped around a house, forcing the viewer to walk around the work to experience it fully; while decorated cloths are worn as decorative or ceremonial garments, transforming the wearer into a living sculpture.
* Emphasis on performance art: An extension of the utilitarianism and three-dimensionality of traditional African art is the fact that much of it is crafted for use in performance contexts, rather than in static ones. For example, masks and costumes very often are used in communal, ceremonial contexts, where they are "danced." Most societies in Africa have names for their masks, but this single name incorporates not only the sculpture, but also the meanings of the mask, the dance associated with it, and the spirits that reside within. In African thought, the three cannot be differentiated.
* Nonlinear scaling: Often a small part of an African design will look similar to a larger part, such as the diamonds at different scales in the Kasai pattern at right. Louis Senghor, Senegal’s first president, referred to this as “dynamic symmetry.” William Fagg, the British art historian, compared it to the logarithmic mapping of natural growth by biologist D’Arcy Thompson. More recently it has been described in terms of fractal geometry.
Area of influence
African art has a long and surprisingly controversial history. Up until recently, the designation "African" was usually only bestowed on the arts of "Black Africa", the peoples living in Sub-Saharan Africa. The non-black peoples of North Africa, the people of the Horn of Africa, as well as the art of ancient Egypt, generally were not included under the rubric of African art. Recently, however, there has been a movement among African art historians and other scholars to include the visual culture of these areas, since all the cultures that produced them, in fact, are located within the geographic boundaries of the African continent. The notion is that by including all African cultures and their visual culture in African art, laypersons will gain a greater understanding of the continent's cultural diversity. Since there was often a confluence of traditional African, Islamic and Mediterranean cultures, scholars have found that drawing distinct divisions between Muslim areas, ancient Egypt, the Mediterranean and indigenous black African societies makes little sense. Finally, the arts of the people of the African diaspora, prevalent in Brazil, the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, have also begun to be included in the study of African art.
The origins of African art lie long before recorded history. African rock art in the Sahara in Niger preserves 6000-year-old carvings. The earliest known sculptures are from the Nok culture of Nigeria, made around 500 BCE. Along with sub-Saharan Africa, the cultural arts of the western tribes, ancient Egyptian artifacts, and indigenous southern crafts also contributed greatly to African art. Often depicting the abundance of surrounding nature, the art was often abstract interpretations of animals, plant life, or natural designs and shapes.
More complex methods of producing art were developed in sub-Saharan Africa around the 10th century, some of the most notable advancements include the bronzework of Igbo Ukwu and the terracottas and metalworks of Ile Ife Bronze and brass castings, often ornamented with ivory and precious stones, became highly prestigious in much of West Africa, sometimes being limited to the work of court artisans and identified with royalty, as with the Benin Bronzes.
Influence on Western art
At the start of the twentieth century, artists like Picasso, Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Modigliani became aware of, and inspired by, African art. In a situation where the established avant garde was straining against the constraints imposed by serving the world of appearances, African Art demonstrated the power of supremely well organised forms; produced not only by responding to the faculty of sight, but also and often primarily, the faculty of imagination, emotion and mystical and religious experience. These artists saw in African Art a formal perfection and sophistication unified with phenomenal expressive power. The study of and response to African Art, by artists at the beginning of the twentieth century facilitated an explosion of interest in the abstraction, organisation and reorganisation of forms, and the exploration of emotional and psychological areas hitherto unseen in Western Art. By these means, the status of visual art was changed. Art ceased to be merely and primarily aesthetic, but became also a true medium for philosophic and intellectual discourse, and hence more truly and profoundly aesthetic than ever before.
Influence on Western architecture
European architecture was strongly influenced by African Art. Pioneers like Antonio Sant'Elia, Le Corbusier, Pier Luigi Nervi, Theo Van Doesburg and Erich Mendelsohn were also sculptures and painters; Futurist, Rationalist and Expressionist architecture discovered in Africa a new repertoire of proto-symbols; in a formal level, the space is now composed by single forms that do not only refer to human proportions and scale, but to its psychology; surfaces are modelled by geometric patterns. During the 50's, European architects transformed buildings into big-scale sculptures, replacing unnecessary decoration (so criticized by Adolf Loos), by integrating textured murals and large bas-reliefs in walls. During the 60's, African Art influenced Brutalism, both in language and symbolism, particularly in the late Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Paul Rudolph. The powerful work of John Lautner reminds of artifacts from the Yoruba; the sensual projects of Patricio Pouchulu honour the bare wooden sculptures of the Dogon and Baoulé. Unlike Europe, African art never established boundaries between body art, painting, sculpture and architecture; thanks to this, Western architects can now extend towards different art expressions.
Traditional art describes the most popular and studied forms of African art which are typically found in museum collections.
Wooden masks, which might either be human or animal or of mythical creatures, are one of the most commonly found forms of art in western Africa. In their original contexts, ceremonial masks are used for celebrations, initiations, crop harvesting, and war preparation. The masks are worn by a chosen or initiated dancer. During the mask ceremony the dancer goes into deep trance, and during this state of mind he "communicates" with his ancestors. The masks can be worn in three different ways: vertically covering the face: as helmets, encasing the entire head, and as crest, resting upon the head, which was commonly covered by material as part of the disguise. African masks often represent a spirit and it is strongly believed that the spirit of the ancestors possesses the wearer. Most African masks are made with wood, and can be decorated with: Ivory, animal hair, plant fibers (such as raffia), pigments (like kaolin), stones, and semi-precious gems also are included in the masks.
Statues, usually of wood or ivory, are often inlaid with cowrie shells, metal studs and nails. Decorative clothing is also commonplace and comprises another large part of African art. Among the most complex of African textiles is the colorful, strip-woven Kente cloth of Ghana. Boldly patterned mudcloth is another well known technique.
Contemporary African art
Africa is home to a great and thriving contemporary art culture. This has been sadly understudied until recently, due to scholars' and art collectors' emphasis on traditional art. Notable modern artists include Marlene Dumas,William Kentridge, Kendell Geers, Yinka Shonibare, Zerihun Yetmgeta, Odhiambo Siangla, Olu Oguibe, Lubaina Himid, and Bill Bidjocka. Art biennials are held in Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Many contemporary African artists are represented in museum collections, and their art may sell for high prices at art auctions. Despite this, many contemporary African artists tend to have difficult times finding a market for their work. Many contemporary African arts borrow heavily from traditional predecessors. Ironically, this emphasis on abstraction is seen by Westerners as an imitation of European and American cubist and totemic artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Henri Matisse, who, in actuality were heavily influenced by traditional African art. This became the first step of evolution in Western art where people started becoming more open-minded and came out of their shell to explore the different aspects of art.
Contemporary African art was pioneered in the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa by artists like Irma Stern, Cyril Fradan, Walter Battiss and through galleries like the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. More recently European galleries like the October Gallery in London and collectors like Jean Pigozzi and Gianni Baiocchi in Rome have helped expand the interest in the subject. Exhibitions like the African Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale that showcased the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art have gone a long way to countering many of the myths and prejudices that haunt Contemporary African Art. The appointment of Nigerian Okwui Enwezor as artistic director of Documenta 11 and his African centred vision of art jettisoned the careers of countless African artists into the international headlights.
In the northern part of Botswana, tribal women in the villages of Etsha and Gumare are noted for their skill at crafting baskets from Mokola Palm and local dyes. The baskets are generally woven into three types: large, lidded baskets used for storage large, open baskets for carrying objects on the head or for winnowing threshed grain, and smaller plates for winnowing pounded grain. The artistry of these baskets is being steadily enhanced through color use and improved designs as they are increasingly produced for commercial use.
The oldest evidence ancient paintings from both Botswana and South Africa. Depictions of hunting, both animal and human figures were made by the Khoisan (Kung San!/Bushmen dating before civilization over 20,000 years old within the Kalahari desert.
"Childsoldier in the Ivory Coast", Gilbert G. Groud, 2007, mixed materials: tusche and wax crayon
The Baoulé, the Senoufo and the Dan peoples are skilled at carving wood and each culture produces wooden masks in wide variety. The Côte d'Ivorian peoples use masks to represent animals in caricature to depict deities, or to represent the souls of the departed.
As the masks are held to be of great spiritual power, it is considered a taboo for anyone other than specially trained persons or chosen ones to wear or possess certain masks. These ceremonial masks each are thought to have a soul, or life force, and wearing these masks is thought to transform the wearer into the entity the mask represents.
Côte d'Ivoire also has modern painters and illustrators. Gilbert G. Groud criticizes the ancient beliefs in black magic, as held with the spiritual masks mentioned above, in his illustrated book Magie Noire.
Tanzania and Mozambique
The art of the Makonde must be subdivided into different areas. The Makonde are known as master carvers throughout East Africa, and their statuary that can be found being sold in tourist markets and in museums alike. They traditionally carve household objects, figures and masks. Since the 1950s years the socalled Modern Makonde Art has been developed. An essential step was the turning to abstract figures, mostly spirits (Shetani) that play a special role. Makonde are also part of the important contemporary artists of Africa today. An outstanding position is taken by George Lilanga.
Persisting for 3000 years and thirty dynasties, the "official" art of Egypt was centred on the state religion of the time. The art ranged from stone carvings of both massive statues and small statuettes, to wall art that depicted both history and mythology. In 2600 BC the maturity of Egyptian carving reached a peak it did not reach again for another 1500 years during the reign of Rameses II.
A lot of the art possesses a certain stiffness, with figures poised upright and rigid in a most regal fashion. Bodily proportions also appear to be mathematically derived, giving rise to a sense of fantastic perfection in the figures depicted. This most likely was used to reinforce the godliness of the ruling caste.
African folk art
African Folk Art consists of a wide variety of items: household objects, metal objects, toys, textiles, masks, and wood sculpture, among others.
Metal objects have many functions and meanings in Africa where forging has been regarded as an almost magical, transformative process that is likened to the creation of life itself. Ceremonial pieces, often based on utilitarian forms such as the agricultural hoe, an iwenga from the Nkutshu people of southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, were used as special-purpose currency. Not everyday money, this currency was exchanged in the course of a significant social transaction such as marriage. Utilitarian, symbolic, and decorative; cultural significance is hammered into the products of the forge with every blow.
Pottery is made all over the continent of Africa for functional and ritual use. Pottery, along with basketry vessels, was essential to carry and store food and water. Collecting interests includes Zambian pottery with its beautifully proportioned clay bodies decorated with fine lines that form a decorative geometric pattern. Today in Zambia, most pottery has been replaced by sheet metal and plastic, materials that are more durable and less expensive but also less attractive than a handmade clay jar. Learn more about about African Folk Art 
The Shoowa people, a small population on the northwestern fringe of the Bushoong kingdom, Congo, have created visually delightful and colorful ceremonial panels that combine tradition and innovation in a complex artistic fashion. In spite of maintaining a different language and loose political ties, the Shoowa share many cultural practices with the peoples of the Bushoong kingdom.
An early example of Shoowa textiles is the Ceremonial Panel. This piece dates to 1885-1910, and is 17" x 59" (41.91 cm x 149.86 cm) in size. This ancient cloth is composed of two pieces joined across the center; and bordered by pompoms, a technique reported for textiles on the Kongo coast in the seventeenth century. The basic weave is typical for Shoowa with close warps and weft of similar thickness and even distribution. The designs are shaped by two embroidery techniques: lines of stem stitching and cut-pile. To create the plush effect, an embroiderer twists a strand of raffia into an iron needle which she inserts between the warp and weft, leaving a short tuft. After pulling the fiber strand through to about two milimeters in height, she cuts it with a narrow knife held vertically in the same hand and brushes both ends.
A second example of the Ceremonial Panel from the Shoowa people, made of woven raffia palm fiber, cut pile and linear embroidery, dating to 1910-1930, is 23" x 24" (58.2 x 59.69cm) in size. This piece is a classic model of quality for a mid-century Shoowa cloth. It retains the major features of the late nineteenth century style and fine workmanship. Unlike the Bushoong, the Shoowa typically, as here, dye the foundation cloth red before embroidery and execute their designs in natural beige and dark brown. The pattern of two wide columns of interlacing is a long standing favorite Shoowa theme. The manner in which the broad columnar outlines are formed by multiple dark and light rows of stem stitching, interspersed with tiny light and dark plush motifs, called tunjoko, is another characteristic of Shoowa style. Because of the subtle distribution of light and dark across the surface, there is a convincing sense of balance despite the asymmetry.
A third example of the Ceremonial Panel from the Shoowa people, also made of woven raffia palm fiber, cut-pile and linear embroidery, dating to 1950-1975, is 24" x 24 1/4" (60.96 cm. x 6l.28 cm.) in size. The colorful dots (diamonds, rectangles, triangles) belong to the familiar tiny tunjoko designs seen in many Shoowa cloths. However here, instead of filling in the intervals between major motifs, they become the principal designs that fill the entire cloth. Intruding upon this dot-filled ground we see a grid of squares drawn by multiple, fine, dark-and-light embroidered lines. In front of this grid two large vertical interlace designs begin at the bottom as thin curved forms and rise crisscrossing to the top.
The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM has an African Folk Artcollection that consists of household objects, toys, and textiles as well as masks and wood sculpture. An anonymous gift of over 40 pieces of pottery increased the geographic representation of the holdings. Alexander Girard donated many small figures and toys of wood while toys made from wire and recycled materials were collected for the exhibit. Recycled Re-Seen.
A recent acquisition and ongoing collecting area is metalwork from Africa. Metal objects represent a rich area for interpretation because their manufacture and use encompasses the development of technology, trade, adornment, ritual and religion, and core cultural values.