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African art can roughly be categorized into pre-historic art that resembles greatly the other pre-historic art of Neolithic Europe, and the art that came after it, commonly referred to as “primitive art”.

African Art

"The Umbrella," gouache (1961),
by Alexander (Skunder) Boghossian.

For the most part, this applies to statuettes of wood, bronze and ivory, various musical instruments, beads and decorated tools, woven ceremonial dress and reliefs.

From the naturalistic images of bronze and clay statues of the Ife culture of Nigeria to the leather covered statues and polls of Western Cameroon, this term encompasses a massive stockpile of art works.

The West has been inspired by the multiplicity of this art since it was first introduced by archeologists and cultural explorers in the 19th century. Tribal art played a very specific role in African culture; it was an integral part of religious worship and social ceremony. Its modern resurgence stripped it of its pagan roots and its traditional significance. Artifacts were symbols of natural forces or the spirits of the dead; they were an act of homage and respect to tribal elders. Very few pieces are for purely decorative use.

From the Cubists onwards, western artist have borrowed design patterns, tribal signatures and ceremonial images to break away from the strict values of what is deemed acceptable on our side of the world. Whereas these compositions were part of everyday life in Africa, derivative from the traditional face painting and body markings, in 20th century Europe these patterns were employed without any cultural connotation. The most lasting of these is the classic African mask; an object that appears throughout all of the continent, and through almost the whole range of cultures that existed here.

Prehistoric tribal art dates from about 7000 B.C in the area that is now the Sahara desert. Cave carvings and drawings depict hunting scenes and animal images; hippopotamuses, rhinos, elephants- all shown figuratively, with fine details and naturally produced pigments. The scenes are a testament to the social structure of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout their evolution on the African plains; the period of 4000 B.C to 1200 B.C delineating the “Grazing period” where depictions of domesticated animals could be seen for the first time, in a later period riding beasts and human figures riding them exist- and finally there is the “Camel period” that was the most persistent in peripheral Africa. In the southern areas of Africa scenes of tribal wars were discovered, with different colors to signify the various tribes. Later on even figures of the white man can be seen.

The art dated after the millennium A.D are far more sophisticated. Many of the bronze statues were done with innovative casting techniques, some of which are still in use today. The head figurines show finer details and testify to knowledge of fine tool making abilities. Ironically, the delicate nuances of early African art were not refined through time, but stylialzed in the extreme, leaving behind the naturalistic features and becoming more and more universal across the continent, though the techniques kept steadily improving.

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