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African Art and its history

Posted by cultureafrico on February 28, 2011

Introduction to African Art and its history

African art and African artists evolved differently than their Western counterparts so much so that only very few pieces of African art bear the individual style of their artists. Even when African artists were commissioned to create particular artworks for a king or tribal leader, they still had to abide by certain traditions thus not allowing them to develop much of a personal style. Now they didn’t just copy designs from each other, every piece of art was a unique since it was made by human hands, but within certain tribal rules or traditions. However, despite this, African artists still managed to express their imagination by developing new techniques and if a new technique was superior to an old one then it would become part of the tradition very quickly.

Another important difference between the African art and the Western one is the fact that most of African art was created with some sort of religious or spiritual purpose in mind. African art has to do with deep meanings of magic, especially when it comes to celebrating certain events or one’s ancestors. African artists created certain pieces of art in order to celebrate the important moments in one’s life, like one’s marriage or one’s funeral. While in the West artists valued art because of its intrinsic beauty, African artists put much more of a value on the meaning of certain forms, shapes and arrangements on each piece of art. African sculptors would only rarely create something just for the sake of creating something beautiful, pretty much everything he or she does has a purpose and function that usually has little to do with its beauty.

The important thing to understand about African art is that its creators first of all thought about the utility of certain objects and after it did its job properly then it could be embellished with some decorations. Sculptures were created to honor gods, kings and ancestors, while beads, trinkets and jewelry were used to indicate social status like wealth, marriage or personal authority. Guardian figures were created from various metals or clay and fastened to coffins in order to protect one’s dead kin from evil spirits.

One of the most well known, and for good reasons, staples of African art are masks. Masks had an incredibly important role in African life because they were crucial when one had to deal with the spirit world which dominated the lives of African people. They were utilized at certain landmarks in one’s life with the distinct purpose of scaring away unwanted spirits. Interesting to note about African masks is the fact that they were created to be worn on top of the head as opposed to over the face, sometimes decorated with feathers and other trinkets of various meanings and powers.

African artists were also adept at metal sculpture focusing mostly on metal weights used to measure quantities of gold but they also created gold jewelry and African women of all ages wore gold trinkets for ornamentation if they were wealthy enough, and some men would wear gold chains and pendants on great occasions as well.

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