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Traditional African art and Contemporary African art

Posted by cultureafrico on February 28, 2011

Traditional African art and Contemporary African art

The beginnings of African art are considered to be as early as twenty-six millennia ago with the earliest examples of African art being simple images of animals painted on rocks that were found in caves in Namibia. The oldest known African sculptures date from about five hundred BC and they represent heads and human figures made out of clay. However despite this evidently long and rich history, very few pieces of early African art exist nowadays mostly because they were made out of perishable materials such as wood, cloth or plant fibers and because their intensive use as either daily or ceremonial objects. A large proportion of the African art that is known today can be considered recent, coming to us from the nineteenth century or later.

Africa, being an enormous mass of land contains and has contained over the centuries hundreds of varied cultures, different in their language, religious beliefs, political systems and in general different in how they went about doing things. This only means that each culture developed its own distinct kind of art and architecture varying on the local availability of materials and their intentions. This means that where some cultures excelled in the carving of wood, others focused on casting objects in metal, and while in one culture a decorated pot is used to cool water in a different culture a similar pot might be used in a special ceremony.

As opposed to European art, African art almost always serves some sort of purpose whether it is to satisfy a household need, to adorn one’s body or to fulfill a social or spiritual role.

Things like baskets, water vessels, eating utensils, carved headrests, and stools served a distinct household purpose, but they were also adorned with decorations. Ritual objects like masks were used in various types of ceremonies and statues or figures were usually created to remember and protect the remains of important ancestors.

In the field of personal adornment traditional African art would sometimes take the form of decorative body scars, while in most cases it was limited to jewelry, or staffs or other objects that would attest to a person’s social or religious status. Besides the fact that most African art objects served a purpose, they would usually serve more than just one, and this means that a piece of jewelry could be used to adorn the body, indicate prestige, and at the same time protect the wearer from malevolent forces.

Contemporary African art defies any try of categorizing it because artist now use all sorts of mediums from oils to classic brass casting to the welding of tin cans and other metals into a sculpture.There are some traditionalists who sculpt wood carvings based on traditional African designs while a larger group of artists works in the modern styles that were inspired by African art at the beginning of the twentieth century: cubism, surrealism and expressionism. Many of them are trained at European and American schools while others feel that the only way of truly achieving traditional African expression is in their native surroundings.

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