African Art: The Oldest Form of Tribal Art in History

African Art
African Art
(Image Courtesy: Waste & Hope)


African art is considered to be the oldest form of tribal art in history. The origin of African art is believed to date back even before the recorded history. It is believed that the earliest found art is around 77000years old that hails from Africa. African art describes the visual culture from the African continent, modern and historical paintings, installations, sculptures, pottery and other traditional works. The definition of this tribal art also includes the art of the African Diasporas, such as African American, the Caribbean, and other American art. African art is not only about one territory or any one culture it is an art that includes a variety of themes depending on life events of the tribal people. Despite this diversity, there are some unique artistic themes that define the culture of the African continent. The African rock art in Sahara in Nigeria preserves 6000years old carvings.

African Art
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What is African Art?

The African art includes the sub-Saharan African art, the western cultural arts, ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures, indigenous southern crafts, Islamic art, the art of Ethiopia with a long Christian tradition, the Caribbean art, and other American art also contributes to the African art. The African art often depicts the abundance of surrounding nature, animals/birds, plant life, hunting, day to day life events, tribal human figures, natural designs, and shapes. African art includes the ancient art, Muslim art of North and West Africa, Christian art of East Africa, and the ritualistic arts of other African regions. The important art forms across Africa include masquerade, metalwork, sculpture, architecture, fibre art, and terracotta.

What Makes African Art Look so Attractive?

African Art
(Image Courtesy: Changi Airport)

The African arts come in many forms and are made using different products available in the surroundings. African jewellery is one of the most beautiful forms of tribal art made. It is made using diverse materials like Tiger’s eye stone, coconut shell, beads, hematite stone, sisal, and ebony wood. Other artefacts like sculpture & statues are carved from wood or stone. Shona sculptures are the famous stone carved sculptures of African art. Ceramic and decorated sculpted pottery comes from various regions in Africa. While, textiles like chitenge, mud cloth and kente cloth; mosaics made using butterfly wings or colourful sand are popular in West Africa. Wooden Mask is the most popular form of tribal African art and is known for its inimitable designs and unique forms.

The beauty of Tribal African Art Masks:

African Art
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)

Tribal African art masks are the most popular and studied form of African art which is mainly found in the museum collection. These masks are one of the most known forms of tribal African art worldwide. Masks are an important element in many cultural arts. The African mask has had a great impact on the European modern art. The African art masks are mostly made using wood and are embellished with ivory, animal hair, plant fibres, pigments, stones, and semi-precious gems also are included in the masks. The design of these masks is inspired by human, animal or mythical creatures. These masks are one of the most common art form found in western part of Africa. There are different types of masks used for various occasions. The masks can be worn as helmets or vertically covering the face or encasing the entire head. In their original contexts, ceremonial masks are used for celebrations, crop harvesting, war preparations, and other such occasions. There is a special ceremony held before wearing the mask. It is said that during the mask ceremony the dancer goes into a deep trance and during this period he communicates with his ancestors. The masks are worn by a chosen or initiated dancer only.

Interesting Fact: It is believed that African masks often represent a spirit of the ancestors which possesses the wearer.

Contemporary African Art:

African Art
(Image Courtesy: The Heritage Museum)

Africa is home to a booming contemporary art culture. The recent study says that the many contemporary African artists are represented in the museum collection and their art is sold at the very high price during the art auctions. These artworks are done by notable modern artists that include William Kentridge, Karel Nel, Kendell Geers, Bili Bidjocka, Henry Tayali, Yinka Shonibare, Zerihun Yetmgeta, Odhiambo Siangla, Olu Oguibe, Lubaina Himid, El Anatsui, Marlene Dumas, & Elias Jengo. These contemporary African art exhibitions are held once every two years in Dakar, Senegal, Johannesburg and South Africa. Many contemporary African arts are inspired from their traditional predecessors. European and American cubist and totemic artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, were heavily influenced by traditional African art and it can be seen in the artworks of Westerners. This period was critical to the evolution of Western modernism in visual arts, symbolised by Picasso’s breakthrough painting “Les Demoiselles de Avignon. Today, Fathi Hassan is considered as a major early representative of contemporary black African art. A wide range of adaptations of traditional art style to contemporary style is made for sale to the tourists and others.

Famous African Artworks:

African Art

Some of the famous African artworks that were developed in sub-Saharan Africa around the 10th Century include bronze work of Igbo Ukwu and the terracotta & metal works of Ile Ife Bronze. Brass castings ornamented with ivory & precious stones became highly esteemed in West Africa. These brass castings were sometimes limited to the work of court artisans and were identified with royalty, like Benin Bronzes.


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