The beauty of African art can convey various feelings and messages to the casual observer. However, true appreciation can only arrive through an understanding of the culture and environment that influenced the art. It would be easy to understand African art better if it were possible to study it using Western methods. The majority of the books on Western art history focus on the changes in style and ways that various artist have influenced each other. Because there is no chronological record of style changes in African art, it cannot be studied in the same manner. Moreover, some existing studies of African art were done by researchers who were not familiar with the native languages of Africa. Nor with its native customs, which are necessary to make accurate interpretations of African art. But, from the little data that was collected, some generalizations about the sculptures can be made.
First, sculpture was used as an additional language through which Africans communicated their inner feelings to the world. The lack of writing in African cultures resulted in an oral tradition, where mythology and literature was recited from generation to generation. African sculpture has also served as communication between people and supernatural forces. Finally, sculpture may have indicated the wealth and status of its owner; carefully made objects such as stools, cups, boxes, staffs, neck rests and pipes can proclaim the taste and social position of those who use them. However, a more useful way to look at African sculpture is through common or recurring themes. These themes relate the artworks to their cultural setting, making it possible to understand the aesthetics, values, purpose and significance of a particular art object. When you compare the ways various cultures express a common theme, the similarities and differences among them become more obvious.
Sculpture is the best known African art form. The primary materials used to make African sculpture are wood, iron, clay, bronze, ivory, and textiles. Many African sculptures are heavily ornamented. They share many of the same characteristics, such as arms held to the side, eyes in the frontal position, and weight equally distributed on both feet. Other characteristics include heads that are enlarged, large stomachs, large hands and feet, and protruding navels. The heads on African sculptures are often exaggerated because it is thought to be the center of character and emotion. The protruding navel is symbolic of creative power. (Segy, Ludislas. African Sculpture Speaks. 1969). The rhythmic repetition of bulging and swelling body parts moves the viewer’s eye from head to toe.
Religion is the dominant force in African life and society. It greatly determines the nature of African art forms. It is most often manifested in masks, sculpture, ancestor or cult figures, fetishes, and reliquary figures. Sculptures that are considered to be religiously empowered are rarely displayed in public, and are usually stored in small chambers and shrines. Some of them are also clothed and placed in containers made from gourds, in pots, or buried in the ground.
In contrast, masks that are considered to be sculptures are meant to be seen. Ritual masks used in religious ceremonies are considered sacred. While women rarely performed in mask rituals, many African myths suggest that mask rituals were initially created and performed by females. Basically, the role of a performance and ritual mask is threefold. First, the mask may be used to hide the identity of the person who is wearing it. For example, among the Dan culture of Liberia, the Deangle Masks are feminine masks worn to collect and take food to boys in the seclusion stage of their tribal initiation. The mask were used to withhold the food giver’s identity. Secondly, mask are used to free the wearer, a person that may hold a public position in the African culture from their identity. And finally, masks allowed the wearer to become something different or take on the identity of what the mask suggests or represents. For example, in ritual dance for ceremonies, the dancer ceases to be himself and becomes the spirit of the mask. From an artistic point of view, the objects may be either realistic or highly styled. Naturalistic and geometric shapes can combine to represent a recognizable human face. By contrast, other masks only faintly resemble natural forms. The wart-hog masks of the N’Geere people of Liberia are highly stylized representations, employing a wide range of materials in their construction, such as wood, fabric, tin, cotton cord, fiber, cloth, and paint.
Wooden images from the Bamara tribe of Mali show another type of mask, those which are worn as headdress. These masks are carved of wood and painted sparingly with white paint. The mask, which depicts antelopes, takes on a surreal appearance in its disproportion, geometric simplicity, and contrast of textures. Masks may also serve other functions, such as ancestor masks, the representations of deceased relatives, or deformity masks, which represent the results of disease.
Cult or ancestor figures are full-body images kept in homes. These figures are presented offerings on a daily ritualistic routine. Sometimes these figures indicate the social rank within the tribe, or may function as a fertility doll for a woman who is trying to get pregnant. These sculptures may also be carved in the form of stools. Other figures may be carved holding an offering bowl, or as mother and child figures.
Fetish figures, designed to hold a set of ingredients endowed with a mystical power, are human forms to which many types of materials can be affixed, such as rope, string, feathers, or shells. Reliquary figures are carved guardians which stand above basket receptacles for ancestral remains. In these figures, art historians note an obvious geometric stylization of humans and cones to symbolize the guardian spirits. The Skua Iba doll of the Ashanti tribe, for example, mixes geometric forms with realistic facial motifs. (Brommer, Gerald F., Discovering Art History. Davis Publication, Inc. Worcester, Mass. 1981.)
In conclusion, possibly the greatest contribution Africa has made so far to the cultural heritage of mankind is its varied sculpture. African sculpture was hardly known outside its own continent until the late nineteenth century, but during the twentieth century, its effects on Western art have been immeasurable.