There is no easy answer to the question "what is African art". On this page of Interesting Africa Facts we will try to give as simple an answer as is possible. In order to begin to answer this question you have to ask another question which is "who do you consider African". The answer to this question is not as simple as you may initially think. Consider the following points:
Are the Europeans that have migrated to Africa over several centuries true Africans?
Are the various people of northern Africa truly Africans?
Do you consider ancient Egyptians to be African?
Are the many people of African origins that live outside of Africa truly Africans? Some of these people’s ancestors left Africa centuries ago.
There can be points made to include all of the above groups and arguments made to exclude all of the groups listed above. However, for our sake here we will generally consider African art to be the art produced by the African people living in sub-Saharan Africa who are ancestors of the indigenous people of Africa.
Defining African Art
Even after narrowing down the people we will consider African, for the sake of defining African art, the answer to the question "what is African art" is still not easy. This is because of the huge diversity of the sub-Saharan people and the art they produce. However there are some common traits that do define most of the art found in sub-Saharan Africa. These traits are:
The creation of art for use by the people, not just for display. This use may be for everyday life such as pottery or for ceremonies such as a funeral.
Sculpture and other 3 dimensional arts was a preferred art form as opposed to paintings.
The creation of very colorful works of art.
Abstract art was favored.
The human image is a favorite subject.
Examples of African Art
In order to further answer the question "what is African art" we have listed below various examples of well known African artworks.
African mask are perhaps the best known art form of the African people. Any museum display on African art would be incomplete without displaying the beautiful masks produced by the sub-Saharan Africans. Most of the masks were made out of wood and many were used in ceremonies. Unfortunately most of the older mask that were produced have not survived to modern day. This is due to the fact that wood is destroyed easily by water rot and the many termites found in Africa.
Rock paintings are the oldest known African art form; the oldest are thought to be 27,000 years old. The ancient Africans produced these artworks in caves and on rock faces. Great examples of these can be found in the Drakensberg Mountain Range in South Africa where approximately 30,000 rock paintings have been discovered. The very early paintings depict everyday life of the ancient Africans including representations of people and animals. As time went on these paintings became more abstract. For example the San (Bushmen) would eventually create artwork that would depict spirits in a very abstract interesting way.
Terracotta figures have been produced throughout history in many parts of Africa. However West Africa, particularly Nigeria has a long and rich history of this type of art form. Terracotta figures are made out of clay. After the object is formed by hand and or tools they are dried. In ancient times they were dried in the sun. Later on the African people dried them in hearths. The earliest examples of terracotta come from the Nok civilization which existed in Nigeria from 500 BC to approximately 200 AD. Many Nok sculptures of heads, figures, and animals have been discovered. In the Sokoto region of northwest Nigeria terra-cotta sculptures similar to those produced by the Nok have been discovered and date back to the 1st century AD. Terracotta art was not limited to west Africa. In south Africa seven terracotta heads were found at Lydenburg in the late 1950s. These sculptures date from 500 AD to 800AD.
What is African art? As we have explained this is not an easy question to answer and it depends on who you consider to be African. We hope this page of Interesting Africa Facts has been useful in helping you better understand African art.