To many African artists the visual arts are more than mere decoration. The arts embody the ideologies of the African people, life, and thought. The form of art that was created depended much on the role of the creator in the community. For example the herders created personal adornment, the hunters and gathers created pictographs and petroglyphs, and the farmers used materials such as wood, clay and metal.
Much of the context of African art changes throughout the life of the work. For example, a mask may become more powerful as it grows older. Eventually the mask may be placed in a shrine as a power object in this case after it was placed in the shrine both the context and meaning have changed. Some important aspects of African art are gender, power and authority, and masquerades.
Up until quite recently, the last decade or two, the materials used were very gender specific.
The men traditionally used materials such as ivory, wood, and stone.
The women traditionally used paint and clay.
The way objects were created was also gender specific.
Men were leather workers, ironsmiths, builders, architects, gold and copper-alloy casters.
Women were wall and body painters, potters, and ceramic sculptors.
Both men and women worked with beads and textiles.
Also up until recently there was not a strong emphasis on the artist even when individual style was obvious.
Gender also plays a significant role in masquerades.
Most masks are owned and used by men, but there are specific masks meant for women.
Women maskers are most often priestesses, initiators, teachers, and mentors that assist young girls into womanhood. Legend has it that women were the first to participate in masquerades but were eventually barred from participating in the performances by men.
A large percentage of African art exemplifies power and authority. An example of power and authority is Alter of the Hand (c. 1550-1680 C.E.) from the Benin region in Nigeria. This piece depicts a hierarchy of power through the placement of two images of the king, one on top of the piece and one centered on the front. Elephants and leopards have been placed around the images of the king as an additional symbol of power; these animals themselves are considered kings in their respective realms. The king has a superhuman power over the leopards on either side of him able to tame these kings. Copper-alloy sculptures such as this one were created specifically for the king and his court; therefore the material alone exemplifies power and authority.
A recent example of power and authority is Nyim Kot a-Mbweeky III (photographed in 1971 C.E.) he is seen in an overload of beads, shells, cloth, animal skins and teeth, and feathers; rare materials worn in abundance exclusively by the divine king. The conscious, excessive layering of the objects that cover the king sends a message of larger than life wealth and power. Additionally, the king's placement on a raised alter further emphasizes his role as a living testament to power and authority.
Masquerades have always been an essential aspect of African art and culture. The masks used in the masquerades have varied degrees of power. Some have enough power to take human life and others have merely strong entertainment value. Masking plays a very active role in the social aspects of African life. For example, young boys are instructed by maskers on how to become men when they are returned.
Often masks were heavily beaded, these beads were used as currency and therefore made the mask a symbol of extreme wealth.
Eventually Europeans began to bring African masks to their home continent. This blending of cultures influenced such art movements as cubism.
Examples of African art influences in Europe can been seen in the following works:Les Demoiselles D’Avignon by Pablo Picasso (c. 1907 C.E.) and Head by Amedeo Modigliani (c. 1913 C.E.)
Gardner's Art Through The Ages Tenth Edition