The Unique Sculptures of African Art

The Evolution of Unique Sculptures in African Art

African art has increasingly become of the utmost prevalence in an art appreciator’s arsenal, with a distinct style that is sure to instill a certain fantasy upon the critic. Its unique sculptures, some dating back to before recorded history, have inspired some of the most revered artists today in their creative ventures and styles.
African art has transformed into a movement, with the classically refined deeming it the “next big thing.” Because of the heightened interest in this explosive art form, it is essential to understand its origins and how it has become the elevated style it is known as today in modern art society.
Quick Facts:
• The oldest cave paintings found in Africa are said to be as old as from c. 24,000 B.C.
• The oldest pottery forms (utensils) can be dated back to 7,000 B.C.
• Ancient Egypt creates its first acclaimed art piece, known as the Narmer Palette
• One of the first meritorious sculptures is an elaborate bust of Queen Nefertiti from 1340 B.C.
• The infamous Nok culture constructed sculptures from terracotta in 500 B.C.
History & Development
African art long exceeds recorded history, but the oldest carved sculptures found are determined by experts to have been made between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago. The first civilizations that became synonymous with sculptures were the Nubian Kingdom of Kush and the Nok culture in Nigeria. These two groups acted as the foundation for African sculpture and established the early precedent for sculptures as we know them today. While there were many different patterns displayed by these unique sculptures, the most often depicted were the sculptor’s surroundings, such as other people, nature, and abstract forms of animals.

Nok culture Terracotta sculpture

Most early African artwork was done in wood, including masks. These masks could represent a variety of meanings, ranging from spirits of animals to mythological heroes. The mask maker would have a high rank in the village because they were believed to have a connection with the spirit world, consequently resulting in the tradition of passing down mask making to the next generation.

Many of the initial works done in wood deteriorated because they were unable to perpetuate the harsh climate they were made in, but, as the years went on, sculptors would switch materials to the likes of terracotta, metals, and precious stones. Many cultures such as the Ife, Igbo-Ukwu, and Benin sourced bronze for their unique sculptures. These organic materials were more durable, both in the demanding temperatures and for historical purposes today. Once the switch was made, the value of these sculptures skyrocketed, and African art would reach a new standard for superiority.
As with anything, historians are still on the search for more ancient African art and are striving to learn more about what art meant to these civilizations.

Characteristics of African Art

As much as African art has changed throughout time, much of it has stayed the same. For example, the human figure has always been emphasized in work, and there has always been the tendency to make 3-D artwork (sculptures) over 2-D works (paintings). These are the standard aspects of African art, but one of the more whimsical properties of this type of work is that the pieces are designed to be used.

The purpose of art wasn’t believed to be hanging on a wall until the owner got tired of it. This art genre was specifically designated for use in performances or ceremonies (ex: masks). This feature of African art sets it apart from other locations, and would later inspire various facets of the theatrical setting.
This art form allows room for artistic license, as it allows for freedom of form, constituting for a one-of-a-kind art experience.
Influence on Western Artists
With the alluring qualities of African art, it was no surprise that cultural diffusion swept up the African sculpture techniques and wafted them over to Europe. Esteemed artists such as Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Derain, and Modigliani studied the beautiful characteristics of African art and were inspired to adopt the style in some of their paintings. The newfound appreciation for this genre brought on major movements such as cubism, fauvism, and expressionism.

The Scream by Edvard Munch, an expressionist painting inspired by African art
Pablo Picasso was so greatly influenced by a mask shown to him by Matisse that his paintings went through an ‘African Period’, which brought about great paintings such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Buste de Femme (1909).
Contemporary African artists such as El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare, and Sokari Douglas Camp have lived up to the rather large name that African art has created for itself and continue to inspire young and old around the world through their art exhibitions. African art has established a kind of electricity around art as a whole, generating more interest towards art appreciation and understanding. With the influence of the unique sculptures of Africa, it is sure that art will continue to progress as time goes on.