African Art

Throughout the continent’s long history, African art has served a variety of cultural and ritual functions. It has also been a key part of the social and economic fabric of many communities.

Traditionally, African art embodied a broader range of societal and moral values than did Western art. It linked to rites of passage, kingdoms, hierarchies, religion, and more. It was made in a range of materials, including wood, metal, and clay.

The types of African art vary greatly by culture and time, but a few basic forms remain consistent across the continent: sculptures and masks. The latter were worn during ceremonies such as funerals, initiations, and celebrations to communicate with the spirits of ancestors or deities.

In many of these works, faces are portrayed in exaggerated or stylized ways. In other instances, the human body is shown in an emotion-free manner. This is referred to as Generic Physiognomy and is used to avoid making each face unique, which could be seen as a potential source of danger.

Another important form of traditional African art is textile design and manufacturing, which has remained a central practice throughout the region’s history. The fabrics themselves have significant symbolic significance as well, and the patterns and designs that are woven into them have often been deeply rooted in local culture.

For instance, kente cloth in Ghana is woven with specific colors and symbols that convey a message, such as the yellow and gold of wealth or the gray of healing. In Mali, mud-dyeing is a popular technique, which uses natural pond mud to stain the fabric.

The colors and symbols that are woven into kente cloth also have a deep and rich symbolic meaning for the Akan people of Ghana, who are particularly adept at reading adinkra symbols (also known as the “syntactical motifs” that make up kente fabric). Kente textiles are often printed with other types of symbols that are more commonly understood in the West.

Sign painting is another vernacular art form that originated in Africa, although it did not become widely practiced until colonialism began to change the economic structure of African communities. In this era, foreign commercial agents opened brick-and-mortar stores in town centers, which facilitated trade amongst African people.

African Art in the Collection

The National Gallery of Art holds a significant collection of African art, which reflects the breadth and complexity of the region’s artistic cultures. Its collection includes works in a wide range of media, from fired clay figures as old as 500 B.C. to fiber creations as contemporary as 2014 by Abdoulaye Konate.

Despite their diverse range of styles, forms, and techniques, African artists are unified by a commitment to the creative process and to their local and regional art ecosystems. They are also able to build on and develop their skills through international training and education. They also have strong ties to other artists who are committed to keeping their artistic practices alive and relevant.