Gallery of African Art

Africa exemplifies a wide range of arts and crafts that emphasizes the aesthetic and functionality practiced by many indigenous groups. Much of African arts and crafts can be constructed in an array of materials such as metal, stone, and clay, as well as, gourds, hides, plant fibers, seeds, shells, and bone.
Even with the amount of material African artists and craftsmen are able to use; the most prevalent material used to construct art is wood. Wood is used to form sculptures, masks, musical instruments, carvings, weapons, basketry, and much more. African art forms have many meanings and can relate to many themes including politics, entertainment, philosophy, or religion. Though these art forms are highly diverse, there are a few overlapping themes that are consistent throughout a majority of African art forms. These themes include but are not limited to, emphasis on human and animal forms, abstract appearance, 3D sculpture, and animism. Although African art is structured through traditions; individual artists and craftsmen have the ability to form creative and original works of art. This gallery of African art displays the wide diversity of art that can be found throughout African cultures.
Emphasis on the human and animal form: Human figures comprise a major focus of African visual and decorative arts. These human forms may represent living or deceased individuals and often are highly symbolic. Depictions of African cultural leaders, performers, or mythical figures are common. Male and female subjects are clearly distinguished through exaggerated body features and representations can vary across cultures.
Emphasis on the abstract form: African works of art typically demonstrate visual abstraction instead of a naturalistic form. Many artistic traditions simplify stylistic norms because the crafted object is generally intended to carry thoughts or feelings. The supernatural, ancestral figures and spiritual representations are all common subject matters, all of which might be tough or impossible to paint appropriately or realistically. As a substitute, African arts and crafts have been intended to provoke a concept or conjure a particular message.
Emphasis on 3D sculpture form: African artists regularly choose to work with three-dimensional arts and crafts over two-dimensional works. Most African sculptures are not decorative objects to be offered inside the marketplace but rather they are often intended to commemorate ceremonial occasions, represent religious values, or to make a political statement. As such, aesthetic traits are not marked to be of the utmost significance in African sculpture, rather they are valued by their capacity to successfully fulfill their purpose as a communication tool.
Animism: Dating back as far as the Paleolithic age, the notion of animism is among the oldest of human beliefs. From its beginnings, animism was the belief that all objects, places, and creatures own a soul or spiritual presence. It is important to note that animism is a religion and although the terminology is outdated it is still used by archeologists to describe aboriginal beliefs. Most African cultures embrace beliefs that rely heavily on the spirit world, which is can be seen through traditional and modern arts and crafts such as masks and sculptures. It is with the belief of animism that many indigenous groups use masks and sculptures in religious ceremonies to communicate with ancestors.

Gallery Highlights

circular brown mask with white geometric shapes on the face of the mask. Feathers and hay are on the exterior of the circle.

 Bateke People, Democratic Republic of the Congo
 Wood / pigment, n.d
 Friends of Slater Museum purchase

Many Central African masks are made to be the physical manifestation of ancestral or mythological spirits and are an important component of vivid masquerade performances and sacred rituals. They are not decorative objects but serve to incarnate a person, often acting as a tool of contact with the spiritual world beyond. The mask usually accompanies dancing with choreography and music, all forming an inseparable reality.
This mask is characterized by its geometrical shapes and is painted red, black and white: the white is kaolin, a soft clay; the red is ground padouk, an African hardwood, and the black is charcoal. The complex decorative symbols of Bateke masks are cosmological, often representing rainbow, the moon and the sun.
Wooden rectangle with abstracted human forms carved all over the surface

Dogon People, Malo
 Wood, early 
 20th century

Many African families and communities stored grain as a means of sustenance, and elaborate carvings often decorated the protective doors on their granary storage buildings. Artists would carve depictions of individuals, deities, mythological beings, animals, and scenes of humans communing with nature.

Circular jug with a human face. Human and animal forms appear on the body.

Kissi people, Guinea
 Clay / shells, n.d
 Gift of L. Goff Briggs

Estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, the Kissi people have traditionally inhabited the coastal African countries of Guinea and Sierra Leone. Their lifestyles center around farming and raising livestock.

The Kissi revere soapstone anthropomorphic carvings, which are made from stones found in fields and rivers in the area centered around the Sewa and Mano rivers. The Kissi people call them “pomdo” or the deceased. These statues were believed to contain ancestral spirits and have supernatural powers. They were often used in rituals to promote rice cultivation.

seated female figure supports a large openwork plaque with animals, birds, and geometric forms

 Senufo people, Côte d’Ivoire
 Wood, n.d.
 Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Cedric Marks

Approximately 2-3 million in total, the Senufo people are spread across the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso, living off of farming and occasional hunting. Their villages are governed by a council of elders, who in turn are led by a chief that was elected from the council. Tribal structure is controlled through the rituals of the Poro society, which initiates and controls the males from as young as age seven years of age. Organization of the Poro society is based on age grades; the society exerts social and political control, conveys traditional knowledge and fulfills religious functions, especially during elaborate funeral ceremonies. The Senufo spirituality is based on the god and goddess principles, with their powerful god, Koulotiolo, and goddess mother, Katielo, regenerating the world through the rituals of the Poro society
An elaborate jug with multiple tiers and human figures

Dogon People, Mali
 Wood, n.d
 From the Estate of Paul W. Zimmerman

The Dogon people of Western Africa have carved intricate wooden containers for the purposes of holding food that would be consumed during specific ceremonies. Dogon political and religious leaders, collectively called Hogon, carry out these traditions in the name of the Dogon’s ancient ancestors. These rituals are ultimately dedicated to preserving this rich culture and communing with themes of fertility, family, and the posterity of their civilization. The large figure upon a horse represents the Hogon, altogether symbolizing wealth, power, and influence in society.