A brief history of African art

Bright yellow, orange patterned African art bowls

African art is beautiful; it’s a style of art that really encapsulates its culture and the history associated with the continent itself. You might love this kind of art and want to delve a little deeper into what made it what it is today. Or perhaps you’ve just gotten into appreciating African art? Either way, we’re here to further your knowledge!

So, let’s dive in and inform you of everything you need to know! It’s time to learn a little more…

What is African art?

African art sculptures with three faces

The history of African art is so fascinating, but you might want to know a little more about its origins and characteristics. Well, African art is a collection of work that channels everything that’s spiritual, emotionally driven, mystical and fascinating about Africa. The function of African art has always been based on the ability to connect to social and political events, provide practical, functional pieces, and be in touch with the spiritual world.

African artists are known for creating all different art forms, from sculptures and pottery to paintings and drawings. The creation of art has always been an expressive way for African people to demonstrate their culture, beliefs and interests, and in original ways, too.

As Pablo Picasso once said, African art is inspiring: “I have felt my strongest artistic emotions when suddenly confronted with the sublime beauty of sculptures executed by the anonymous artists of Africa"

Popular African art consists of…

Metal African artwork sculpture with row behind

  • Masks
  • Textiles
  • Ceramics
  • Metalwork
  • Figural sculptures
  • Basketry
  • Carvings.

And let’s not forget about decorative forms of art that shape Africa’s art history, such as jewellery and beadwork, as well as gold weights and even musical instruments. One thing you can say about this type of art is it has so many different forms, on both large and smaller scales.

Masks play a key part in African art history

Many African art masks lined up on blue steps

When it comes to the history of African art, masks play a key part in this continent’s culture. Remarkable masks were once (and still) crafted by various cultures across Africa, making up a lot of early artwork produced there.

Early African masks included:

  • Yoruba
  • Lulua
  • Zamble masks of Guro culture.

Artistic masks would offer ritual or religious functions, offering connotations of either (or both) in their design. And Goma facial pieces were famously created amongst communities in Congo, Tanzania and Nigeria.

Creating masks in Africa actually massively influenced modern art in 20th Century Europe. How? Well, iconic artists like Pablo Picasso took inspiration from these masks, channelling this into Cubism and his interest/in the production of animated abstraction.

Fantastic, famous African artists

African art wouldn’t be what it is today without the artists who contribute to its history, and the illustrators who bring modern African art to the art world now. But who are the most notable African artists and how does African culture blend into each piece?

1.       Wangechi Mutu

One brilliant African artist worth knowing about is Wangechi Mutu – a New York-based artist, whose incredible art belongs to the Afro-futurist movement.

  • Mutu is famous for combining African cultural references with science fiction to create unique artwork and interesting character concepts.
  • Her art is designed to shock, intrigue and captivate.

2.     William Kentridge

Another notable African artist has to be William Kentridge. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kentridge produces artwork that cleverly plays into important political happenings in Africa, with his earlier work touching on the 1980s apartheid regime.

  • Kentridge works with drawing, collage, sculpture, tapestry and etching, as well as dance, music and opera to portray the history of his culture and its transformation over the years.
  • He’s famous for his incredible charcoal drawings which depict the harrowing history of Africa’s apartheid.

3.     Marlene Dumas

South African artist, Marlene Dumas is an inspirational African painter. Born in 1953, Dumas is one of the most famous African artists to date. Her paintings always begin with the pictures she takes, as well as the pictures she snaps of the environment she’s in at the time.

  • Working mainly with oil on canvas paintings, previously creating her art through prints, installations, drawings and collages.
  • Dumas cleverly explores first-hand emotions using second-hand images.
  • She explores what’s personal, universal and collective to differentiate her art.

And these are just three of the famous African artists out there. Other notable creatives include:

  • Julie Mehretu
  • Ghada Amer
  • Basim Magdy
  • Barthélémy Toguo
  • Amoako Boafo
  • Jean-Michel Albèrola
  • Kendell Geers
  • Njideka Akunyili Crosby
  • Michael Armitage
  • Wael Shawky
  • Adel Abdessemed.

Notable African artwork

So many artists have shaped Africa’s art scene, and continue to do so today. Many modern artwork pieces touch on past movements and historical events, using art as their canvas for storytelling.

Famous African artwork that’s made its mark over the years include:

  • Nicholas Nana Yaw Kowalski – Women
  • Cheri Samba – Sida
  • Ibrahim El Salahi – The Inevitable
  • Henry Tayali – Destiny
  • Bambara People – Chiwara
  • Bambara People – Bamana n’tomo mask
  • Twins Seven Seven – Healing of Abiku Children
  • Gilbert G. Groud – Childsoldier in the Ivory Coast
  • Ghanese Fantasy Coffins
  • Willie Bester – Semakazi
  • Makonde People – Ebony carvings.

Enjoy more art inspiration

Now you know everything about African art, you’ll be itching to find out about other styles of art. If this is the case, just head over to our blog and discover the history of French art, Dutch art and so much more!

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