African Arts 

Visual, performing, and literary arts of sub-Saharan Africa. What gives art in Africa its special character is the generally small scale of most of its traditional societies, in which one finds a bewildering variety of styles. The earliest evidence of visual art is provided by figures scratched and painted on rocks c. 3000 BC. Pastoral cultures in the east emphasize personal adornment; sculpture predominates in the agricultural societies in the west and south. Clay figurines found in Nigeria date to 500 BC. Metalworking was practiced from the 9th century AD. Sculptures in stone, ivory, and wood date from the 16th – 17th centuries; some of the finest wood sculptures date from the 20th century. Architecture dominates the arts of the north and of the eastern coast, where Islam and Christianity exerted their influence; important work includes magnificent mosques built of mud and rock-hewn churches. Perhaps the most distinctive features of African music are the complexity of rhythmic patterning achieved by a great variety of drums and the relationship between melodic form and language tone structure. Without this the text of a song is rendered meaningless; but, even in purely instrumental music, melodic pattern is likely to follow speech tone. Dances are realized in radically different styles throughout Africa. Movement patterns often depend upon the way in which environmental, historical, and social circumstances have been articulated in working, social, and recreational movements. Often there is no distinction between ritual celebration and social recreation. The masquerade is a complex art form employing many media; masquerades may entertain, be used to fight disease, be consulted as oracles, initiate boys to manhood, impersonate ancestors, judge disputes, or execute criminals. The mask is essentially a dramatic device enabling performers to stand apart from their everyday role in the community. The content and style of urban African theatre are influenced by both African dramatic traditions and Western theatre. The literary arts of Africa — especially its oral traditions — are immensely rich and varied. They include myths, praise songs, epic poetry, folktales, riddles, spells, and proverbs. Written literatures have existed for several centuries in Hausa, Swahili, and Amharic. In the 20th century, written literatures in other African languages also developed, alongside those in English, French, and Portuguese. See also Buli style; déblé; segoni-kun; telum figure; trickster tale; and African authors by name, such as Chinua Achebe; Aimé Césaire; Birago Diop; Athol Fugard; Nadine Gordimer; Wole Soyinka; Amos Tutuola.

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''African art constitutes one of the most diverse legacies on earth. Though many casual observers tend to generalize "traditional" African art, the continent is full of people, societies, and civilizations, each with a unique visual special culture. The definition also includes the art of the African Diasporas, such as the art of African Americans.Despite this diversity, there are some unifying artistic themes when considering the totality of the visual culture from the continent of Africa.
  • Emphasis on the human figure: The human figure has always been the primary subject matter for most African art, and this emphasis even influenced certain European traditions. For example, in the fifteenth century Portugal traded with the Sapi culture near the Ivory Coast in West Africa, who created elaborate ivory saltcellars that were hybrids of African and European designs, most notably in the addition of the human figure (the human figure typically did not appear in Portuguese saltcellars). The human figure may symbolize the living or the dead, may reference chiefs, dancers, or various trades such as drummers or hunters, or even may be an anthropomorphic representation of a god or have other votive function. Another common theme is the inter-morphosis of human and animal.
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Ife bronze casting of a King, dated around 12th Century.
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Yoruba bronze head sculpture, Ife, Nigeria c. 12th century A.D.
  • Visual abstraction: African artworks tend to favor visual abstraction over naturalistic representation. This is because many African artworks generalize stylistic norms. Ancient Egyptian art, also usually thought of as naturalistically depictive, makes use of highly abstracted and regimented visual canons, especially in painting, as well as the use of different colors to represent the qualities and characteristics of an individual being depicted.
  • Emphasis on sculpture: African artists tend to favor three-dimensional artworks over two-dimensional works. Even many African paintings or cloth works were meant to be experienced three-dimensionally. House paintings are often seen as a continuous design wrapped around a house, forcing the viewer to walk around the work to experience it fully; while decorated cloths are worn as decorative or ceremonial garments, transforming the wearer into a living sculpture. Distinct from the static form of traditional Western sculpture African art displays animation, a readiness to move.
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Makonde carving c.1974
  • Emphasis on performance art: An extension of the utilitarianism and three-dimensionality of traditional African art is the fact that much of it is crafted for use in performance contexts, rather than in static ones. For example, masks and costumes very often are used in communal, ceremonial contexts, where they are "danced." Most societies in Africa have names for their masks, but this single name incorporates not only the sculpture, but also the meanings of the mask, the dance associated with it, and the spirits that reside within. In African thought, the three cannot be differentiated.
  • Nonlinear scaling: Often a small part of an African design will look similar to a larger part, such as the diamonds at different scales in the Kasai pattern at right. Louis Senghor, Senegal’s first president, referred to this as “dynamic symmetry.” William Fagg, the British art historian, compared it to the logarithmic mapping of natural growth by biologist D’Arcy Thompson. More recently it has been described in terms of fractal geometry.''
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