African Art

First Things First...

Any discussion of African arts, cultures, or histories will confront a range of controversies. Some of these controversies include the concept of “the primitive”; the narrow definitions of the category “history” as comprising only written records; the narrow geographical definition of “African” itself as relating only to the people and lands south of the Sahara and west of the White Nile; the issue of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; and the bigotries (many based on concepts of “race”) that were enlisted into the service of American institutionalized slavery and its various replacements and extensions. An instructor is automatically charged with navigating these potentially vexing issues with students.

The customary questions we ask of students at the onset of a course (e.g., “What do we know about Africa?”) must be tailored to the inherently fraught nature of Africa as a subject of study. Instead of asking questions about what students know of Africa, the instructor might ask instead “What have we learned of Africa so far in our lives?” This question affords the distance to see how previous levels of education (from schooling to museums), the media, and the public imagination might have informed the student’s knowledge of Africa. It also allows students not to be embarrassed by their previous statements once the instructor has shown them some part of the complexity and subtlety of African art and culture.

Other questions worth posing: have we been encouraged to think of Africa more as a generally homogenous country or a diverse continent? Does, for example, Morocco belong to Africa or the Middle East? Can students list any African contributions to American, Western, and world culture?

The instructor might also project or read dictionary definitions of the words “primitive,” “race,” and other slippery terms to see whether popular notions of these apply to African arts, cultures, or identities. Specifically, the ideas of the “primitive” as being (1) “simpler” and (2) “from an earlier period” in human history carry subjective assumptions that (1) simplicity is not a conscious, aesthetic choice (as in the case of Yoruba ori inu sculptures versus, say, the cast brass heads or carved doors of the same ethnicity) but rather is determined by relative levels of skill, intelligence, or “development,” and (2) that all human histories are on the same teleological trajectory from stylization to naturalism, “pre”-literacy to literacy in script writing, and from rough textures and organic lines to finely-cut edges and surfaces.

In fact, depending upon the region and ethnicity, Africa has produced and continues to produce all modes of art from the stylized to the abstract to the naturalistic, from the formal to the expressionistic, and from the rough-hewn to the streamlined form. In addition to (1) stylistic and technical variety, it is important to stress the essential role of art and architecture in the (2) socio-politics, (3) spirituality, and (4) ritual life of the African cultures selected. In many cases, communication through images and performance have been an important counterpart of the spoken word and, in addition to functioning in some unique ways, also fulfilled many of the functions that other cultures might attribute to writing.

Background Readings

Kongo Nkisi-Nkondi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, nineteenth century.

One of the most reputable college-level textbooks on African art is Monica Blackmun Visona’s The History of Art in Africa. It takes the same inclusive and interrelated approach to the continental and diasporic understanding of African art as this lesson plan, taking care to include Islamic, Nilotic, and Ethiopic Africa as relating directly to each other and the rest of the continent to which they belong. Occasionally, Blackmun also gives indigenous names and spellings for many classes of objects and monuments that we might otherwise know only by their Greco-Roman or Arabic names. For a closer look at the elite arts of tropical Africa’s royal traditions such as Ife and Benin, Suzanne Preston Blier’s book The Royal Arts of Africa is most helpful. Peter Garlake’s Early Art and Architecture of Africa is a reliable resource for the ancient and influential arts of Nok and Djenne, but also the enigmatic site of Great Zimbabwe as well as the kingdoms of the Nile, Nigeria, and the Swahili Coast. In their back matter, these three volumes also provide useful timelines and/or glossaries for quick reference.

On the neglected subject of African architecture, Nnamdi Elleh’s tome African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation is a rare (and encyclopedic) jewel, as is Suzanne Preston Blier’s generously illustrated Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa, featuring photographs by James Morris.

In the United States, the museum with perhaps the most progressive approach to the display of African art is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on the Great Mall in Washington, D.C. This institution is concerned with African art and culture from ancient times to the most contemporary. Its website ( is also a rich, searchable resource on its collections, library, and other departments. In New York, the Museum for African Art remains closed during its move to a new location, but the Brooklyn Museum, American Museum of Natural History, and Metropolitan Museum of Art all possess impressive collections of African art with considerably different curatorial approaches. The Brooklyn Museum provides perhaps the most integrated, progressive vision of African Art.

Content Suggestions

The following selection of images illustrates this variety within the context of an hour and fifteen minute session:

  • Nubian Pyramids at Meroë, current-day Sudan, eighth century BCE–third century CE.
  • Friday Mosque of Djenné, Mali, thirteenth century (rebuilt 1907).
  • Ethopian Illuminated Manuscript, sixteenth century.
  • Benin Royal Portrait Brass Head, Nigeria, 1550–1680.
  • Dogon Seated Couple, Mali, sixteenth–nineteenth century.
  • Ci-Wara Masks, Mali, mid-nineteenth–early twentieth century.
  • Kente Cloth, Ghana, early twentieth century.
  • Mbuti Painted Bark Cloths, Congo region, twentieth century.
  • Nkisi-Nkondi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, nineteenth century.
  • Mbulu Ngulu, Gabon, nineteenth–twentieth century.

The word Nubia might derive from the Egyptian words for gold—“nebu” or “nub”—as this country just to the south was Egypt’s main source of the precious metal. Ancient Nubia was also known by Egyptians as the kingdom of Kush. Ancient Nubia was located in what is today the country of Sudan. The capital of the kingdom was at Napata, north of modern-day Khartoum, where the White and Blue Niles converge. From the eleventh century BCE to the fourth century CE, Kushite kings ruled from Napata, then Meroë. Following the collapse of Egypt’s New Kingdom in the eleventh century BCE, these Kushite kings invaded and conquered Egypt and ruled it for roughly a century. Thus, the Egyptian 25th Dynasty was in fact a Kushite or Nubian dynasty, administered from Napata. As Egypt had conquered Nubia several times in the past, Nubia conquered Egypt by the eighth century BCE.

Reflecting millennia of cultural exchange between these oft-contentious sister cultures, Nubians and Egyptians worshipped several of the same gods, including Amun and Isis. Both worshipped lionine war gods, but for Egyptians this was the goddess Sakhmet; for Nubians, it was the god Apedemak. The two cultures also shared important similarities in architecture, including pyramids. The Nubian Pyramids at Meroë, however, exhibit unique features—seldom built more than 20–90’ tall (as contrasted with Egypt’s 400’ pyramids), but at a steep 70° angle rather than the more conservative 40–50° angle of Egyptian pyramids, and with bekhenet (pylon) entrances and shrines abutting their bases so that the living might come and pay tribute to the dead.

Nubian pyramids can be found at old el-Kurru and Nuri, where the tombs of famed Nubian pharaohs such as Piankhi and Taharqo are located, respectively. But the largest number of pyramids is found at the late site of Meroë, where some forty-plus kings and queens are interred. The shift to burials at Meroë coincided with Nubian rule of Egypt’s 25th Dynasty. Like the pyramids at Giza, these much younger and steeper pyramids all have slightly flat tops, originally topped with golden tips that have long since been carried off by treasure hunters. One of the pyramids was even dynamited in 1834, yielding a priceless collection of gold funerary jewelry and ornaments of the Nubian Kandake (Queen) Amanishakheto, but also destroying almost all other archaeological evidence, including the pyramid itself. You can find more about Nubian pyramids at UNESCO’s website.

Islam has had a millennium-long history in Africa, including in regions south of the Sahara. While religions generally bring established iconographic systems to whatever new territory into which they expand, Islam has relatively little interest in symbolic systems. Given Muslims’ preference for decorative rather than representational forms of art, Islam in Africa has only sought to discourage religious imagery, otherwise imposing few recommendations on the development of Islamic architecture in Africa. Also, since Islam spread to Africa very early in its history—expanding from North Africa to West Africa between the seventh to the tenth century CE, when Muslims still conducted many of their daily prayers outside, at home, and wherever else they found themselves at the time for salat (any one of the five prayer times throughout the day)—early Muslims in Africa had no set idea of what a masjid (mosque) should look like. African Muslims simply adapted local forms of architecture to Islamic use.

Thus, the adobe architecture of men’s lodges and other civic structures in countries such as Niger, Mali, and Mauritania were deputized into Islamic service, as in the Great Friday Mosque of Djenné, taking care to orient the building so that the often windowless qibla wall faced Mecca. Crenellations and columns, which often carried gender or clan symbolism in pre-Islamic contexts, were either allowed to keep some of their symbolism or were otherwise secularized (rather than Islamized) so that they could be used by Muslims. The distinctive torons that project like bristles from the sides of the Great Friday Mosque can be found on mosques, civic buildings, and homes from Togo to Morocco. They are used to facilitate climbing the structure and attaching scaffolds to the building so that renovations on the mud brick exterior can be done periodically.

In the Sahara and the Sahel (the area just south of the Sahara, where the desert gives way to increasing scrubland and other foliage), adobe construction has proven far more practical than “modern” materials. It is inexpensive, locally sourced, and functions as a “memory material,” in that it takes much of the day to lose the coolness of the night, even as the Sahara sun blazes outside, and conversely it takes much of the night to lose its heat even as desert temperatures plummet. Since the Saharan environment continually sandblasts any structure, much more expensive concrete buildings would have to be renovated anyway (at greater cost), so that adobe proves the more cost-effective, “greener” architectural solution in the Sahara and Sahel. Since building with raw, unbaked clay is essentially building with a sculpture material, local master masons have always taken the opportunity to decorate their building designs with architectural elements and decorative motifs. On adobe mosques such as the Great Friday Mosque, masons and artisans have had only to avoid figural representations in their decorative programs, in accordance with Islamic custom. The soft lines and contours and overall organic appearance of African mud brick architecture is beautiful in itself and has been featured in well-known films such as Star Wars: A New Hope, where it was featured as the indigenous architecture of the planet Tatooine (itself named after the Moroccon town of Tatouan, near where Episode IV was shot). PBS has an excellent video on the Great Friday Mosque of Djenné, and again, UNESCO’s website provides useful information.

Between the first and fourth century CE, Christianity spread to Ethiopia, a country with an already millennia-old Jewish tradition. Orthodox, Coptic, and other forms of early Christianity had traveled up the Nile from Egypt and Nubia and across the Red Sea from the Middle East (particularly Syria). By the end of the fourth century CE, Axum (Aksum) had officially adopted Christianity as the religion of Ethiopia. The Axumite kings built stone and adobe palaces, commemorated the design of those palaces in the surface decoration of the tallest funerary obelisks in Africa (some exceeding the heights of any in Egypt), and commissioned the first illuminated manuscripts in the Ethiopian language of Ge’ez. Indeed the subsequent centuries of Ge’ez literature had their beginnings at Axum. The Garima Gospels, attributed to the Axumite kingdom, are believed to be among the very oldest illuminated manuscripts in the Christian world.

In a nation where the written word has been of tremendous importance for most of the last two millennia, it is not surprising that Saint John the Evangelist is a central figure in the minds of the faithful. In a page from this Ethiopian Illuminated Manuscript, John the Evangelist (the apostle John, as a scribe) is pictured penning the first chapter of the gospel that bears his name. The stylized approach of the artist, identified as a regional variant called the Gunda Gunde style after a monastery in the north of the country, gives John decidedly Ethiopian features. While Ethiopian artists usually take care to depict foreign biblical personages with more Middle Eastern/European features, this beloved literary saint is often the exception, with hair and features naturalized to local tastes. For more on this Ethiopian Illuminated Manuscript, you can view the Walters Museum of Art’s website.

Sometime in the fourteenth century CE, artisans from the Yoruba kingdom of Ife are known to have introduced the technology of lost-wax metal casting to the Edo kingdom of Benin. Like many cultures of Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, both the peoples of Ife and Benin are known to have kept altars for their ancestors, where they left offerings and sought the counsel of the departed souls of dead relatives. From the spirit realm, previous kings and queens were privy to unique and prophetic insights about the present and the future. After Benin adopted the lost-wax sculpture technology of Ife, terracotta portraits on royal ancestral altars were joined by copper alloy ones comparable to those at Ife.

However, while the brass/bronze royal portraits of Ife are known for their idealized, serene naturalism, those like the Benin Royal Portrait Brass Head were far more stylized and increasingly complex, adorned with the emblems of office that distinguished later kings from earlier ones. For example, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, the red coral necklaces depicted around the necks of the Benin kings had accumulated from just a few strings to a veritable collar that fully obscured the chin of the king. A bold and innovative feature of Benin royal portrait heads (unprecedented at Ife) was the addition of elaborately carved ivory tusks placed into receptacle holes on the crown of each male portrait. The carved reliefs illustrated episodes and individuals from the king’s ancestry and and not only visually evoked the image of the king as if literally descending from his ancestral line but also presented an image of the king as if contemplating his family history and his place in it. The end result is an intricately decorated portrait, comprising a dark, cool, fire-forged brass/bronze head and a luminous, organic, carved ivory tusk, each material maintaining its own inherent origins, socio-historical and economic connotations, and cultural symbolisms—all combined into a mixed-media masterpiece. For more on Benin royal portrait heads, see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s page or the British Museum’s page.

The statuary of the Dogon people of Mali often features themes of complementarity and symbolic numerologies derived from their origin narratives, in which eight original amphibian, androgynous creatures were eventually sorted into male/female couples. In this well-known sculpture of a Dogon Seated Couple, the numbers two and four feature prominently as part of the symbolic scheme. A woman and man sit on a stool beside each other, comparable in size with similarly stylized features. The man sports a tuft-like goatee, typical of Dogon men even today, and the woman wears a labret from a piercing just below her lower lip. The nude man puts his right arm around the woman’s shoulders and touches her breast with his right hand. With his left hand he points to his own genitals. Thus he indicates the two sources of white, life-giving substances that issue from human bodies—one, the catalyzing semen from a man that sparks pregnancy in a woman’s body, the other, nutritious mother’s milk that transfers to the newborn and sustains its life.

Newborns themselves, whether they be anatomically girls or boys, are seen as being of indeterminate gender in a social sense. Thus a child’s birth echoes the creation of the first sexless humans. The Dogon have many initiation rituals (based on age, profession, and gender), and one of these includes the controversial circumcision of both boys and girls, wherein the ‘female’ prepuce is removed from boys and the ‘male’ clitoris is excised from girls, thereby officially assigning male and female gender respectively and ushering young people into adulthood. In this statue, a pre-initiated baby clings to the back of the woman. The baby is the physical promise of the creation of future generations. On the man’s back is a quiver, in which real arrows may have once been placed, representing the promise of sustaining food and protection for the family, clan, and culture. Beneath the couple are four of their ancestors, presumably their parents, functioning as the caryatid legs of the stool on which they sit. Thus the older generation is the foundation and the support of the newer. In this way, the generations of Dogon are supported by their forbears, going back through primordial time to the first humans. You can find more on the Seated Dogon Couple on the Met’s website.

Bamana traditional narratives maintain that, in ancient time, the skills and secrets of successful agriculture were brought to them by a bush spirit called Ci-Wara. In many cultures of West and Central Africa, “the bush” has a strong connotation as a mysterious place outside the civilized sphere of the village, town, or city. The bush is a place populated not only by wild animals of uncertain motivations but wild spirits as well, who/which must be pacified, placated, or otherwise assuaged to not do harm to society and the individuals and institutions within it. Some of these spirits, however, are benevolent beings who bring knowledge and wisdom to the world of human beings and gifts to civilization from the raw, creative forces of nature. Ci-Wara was one such spirit, appearing as a creature with hybrid zoomorphic features to instruct humans in the most basic requirement of civilization: the regular and reliable production of food. Thus, the Bamana belief that the foundation of civilization was brought by a spirit from the bush implicitly recognizes the symbiosis of nature and culture.

The Bamana are a group of closely associated ethnicities in southern Mali. As a result of Bamana diversity, there are several sub-styles of Bamana masks and sculpture. Bamana Ci-Wara Masks are classed into vertical, horizontal and abstract styles. Dynamic openwork is a feature of the “abstract Bougouni style” and the “vertical Segou style” of the southern and northern parts of the Bamana territory, respectively. The Bamana sculptors of these regions seem to celebrate a symbiosis between positive and negative space as well as that between nature and culture. Ci-Wara masks typically represent the patron agro-spirit in the guise of antelopes, porcupines, pangolins (African anteaters) or other wild animals. Very often, species are seamlessly combined into hybrid zoomorphs with multivalent iconographies, reflecting perhaps different versions of Bamana origin narratives. At planting festivals, Ci-Wara masks are danced in pairs, one representing a male and the other a female spirit. The female Ci-Wara mask can be distinguished by the infant on its back.

There are many different mask types used in Africa. Among them are face masks that only cover the front of the masker’s head, helmet masks that go over the entire head of the masker, and crest masks which are strapped to the top of a masker’s head. Ci-Wara masks fall into this lattermost category. Masks can be held in place by strings around the head, braces on the shoulders, and/or bits held between the teeth. Whatever the type of the mask, they are but a small part of a whole ensemble that constitutes the full masquerade, inside of which the masker will lose his personal identity and either become one with the spirit portrayed or be entirely replaced by the spirit, force, or idea. Ci-Wara maskers wear raffia and other fibers below the mask to evoke the look, sound, and smell of the bush. Thus, the way that masks are displayed in many Western museums, as singular works of sculpture under focused, steady light, might communicate their formal beauty as sculptures but evokes little of their symbolic power. With the swaying, rustling strands of raffia beneath it, dancing with its counterpart to musical accompaniment, this Ci-Wara mask would have provided a much richer aesthetic experience to those who witnessed its performance in time and space. For more on Ci-Wara masks, see this page at the Art Institute of Chicago’s website.

The textile tradition of kente cloth may have originated in the Akan kingdom of Bonoman in Ghana sometime in the mid-second millennium CE. However, it was the Asante (Ashanti) kingdom of the eighteenth–twentieth centuries that elevated this art as the characteristic regalia of the whole Akan ethnicity of Ghana, also making it renowned worldwide. The making of traditional kente cloth involves an unusual confluence of local and international production methods. As masters of the Gold Coast, the Asantehene (kings of Asante) commanded vast wealth and acquired solicitous foreign allies and trading partners both near and far. Kente cloths are relatively heavy textiles bearing traditional motifs that make very specific statements about the wearer in question. The colorful cloths are laced through with locally produced gold thread, but they are woven primarily of imported silk and regionally produced cotton. It was not difficult for a wealthy country on the West African coast to acquire Chinese and Indian silk, but this material only came as lengths of cloths, not threads. So part of the Asante textile industry was dedicated to unweaving Asian silk cloth into its constituent threads and bleaching the threads, if necessary, before dying them the desired colors.

The colors themselves all have meaning before they are even woven into specific emblems, with yellow and gold representing wealth, gray representing healing, blue representing serenity, green representing growth, black representing maturity, and so on. Kente cloth is woven in narrow strips, which are then combined alongside each other into syntactical compositions. In Ghana, Akan people can be as adept at deciphering the themes in woven kente cloth motifs as they are at reading the more specific meanings in printed adinkra symbols (the latter being more popularly understood in the West). Put together, a series of woven strips in particular colors could reference a common proverb or aphorism, or it might comment on the honors and burdens of parenthood. Textiles of historical importance have often been named so that the Kente Cloth illustrated here, of the complex, royal adweaneasa variety once reserved only for kings, has been called “skill is exhausted”—apparently for its encyclopedic and virtuosic display of motifs on a single cloth.

Today, kente cloth continues to be worn on special occasions by commoners, political leaders, and members of the Ghanaian royal family. Kente cloth has also enjoyed great popularity among visiting Western dignitaries and African Americans at graduations, weddings, and other festivals. The National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution has excellent information on kente cloth.

While the arts of many cultures carry specific meanings about religion, society, politics, history, and other concerns, the painted designs on “Pygmy” bark cloth are often the personal expressions of the artist. Famed for their prowess as nature survivalists and for their beautiful polyphonic singing, “Pygmy” peoples such as the Mbuti and Ituri peoples occupy a dubious place in the popular imagination of their tall, often Bantu African neighbors. Being completely at home in “the bush” makes them seem somehow “wild” and “savage” to their town-dwelling African neighbors, and yet their hardiness and secret knowledge and mastery of life in the forest causes them to take on mythic proportions in the traditional narratives of their neighbors such as the Kuba of the Congo.

Occupying this strange position between “sub- and super-human” in the chauvinistic views of some of their neighbors, “Pygmy” people produce works like these Mbuti Painted Bark Cloths that seem more like modern art in their elevation of the artist’s personal vision above recommendations from tradition or institutions. Painted on a kind of cloth that is produced by beating and soaking certain kinds of tree bark until the material is soft and pliant like a textile (thus “bark cloth”), these paintings draw their inspiration from the sounds, patterns, smells, textures, and other features of the forest. Each design is a unique and idiosyncratic dialect of the individual, usually female artist. Again, the National Museum of African Art contains useful information on painted bark cloth.

The visual impression made by an Nkisi-Nkondi is unforgettable. A human figure bristles with nails, spikes, and other pieces of sharp metal driven into its body. In the middle of the pierced figure’s torso, a mirror shines dully, reflecting the viewer’s own face amidst the metal quills, if she should come close enough. What is this figure that seems at once monumental, forbidding, and uncannily reminiscent of a so-called “Voodoo doll”? In fact the Voodoo dolls of the Caribbean and North America are in some ways related to the nkisi-nkondi but are used with a much more narrow, and overall more nefarious intent. In fact, nkisi-nkondi statues are pierced not with weapons meant to do them harm but rather with oaths and prayers. Each nail, spike, or wedge driven into it represents the sealing of an oath (e.g., in a lawsuit or other dispute) or the sending of a prayer for healing or justice. Puncturing the surface of the statue gets the spirit’s attention, so it might hear the wishes of the supplicant. At the same time, the mirror forms a one-sided pane through which the spirit world can peer out, even as we in corporeal form can only see our own reflection therein. Sealed behind the mirror are secret, powerful materials deposited there by a ritual specialist (ngaga) on the occasion when the statue was first spiritually charged and put into service.

In the trauma of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, in the ensuing cross-fertilization of previously unassociated African cultures, and in the syncretism of these systems with Christianity (particularly in the Roman Catholic parts of the Americas), religions such as Vodoun, Candomble, Santería, Kumina, and Obeah were born. These systems combined the pantheon of spirits, orishas, or gods of West and Central Africa with the Christian saints to produce hybrid religions in which many beings of the noumenon had two or more aspects. Feared and reviled as demonic by Christian institutions, these hybrid religions were persecuted and/or suppressed. While devotees of these religions practiced, and continue to practice, a range of rituals, only the more negative or harmful practices of some devotees have reached the Western popular imagination—analogous to making Christianity synonymous with the Inquisition and Crusades, or Islam synonymous with Wahabi terrorism.

The “Voodoo doll” on which enemies avenge themselves by sticking pins into the cloth body in the hopes that through sympathetic magic their foe might become injured in corresponding body parts represents a small subset of wish-making that might have been done with an nkisi-nkondi. After all, this class of statue is often beseeched for justice. However, Kongo people more often used nkisi-nkondi statues to sanctify promises, and to bring healing and other happy outcomes. The Brooklyn Museum has an excellent page on its nkisi-nkondi, and SmartHistory also discusses these powerful figures.

Some of the people of Gabon, such as the Kota, have had to relocate several times in the last few centuries because of environmental conditions and political strife. Perhaps resulting from this occasional need to relocate, a tradition developed of conserving the remains of the dead in portable reliquaries rather than leaving them buried in the ground, where they might become permanently separated from their living descendants. The bones of the dead, especially those of important family and community leaders, were believed to retain spiritual power and were kept in baskets or bark receptacles. Atop each reliquary was placed a guardian figure, called an Mbulu Ngulu by the Kota people, to protect the remains of the dead from spiritual and physical harm. The reliquaries were placed in shrines outside the village and were consulted in secret by initiated descendents and community leaders. If the community had to relocate, it could carry its honored dead with it.

The design of a Kota mbulu ngulu is not meant to represent the appearance of a human being but rather to connote the function of an invisible guardian. In that it can see, smell (or otherwise sense), and speak of dangers, it is given a kind of simplified face, carved in wood and usually covered in hammered sheet metal. The rest of the figure bears scant resemblance to any living being, comprising a stem or ‘neck,’ leading down to an open rhombus vaguely reminiscent of arms or legs. Through the opening, straps were run to lash the guardian figure to the reliquary basket or bundle.

Upon his first encounters with African art at the Trocadero Museum in Paris, Picasso’s multiple sketches of an mbulu ngulu seem to have inspired his first Cubist notions of the radical geometricization of the human figure. Rudimentary explanations of African art at the Trocadero and Picasso’s own imagination led to a misapprehension that a figure such as the mbulu ngulu was an earnest attempt by Congolese sculptors to represent the human body. The primitivist understanding (or misunderstanding) of “African art” as essentially simple, primal, and somewhat stalled at some early stage in aesthetic development stems from misapprehensions of this kind that do not represent the breadth of African art styles and art functions. In fact, the form of the mbulu ngulu is prescribed by tradition, is learned by apprentices from their instructors, and as a result can be quite rigid in its requirements of the artist. Religious sculpture of this kind is then blessed, initiated, or otherwise accessioned before being put into use. The design decisions evident in much of Central and West African art were the result of considering the human and animal figure in the flesh, then imagining it in the abstract, after which stylized and abstracted emblems of it were manipulated into bold and clever designs. If these intellectualizations of the form were then ratified by consensus over time and/or clan, tribal, or royal decree, the design would become traditional. From then, it would be imitated down through the centuries. Again, the Brooklyn Museum has excellent information on mbulu ngulu.

At the End of Class...

At the end of the lecture, during discussion, the question “What have we learned about Africa?” can be revisited as a yardstick for the progress students have made in their understanding of this vast continent and its arts. Exercises and assignments could be based on the following questions:

  • How would you identify/define African art now?
  • Is there an overall African style?
  • According to the lecture are there any apparent favored materials in African art? If so, why do you think these materials are favored?
  • What seem to be some major concerns of African art? How do specific classes of African art objects relate to particular belief systems or socio-political structures (is there any relation)?
  • Do different religious or political systems operate simultaneously within any one society discussed here? How do these coexisting systems make use of art and/or architecture (similarities/differences)?

Which were the most utilitarian artworks discussed? Was there any art made for its own sake? If so, identify and discuss.

Lawrence Waldron (author) is an artist and art historian, specializing in pre-Columbian, Asian and African art as well as the art and culture of the Caribbean and Latin America. He is an Associate Professor of Art History at Montserrat College of Art..

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.