History

A Wooden Religious Mask

African art has a beauty that is both unique and ancient. It has been acknowledged as being part of world history so understanding it is something everyone should be aware of. For instance, do you know that the first necklace ever made was from Africa? It was formed using shell beads more than 75 000 years ago in a remote cave in South Africa’s southern peninsula. The oldest sculpture in Africa was found in Nigeria and dates back to 500 BC.

Art went through some changes once Europeans began to colonise Africa. This started during the 1800s, by which time African art had a personality of its own. Even then, foreigners would fancy the art works and bring them to their home countries as souvenirs. Unfortunately, most did not give the art pieces much importance other than as the unusual trinkets or proof of travel to the African continent.

African Art: A Bird’s Eye View

Art in Africa began with rock art. The oldest art images discovered on rock faces are found in Namibia in a place called the Apollo 11 caves; many experts, however, believe that rock art existed long before these caves. Another discovery was in Niger where there were images of animals that have long been extinct in that area. Erosion is the main reason why not a lot of ancient rock art can be found anymore.

From rock, Africans turned to sculpting using terracotta clay and creating beautiful pottery. Some of the artefacts that have been found date as far back as 500BC. Many of the sculptures show intricate ornamentation and hair styles or head gear which is probably reminiscent of that time.

One of the highly appreciated art works found in South Africa are the “Lydenburg heads”. These are the oldest African earthenware and appear to have been of significant value during the time it was used around 500 BC.

It was during the 9th century that metal art and sculptures began to show and it continued all the way to the 15th century AD. When the Portuguese arrived, these art pieces started to change with the addition of background scenery instead of figure sculptures. The appearance of wall décor made from metal became visible.

By the 19th century, wood carvings and artsy furniture were being collected. It took a little of the spotlight from tribal art as the wood carvings and furniture began to be exported and brought to other countries around the 1920s.

Influences on African Art

Aside from the influx of colonial migration to Africa, there were other influences on African art. By the 20th century, many artists from Europe and America were traipsing through the African continent, looking for inspiration. Other artists who did not travel to Africa but viewed galleries in Paris featuring African art were Picasso, Derain, and Matisse.

In some ways, current African art can even be to said to be found in the built structures on the African continent today. Just taking a look at the beautiful houses for sale in Cape Town one could easily believe that the African Art is thriving in all aspects of creative endeavour.

Many believe that abstract art, asymmetrical balance, and primitive design in modern art originated from African art. Picasso, for instance, used ceremonial masks in some of his work like the “Head of a Woman” sculpture and his Gabon masks. Matisse was drawn to the fabric and weavers from Africa and African influence is seen in the way he uses colour.

These are just a few examples of how African art has influenced Modern art, which in turn has influenced everything from contemporary baby products to architecture, and even to furniture. History can do more than teach us; it shows us how to appreciate the human form, nuances in the face, and the use of colour – as Africans have shown the world.