by Shannon Rose
Upon discovering the beauty and splendor of ancient as well as contemporary African fine art, one will discover that there are many different genres to admire, including and not limited to ancient West African metallurgy found in the Benin Bronzes, stone sculpture such as the famous African Terracotta, African mask design and traditional wood carving found in the Asante ceremonial stools. There are many other representations of African fine art, but I will attempt a brief review of these four art forms.
Dating back to the 5th century BC, ancient African Terracotta sculptures are perhaps some of the first examples of African artistic sophistication. Originating in the Nok culture of Nigeria, these stone sculptures are most often depictions of people or animals. The significance of the Terracotta sculptures is the impeccable and painstaking detail applied to these priceless works of fine African art. The flawlessly crafted features applied to each sculpture provide a window into African cultural antiquity, dating back two millennia. While most of this exquisite art was found in West Africa, Terracotta sculptures have been found in South Africa, as well, dating back to the 1st century AD. Differing in style from their West African counterparts, the South African ancient Terracotta sculptures represent an evolution in artistic complexity nonetheless.
The Benin Bronzes, perhaps the best known examples of priceless African fine art, hail from the ancient Benin Kingdom of Nigeria, West Africa. In the 13th century, artisans of the Benin Kingdom inherited the process of smelting and sculpting bronze (brass) from the Ife region of the country. The Oba (king) instructed artisans to create works of this bronze art for the sole purpose of decorating his palace. Wall reliefs depicting the Oba and his court, as well as highly detailed and truly unimpeachable models of people and animals were crafted by this smelting process. In 1897, however, some British expedition destroyed the Benin Kingdom and stole all 3,000 of the palace bronzes, which are now subjects of a traveling art exhibition throughout Western Europe.
The Benin Bronzes have ignited a controversial debate amongst Western art historians and anthropologists and that is, should all non-Western art continue to be called primitive art, as artifacts such as the Benin Bronzes predate the bronze sculpture of Western Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries. Additionally, should non-Western art be considered ethnographic art or fine art? Thankfully, the process of bronze sculpture is still very popular throughout West Africa and many representations can be found in the region. I suspect, African craftsmen will leave Western art historians and anthropologists to differ and continue to produce these bronze works of African fine art.
African cultural masks are perhaps known to most who know anything about African fine art. Masks can represent such an array of artistic form, its possible to have tens of thousands of masks and never have two of the same. Depending on it’s function, African masks can be fashioned quite elegantly with smooth lines and gentle, fine features or they can be quite garishly carved with bold and shocking elements. African face masks are made for ceremony as well as art and virtually every cultural group on the continent possesses various styles of masks making specific to that group.
Wood carvings of various types are another example of common African art design. Figurines large and small of animals or people typify the true African art of today and antiquity. As it is true for cultural masks, African wood art is so plentiful and popular it would be a winning bet that anyone in the world who slightly appreciates African art, owns one form of African figurine or another. There is however, a type of African wood art not so commonplace that exemplifies one of the finest examples in traditional African art sculpture, the Asante stool. From Ghana West Africa, the Asante ceremonial stool is bestowed upon someone granted high status in the Asante cultural community. It is a very important symbol within Ghanaian culture, held with great esteem and honor by most. Asante stools are carved with one of the sixty-three Adinkra symbols within it, making that stool the embodiment of the particular symbol it holds. For example, a Sankofa stool has the Sankofa bird carved within it. Sankofa being the Adinkra symbol for “ Return and get it”, the person to whom the stool was bestowed could represent one who returns and gets it or could just be receiving the Sankofa stool because that particular stool holds such significance. Online galleries such as It’s a Black Thang and Cultural Elements host an array of Asante stools that exhibit not only true works of African fine art, but bold examples of centuries old Ghanaian craftsmanship.
This article represents a starting point into the discovery of African fine art and is meant to provide a brief account of a handful of African art forms. The online portal, All African Art and Accessories, holds the key to deeper exploration into the mysterious world of authentic African art.
Hotep, Habari Gani.