Understanding the five elements of African art

African art has come along way in context, purpose and cultural origin. Traditionally, art was intended to tell stories and portray ideas, beliefs, status and workmanship. It was created to depict the relationships between people in different cultures, as well as the unseen forces that impacted African lives. Today, the digital age has given art a new and creative spin, testing the boundaries with new abstract mediums.

In order for art to be appreciated, it needs to be understood. When there are cultural barriers and values attached to each piece, it can be difficult for people to understand the meaning behind it. However, due to the efforts of contemporary African artists who have started to blend traditional art aspects with modern mediums, it has quickly helped people to better understand and appreciate African creativity for what it is.

For years, traditional African art was seen as an unevolved and complex form of creativity because it mainly included masks, sculptures, headdresses, carvings, dolls, cooking bowls and jewellery. And, although modern artists are making use of new techniques to express the ideas behind their work, there have always been five basic elements that define the aesthetics you see today and those you saw twenty years ago.

These are the five key elements that African artists use as a common ground:

  • The use of a human figure to represent ideas

African artwork was traditionally created with the use of a human figure to portray a situation. They used a ‘human figure’ to portray a person but not a specific culture of people. Usually, these pieces of art were abstract and deep, which not only looked beautiful to the eye but they also told a story of hardship and suffering. The stories they told were focused on religious values and opinions around the spiritual aspects of life, and the artists strived to keep the image focused on the idea instead of the people. If they couldn’t use a human figure in their drawings, they would make use of geometric pictures or animal figurines to best display their ideas. These were often the pictures that people didn’t understand.

  • The use of luminosity to portray shiny, unflawed skin

Culturally, African figures which had rough, irregular surfaces would indicate ill-favoured and morally-tarnished images. This is why African figures found in art were always exceptionally sculptured to have visually smooth finishes, thus them looking well-polished and attractive in appearance. Their figures would also include jewellery, traditional African marks or headdresses to enhance the beauty of these characters. It would also help to tell their stories better, even if the story wasn’t as beautiful as it looked.

  • The use of demeanour to make people seem in control of their lives

Every piece of art was sculpted and designed to symbolise elegance and self-respect. The artists would pride themselves in creating pieces of art that showcased dignity, and they believed that their figures or sculptures needed to have a composed look which helped them appear in control of their lives. It’s these small details that artists spent time designing to ensure their work would be understood in the way that they wanted it to be perceived. Emotional expressions were not entertained.

  • The use of youthfulness to represent strength in generations

Many African art pieces are extremely creative, bright and happy. Artists would create visuals which focused on the youth, as youthfulness symbolised energy, strength, activity, fertility and vigour. They wanted their art to come across and positive and inspiring, without any traces of negativity.

  • The use of symmetry and balance with different materials

The symmetry and balance element focuses on the culture, religion, morals and aesthetic values of the story being portrayed. This is represented using different materials. Over the years, the other elements would be given a creative spin, but this is the only element which would stay similar and common among all artists. They would also make it known to incorporate all these elements into one visual, helping people to recognise and appreciate their feelings towards these topics and controversial subjects.

Final words

Only once people started recognising that African art was not just random drawings, they started to appreciate the creativity and understanding behind these experiences. International artist Picasso was greatly inspired by the geometric and abstract qualities that African art offered. This complex art form soon fuelled many art revolutions, influencing more and more artists across the globe.

You can find African art that ranges from animal art to body art, masks, jewellery, pottery, textiles, weapons, sculptures, baskets, currency and beadwork, each with their own meaning. These stunning objects are highly-sought-after nowadays, featuring in many homes and public spaces.

With beautiful, meaningful stories that people can resonate with, it’s important to start thinking about the idea behind each piece of art that you purchase for your home. Try to find out which reality of life the African artists were trying to depict through their artwork and start buying pieces that you appreciate.