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What is African Art?

Baule mask from Ivory Coast. For well wishes to a couple at a wedding. Combs represent beauty and fragility.

African art may be simply defined as art produced by Africans. This brings up the question: does this include art produced by the African diaspora? What about art influenced by African culture but produced by non-Africans? There is no real answer as art cannot be confined and is difficult to define.

In any case, African art takes many forms including jewelry, masks, weapons, paintings, textiles and sculptures. The earliest surviving examples are 27,000 year old rock paintings found in Namibia. African art has many uses ranging from decorative to ritual.

  1. Sculptures are made from various materials such as wood, bronze, clay and stone. Shona sculptures from Zimbabwe are a great example of stone work. In fact, the name “Zimbabwe” means “house of stone” and comes from an archeological site built of stone with no mortar. Paintings are done on various media. Butterfly-wing mosaic paintings are made in West Africa. Canvas paintings are found throughout the continent including paint on canvas and charcoal on canvas. Banana leaf paintings hail from East Africa. Masks are usually made of wood and painted. They are very important in ceremonies and celebrations, and typically depict deities. Mud cloth, kente cloth and chitenge are various types of textile found in Africa. Cloth fragments from the Igbo tribe dating back to the 9th century BC have been found in Nigeria.