Twelve Ways Africa Used Art

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Africa’s indulgence in art predates history. Tens of thousands of years ago they were the first humans to create works of art (see Africa’s inventions: art and paints).

Until the renaissance which coincided with European contact and more intensive trade with Africa, Africa’s artworks were traditionally and intentionally created to serve purposes, and not necessarily created for the sake of art like most European arts.

The concept of “art for arts” is actually an European conception which gained more prominence during the renaissance.

Many of the tradition-based African artifacts had specific functions that they served. Some Europeans, not all, being ignorant of this fact did not regard them as works of art when they eventually made contact with Africans.

Most art traditions around the world prior to the renaissance served more functional than artistic roles. Although African artworks before the renaissance served mainly functional purposes, it does not mean Africans at that time did not create purely aesthetics works of art. Even the artifacts they produced which served for solely specific functions had to imbibe some degree of artistic taste before it was approved for use.

Here we will discuss some of the ways Africans used arts before the renaissance.


Many African artifacts have some level of spirituality attached to them; a good number of these art objects were produced for spiritual purposes.

Common among Africans is a spiritual belief of a creator or god, although the supreme god is rarely if ever represented in arts, there are many figures connected to the supreme being that are represented in various forms of artworks. Mostly intermediaries or lesser spirits, many of whom have a connection to the natural world and possess supernatural powers.

The nwantantay masks that are used by the Bwa people of Burkina Faso represent flying spirits inhabiting the natural world and can take physical forms of insects or waterfowls.

Spiritual Container Used By Dogon People Of Mali

In Guinea, snake forms depict the local water spirits of the Baga people called Niniganne; this spirit symbolizes wealth and danger.

A monumental pair of male and female figures represent the original ancestors of the Senufo, Cote d’Ivoire which signifies an ideal social unit.

The Akan people of Ghana believe that recently deceased ancestors can intercede on behalf of the living community and are the most accessible to humans. These ancestors are commemorated by terracotta sculptures of which when placed in a sacred grove near the cemetery is believed to serve as a focal point of contact with the deceased.

Art objects were also used as a channel for spiritual communication. The Dogon of Mali used monumental containers to show gratitude to their ancestors by placing meats in them.

The Benin kingdom in Nigeria used cast brass heads of deceased kings as a point of contact with the kings and other royal ancestors by placing them on royal ancestral altars.

Some of the art objects are used by diviners to tap into spiritual forces which sometimes have to be activated by rituals. An example are the figurative sculptures of the Fon diviners called bocio which are empowered by organic substances, after which the bocio ensures the wellbeing and health of the diviner’s clients.


Arts just like it is used today, was equally used by individuals in Africa before the renaissance for a wide range of purposes. Many artworks although they had a communal context also served different individual needs; homemade objects while serving a general practical purpose also had an aesthetic dimension to them.

Personalized Textile

The artistic upgrade of personal objects that serve a utilitarian function also reflects the individual’s standing in society. The way an object is made and decorated can be personalized to identify such objects to an individual, and often times such objects leave traces of ethnic affiliation and social status. Such works clearly show a desire to incorporate aesthetics into daily life.

Such type of personalized works was common in individual clothes, hairstyle, and scarification.

Clothes and the way it was made and decorated especially convey a personal identity message.


African artists produced artworks for aesthetic purposes. The beauty of African artworks speaks for themselves.

Unlike most European artworks African aesthetics mostly have an ethical or religious basis; some African cultures intentionally create horrific works, this is mostly to convey the fearsome powers of the subject, but still yet aesthetically pleasing.

Sculpture From The Baule People Of Cote d’Ivoire

African artworks that are generally considered beautiful are believed to be good in the sense that such subject conveys good virtues and moral values.

Some African artifacts are judged by the ability of the produced item to work effectively; whether that means connecting with the spiritual realm or imparting a lesson to initiates.

In some African societies, there are certain artistic criteria that have been established for assessing visual arts. For example in Baule, Côte d’ Ivoire, sculptures of human figures should emphasize a strong athletic or muscular body, refined facial features, elaborate hairstyle, and scarification patterns.

Another example is in the arts of the Yoruba people of western Nigeria; their aesthetics scholars classified criteria to be met into two major categories, formal elements, and abstract cultural concepts. The former involves things such as a smooth surface, symmetrical composition and a moderate resemblance to the subject. While the later take into accord abstract properties like ase which means inner power or life force and iwa which means character or essential nature. Many African societies associate smooth finished surfaces with refinement.


African works are created to serve a purpose. It may be social, religious or for political activities. Even though they are admired by European art enthusiasts for their formal power and beauty. They offer different uses and meanings in the original state they were intended for, and mostly it does not change over time.

The Nwantantay masks of the Bwa people of Burkina Faso might be employed for different functions; for burial ceremonies and annual renewal rites, but its original use does not change, which is to be worn on the face.

The meanings of African artworks might also vary for individuals or groups.

For instance, artwork used by a local organisation might convey a deeper meaning and serve a more useful purpose than when it is employed by the general public that might only appreciate its general usefulness.

An understanding of the symbolic meaning and cultural context of African artefacts will undoubtedly result to a deeper appreciation and admiration of the artform.


Arts played an important role during pre-colonial Africa, and still do presently. Both large centralized kingdoms and smaller ethnic-based communities led by single powerful rulers and a group of individuals or institutions respectively employed arts for different purposes.

In many centralized African states, the rulers are considered semi-divine and are also the patrons of arts, in such societies, the leaders often have a monopoly over materials used for art productions especially exotic items, and they controlled the production of artworks.

Artworks made of rare and luxury materials such as ivory, precious metals, and beads often belonged to royalty or individuals of a high social standing, and such artworks serve to indicate such.

These exotic artworks serve as an indication to the public of the individual’s wealth, power and influence. Royal arts in most cases are used in ceremonies or political functions to legitimize and indicate political authority.

Objects like staffs, pipes, ivory, special seats, clothes and regalia made from expensive materials are used in many African societies to indicate rank and position of the political office held.

In some cases, portraits of past leaders are made, to document the dynastic leadership lines and serves as a visual reminder of the king’s legacy.

In the case of societies whereby sole authority or power is not exercised by a single individual but is rather shared by multiple individuals such as a council of elders, artworks are not made to glorify any single individual instead exclusive items like royal regalia, masks and figures are used to distinguish such individuals.

A Special Seat Of Office


Not only are humans represented in African artworks. Artists also use arts to represent animals; unless for purely aesthetic purposes the artistic representation of animals always have a symbolic meaning to them. Therefore, animals with special attributes are represented. Some of the animals often depicted are snakes, lions, crocodiles, antelopes, leopards, elephants, and other such animals.

Sometimes representations of animals consuming other animals are made signifying a spiritual or social dominance. Other times it is a complex representation of two or more animals to illustrate the complexity or sophistication of a character or idea. An example is the wara headdresses of the Bamana people of West Africa, which is based on features of different antelope species and may occasionally include aardvarks, antears or pangolins. This synthesis of animal forms is used by the Bamana people to evoke the mythic Ci Wara, a divine force that is conceptualized as half man half antelope that is believed by the people to introduce agricultural methods.

Sometimes the animal forms may be represented by abstract things, like in the Cameroon Grassfields where circular medallions represent spiders; a symbol of supernatural wisdom while diamond shaped motifs represent frogs which stand for fertility and increase.


Africans employed many symbolic forms of arts to reflect different meanings, although sometimes symbols are not necessarily represented, this falls in the realm of abstract arts. The Bwa ethnicity of Burkina Faso and Mali make geometric patterns on plank masks which reflect different meanings as regards their ideals of social and moral behavior taught to initiates.

Gold Foil Used In Asante Regalia

In Ghana, the Asante used gold foil in their regalia to symbolize the sun and life’s vital force.

Among Nigeria’s Cross River people, they used indigenous forms of writing like the nsibidi to show multiple meanings, only accessible to the initiated.

In some African cultures, symbolism was not only restricted to material things. Gestures too were are a form of symbolism.

A seated pose illustrates balance, composure, and reflection in the Kongo arts while a protruding tongue was indirectly connected to medicine.


After an artist produces an artifact and it leaves for its intended destination for use, the surface of the object might be subjected to further alterations, either overtime through use or immediate alterations. This may change the visual appearance of such objects. For example, repeated handling of an object either through use in ceremonies or ritual purposes can create a smoothly worn surface. Also, decorative materials like beads, jewelry or fabric when applied culminate to give off a different visual feel, while a ritual application of substances like palm oil can result in a lustrous sheen.

Application of sacrificial or ritualistic substances can form an encrusted surface believed by the people to empower the object.


Art plays a prominent role in many African societies during rites of passage rituals or ceremonies throughout the life cycle of individuals. Such as the birth of a child, an individual’s coming of age, initiation into social groups, a girl’s transitioning to womanhood, even the funeral of a respected individual. These are all events associated with the rite of passage rituals. There are art objects that are associated with these functions. The Senufo people of West Africa use female figures to appreciate the importance of the role of women as founders of lineages and guardians of male initiates. The figures highlight gently swelling bellies and scarification lines radiating from the navel which signifies the importance of motherhood and source of life respectively.

Wooden Mask Worn During Initiation

The coming of age of a boy or a girl is often accompanied by ceremonies and rituals in most African societies. These ceremonies are usually a long and arduous process, during this process artworks protect and are used to impart moral lessons to the young adults; dancers wearing wooden masks are featured and serve several purposes like to boost morale, educate about social roles and responsibilities, to teach respect for authority, entertainment or even to relieve stress.

Figurative sculptures are used to commemorate important ancestors or for the representation of deceased people, personalized by highlighting the obvious physical features of the individual.


African arts do not aim to correctly depict the subjects they are created after; they tend more towards visual abstraction and not accuracy.

Human and animal forms are creatively depicted to convey meaning rather than a close physical resemblance. The artist rather highlights the admired or obvious physical features of the subject. The degree of abstractness widely varies depending on the artist, region and the purpose of his creation ranging from idealized naturalism of the cast brass heads of Benin kings of Nigeria to the geometrically conceived form of the Baga headdress.

Baga Headdress

Idealization is often used to depict human figures; humans are always represented at the peak of their life and never in sickness or old age. Also depending on the community, the socially acceptable standards of physical beauty and moral standards are highlighted. For example, to the Mende people of Sierra Leone, the ideal female characteristics of beauty admired are braided hair, a small mouth, narrow eyes and a ringed neck which their artists highlight.


Many African artworks were used to depict humans. The depiction of the human figure has been a subject occupied the thought of many African artists. In African arts, human figurative sculptures normally depart from realistic proportions of real-life humans. This is intentional, and there is an underlying conceptual basis behind such representations. For example, many African figurative works have the head of the subject proportionately larger than the body; this is because the head is considered to be the most important part of the human body and has a role in guiding one’s destiny and success. For instance, in traditional Yoruba belief (from South West Nigeria, West Africa), the head (the Ori) directs a person’s intuition and destiny.

In the case of producing a piece comprising more than one figure, African artists make use of scale; a practice known as a hierarchical representation, which is employed to achieve a symbolic effect. It essentially involves making the most important figure appear the largest while those of lesser importance are made to appear smaller.

Benin, Nigeria Artefact employing Hierarchical Representation


Christa Clarke. The Art Of Africa: A Resource For Educators. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 2006. ISBN 1-58839-190-6

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Twelve Ways Africa Used Art

by Editorial Team time to read: 10 min