It is difficult to give a useful summary of the main characteristics of the art of sub-Saharan Africa. The variety of forms and practices is so great that the attempt to do so results in a series of statements that turn out to be just as true of, for example, Western art. Thus, some African art has value as entertainment; some has political or ideological significance; some is instrumental in a ritual context; and some has aesthetic value in itself. More often than not, a work of African art combines several or all of these elements. Similarly, there are full-time and part-time artists; there are artists who figure in the political establishment and those who are ostracized and despised; and some art forms can be made by anyone, while others demand the devotion of an expert. Claims of an underlying pan-African aesthetic must be viewed as highly contentious.
Some further general points can be made, however, in regard to the status of precolonial sub-Saharan art. First, in any African language, a concept of art as meaning something other than skill would be the exception rather than the rule. This is not because of any inherent limitation of African culture but because of the historical conditions under which European cultures arrived at their concept of art. The Western separation of fine art from the lowlier craft (i.e., useful skill) came out of a sequence of social, economic, and intellectual changes in Europe that did not occur in Africa before the colonial period at the very earliest. This separation, therefore, cannot be applied without qualification to African traditions of precolonial origin. Philosophers of art in the West might agree that works of art are simply artifacts made with the intention of possessing aesthetic value, and in that sense art, which would include craftwork as well as works of fine art, would indeed be found in all parts of Africa (as indeed it is throughout human culture). But even in this case, African art must be understood through the investigation and understanding of local aesthetic values rather than through the imposition of categories of external origin. It may be a field of well-hoed yam heaps (as, for example, among the Tiv people of Nigeria) or a display ox castrated in order to enhance its visual effect (as among the Nuer and Dinka pastoralists of South Sudan) that constitutes the significant work of art in a given area of Africa.
The popular notion of art in the West, however, is very different, for it is thought to comprise masks and very little else—except, perhaps, “local colour.” This misconception has been enhanced by the aforementioned European concept of fine art, but it may have originated in a dependence, during the first period of Western interest in African art, upon collectible artifacts—some of which (pieces of sculpture, for instance) fitted neatly into the category of fine art, while others (such as textiles and pottery) were dismissed as craftwork. Painting in Africa was long presumed not to exist to any significant extent, largely because it was to be found on the skins of human bodies, on the walls of houses, and on rock faces—none of which were collectible. Clearly, the aesthetic field in Africa is not so limited.
Another misapprehension is that in the West art is created for art’s sake, while in precolonial Africa art was solely functional. The motive for the creation of any work of art is inevitably complex, in Africa as elsewhere, and the fact that most of the sculpted artifacts known from Africa were made with some practical use in mind (whether for ritual or other purposes) does not mean that they could not simultaneously be valued as sources of aesthetic pleasure.
It is also often assumed that the African artist is constrained by tradition in a way contrasting with the freedom given to the Western artist. But, although there are traditions of art in which the expectations of patrons demand repetition of a set form in African art, there are also traditions of precolonial origin that demand a high level of inventive originality—for example, Asante silk weaving and Kuba raffia embroidery. There are other traditions in which a standard form can be embellished as elaborately as the artist or patron wishes. The important point is that particular traditions encourage creativity.
That being said, some general characteristics of African art may be identified. Among these are innovation of form—i.e., the concern on the part of the African artist with innovation and creativity; visual abstraction and conventionalization; a visual combination of balanced composition and asymmetry; the primacy of sculpture; the transformation and adornment of the human body; and a general multiplicity of meaning. It should also be noted that a primary component of traditional African art is performance and assemblage. The combination of music, dance, dress, and bodily ornamentation—as well as sculpture and masks—is frequently what imparts both significance and dynamism to individual art objects.
Style, tribe, and ethnic identity
A commonplace of African art criticism has been to identify particular styles according to supposedly tribal names—for example, Asante, Kuba, or Nuba. The concept of tribe is problematic, however, and has generally been discarded. “Tribal” names, in fact, sometimes refer to the language spoken, sometimes to political entities, and sometimes to other kinds of groupings, yet the boundaries between peoples speaking different languages or acknowledging different chiefs do not necessarily coincide with their respective tribal boundaries. Moreover, the very idea of tribe is an attempt to impose identity from the outside. That this happened is understandable, given the demands of colonial administration, but this historical contingency cannot help in understanding the dynamic of stylistic variation in Africa. The sense of identity that individuals and groups undoubtedly have with others, which was misunderstood as “tribe” but which is better referred to as “ethnic identity,” is something that derives from the relationship built up through many different networks: whom one can marry, one’s language and religious affiliations, the chief whose authority one acknowledges, who one’s ancestors are, the kind of work one does, and so forth. Sometimes African art plays a part in this, as when a religious cult or a chief or a guild employs distinctive artifacts as a mark of uniqueness. Sometimes boundaries are based on linguistic differences, but this may be coincidental.
As to differences of style, regularities of form and tradition do occur such that it is possible to attribute particular African art objects to particular places, regions, or periods. Four distinct variables make this kind of stylistic identification possible. The first is geography, in that, all other things being equal, people in different places tend to make or do things in different ways. The second is technology, in that in some areas differences of style depend on the material employed. The third is individuality, in that an expert can identify the works of individual artists; inability to do so usually derives from a lack of familiarity. The fourth is institution, in that the creation of works of art takes place under the influence of the social and cultural institutions characteristic of any given location. But artifacts can be traded and then copied; artists themselves can travel; institutions, complete with associated artifacts, can move or spread from one area to another, sometimes because they are copied by a neighbouring people, sometimes because they are purchased, and sometimes as a result of conquest. The end result is a stylistic complexity in African art that defies easy classification. The names previously understood as referring to tribes can continue to be used, however, as convenient shorthand as long as it is realized that they do not all represent equivalent categories. One tribal name may refer to a group numbering no more than a few thousand; another may refer to the language spoken in a given area; yet another may describe an empire comprising peoples of distinct historical identities.
John Picton Janet B. Hess