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African Art: The Theme Surrounding the Art of Sculpture and Masks

Native Africa is distinguishable by its cultures, traditions, and beliefs expressed in sculptures, masks, paintings, textiles, and other works of art.

Notwithstanding the diversity among African countries, there is still uniformity in the themes of their various artworks.

Africa arts date back to the Stone Age, when people used ancient arts mainly for religious purposes rather than creativity. Africa art delves into both historical and current artworks.

African Sculptures

African sculptures are made commonly with wood (because they are easily accessible). However, you can find some made from ivory, stone, clay, iron, copper, ceramics, and other mediums in three dimensions.

These mediums other than wood are regarded as foreign because they never existed before the coming of foreigners.

The wood used for African sculptures is from fallen trees which are then cut into desired sizes and carved to get sculptures of their choice.

They achieve sculptures finishing by smoothing the rough parts with coarse leaves or knives before being colored or darkened with mud, paint, or oil.

Sculptures are most common in West Africa, especially in Nigeria, Congo, and Niger. They mostly take human form with much significance, and these sculptures served as a medium of communication to the supernatural.

In East Africa, the first recorded wood sculpture was dated to the 9th century at Cuanza River in Angola. The sculpture is a model of the head of animals.

The most popular kinds of African sculptures with their themes are;

1. Nok Sculpture

Nok sculpture is the most popular and earliest known African sculpture derived from the Nok culture in Kaduna State, Nigeria, West Africa, during the 5th century.

Of all the Nok sculptures, the terracotta heads were the famous. The Nok Terracotta figures in Nigeria have human faces used to offer sacrifices to appease the gods.

The medium of Nok terracotta sculptures is finely-fired clays depicting heads with pointed, round, and cylindrical shapes. Some of the terracotta bear animal figures.

2. African Stone Sculptures

In 1934, at the Uele River in the north of Congo, the ancient artists discovered bearing primitive carving and tribal marks in the forms of human heads.

The stone sculptures are of many types, but the majority are stone heads with more than 785 figures. Some of these sculptures are worthy of being referred to as portraits, and the tribal marks found on them are still in use till present.

3. Wooden Pole Sculptures

Wooden pole sculptures are familiar in East Africa. The carvings of these sculpture types bore the shapes of humans, and the ancient artists usually placed them beside tombs.

In Eastern Sudan, at Azande and Bari, three-dimensional wood sculptures have been in existence in pole, cubic, and cylindrical forms.

The wood sculptures were made from tree trunks and carved into different shapes. Sculptors from Bade tribe of Western Sudan have also been producing wood sculptors from time immemorial.

Also, some pole structures in ivory exist in African countries like the Makonde tribe in southeast Tanzania, Congo, and Cameroon.

4. Benin Bronze Sculptures

Benin is in the southern part of Nigeria. Their bronze sculpture became known to the world after the visit of the Europeans in 1897.

The bronze sculptures in Benin are basically in two forms. The first one is a replica of animals, human heads, complete human form, while the second includes symbols of all kinds.

The bronze sculptures of human faces have no personal traits even though the female heads are more beautified than the male heads. The artists adorn female sculptures while their hairs are almost similar to the Europeans.

The Oba of Benin and other kings still wear similar jewelry pieces, as can be seen in the sculptures of the bronze heads.

Traditional Africa sculptures include;

  • Shangaan’, 1907, bronze, mid-brown patina
  • Moses Kotler, ‘Mapula,’ bronze
  • ‘African (Bantu) Madonna’, Ernest Methuen Mancoba
  • Makoanyane, King Moshesh or Moshoeshoe, ceramic sculpture
  • Samuel Makoanyane “Moropa’, woman playing drum, ceramic figurine

Modern African Sculptures include;

  • ‘African Mask’, Edoardo Villa, 1965
  • Ben Osawe, African woman, bronze
  • ‘Nouba warrior’, Revue Noire
  • Bronze sculpture Nouba warrior
  • ‘Lion of the North, Percy Konqobe, 2020
  • ‘Nomkhubulwane,’ Percy Konqobe, 2020
  • Dumile Feni Mhlaba, bronze head, 1970-1975
  • Nnaggenda, ‘Mother and Child,’ wood

African Masks

African masks are worn basically for their meaning than for beauty. They are worn alongside other costumes in masquerades basically during ceremonies to symbolize ancestral spirits and to have power over evil and good forces.

Generally, people use masks to disguise the face and convey the presence of spirits in burials or rituals across Africa. They come in human face (skull), animal face, and womanly beauty in abstract shapes.

African masks are an avenue for spirits to take physical forms as they pose and act through the person wearing them. The transformation takes place while enchantments, dances, and music go on in ceremonies.

The first recorded mask presence was at Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, during the 8000BCE where people found a painting of dancers in costumes and mask on a rock. The ancient belief turned the disguised dancer into a spirit.

Materials Used in Making Africa mask

Most African masks are made with wood, whereas others with leather, bronze, terracotta, copper, clay, or brass.

Most African masks come with extra decorations such as shells, horns, raffia, painted glass, fibers, cloths, feathers, and other objects.

African Ceremonies and rituals for Wearing African Masks

As said earlier, human beings wear African masks, and the maskers are later possessed during ceremonies especially masquerade ceremonies in Africa.

However, the rituals that require wearing African masks include;

  • Protection rituals
  • Initiations
  • Circumcision
  • Memorials
  • Purification
  • Magical rituals
  • Fertility
  • Preparation for war
  • Hunting preparation
  • Preparation for hunting

Types of African Masks

  • Baule Mask: The Baule people in Ivory Coast and Ghana at Goli rituals wear this mask.
  • Benin Ivory Mask: The Benin Ivory Mask originates from Nigeria in West Africa.
  • Biombo Mask: A mask widespread in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Goma Mask: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is known for the Goma mask.
  • Bwa Plank Mask: Bwa plank mask is worn to initiate boys into adulthood in Burkina Faso and Mali.
  • Kwele Mask: The people of Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon use this mask for rituals.
  • Dan Mask: A mask typical in Liberia and Ivory Coast.
  • Kota Mask: The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon uses this mask in their ceremonies.
  • Ligbi Mask: Muslims in Ivory Coast celebrate the end of Ramadan with this mask on.

Bottom Line

Sculptures and masks are predominantly symbols of African arts. Their major thematic constituents are to visualize ideas, emphasize human figures and showcase creative abilities.

Though the African continent has many countries with several ideologies, their arts seem to have similar themes drawing inspiration from lifestyle and history.

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