The African Art:

Product of Ancient Civilizations and Centuries of Artistic Traditions

Unlike the art of Western societies, traditional African art was a functional and necessary part of everyday life and it would be impossible to understand African culture without an understanding of their art. The figures or masks were the vehicles through which these spirits made themselves seen and their presence known. Sculpture also served to symbolize authority and played important roles in maintaining social control.
African sculpture is new and unfamiliar to most Americans and yet it is the product of ancient civilizations and many centuries of artistic tradition. Initially the masks and figures may seem strange or even grotesque, but when viewed in terms of their own cultures the sculptures of Africa can be seen to be sophisticated, powerful and dynamic.

African Art Part of Everyday Life

Unlike the art of Western societies, traditional African art was a functional and necessary part of everyday life and it would be impossible to understand African cultures without an understanding of their art. Religion, government, education, work and entertainment were all closely inter-related in traditional African societies. All of the arts, whether musical, oral or sculptural, were deeply woven into the very fabric of social life and played a central role in binding together all members of the community through corporate activity.

Religious Rituals

Sculpture figured prominently in the religious rituals which were a central force in African life giving social cohesion through common belief and participation in ceremonial life. The masks and figures used in such rites were not worshipped, however. Rather it was believed that the world was inhabited by many unseen spirits, each with its own powers and personality. These spirits involved themselves in the lives of human beings in a great many ways for both good and evil. The figures or masks were the vehicles through which these spirits made themselves seen and their presence known in the world of men. The objects themselves, however, did not embody or contain the spirit and hence, though respected and honored, they were not worshipped.

Authority and Social Control

Masks representing spirit forces were particularly important at ceremonies marking the major changes in the lives of individuals or community events such as initiations into adulthood or funeral ceremonies. At the initiation ceremonies the masks frequently led the boys into the “bush schools” where initiations took place. At the funerals the masks not only paid final respect to the deceased but also guaranteed safe passage into the world beyond. Sculpture also served to symbolize authority and played important roles in maintaining social control. Figurative staffs were sometimes carried by representatives of chiefs and kings, symbolizing their power and authority. Often they spoke for him and represented him through visual proverbs as having the power, strength and courage of such creatures as a leopard, water buffalo or elephant. Sometimes it was deemed advisable to call upon the spirits to settle disputes too intractable to be settled by normal temporal authorities. In such cases the spirits were thought to make themselves known through the masks, and the decisions announced by the masks were accepted as having the weight of spiritual authority. Masks also maintained social control in more subtle ways. Often masks served as teaching aids, augmenting the authority of the teacher himself and by symbolizing the ideas or values he wished to teach. While masks were always treated seriously, their appearance itself might be accompanied by great merriment, and humor was often built into their teaching roles. Thus, chiefs and elders might be criticized for pompousness or abuse of authority through seemingly comic ridicule and caricature by a mask. In a similar vein a mask might deliberately act in ways not normally tolerated in the society in order to teach by negative example. In this sense even what might appear to be pure entertainment often had a more serious purpose.

A Symbolic Art

Utilitarian objects such as weaving pulleys, bowls, stools, chairs and textiles were also made with great care to beautify daily life as well as to enhance the status of chiefs and prominent persons. In each case the particular culture created its own set of symbols and artistic style which were understood in the community. Though the symbols varied widely between one community and the next, there was generally within a given community a considerable degree of consistency and thus developed a large number of reasonably discreet styles. Though the artists did not follow stylistic guidelines blindly and each added his own creativity and individuality to the objects he made, the artists generally worked within defined parameters of acceptability within the culture. The artist was thereby able to reinforce the traditional beliefs and values of the cults, men’s societies and political leaders who were his patrons. Perhaps because African masks were carved to be worn in performance and most figurative sculpture is also designed for ritual use, African art is principally symbolic rather than representational. It is more concerned with visualizing concepts rather than with accurately representing nature. Sculpture is often highly stylized with conventional female beauty shown to convey ideas of serenity or fertility; bold powerful shapes, such as the horns of animals to symbolize strength and virility; and frightening, expressionistic visages to inspire awe and fear for the enforcement of social custom. Similarly the artist often deliberately distorted proportions in order to emphasize those elements he wished to show as important. In most African sculpture, for example, the head, seat of wisdom and personality, is usually enlarged so that it accounts for about one-fourth to one-third of the total height of a human figure instead of the one to seven ratio that it is in nature. In contrast, the hands and feet are generally regarded as unimportant and hence show little detail or attention. Decorative scarification, hair styles, etc., are often highly personal. Portraits pay great attention to accurately capturing these features so that figures may immediately be identified with the person they represent. People are also invariably represented in the prime of life, full of vigor, for to show an individual young and dependent or old and infirm would be insulting.

The Material


The material most frequently used by the African sculptor was wood. Climate and insects, however, have taken their toll. As a result few objects of any real antiquity have been preserved. Most existing African wooden sculpture dates from this century. Occasionally, wooden sculptures do survive and some have been found among the Dogon of Mali where the dry climate has preserved them for up to four centuries.


Stone was used much less frequently than wood, probably because much of the stone found south of the Sahara is volcanic and crumbles easily. Nevertheless, some of the oldest existing pieces of African sculpture are in stone. Among them the stone figures of the Sherbro or Bullom of Sierra Leone date from before 1500 and those of Akwanshi and Esie in Nigeria may date from the fourteenth and twelfth centuries respectively.


Ivory was used extensively in the manufacture of jewelry and side-blown trumpets, many with elaborate geometric detail. Figurative sculpture in Ivory was never common traditionally, however. The one exception was at the court of the Kingdom of Benin where the altars of the kings used ivory extensively. Only since the end of the 19th century has figurative carving in ivory been common elsewhere, and then primarily to meet the demand of the tourist trade.


The oldest art objects found anywhere south of the Sahara are the terra cotta figures discovered at Nok in Nigeria, many of which date from five centuries before the birth of Christ. These figures and heads are exceptional not only in terms of age and beauty but in size as well. As a general rule, clay was seldom used for figurative sculpture, probably because of the difficulties of firing large pieces.

Lost wax

Brass casting also has a long history in Africa. All brass and bronze and most casting in gold was done by a very sophisticated technique known as the “lost wax” process. The artist first fashions a model in beeswax and then forms a mold of moist potter’s clay around it. After the clay has hardened, the wax is melted away and molten metal is poured into the mold through vents left for that purpose. Once the metal has cooled the clay is broken away to reveal the finished casting. Thus each casting is unique, the mold having been destroyed in the process.

Aesthetic Skill

Though the forms of art and the style of the artists differ from the use we are familiar with in the West, a closer look will show that they have a remarkable degree of aesthetic skill and technique. Moreover, as we learn more about the role that sculpture played in the social-life of the community, we see more clearly that the art met in particular ways the social as well as the creative needs of those communities which produced it.

The Richness and Vitality of African Art

One final note must be made on this collection. The sculpture-producing regions of Africa are confined for the most part to Western and West Central Africa. The objects in this collection and shown here in this catalogue are all from West Africa, with the exception of the Coptic Christian Art of Ethiopia. The weight of the traditional art shown here is from those areas in which the S.M.A. Fathers have worked. Though not truly representative of all areas which produce sculpture, this catalog and exhibition are designed to show something of the range of forms and the purposes to which art was put in sub-Saharan Africa. Hopefully, those who see this art will gain a deeper understanding of the richness and vitality of African art and the cultural heritage and creativity of the African people.

William Siegman
African sculpture from the collection of the Society of African Missions’
SMA Fathers, Tenafly, 1980, pp 4-5