African sculpture takes many forms and can offer us vast insight into African culture and the intricacies and dynamics of the tribal communities from whence it came.
African sculpture is most often figurative, representing the human form and fashioned primarily from wood but it can also be stylized and abstracted and carved from stone. It can span centuries and be as ancient as the advent of tools and it can be as modern as right now, today, where it is lauded and appreciated as a contemporary art form.
Traditional or tribal African sculpture typically may be religious or spiritual in nature, be carved from wood, dealing primarily with the human form (and sometimes animal or mythical) and shows a creative spirit and skill that exhibits good balance, craftsmanship, attention to detail and finish and an essence of design that realizes the creator's intention.
African sculpture can often be described as monumental in that the figure or form is not separated from the wood or stone from which it is carved giving it a feel of heavy permanence.
The portrayal of the human form is not necessarily proportional but often strives to emphasize or exaggerate specific bodily characteristics that the sculptor is interested in conveying. They are often used as a form of communication between people and supernatural forces and beings. Crafted by the artists, they are given their power by religious practitioners who make contact with the spirit worlds of their gods and ancestors.
Wood is obviously most prevalent being the most malleable and readily accessible material. Yet the longest recorded tradition of sculpture in Africa is figures modeled in terracotta, followed in the 12th Century by the cast-metal sculptures of the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria.
Nok terracotta figures (ranging in size from 10cm to nearly life-size) and found in NW Nigeria, represent over two centuries of sculptural tradition. They also demonstrate that strong abstract figural representation has been a feature in Africa since the 1st C AD.
They have proportionally large conical heads, short tubular bodies and simplified faces with Kimbell eyes, flattened noses and wide-lipped mouths. The holes in the heads would have been to assist damage during the firing process, letting out steam and preventing cracking. Research and some supposition lead experts to think they were placed in shrines and then buried in graves as offerings to Gods.
500 years later, heads and figures were uncovered in Ife, Southern Nigeria.
Bronze casting is a sophisticated means by which Africans have historically expressed themselves. Bronzes of very refined Ife sculptures dating back to the 12th C have been found in Yoruba shrines.
This skill which was perfected by the Yoruba is continued in Benin from the 15th C where they are known as 'Benin bronzes'. These 'bronzes' are in fact made of brass, melted down from ornaments arriving from Portugal. Along with new raw material, arrived novel subject matter and a new style of sculpture developed which was a plaque worked in relief and depicting scenes in which the Portuguese often feature in full military garb.
These relief panels decorated the wooden pillars of the royal palace.
These panels and the brass tableaux made by the Fon continue to be produced in Benin today in new forms and interpretations by modern day artists.
Ivory African sculpture between the years of 1490 and 1530 is a curious phenomenon as it is very influenced by the arrival of Europeans into Sierra Leone, the Congo and Nigeria. Salt cellars, spoons, forks, dagger handles were all produced using decoration of both European and African inspiration, sometimes simultaneously carved in the one piece; for example, women with European skirts and X-shaped scarification marks. This kind of carving is intricate and highly skilled and the pieces are coveted by collectors and museums.
Occasionally ivory sculptures were carved for traditional African means like adorning the handle of a chief or king's scepter or as a pendant mask (a smaller version of a mask carved in replica for personal use).
In the 1700's and onwards, ivory tusks known as 'olifants' were carved in intricate detail and became highly prized trophies of conquest, seized during wars and raids. It was considered highly dishonorable if the user let it be taken during battle. They belonged to rulers and chiefs and were elaborately carved with relief scenes of animal hunts and battles.
The iconographic scenes help us determine whether they were produced for local use or for export. The term olifants is derived from the word elephant and they are actually wind instruments of a grand scale, used to alert warriors or hunters to danger and to signa l troops during battle.
Much of the wood sculpture found today in Africa is 20th Century; it is much rarer to find 19th C, or before, if it is not preserved in a museum, simply because of deterioration of the material through termites or rot. In general, African sculpture represents human form, occasionally animal or both (as in a totem figure) and may be spiritual in nature.
Most African sculpture was not created to be sold but rather was produced for a specific role which generally was one of three things; to celebrate or honor an important occasion; to make a political comment; or to represent religious ideals.
Through fascination and then acquisition by foreigners, these sculptures created their own marketplace in the Western art world and were thus given monetary value.
African sculpture, in all its forms, relates to a myriad of social and religious perspectives and traditions and through the study of these corporeal art forms, we can have insight into the origins of humanity and to the abstract forces that have shaped human perception.
The following topics can all be researched in more detail to give that further insight...
Samuel Makoanyane was born in Johannesburg but lived most of his life in Lesotho practicing his art from 1930 until his early death in 1944.
He sculpted tiny figurines from clay, exquisitely modeled works that showed fine detail and huge powers of observation.
His subject matter spanned 2 polarized topics.. important historical and political figures like kings and on the other end of the spectrum, ordinary people going about their daily chores and pursuits. Makoanyane, a pioneer of ceramic sculpturing treated each piece to the same observational consideration and careful execution.
Ben Enwonwu was a painter and sculptor, one of the first true African modernists who by 1946 was exhibiting in a group show alongside Picasso in Paris. He grew up in the cosmopolitan market town of Onitsha in Nigeria, a centre of Igbo culture and colonial rule.
His work is a consummate mix of local and foreign culture influences that was enhanced by his intellectual pursuits for independence and the freedom of his birth country.
In 1956 he was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Queen Elizabeth II, the first African artist to be asked to do so. The bronze sculpture was completed in 1957 and in 1966, he presented an elegant bronze sculpture called 'Anwanwu' to the United Nations in New York, where it remains on display today.
Born in Dakar in 1935, Ousmane Sow moved to Paris in 1983, returning to Senegal 20 years later.
He is recognized as a truly contemporary artist who personally engaged with his subject matter, skillfully constructing his figurative sculptures in a craft-like, immediate way but with innovative techniques and gracing them with a monumentality that can only pay allegiance to traditional African sculpture.
The 'Nouba' series were constructed during 1984 and 1987. These sculptures carry the essence of Nuba warriors, the same innate hidden beauty, strength and feeling of endurance.
His process involves neither sketches nor form studies. He builds his subject from the inside out so that they take form from the wire frame. He describes his work as such; 'Art is spiritual in conception: conceiving the sculpture and placing it in space. Also when it is finished. But between the two I think it's a physical effort.... You need spirituality to guide things towards the desired objective'.
He also chooses other people's battles as subject matter like in 'Little Big Horn' which is concerning Native American history and is about standing up for oneself. This series he worked on for 5 years from 1994 to 1999; using sculpture as a narrative it included 23 people and 8 horses in scenes of battle.
On December the 11th, 2013 Ousmane Sow became the first black man to become a member of the Beaux Arts Academy in Paris, a fitting tribute to an inspiring man and an inspired artist.
Primarily an artist working in ink and charcoal, Dumile Feni sometimes turned to sculpture especially after moving abroad during the apartheid years in South Africa.
This abstracted bronze head was cast between 1970 and 1975 by the Fiorini Foundry in London... an edition of 6 before the terracotta mould was destroyed.
Francis Nnaggenda is arguably Uganda's greatest sculptor. In the 1970's during Idi Amin's regime he fled the country of his birth but returned to Kampala in 1978 after a stint abroad and in Nairobi.
Contemporary African Sculpture is dealt with on this page