African Art | African Culture

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Common Themes In African Art

 By Wayne Kiltz | Jan 2006

When a person views African art, several themes seem to come up over and over again. These themes are representations of different things that are significant to African culture; and reveal the importance behind some of its most beautiful art. In this issue of our newsletter, I will go through four common themes in African art that show African culture. The common themes are:

A couple
A woman and a child
A male with a weapon or animal
An outsider or "stranger"

Couples are most commonly shown as freestanding figures of relatively the same size and stature. They may be representative of ancestors, a married couple, twins, or community founders. This is representative of the importance placed on two as one. Most art of this type was developed for shrines or for positions of ceremonial honor. Sexual intimacy is rare in African carvings. In most African societies it is rare for men and women to display their affection publicly. The most common theme of the male and female couple is that of strength and honor; not love and intimacy.

The mother and child couple is often representative of mother earth and the people as her children. African women will generally have a very strong desire for children as well however. The strong desire that a woman has to bear children further shows the strong mother child relationship that is a vital part of African culture.

A male with a weapon or animal (commonly a horse) is commonly produced to show honor to departed ancestors. Animals are rarely sculpted for the purpose of showing the inward or outward beauty of the animal; but to give status to the person. Even today, many in Africa would consider the ownership of a horse to be of greater status than the ownership of an automobile. Showing a person with a horse would then be giving great honor to them. Sometimes people are shown with animals that are not really ridden; possibly even mythical. The purpose is to show the power given to one who rides such an animal; and the wealth that they must have.

As women achieve significance through their children, men will often be honored in warfare. The one who goes into battle must have physical, emotional and spiritual energy to survive and to conquer. Thus the emphasis on weapons and the spoils of war in many African works.

A final common representation in African art is that of the stranger. In Africa, a stranger is someone from a different country or tribe. They would usually not be welcomed; and the more distorted the portrayal of the stranger, the greater the gap that is normally symbolized. Sometimes strangers; especially white foreigners; are given a form of respect based on their relatively great weaponry and other powers.

As we try to understand what has historically made African peoples what they are; we can find out much of the driving forces within the people represented in these four common artistic themes. This knowledge gives us a deeper appreciation for the heritage and deeper values of much of African society. Unfortunately, much of African art comes with no explanation of the meaning intended to be symbolized when it was created. When the meaning can be discerned, the deeper understanding gained and fuller appreciation of the cultural heritage can be obtained in a more meaningful and memorable way.


Wayne Kiltz is the founder and owner of Africa Imports. You can find over 100 other articles on African art, culture, and fashion, along with African proverbs, recipies, and African business opportunities at http://africaimports.com/go.asp?agent=A101

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