I happened to stumble across a jazz festival in my city, and sat (and danced) through a wonderful performance by Awa Sangho of Mali, whose timbre and energy is similar to that of another favorite of mine, Angelique Kidjo. The vibrancy of the song and dance reminded me how much I love African art. However, I will preface this saying that I really only have a background in Ewe and Yoruba art, so that’s what I’ll focus on.
It’s rather unfortunate that African art is so commonly overlooked in favor of European and American art. The people of West Africa have such a rich, vibrant culture that reflects throughout everything they create, be it song, dance, textiles, or even sculptures and masks. They pour their souls into the craft, and it’s truly incredible to see.
The Ewe of Ghana and Togo produced (and continue to do so) wonderfully diverse and vibrant tapestries called Kente, described by the annual Kente Festival as “the web of human emotions, cultural values, social identity, ideas, and even dreams that have been woven inextricably into one unit.” A lofty claim for sure, but there’s no doubt that they’re made with extreme care.
Art has flourished with the Yoruba people for centuries, clearly evidenced by their intricate ceremonial masks and fertility statues. For example, the statuette above was carved to protect a deceased twin from abiku, or spirits of the children born to die. The careful engraving of the hair and carving of the figure’s face, however the features are exaggerated, show how skilled the artisans are. The masks are also incredibly detailed and really represent the heart of the group of people who make them.
The art of these people is so unlike what westerners are accustomed to, since it’s not “art” in the same sense. It’s less about creating a work of art, and more about creating something not just useful, but deeply meaningful. Everything- masks, statuettes, clothing- is crafted with such remarkable care. One thing I find interesting is there are generally no artists names’ attached since the objects weren’t just created for the veneration of the artist, and served a function in daily life, whereas European and American art has no purpose besides being art. Yes, it can inspire thought and extricate specific emotions from the mess of human life, but if you don’t look at it, what does it do? I hope that more students and artists decide to give African art a chance, there’s so much more to learn from it than you’d initially think.