Talking about African art means to see Africa through art and art through Africa.
In our western and westernized society, we usually see two types of Africa: the African paradise, idyllic, recreated for tourists in holiday villages or safaris; or the infernal Africa, marked by famine, war and epidemics. These images, albeit in opposition to each other, have in common the fact of excluding art. Looking at Africa through art means creating a positive image of Africa, from the prestigious role that art plays in our culture. One should also avoid looking African art as only primitive, tribal or traditional; primitivism (also known as that imagined nostalgia for a never lived reality) ruins our aesthetic taste. We should consider African art assimilated and integrated as part of our culture and us.
Unlike European art, African art does not envisage painting as a genre in itself. There are not pictures to frame and hang on the wall. Painting therefore is not about scenic representation or ornament but an integral part.
As for African sculpture, it is about spirits, deities and ancestors; they are represented in the form of humans or animals, which are the trick to give tangibility to otherwise impalpable presence. The African artist is aware of representing something haughty, different. Then, here it is the reason why artist distorts proportions: to bear witness to the irreducibility of the subjects and their diversity beyond the material forms. If spirits and ancestors cannot be reduced to their materiality, however, this often appears necessary. The ancestors, in fact, continue to live only in the memory of the descendants and therefore the statues that represent them and collecting their sacrifices to offer tributes to the memory support.
African masks are also used to provide support for spirits, ancestors and mythical heroes; the human body and the costume enable invisible forces to manifest. The masks have many utilizations: during the funeral rites, they allow the living ones to remove the dead one from the village; in agricultural rites, however, they open the cultivation of the fields; for secret associations, they are a source of power. African masks also appear during the rites of passage and initiation, to impart knowledge and assign tests to pass. They are therefore an instrument of power: this power is exercised through the concealment of identity and the assumption of a new identity, strong and formidable.
In African societies, the art and the production of aesthetic objects processed (that is to say, treated in terms of form) help create collective identities; this is because traditionally there was not writing yet and the transmission of knowledge was done orally or through a visual, like a mask or a statue. African art is therefore something of thought, involving man and its conception of the world, of life and death, which is something foreign to the stereotype of primitive art as immediate expression dictated by instincts and impulses. That is why the African artistic production generally binds quite the artist; the artwork has to give shape to the values and ideas and it involves memberships and identities. African art is a factor of unity, which varies with multiple styles, commissions and productions. The objects also serve to articulate the social relationship within the different African communities. Different types of objects (Benin bronzes, tools, accessories) are used for different situations and people.
African art is made of many stories, difficult to tell, because of some Western prejudices that have denied their existence, or because of their relationship with different materials and products.
African culture prefers the cyclical dimension of time, a time marked by reincarnation and eternal returns, highlighting the frequency of regeneration.
For this reason, African artists preferred materials that are perishable, alive (such as wood and vegetable fibers) or symbolic, metaphorical ones (such as terracotta, which is created on the fire as well as the man is shaped in the womb).
As the men, so the objects are born to die. For example, the Dogon of Mali have cemeteries for masks, to throw them where they had accomplished their purpose. Alternatively, other items follow their owner into the grave.
The use of hard materials, such as ivory and metal, was more prevalent among hierarchical forms of power. Let’s think of the bronzes of the kingdom of Benin, for example, where there was need for stability of power transmission and dynastic.
Anthropology has helped to review and correct many stereotypes about Africa. Especially, it has shown how African people have not given a patchwork of isolated ethnic groups, but rather a network of intercultural relations.