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June 24, 2014

African Art: A Detailed Study

3:35 PM

Chapter I: Influence of African Art

In all contexts of cultural life, art plays an important role in African society. African art portrays beauty, delight and morality. Before the influence of western culture in colonization, African art was unaltered for many centuries (Willet; p.43).

Influence of African Art on Western World

In the beginning Western world was far apart from African art. African sculptures and masks were so foreign for western world that it did not consider it art. In the 20th century, African art revealed its beauty, when western world started looking African art as art and try to understand the concepts and beauty underneath these abstract forms of art. Understanding of African art inspired western world and influence of African art started to grow on western world.
Western world was inspired by the form of African sculptures. Different art movements of western world, like cubism, fauvism and expressionism, were based on the basic idea of African art. Modern European painters were especially influenced by the freedom of form, which was marvelously portrayed in African Art.
African art gave modernity, abstraction and non-objectivity to the Western art. In the beginning of twentieth century, western artist were searching for something different from naturalism and illusionism. With the advent of African art, their quest was over and with its inspiration new movements like fauvism, cubism and expressionism had started.
African Influence on Art Movements
In 18th and 19th century, art of Western world was limited to naturalism and illusionism. African art had inspired artists of twentieth century and they had started different art movements.  Some of such movements are:
·         Fauvism
·         Cubism
·         Expressionism
Fauvism movement period was from 1901 to 1906. It was the first art movement, which gave prime importance to colors. Fauvists used the technique of expressing their feelings with the help of colors in a rough and clumsy style. This style imitated African style and colors. Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse were the dominant artists in this movement (Discover France). It was a short-lived movement. Fauvists did not make a cohesive group of painters and when cubism movement started, most of fauvism artists were inspired by it. Matisse was actually the founder of this movement. He tried to find his artistic freedom in this movement.
Fauvists firmly believed in colors and use them to express their feelings. They believed that colors are luminous rather than descriptive. Matisse used colors “for creating objects rather imitating them”. They gave a new meaning to the art of that time but their art looked louder and more aggressive than anything ever experienced in western art.
Cubism movement was started by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1907 (Art Movements). The term cubism was coined by a French critic Louis Vauxcelles in 1908 because these paintings were painted with numerous facets of a single object so “several aspects of a single object can be seen simultaneously”.
Cubism movement can be divided into two phases; Analytical cubism and synthetic cubism. In analytical cubism artist used austere compositions with his artistic intellect while analytical cubism used larger forms and flat, decorative patterns. Picasso’s cubism had influenced almost all the painters of 1913 and afterwards and most of them had turned towards cubism. It was also the impact of Picasso’s cubism that paved the way for new art movements like Futurism, Constructivism and Expressionism.
Movement of expressionism was started almost simultaneously with fauvism in different parts of Europe. The main characteristic of expressionism is expression of feelings with the help of colors and exaggerated imagery.  Paintings of this movement describe the inner feelings of the artist rather than the reality. Thus the term “expressionism” is used for all such artifacts that depict subjective feelings rather than objective observations.
Expressionism can be categorized into two categories; Action Painting and Color Field Painting (Expressionism). Action Painting emphasized on the texture and movement of color. Paintings of Jackson Pollock are good examples of this type of expressionism. Such paintings, which give prime importance to colors and shape, fall into the category of Color Field paintings. Mark Rothko is an example of Color Field Painter. Some other important expressionists are Jean Debuffet, William De Kooning and Adophn Gottieb. Expressionism was not only limited to paintings, sculptors like Barlack, Lehmbruck etc. were also inspired by it.   
Influence of African Art on Western Artists
African Art had greatly inspired Western artists of twentieth century. Artists of that time were searching for any new form of art to express their feelings, African Art and freedom of form in this art had completed that search. Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Matisse, Jackson Pollock all were inspired by African Art.
Pablo Picasso
Picasso is the most influential artist of all times. He used different styles and mediums and influenced almost all generations after him. It has been rightly said, “No painter or sculptor, not even Michelangelo, had been as famous as this in his own lifetime. And it is quite possible that none ever will be again” (Hughes). Although there are many contributions of Picasso in art but his cubism style and movement was considered to be his most important contribution.
Picasso was greatly influenced by Cézanne and African sculptures and that influence had compelled him to start a new movement in art, i.e. cubism movement. In 1907 Picasso had painted his famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, which was entirely different from the artistic ideas of his age and which supposed to be his first step towards cubism and paved his way towards modern abstraction. This painting had started his period of analytical cubism. This painting contains many characteristics of African Art, especially three women in the center obtained “simplified structure of earlier creations” (McDonald, p. 12).  Two figures in the right appeared in masks and revealed the direct influence of African art and culture. Another Picture “Negro Dance” of this period has shown African art influence. Some other important pictures of Picasso have shown direct influence of African art like, “Seated Nude”, “Nude Figure”, “Man with Mandolin”, “Head of a woman”,  “Mandolin and Clarinet” etc. Picasso intellect and artistic genius mingled with this new style helped him to create a unique style of his own in cubism.
 After 1912 he entered into the synthetic phase of cubism style. He used larger forms and flat, decorative patterns in this phase. His painting “the three Musicians “was a painting, which depicted his synthetic phase of cubism. African art influence was most apparent in this phase. He used characters in this phase with faces, which closely resembles with the masks and sculptures of African art. He also used wild animals and colors with earthly tone in this phase of his paintings. He also used African character made of wood, which have shown the direct influence of African sculpture.
 Picasso’s cubism had influenced almost all the painters of 1913 and afterwards and most of them had turned towards cubism.

Paul Gauguin

Gauguin, although an important impressionist, soon rejected the movement of Impressionism. He tried to return to “primitive style of art with simple forms and symbolism rendered in a decorative and stylized way” (Brommer, p. 383). The advent of African art gave him the inspiration he wanted, and he diverted his attention towards it. African art influence can be seen in the poses and outlines of his characters. 

Henri Matisse

Matisee’s work was the rebellion against the classical artistic work. In the beginning, he was influenced by the works of Manet and Cézanne but after 1904 he was interested in the works of Seurat and influenced by African Art.  After 1905 Matisse went to work with Andre Derain. At that time he used colors freely (Hughes). 
He was one of the founders of Fauvism movement, the first movement of modern art, which primarily believed in the use of colors. This movement was directly influenced by the colors and forms of African art.
Matisse loved to use patterns within patterns and decorative compositions.  He was also influenced by Islamic art and used Islamic patterns in many of his later works. 

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollack was the most prominent artist of Action paintings in expressionism movement. Pollack’s early work was greatly influenced by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Orozco.  But afterwards he got his own style, which composed of composition of pictographic imagery, and the complex synthesis of source material (O'Connor and Thaw).  He used the imagery and figures directly taken from African Art. 
After 1947 he used to create paintings with densely layered compositions, which were blamed and praised by critics at the same time. But after 1955 he stopped painting all together.
Emil Nolde
Emil Nolde was also an artist of expressionism movement who was directly influenced by the masks and sculptures of African art. Characters of his paintings usually used mask adorned faces demonstrated the influence of African culture and art.
He belonged to the group of German expressionist who were the admirers of Gauguin style. They have studied African art and tried to incorporate the symbolism, figures and imagery of African art into their paintings.  The main characteristic of Nolde and other German expressionists is to use “brilliant color in a symbolic and arbitrary way” (Brommer, p. 398) integrated with their shapes and rhythm to portray their objectivity.  
Thus it can be said that African art was recognized by the western artists as great source of inspiration in the time when western art was searching for new forms of representing their art.

Chapter II: Effects of Colonization on African Art

Society is a large population, usually enduring at least several generations and sharing a territory and a way of life. Every Society has its own specific culture. Culture may be defined as behavior peculiar to human beings, together with material objects used. Culture consists of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques work of arts, rituals, ceremonies and so on. The existence and use of culture depends upon ability possessed by men alone. This ability has been called variously the capacity for rational or abstract thought.
Culture is so much a part of being human that the species would not survive without it. Culture is composed of both concrete, physical items (material culture) and abstraction such as beliefs and customs (nonmaterial culture).
Social structure represents the motorways of our social world: the stable, predictable, patterned relationships among people. This structure organizes our social life and channels the behaviors as the roadways channel the flow of traffic. While it limits the choices and confines behavior to certain socially approved alternatives, it also confers on our social life order, routine, and coherence.
Culture and Art of a society cannot be separated. Art is actually an interpretation of life and culture of a society. When western world came into contact with African nations through colonization in nineteenth century and through tourism in twentieth century, cultures of African society as well as western world influenced each other. This influence can easily be seen in both societies and in their art.
It has been already discussed that African art had greatly influenced western art but it is equally true that Western world has had direct effects on African art.  First of all, it was western colonization that introduced African art to the world. Western world did not know that there is any such thing, as “art” existed in the dark continent of Africa. When different European countries started bringing artifacts of African art to their countries and museums, African art “began making its way in western culture”.
In the days of colonization, Africans used the images of Europeans soldiers and modern objects like guns and bicycles to be carved on furniture because they believed that Europeans are something supernatural. Gods of Greek mythology were also used instead of African gods in African paintings and sculptures (Wassing; p. 40).
When tourists began their exploration of the Dark Continent, western modern art also made their way in Africa. Africans found that very similar to their primitive art and thus modern generation of African artists was influenced by it. They have also used modern western techniques to portray their personal feelings.

Effects of Tourism on African Art

African Art, in the primitive times, was meant to praise priests and kings and usually portrayed religious rituals and figures. When Tourists started flooding into Africa they tried to achieve African artifacts as a souvenir for civilized world. This had affected African Art. African artists produced such paintings and masks for foreign tourists, which lacks the cultural roots and artistic content.
Attitudes of African artists had also changed after colonization. Independence gave them pride for their own cultural and traditional values and traditions of past. John Mbiti, a Kenyan had said that,
Everyone is aware that rapid changes are taking place in Africa, so that traditional ideas are being abandoned, modified or coloured by the changing situation. At the same time it would be wrong to imagine that everything traditional has been forgotten…. Beliefs connected with magic, witchcraft, the spirits and the living-dead (the ancestors) are areas of traditional religions, which are in no danger of immediate abandonment” (Sieber & Walker; p. 12).
            Tourism has also given rise to forgeries and fakes of the traditional art because tourists usually considered it genuine artifacts and pay huge amount for it. Similarly, a new art, i.e. popular African art, has also emerged. It is the art done for such tourists who cannot afford expansive artifacts created by elite artists (Martin & O'Meara; pp289-290). 
Thus the wave of tourism had affected African art both positively and negatively. Positively in the sense, that modern African artist create paintings which are the combination of western influence, knowledge, as well as, their own cultural and traditional values; and negatively because it has started the industry of fake and cheap paintings.


Art is the visual expression of culture. It is a product of particular physical and social environments and holds a mirror to life. Art does not merely appeal to fancy but it is something deeper and sublime. A work of art is not an idle tale to entertain and relieve the viewers but rather the cry of a great soul at the spectacle of life he sees before him.
Western World had come into contact with African culture in colonization and African art had had the chance to influence Western art.  It has been claimed that almost all the new movements of art were started due to the impact of African art into Western art. On the other hand African art was also influenced by Western Art. From the influence of Western culture and art, African artists during colonization period, started using western soldiers, objects and mythology as characters of their paintings and sculpture. Western Colonization had given the chance to African art to be introduced in civilized world. Thus it can be said that both African and western arts had affected each other and these effects can easily be seen in both these arts.
            Importance and influence of African Art cannot be neglected. Western art was stagnant in the beginning of twentieth century, it was the intellect and understanding of Western artists, as well as, the power and beauty of African art, which influenced Western art of that time and several art movements, had emerged to enhance the canvas of Western art. Thus understanding of African Arts is the basis for understanding different art movements and masterpieces of modern Western Masters.
Works Cited

“Art Periods: Fauvism”. Discover France. Retrieved at 1st November 2004 from     


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