African artwork has seen a lot of change and development since it got created thousands of years ago. In essence, it is not just a piece of art but also a cultural object with a purpose. The purpose remains to communicate ideas and thoughts through relatable figures such as animals and humans. While the intention is clear, culture can stand as a bridge between communication. It is a known saying in the world of art; for one to appreciate the artwork, first, one needs to understand it. African art is rich in cultural context and value. Previously, many people considered this art form as abstract and meaningless. With contemporary African artists’ help, it has become easier to interpret and understand the meaning behind many masterful pieces.
Although it may seem abstruse, most African artwork follows the five elements common in different regions of the continent. It’s easier to study a particular culture through their art. People tend to appreciate African art paintings and purchase them for their homes to tell what the artists originally planned to portray. Even the international artist Picasso was inspired by the geometrical aesthetics or the abstract appeal of African artwork.
Let’s go through the five elements’ meaning to help you identify the meaning behind the seemingly meaningless work.
The human figure to represent ideas
Although African artwork is aesthetically pleasing, every idea behind it carries a meaning. Human beings were an element used to represent abstract ideas such as pain, suffering, and hardships. Artists portrayed ideas about reality and religious values through the medium of abstract human and animal art. The goal was not to show people of a specific set or religion but to use humans’ high aesthetic value as a body to convey reality’s spiritual aspects. African artists even used animal figures for the same purpose.
Lustre or luminosity to portray the beauty
All African sculptures and figures have a smooth, well-polished, and lustrous texture. The reason for this inclination towards visually smooth and glowing finishes was an old African belief. According to this belief, artists considered rough or irregular surfaces morally tarnished and ugly. This inches towards the thinking that stories can be understood better if they line up with one’s aesthetics and beliefs. The figures were also often ornamented with traditional African clothing, decorative scarification, and intricate patterns to further enhance beauty.
Composed demeanor to represent control in life
Artists considered calm and composed demeanor to be cool or dignified. Artists felt that their art should radiate a feeling of unmatched elegance, grace, and self-esteem. The person who acted in a rational and measured way was considered to have control over their life. Thus the artists made sure to imbibe this feeling in their art through solemn expressions, upright posture, or graceful clothing. They wanted to make sure their art appeared and was perceived as they wanted it to. Artists considered any emotional expression to be vulgar or looked down upon it.
Youthfulness to spread positivity and represent strength
African artists usually depicted youthfulness, which is considered the prime of one’s life, to spread positivity and inspiration. Any form of illness or deformity in art was a sign of evil. For this reason, artists stuck to visuals brimming with energy, productiveness, fertility, and ability to labor with vigor. African art was a source of inspiration and used bright and cheery artwork that showed people working with enthusiasm. The art was usually devoid of negativity and promoted happiness in all forms.
Focus on symmetry and balance
African artists paid significant attention to the symmetry and balance of material in their artwork. While the previous elements catered to aesthetic, religious, or moral values, this element refers to medium materials in proportion and with balance. Amongst other elements, this is the only one that carried some form of similarity with all other art forms. African artists keenly revered fine quality and usage of the art medium with a mastered equilibrium.
The world of African art has gained more relevance in contemporary times as people have begun to recognize the meaning and creativity behind the seemingly abstract patterns. It ranges from masks, jewelry, textiles to paintings, pottery, sculptures. The material used can also vary from wood, plant fibers to ivory and stones. Yet, there is some form of meaning behind every step of the process, whether moral, spiritual, or aesthetical. The core of African aesthetic was to connect people with the supernatural forces often ignored in the hubbub of daily life. For example, the symmetric zigzag lines commonly spotted on masks represented the ancestors’ path, while the check pattern signified knowledge versus ignorance. Only once you learn to stop and identify these elements will you truly appreciate the beauty of African artwork and the history behind it.