J Amais topic has spilled much ink as traditional African sculpture 1 . Never, despite all attempts, has man been able to evacuate him from his mental field and even less from his history, that is, from his encounter with the other. It has been one of the masterpieces to measure the “civilization” of the black man and his ability to create, capacity variously appreciated throughout history until at the beginning of this century, cubism helping, unanimity begins to be made on the exceptional character of African sculptures that have always been confused with African art of which it is only a part, the most important probably, s’

Background of African Sculpture

African sculpture can not be discussed by isolating it from the rest of the arts of Africa south of the Sahara. Every word in this domain is not only about meaning but history, and if we have chosen the term “African art”, it is to fully assume all that we inherited from the past in this field; indeed the terms to designate the same reality have changed often. Whether it is “primitive”, “Negro”, “Negro-African”, “colonial” or “first” art, we are referring to the same reality colored by the ideas of the moment.

Thus, it may be interesting to ask what is covered by the primitive epithet adjoined to African arts. The adjective is the result of the theory of evolution very popular in the nineteenth century. Scholars then were convinced of the universal and obligatory character of the laws of evolution that applied in all fields including that of societies and cultures all advancing towards Western cultures and civilizations, apex of evolution … We know today no culture is primitive, and often it is through ignorance of the ever complex reality that we simplify and call primitive. The word has been abandoned by most anthropologists, but it still has its supporters and the average Westerner is still attached to it. The other epithets bear so much history. Each time, it was a question of giving the most precise vision possible of these creations. But all these terms are of Western design; Africans have often felt a pejorative nuance of which they have sometimes been able to make their strength: the negritude for example has recovered all the pejorative linked to the word “negro” to make the basis of the claims of equality, march towards freedom , opposition to colonialism, affirmation of being to the black world, and even of its superiority over others.

Neither can these arts be presented by ignoring the chronological problems they pose. Dates are rare despite the progress that is made with the accompaniment of related knowledge such as archeology. It is not vain to know that the oldest piece of wood was found in Angola and that it is dated to the 7th century, a sign that since that date at least, sculpture was practiced on the continent. But dates if they measure historical depth are not everything. The value given in the present to these creations counts just as much as the sense and the functions which they have. Finally, art historians have managed to classify all creations according to their origin. They affirmed the existence of style centers in sub-Saharan Africa. The style supposes the end of trial and error and the search for balances of masses in sculpture; it takes time for the constants and quasi-permanent features that constitute it to be made and distinguish it from any other piece from another studio or center. It is a timeline element that does not say its name. From there to consider the styles that often merge with the names of social or ethnic groups as expression formulas hermetic to any loan there is only one step that must be avoided. Barriers to traffic are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move around, ideas and artistic forms do the same. it takes time for the constants and quasi-permanent features that constitute it to be made and distinguish it from any other piece from another studio or center. It is a timeline element that does not say its name. From there to consider the styles that often merge with the names of social or ethnic groups as expression formulas hermetic to any loan there is only one step that must be avoided. Barriers to traffic are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move around, ideas and artistic forms do the same. it takes time for the constants and quasi-permanent features that constitute it to be made and distinguish it from any other piece from another studio or center. It is a timeline element that does not say its name. From there to consider the styles that often merge with the names of social or ethnic groups as expression formulas hermetic to any loan there is only one step that must be avoided. Barriers to traffic are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move around, ideas and artistic forms do the same. another workshop or center. It is a timeline element that does not say its name. From there to consider the styles that often merge with the names of social or ethnic groups as expression formulas hermetic to any loan there is only one step that must be avoided. Barriers to traffic are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move around, ideas and artistic forms do the same. another workshop or center. It is a timeline element that does not say its name. From there to consider the styles that often merge with the names of social or ethnic groups as expression formulas hermetic to any loan there is only one step that must be avoided. Barriers to traffic are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move around, ideas and artistic forms do the same. Barriers to traffic are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move around, ideas and artistic forms do the same. Barriers to traffic are rare in Black Africa and exchanges between workshops and artistic production centers existed. When people move around, ideas and artistic forms do the same.

Like any art, African sculpture is nevertheless “structured”, ultimately, by the gaze of the other for whom it is also made: it is indeed the projection of the imagination of the black man who exposes to the gaze, judgment and appreciation of others. African sculpture has its own specificity, its own signature governed by canons different from those elaborated by other cultures; these rules are sufficiently strong and constant that throughout history, it is never allowed to “assimilate”, reduce to something else than it is. We always know how to recognize it from one continent to another, even if it shares a family image with the ensemble of the “first” arts.

This article will introduce you, summarily, it is true, to the great characteristics of African sculpture. You will find the tools that will allow you to recognize a piece signed by Africa. You can also begin to appreciate the aesthetic qualities and let yourself be seduced by its forms, always different, despite the fact that they are worn by the same cultural matrix. Finally, you will be able to complete your introduction with a physical encounter with this sculpture in places of culture such as ethnographic museums that have preserved not only the memory but also the physical reality.

The places of traditional African sculpture

What does “traditional Africa” ​​mean? If we consider only sculpture, it must be admitted that such an Africa is inhabited by blacks whose basic religious traditions are “animist”. Such an Africa excludes North Africa or “Maghreb”. But here again, caution is necessary: ​​the arts defy borders; how does one understand the integration of Sudan in the Maghreb when one knows that this country includes two inhabited regions one by white-skinned men, Moslems, and the other by black-skinned men whose religious traditions could to be close to those of most blacks? Is Islam sufficient here as a criterion for classification? He does not is no more obvious than the division into states with the boundaries imposed by the Berlin Conference of 1885 – that is to say from yesterday – and the colonization which in principle lasted less than half a century are relevant criteria cutting: people sharing the same cultures overlap. Faced with these questions, we decided to write for the man of today: he refers much more to the states than to large areas whose boundaries for him would be unclear. We preferred the big groupings West Africa, Central Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa. “They have the advantage of smoothing the weight of geographical factors on the art They dispute the geographical determinism that underlies the classification in Africa, savannas and the Sahel for example. After all, the fact that Mali or Burkina Faso belonged to savannah or Sahel zones did not prevent them from producing masks as complex as those from forest areas, or in principle the raw material, wood, is more abundant. If there has been creation in these cases, we owe it much more to the will and freedom of man than to an external conditioning, no matter how restrictive it may be.

It has also been observed that sculpture is practiced on a large scale only in sedentary societies, living on the fruits of the earth. Africa does not escape this rule: the nomads, mainly Muslims, forced to permanently transport all of their furniture and their gods do not carve … There is a tendency to believe that sculpture requires a certain stability of the conditions of life in society and the existence of cults compatible with the representation of the gods.

Great genres and canons of African sculpture

Statuary and mask

African sculpture strikes first of all with the great diversity of materials that it has used to make shapes as varied as ever. The statuary and the mask are the two great genres. The statuary in particular has been expressed in materials as diverse as wood, copper alloys or simply fired clay, ivory and bone or stone. Sizes also vary greatly: the weight to weigh the gold of Akan country, for example small size, are similar to the terracotta of Nok, creations in copper alloy of Ifè or the nomoli of Guinea or the statues in foot that we find everywhere in black Africa.

The body of the man, alone or associated with an animal like the horse, is the main theme. In each case, the technical control is real: the copper alloys for example require a good knowledge of the melting temperatures of the different metals and the proportions in which the mixtures must be made. It also requires control of fire and the source of energy. Various reasons have led to the choice of material. Wood, for example, is chosen not only because of its resistance but also for ritual reasons dictated by tradition. It is probable that hardness guided the choice of stone, bone, ivory or iron. Copper alloys were probably chosen because they have the color of rare gold in some regions;

The canons of African sculpture

The African statuary is characterized by its frontality: most of the time, it can be divided in two from a median line. There are however exceptions where asymmetry is the construction rule. Another characteristic of this statuary is the preponderance accorded to the head: it makes a third or a quarter of the whole piece, not because the artist has no knowledge of the proportions but because in most African cultures, the head is so important that there are special ceremonies to make it understood. The formal characteristics of this sculpture can also be appreciated according to the tension of the surfaces or the articulation of the angular, round or sometimes cubic volumes for example. The two great trends in art, naturalism or the abstraction, also express themselves in this statuary, to varying degrees from one “style center” to another. Ifè, in some of the pieces of copper alloy, has adopted a classic style naturalism close to what can be found elsewhere, in the Greco-Roman world for example. It has been wrongly deduced that these forms were introduced by strangers, without ever being able to prove them. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. also express in this statuary, to varying degrees from one “style center” to another. Ifè, in some of the pieces of copper alloy, has adopted a classic style naturalism close to what can be found elsewhere, in the Greco-Roman world for example. It has been wrongly deduced that these forms were introduced by strangers, without ever being able to prove them. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. also express in this statuary, to varying degrees from one “style center” to another. Ifè, in some of the pieces of copper alloy, has adopted a classic style naturalism close to what can be found elsewhere, in the Greco-Roman world for example. It has been wrongly deduced that these forms were introduced by strangers, without ever being able to prove them. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. one “style center” to another. Ifè, in some of the pieces of copper alloy, has adopted a classic style naturalism close to what can be found elsewhere, in the Greco-Roman world for example. It has been wrongly deduced that these forms were introduced by strangers, without ever being able to prove them. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. one “style center” to another. Ifè, in some of the pieces of copper alloy, has adopted a classic style naturalism close to what can be found elsewhere, in the Greco-Roman world for example. It has been wrongly deduced that these forms were introduced by strangers, without ever being able to prove them. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. has adopted a naturalism of classical style close to what can be found elsewhere, in the Greco-Roman world for example. It has been wrongly deduced that these forms were introduced by strangers, without ever being able to prove them. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. has adopted a naturalism of classical style close to what can be found elsewhere, in the Greco-Roman world for example. It has been wrongly deduced that these forms were introduced by strangers, without ever being able to prove them. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. without ever being able to prove it. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account. without ever being able to prove it. The story is there, however, which asserts to those who want to know that classicism is only a tendency of the human spirit and that it appears as soon as a sufficient balance is struck between the different components of society. where the artist lives. This balance, art knows how to translate it beautifully without taking racial or geographical prejudices into account.

The same can be said of masks. In principle, they only represent the head. But the forms of it are not only different from one region to another but even sometimes in the same socio-linguistic group: the Dan masks for example include several types carved according to the use and role that society confers on them. It is not excluded that the way of wearing them – covering the face or the head – was taken into account by the sculptor concerned with what he would thus give to the spectator.

Techniques and creators

African sculptors use the same techniques throughout the continent with a few details. First of all, most of them work by isolating themselves from the crowd. They surround themselves with secrecy or solitude; we know that they facilitate concentration. But another reason forces them to do so: their command often comes from the sacred and the initiation that everyone does not have access to. The wood carving, the main object of this article is subtractive: we take wood pieces to show the shapes of the room.

The tools are almost always the same: the ax to cut down the wood, adzes of different sizes, scissors more and more frequent, and sometimes punches to punch. It is not uncommon that the sculptor also has knowledge of forge so that it is easy for him to use fire to perfect his creation.

Finishing requires surfaces to be polished; they were traditionally made from tree leaves; today, sandpaper is known to everyone. Color is often used. In the past, plant pigments or mineral substances were the main components; today, few sculptors even of traditional pieces know them and we prefer to use chemical paints available in all major cities and all markets.

African sculpture also uses additive technique to obtain volumes in pottery and earth modeling to express the characters and divinities of some pantheons. The additive technique undoubtedly allows greater flexibility in transformations and modifications. The secret of night work may be to show greater manual skill.

In most cases, we do not know the individuals who created the pieces of traditional sculpture. In West and Central Africa, for example, it is considered that sculpture is a profession of men initiated into one or another cult of their own society. They are often versatile and can both carve wood and forge iron. It is not uncommon for their wives to be potters. On the other hand, it is rare for them to live only on their art. However, the anonymity of the African sculptor must be qualified; Ignorance of the names and precise sources of the early collections is due to the negligence of the first ethnographers and collectors. Most of the time, they also do another job, essentially farming.

Most artists in Africa believe in the help of a supernatural being partly responsible for their inspiration, their technical skill and their gift. In Benin’s fon, such a genius is called “Aziza”. Aziza is a civilizing and beneficial genius: he teaches the secrets of all the techniques and knowledge necessary for man. He is as responsible for the care by the plants as the know-how of the blacksmiths for example. It is not surprising that he lives in the forests and only shows himself to hunters who have reached the top of the hierarchy of this brotherhood.

All these considerations mean that the artist is often in African societies, a somewhat marginal individual, from whom “caprices” and eccentricities are tolerated. He is certainly bound by the rules of appreciation of the piece elaborated by his company, but he also has the right to innovate and surprise.

Aesthetic

It has long been doubted that an aesthetic governs African arts in general and sculpture in particular. Since the 1980s, increasingly strong denials have been made to the non-existence of an aesthetic of African arts. It is likely that in the years to come, the number of stylistic regions studied on this subject will increase so that we can afford a comparison. While waiting for this moment, we will build on what is known about the Yoruba in which the research revealed the existence of a specific vocabulary establishing the rules of sculpture and the criteria of an aesthetic inexorably linked to the criticism of Yoruba. art; it is expressed by thirteen criteria: the relative or median mimesis, the relative visibility, the relative luminosity of a polished surface, the emotional proportion, the disposition, the composition, the delicacy, the roundness of outlines and partial masses, the pleasant angularity, the relative straightness, the symmetry, the ephebism, and the skill of the sculptor (Thompson, RF, 1973 : 31-57). These criteria could intersect with other proposals made by other sculptors in other parts of Africa. Thus Crowley (1973: 246-247) speaks of double symmetry, polishing of surfaces, mastery of tools, preference for foot pieces and beauty. Suzanne Vogel (1985: XII) speaks of symmetry, beauty, delicacy, richness of materials such as gold and ivory while James Fernandez (1966: 56) emphasizes balance. In most African societies, the addition of a decorative element is considered to give more value to the piece. However, in most authors’ opinion, the beauty of African works lies, of course, in their form, but also in the ability of the pieces to be associated with rituals that aim at concrete results. The contemplation to which every masterpiece of African art can also serve as a support, comes after; it concerns those whose eyes and sensibility have been educated in this direction. African art work can also serve as a support, comes after; it concerns those whose eyes and sensibility have been educated in this direction. African art work can also serve as a support, comes after; it concerns those whose eyes and sensibility have been educated in this direction.

There is no aesthetics without criticism; this is done by older sculptors and by members of society who may disqualify a room. For this not to happen too often, an apprenticeship makes it possible to transmit the rules of know-how. It is more or less long and depends mainly on the intelligence of the learner and its maturity.

Role of African sculpture in its environment

African sculpture could only withstand time because it plays a role in the societies that created it. The two major genres we have defined above, statuary and mask, have always been associated with religious or initiatory rites. It is safe to say that the mask allowed the personification of a deity or entity from another plane; the bearer of the mask puts himself at the service of this superior force and translates his will through the movements and gestures he makes. The attire without which the mask is incomplete helps this disguise and even if the initiates are not mistaken about the real identity of the dancer, they admit that it can be “possessed” during the time of wearing the mask; he is another man and means that the gods also need men to be heard and to see. The mask never appears without the gods wanting it. It is rare also that it occurs without the accompaniment of a music that can lead to trance. We are often in the theatrical stage.

Nor is it a coincidence that the main theme of statuary is man. The statues are most often the personification of extinct ancestors, immortalized in this way. The “confidentiality” sometimes referred to by some authors (Delange, 67) is then more easily understood, as is the case when the sculptor can not claim the paternity of his creation since it is rooted in a myth that has been passed on by word of mouth for many generations. It is there that he will have to draw the forms of his representation. The resemblance can no longer be the rule: it supposes that we have seen in advance the features of what we represent. Such is not the case. Since it’s about making the spirit feel, hieratics will be the most appropriate attitude; this desired rigidity is only apparent; the artist will play with volumes to make the life that expresses itself through the material used. This art is highly symbolic; it must be constantly interpreted by referring to the knowledge that one can have of the society that created it. Beyond form, we must hear a discourse that essentially transcends society itself but reassures it and allows it to continue to live in the present. it must be constantly interpreted by referring to the knowledge that one can have of the society that created it. Beyond form, we must hear a discourse that essentially transcends society itself but reassures it and allows it to continue to live in the present. it must be constantly interpreted by referring to the knowledge that one can have of the society that created it. Beyond form, we must hear a discourse that essentially transcends society itself but reassures it and allows it to continue to live in the present.

Universal impact of African sculpture

African sculpture is first characterized by a desire to go beyond the outer form to reach the essence of being. This desire has led most artists not to be satisfied with realism. Abstraction was imposed because of this reason. Inscribed in the heart of African art, it has so profoundly marked it that it was naturally brought to Western painters of the early twentieth century. In these seemingly crude forms, they found the materialization of their own aspirations, breaking with the realism advocated by the prevailing academism of the time. Cubism was born from this meeting of African art with European creators, the most famous remains Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). To taunt those who wanted to confer a status of inferiority to African art – which was then referred to as Negro art – he had this joke “African art does not know” to make it clear that it was not the African character that mattered to him the most but the artistic character. Gombrich (1990: 456), like many European art historians, is unclear about the fertilizing impact of this contact; he wrote no less that Pablo Picasso “began to study the art of primitive peoples, encouraged by the example of Gaugin and perhaps that of Matisse”. Kahnweiler (1966) is much more explicit when writing in an article is not the African character that mattered to him the most but the artistic character. Gombrich (1990: 456), like many European art historians, is unclear about the fertilizing impact of this contact; he wrote no less that Pablo Picasso “began to study the art of primitive peoples, encouraged by the example of Gaugin and perhaps that of Matisse”. Kahnweiler (1966) is much more explicit when writing in an article is not the African character that mattered to him the most but the artistic character. Gombrich (1990: 456), like many European art historians, is unclear about the fertilizing impact of this contact; he wrote no less that Pablo Picasso “began to study the art of primitive peoples, encouraged by the example of Gaugin and perhaps that of Matisse”. Kahnweiler (1966) is much more explicit when writing in an articleThe Negro art and cubism that “Cubist painters discovered, in some masks of the Ivory Coast, signs which, giving up all imitation, charged the perception of the spectator to imagine the face of which these masks did not imitate the true forms “. One recognizes almost unanimously today that “Les demoiselles d’Avignon” painted in 1906 by Picasso owes a lot to African masks. We know that he had some copies, including a Wobe mask, which he studied for a long time. Western art has thus “Africanized” and it remains so today as it continues to live on the momentum of this fruitful meeting. What would remain of European modern art if we exclude this encounter with the other, whether it is primitive, savage or barbaric, whether it comes from distant Asia or from old Africa which Rabelais said “as you know that Africa always brings something new”. The recent entry of the “first arts” at the Louvre seals this alliance. It took a century of waiting, this waiting made of silence furnished only by the increasingly convincing results of field research from which arise more and more masterpieces.

Only Africa, an old continent steeped in wisdom, has the secret of such patience; it ends, like water dripping corrodes the hardest stone, to do justice to the beauty of the masterpieces of the continent and to the recognition that if the Africans have invented “neither powder nor cannon “They created for all heads of sculpted works.

The art premiere at the Louvre repeats to those who want to hear that among the African peoples and primitives of other continents also the genius has existed and that it shines obviously in the artistic creations of which the most speaking still remain the sculptures. The recognition of this contribution to the man of all times is also seen in the auction prices of most European cities until art markets also settle in Africa. Is it not better not to have invented the cannon but bridges between peoples? Art serves this purpose, African sculpture in particular.

Of all the arts of Africa south of the Sahara, sculpture will remain, for a long time still a major art, a royal road of creation through which expresses all the creative potential of Africans but also the consubstantial link that connects us in the past. For a long time it is likely to remain an essential reference for those who want to know African art, as it was expressed south of the Sahara. Certainly, its forms may at first glance disconcert those who have become accustomed to other canons; but the daring of African sculptors is such that one always ends up admiring what one has under the eyes, fascinated by the combination of shapes in the volume, always respectful of the constraints of the material. The wide variety of styles allows everyone,

Joseph Adandé
Art Historian
University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin

Bibliographic orientation:

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  • KAHNWEILER, DH, (1966): “Negro Art and Cubism” in Negro Art, Paris, pp 83-88
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  • VANSINA, J, (1984): Art History in Africa, London and New York, Longman, 233 pp
  • WILLET, F, (1991): African Art, Thames and Hudson, 288 p, ill, maps
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    1. By “traditional African sculpture” is meant that which comes from a context where ancestral traditions mark the object socialized by rites, authenticated by a use, consecrated by an association with the sacred, or with initiation.