The Different Types of African Tribal Art and Their Meanings
African art is an incredibly broad concept encompassing the art of so many unique people, each piece with its own unique meaning and symbolism. A room designed using African art as a design counterpoint could contain pieces from dozens of cultures. But this is part of what makes African tribal art so exciting–it is the story of those who make it.
There are many varieties of African tribal art waiting to be discovered, each serving its own unique purpose and playing a unique role in the creator’s cultural narrative. Here’s a closer look at some major examples of African tribal art and a brief exploration of how a few different tribes use the form.
Wood is the best-known medium in African tribal sculpture, but there are several others, including:
- Copper alloys
African tribal sculpture is unique for its complete plastic freedom, i.e. its freedom from two-dimensional constraints. In fact, tribal sculptors are unique for their grasp of three-dimensional form.
This is, in part, an attribute of the material. When a sculptor starts with a tree trunk, a round block of wood, the material remains recognizably a cylinder, making it easier to impose three-dimensional awareness.
One notable form of tribal sculpture is bronze work in Benin, in southern Nigeria. This form of sculpture was introduced to Benin by medieval artists from Ife (in the Yoruba areas between Cote d’Ivoire and the Congo) in 1280. Oba Oguola wanted bronze sculpture like those in Ife, and so sent for a brass-smith.
Masks are perhaps the best-known form of African tribal art for Westerners. What comes to mind is typically a face mask, which is the most common variety, but there are several other kinds of masks, including:
- Forehead masks
- Shoulder masks
- Headdress masks
- Helmet masks
- Helmet crest masks
African tribes have been making masks since prehistory, with the earliest example of mask-making found at Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria. Some masks have an unclear use, while others, like Ancient Egyptian funerary masks, have a recognized purpose.
Even so, masks from each unique people have a different purpose, one that tells a story about those who made it.
The Nwantantay mask of the Bsa people of Burkina Faso is a striking mask rich with symbolism. Abstract geometric designs represent natural spirits that humans cannot see. The designs also teach important moral and social lessons during a dance, such as the path of proper behavior in village society.
Another example is the masks of the Baule, a farming community that forms the largest ethnic group in Cote d’Ivoire. Baule masks are human masks (they do not represent spirits). Goli masks, for example, have a round shape with two buffalo horns, symbolizing the sun and the strength of the buffalo in daylong goli festivals.
African basketry is a dynamic craft, both a form of artistry and practical skill for agricultural purposes. They can be used for secular purposes like filtering beer or storing food, or the basket itself can also be used as a divination tool.
Basket materials are often a reflection of both the local materials and the use of the basket itself. Traditional fibers include illala palm, sisal leaves, and raffia, to name a few. Contemporary baskets may be woven with more modern materials like plastic or recycled materials.
Several tribes use baskets for social, spiritual, or practical purposes, and each unique basket reflects the sensibilities of those who made it. The Zulu people in South Africa, for example, have had a significant influence on basket-making, but baskets are also made by several tribes in the Congo, Zambia, and Cameroon.
Textiles are a major form of expression for African tribal groups. Different groups have used textile colors and patterns to communicate meaning for centuries, and textiles often give insight into social status, religious leanings, and political and economic connotations attached to the wearer.
The medium, colors, and method of production vary widely depending on the local materials and cultural connotations of a given textile.
The Buganda of Uganda, for example, paint bark cloth, while the Senufo people of Cote d’Ivoire create a dye-painted cloth called fila. The Asante people of Ghana create a stamp-printed cloth called andinkra, while the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria create an indigo cloth called adire.
One significant example of African tribal textiles is kente cloth, associated with the Akan people in West Africa, particularly the Asante Kingdom. The cloth is made by weaving four-centimeter-thick strips of cloth on a loom. The final result is a piece of fabric typically wrapped around the shoulders and waist similar to a toga.
Kente has its own unique mythology. The first kente cloth was said to come from the web of a spider, and there are unique rules about making it (for example, no work on kente can be started or finished on a Friday). Colors also have distinct meanings–blue means love, gray means shame, yellow means wealth, etc.
Looking for Beautiful African Tribal Art?
We know that African tribal art offers a whole new world of discovery, one that ought to be shared with those who appreciate its beauty.
At Dakar Bazaar, we are privileged and proud to promote a collection of talented artisans, each of whom contributes to our platform as a place for the exchange of art, culture, and ideas.
If you would like to join our exchange and introduce the beauty of African tribal art into your own home, check out the tribal art available in our shop today.