African art is a vast collection and study of artworks that have originated in the continent of Africa. In recent years, this has also been used to describe the artwork of the African Diasporas, as to include areas of the world where African culture, though not native to the land, is an important part of the people’s culture such as found in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States. The study of African art is one that encompasses a wide range of different styles, often varying according to particular regions of Africa, tribes, cultures, and civilizations. Though the body of artwork is vast and unique to certain people and locations in Africa, African art as whole is found to have general and unifying themes or characteristics. One that is most common is the emphasis and concentration on the human figure.
For the most part, the human figure has been at the center of all African art. The human figure has been used to depict a wide range of topics, whether living or dead. Often, representations of gods and deities were given the human form so as to give them a certain quality that would not render them completely ethereal and more realistic. In other instances, they simply would represent the people of a particular culture or tribe, depicting various social occupations or trades, such as hunters, warriors, shamans, or chiefs. Another key feature to African art is an overall emphasis on sculpture and three-dimensional artworks. This is evident in the many sculptures and busts used to represent various kings and other important figure-heads of African societies and cultures.
Even though there are artifacts and African art in two-dimensional forms or mediums, they are often fashioned to be experienced in a three-dimensional way. A reason that much of African art tends to be three-dimensional is based on the fact that much of it is crafted and created with the purpose of actually being used. Because African traditions seem to be based upon some sense of performance, such as ceremonial dances and religious masks, it makes much sense that a large body of African art is three-dimensional.
Performance art is central to many of the ceremonial and religious functions of certain African cultures and civilizations, thus making African art itself important in the workings of any given society. Much of African art is not simply constructed for an aesthetic purpose, but rather to have an actual function. An example of this can be seen in African masks, where they serve a central purpose in religious, social, and ceremonial rituals and may considered important to everyday social functions.
Though African art may seem too complex and vast to understand at first glance, the various types and styles can be more easily appreciated and studied once it can be understood that African art was there for a higher purpose than art for art’s sake; rather, African art was created to serve as a functional aspect within a particular culture or tribe that could prove to be essential within the social structure and functionality of any given group.