African Tribal Sculpture

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An Introduction to Traditional African Sculpture

African tribal sculpture often takes the human form. That doesn’t mean they have to be realistic. A variety of abstract human figures are mostly carved from wood. Some of the oldest examples of abstract art comes from Africa and the tradition continues into the modern day.

A question often asked is; why are African artists so good at creating hand carved wooden figures? One theory is that African wood sculptor starts with a simple wood cylinder- the trunk of a tree. The idea is that this lends itself to the human form. The torso and limbs of the figure all cylinders in different proportions. Personally we think this is an oversimplification. Civilisation started in Africa. So why shouldn’t the people responsible for creating the pyramids be capable of creating some of the best sculpture too?

The human form, animal and mythical figures are all seen in the range of African sculpture. Artistic works represent spiritual, religious and ancestor worship. Elongated limbs and exaggerated features are common. Humour and extreme proportions are hallmarks of the tradition.

Buying African "Antique" Art

Just because an African statue has a patina doesn’t mean it is old. African artisans have become skilled at creating false glosses to give the appearance of age. Modern tribal art is often passed off as antique. Our advice is to buy what you like and to avoid, unless you have real expertise, buying African sculpture based on the age suggested by dealers.

Wood carved sculpture can be found all over Africa. Some of the best is West African in origin. The Metropolitan Museum in America has one of the best collections to be seen in the west. Collected by Nelson Rockfeller in the 1940’s, the museum’s collection provides a good insight into some of the 20th centuries best African art.

The Meaning of African Art

African art isn’t just art for art’s sake. In traditional culture art plays an important role as the connector between the physical and spiritual realms. Art is used to share the values and ideals of a community. It’s also important to understand that art is also linked to status and power. The famous Benin bronzes are a good example of how African sculpture communicates power and prestige. Bronze casting itself show a degree of technological advancement. Other artworks are used to protect and heal, to ward off dangers and to encourage good crops.
We love African art. We don’t like to think of it as primitive.

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