Sculptural and Figurative Art

Topic 3: Sculptural and Figurative Art

  • The African art forms most familiar to those outside Africa are masks and figures often carved from wood or cast in metal. Many of the most celebrated examples were produced in West Africa, especially in the region of what is now Nigeria. The kingdoms of Benin, Owo, and Ijebu, occupied largely by the Yoruba and Edo peoples, shared artistic and cultural traditions and flourished from around 1200 C.E. until the period of European Colonization. The art of brass-casting was especially highly developed in Benin where each new king, or oba, commissioned a cast-brass head representing his predecessor. Brass plaques depicting court life also ornamented the royal palace. These images and similar were more commemorative than representational, as their features were too stylized for them to be considered individual portraits.

  • Stylized masks and heads, often created for use in rituals, are also made by many other peoples of West and Central Africa. Examples include the Pwo masks produced by the Chokwe people to honor their female ancestors, the portrait masks of the Baule people of the Cote d'Ivoire, representing prominent women, used in dance performances, and the Bundu masks of Sierra Leone worn by women belonging to a society charged with ushering young girls into adulthood.

  • The performative or ritual nature of much African art is also exemplified by such genres as the power figures of the Kongo people. Though often carved in the shape of human beings, these objects were considered the container or "portable shrine" of a spiritual force, whose power could be called on to help resolve human conflicts. A nail or peg would be driven into the figure to commemorate the moment.

  • The role of art objects in deciding human affairs can also be seen in the memory boards, or lukasa, created by the Luba people of the Congo region. These carved boards function as abstract three-dimensional maps of knowledge central to a community's identity. The lukasa are owned and interpreted by members of the mbudye society, a group of men and women who interpret cultural and social norms and provide a check on political institutions.

Related Links:
Africa Quiz
Africa, 1100-1980 CE General Concepts
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes