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Art and Society in Africa in black Africa


Before being a source of pleasure, moste of time, art was a precautionary measure, a necessity, an exorcism in order to survive in an often hostile world and in order to be at one with surrounding forces.

In African art, the effect, the efficiency of the work are most of time primordial, they are the accomplishment of the artist’s intentions, of those that specialized in ritual and were the users of the objects.

The effectiveness of a work of art is measured by the degree of accomplishment of the foreseeable effects of the object. For the sculptor or the officiator of a ritual, knowing what the spirits looked like physically is not important, what matters is how the spirits act and what they do, how they can make you ill, how they can influence a man’s life, and how through them, and  by means of sculptures and rituals, the spirits can heal  and play a positive role throughout the course of man’s life.

In order to understand African art a visit to a museum may not be the best solution (Cf : the paragraph below "African Sculpture within an African Framework") Ideally, you need to find yourself alone faced with the compulsive power of the immense forest, alone in the savannah or the vast stretching deserts. 

It is only within this environment that you can experience the same feelings as those that lived in centuries past. Their fear, when faced with danger. The fear of dying of hunger during the famines, the fear of  natural forces, storms, lightening, fire, fear of the great cats, fear of incurable illnesses and  death, the  fear of being confronted with the mysteries of the unknown, of the forces that rule the world, the terror of the afterlife.

In order to survive in an environment almost always hostile, man, fragile and vulnerable, called upon diverse beliefs, destined to reconcile him with the numerous surrounding forces, conceived as mysterious and invisible genies or spirits populating the world. Man begged these genies, these divinities, he appealed to them. For more than a thousand years he created rites that would allow him to communicate with them. He called to them for help. He prayed, he multiplied the number of incantations, dances,  offerings and the sacrifices that he carried out for them.

Also at this time, African man asked a sculptor to create a form, an image that might serve as a receptacle, a visual medium for one or more of these unattainable powers, those that he perceived, those that he imagined in the form of genies.

Before being a source of pleasure, art was, most of time, a precautionary measure, a necessity, an exorcism, that is to say something other than art. An ancestor’s statue was generaly not made for the pleasure of amateurs, but rather to appease lost souls. A fetish had to be a magical object; its very efficiency was carved into the wood. The image of a God is made to bow down to, not made to be admired.

It has often been accepted that Africa ignored the meaning of   ‘art for art’s sake’ and that all African art was religious. Such comments merit some clarifying. In effect, even if African art has often had a religious purpose:

  • Traditional African art is used for social functions, but some objects do not have a specifically defined function. For example, the brass casts of animals and people working, or in procession, made by the Fon from Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), have no particular didactic or religious purpose. Created by the blacksmiths they are representative examples of ‘art for art’s sake’. However, they do have a social function, entirely dependent on the subject represented. In effect, brass was considered as a semi- precious metal, which only the ‘nantis’ could afford to buy and expose in their interiors as decoration, and as a sign of prestige that would impress their visitors. The Dan also created objects purely for esthetic pleasure, but entirely out of copper. Placed near the hearth so that they could be seen straightaway on entering the dwelling.


  • Similarly, it is not correct that all African art is religious. This is the case in the pot lids of the Bawoyo from Cabinda (just north of the mouth of the Congo (Zaire). In effect, custom has it that husband and wife eat separately. When a marital fight breaks out, the wife covers the dishes that she has prepared for her husband with a lid. These lids are decorated with characters that express and illustrate through proverbs, the reasons for her discontentment. What’s more, the wife waits  until her husband entertains his friends, who, as representatives of the community act as arbiters. For her marriage, the wife receives a large number of lids, offered to her by her mother in law. However, if there isn’t one that fits her gripe she gets one made.


  • In some countries like Nigeria, there has been great and famous sculpturers. Rich people were in hard competition between them in order to possess the bigest number of art objects made by these great sculpturer in order to appear as being powerful and rich people with nice tastes.


Mostly, African man lives within a large family, a tribe or a village lead by a Council of Elders and the chief of the village.

However, in some cases, the uniting social base was not the village or the tribe, but a kingdom dominated by a ruler able to defend his subjects from attacks from other tribes, payment was made in kind for a certain number of days labour or for joining his army. The main aim of art in the royal courts was to contribute to the prestige of the prince, generally considered of divine essence. His image was only distorted to achieve a greater idealization, and art must magnify his skills as a warrior and celebrate his exploits. This is no longer tribal art, but rather courtly or royal art.

Strong regional particularities, but some general tendencies

In order to keep the many dangers they faced at bay, Africans, isolated in the forest or the bush turned to religious practices to appeal to transcendent forces. This is a generalized phenomenon, but these cults, these rites varied from one ethnic group to another. Depending on the region, the real world and the afterlife were not conceived in the same way. There are nevertheless, certain constants.

Each ethnic group forged a group of beliefs that explained the origin of the universe, and the root of good and evil.

All of the myths evoke a God creator, unique and distant that is never represented. Prays are only made to him if the group is in grave danger. Inaccessible, he does not intervene in the life of human individuals. Africans believe that worldly problems are passed onto the Almighty by the care and direction of secondary spirits on whom they believe certain magical ceremonies have an important influence. In order to be reconciled with the world of invisible but omnipresent spirits, some well doing, others harmful, they celebrated cults, called upon the spirits of prayer, carried out sacrifices and gave offerings.

For the African, man cannot be separated from nature. The soul of each human being is the emanation of this vital source that is omnipresent. The human soul therefore, does not disappear at the moment of death.

First in line, the spirits of the ancestors played a vital role.  Africans believe that the vital force of the ancestors survives after their death in the memory of their descendants, and who can communicate with them through ritualistic ceremonies. Very often, death is seen as a passage to the afterlife which is as real as the earthly world. Very often, the ancestor was considered as a guardian who lent his strength to the living.  Funerary rituals, which were destined to enhance the transformation of the dead into ancestor and to win over his benevolence, had great importance and could last for a period of several years.

Alongside the spirits of the ancestors, Africans believed that they were surrounded by numerous other spirits. Firstly, by the spirits of nature : the spirit of trees, game, the spirits of the mountains, the rivers, metal mines, the Gods of storms and lightening, of the rain…Crops were celebrated with fertility cults in order to obtain a good harvest.  To have many descendants, ceremonies and rituals were carried out to enhance women’s fecundity.

In order to communicate with all these spirits, human intermediaries were needed. Priests, who were numerous, conveyed the requests and offerings of the faithful, leading the rituals and the sacrifices. These priests were sometimes kings, blacksmiths, or more often chiefs with lineage. Every ritual, every ceremony officiated by a priest gave the African a feeling of security and the conviction that each evil spirit is blocked by a kind spirit.

Very often, the diviner advised his client to have a sculpture made, a statuette representing a spirit that would then be the object of a private or collective cult and would receive offerings.

The sculptor then, played an important role in creating a representation that would allow the invisible being the possibility to incarnate it, a kind of repository. For the spirit of an ancestor this was never a portrait but rather a simple evocation.

The diviner is a man asked to contact the invisible forces in order to know the future or to influence what would happen in the future. The consultant is not always a man of the people. Each king, or chief in power, had his diviner or diviners, that whilst acting as advisors, added  weight and authority to the decisions that were taken. These men, emanating from the will of the divinities, were believed to contribute to the well being of the entire population and their decisions were therefore more easily accepted.  The diviner belonged to the group of leaders.

To find out the origin of the diverse difficulties that each and every one in the village or in the royal court was met with, you had to address the diviner. The diviner listened to the consultant, asked questions in order to form an opinion, and then attributed the problem to a  divinity that has either been neglected or ineffectively worshiped…He carried out the rites  in an  attempt to obtain the desired result. Often, powerful objects were created.

The diviner is the intermediary between the visible and the invisible. He generally possessed, in his hut where he received his consultants, statues of the spirits that he claimed to be in contact with. These works did not represent a divinity, they were not idols, they served as repositories, a medium for genies or spirits that wanted to integrate into the world of the living.

Almost always, the diviner calls upon divine processes. While processes may differ the objective remains the same. Often animals said to have be in contact with the divinities (mice, foxes, mygales…)were observed  and their actions interpreted as though it were a message…Sometimes  the statues were rubbed to deduce whether or not the answer was negative or positive.

The diviner could have the status of a priest; he contents himself with indicating the cause of the problem and makes a diagnosis that the healer must put into action. It is not unusual for him to be both healer and diviner fortune teller, medium, specialist in magic…In principal this meant ‘white’ or good magic. The diviner must not give himself over to witchcraft, ‘black’ or ill doing magic. But it’s a thin line between the two. The divine healer might be tempted to pass from the first to the second. However, even if he isn’t really guilty of having done so he might find himself subject to accusations from the community and run the risk of threats from evil witches furious at seeing their secrets revealed. For example, one of the explanations as to why sculptors represented human beings with less realism than they did the animals  stems from the fear of being accused of practicing black magic in representing faithfully a living person.


How to become a Diviner?

  • By being called by the spirits, which might manifest itself through a possessed trance, by madness or after the apparition of a spirit in a dream, after an accident or illness. And often, people suffering with psychological problems could in this way ask to become a diviner, moving from the status of an inept to that of a notary.
  • Most often, the practicing of magic is inherited. From father to son, from mother to daughter. After having participated in numerous divination and healing sessions the child could then practice alone.
  • By buying knowledge. But the price was often exorbitant and did not exempt the pretender from undergoing the initiation rite complete with symbolic death and rebirth. The master making the student submit to a series of tests in order to challenge both his knowledge and his psychological resistance.

Healers use medicines, mixes of various substances of both vegetal and animal origins. These substances are contained in receptacles and diverse reliquaries. These might be simple bags made out of skin or cloth, horns, fixed for example likes those on Songye statues. The statue might also have an internal cavity as with those of the Bembe people. The nail fetishes of the Yombe or Vili have an internal abdominal cavity closed by a mirror…

The diviner used processes unique to his own ethnic group in recommending to his consultant to have an object sculpted that would serve to protect him, his family or his village. The diviner did not generally sculpt himself. Instead, he gave specific instructions to his client that were then passed on to the sculptor. Once the work was finished, the ritual object only gained its true worth after having being filled or covered with magical substances by the diviner, who to conclude consecrated it by carrying out certain rites or sacrifices. It was therefore, only after this ultimate and critical stage that the magical object or statue was believed capable of fulfilling its defensive role.

The life and death of sculptures:

And so as we have seen, African art often has a religious purpose, it is therefore sometimes surprising to see ancient sculpture for the most part neglected.

This is particularly true in the case of masks, which are normally only inhabited by the spirits during ceremonies. The rest of the time they are just vulgar pieces of wood. For example, some Dogon masks were used only once and then left to abandon, to deteriorate. Today, they are recuperated in order to be sold to collectioners who appreciate their degraded state, which acts as the hallmark of their age and authenticity.

Other sculptures were abandoned if they didn’t fulfill their function. For example, the fetish statues of the Bateke people could be de-sanctified by removing the remedies contained in their abdominal cavity. The priest would guard the statue in his home and thus fill it with  medicine destined for another client. There is then, for the Bateke people, a huge distinction made between a statue that holds a remedy, called a ‘Butti’, and one that does not, either because it has never had one, or that it no longer has one, and which is then called  a ‘Tege’.

African Sculpture within an African Framework

In contrast to the West, where the art object is on permanent display to all, certain African sculptures are only ever seen by a group of ‘initiated’ people.

For the most part, those that are interested in African art never have the occasion to see it in situ and thus form their opinions after having visited an exhibition. A museum generally only has a section with wooden masks, and where the lighting serves to bring out only one interpretation. Masks are made to be seen in movement. It is often the case that the one that appears less beautiful than the other when held in your hand, would be most spectacular worn on a costumed dancer. It is essential to see a mask being worn in order to understand what is being expressed, as it is very easy to misinterpret when seeing the mask in isolation. To really appreciate the mask in the way that it was conceived by the artists it must be seen in movement, if possible raised up and with the flickering light of naked torches. Isolating a mask means taking it out of its original context as it forms part of a whole (costume, dance, music), and it is only in relation to these different elements that it becomes animated and inhabited by the spirits. More and more, museums use videos to present masks, but this kind of measure only recreates in part the desired atmosphere: the excitement, the respect and even the fear are still missing.

Not only are numerous statues not made to be commonly seen, but moreover many African masks are not even meant to be seen when they are worn. This is the case with masks that are worn facing up to the sky and hidden by a ruffle. How many people have admired them in museums, trying to feel the emotion they give off, and yet they are not even made to be seen?

The masquerade is directed at the spirits not the spectator!