Masks and statues in Africa are not art objects

It is common to hear about primitive African arts, or to see museums of African art in Africa and around the world. But where does this term “African art” come from?

Gallery of “primitive African arts” or “of African art”

It is clear that the term “African art” is a western term. Indeed, the large, small, wooden, ivory, bronze or golden masks, sculptures and statuettes – which were stolen by the West during colonization or the ones Westerners get to see when they stay on the continent – are referred to as “African art” by them.

But are these thousands of objects – made by Africans throughout their long history – art? Are they intended to be viewed or admired? The answer is no, because art in the western view and in a generally accepted opinion, consists in the representation of beauty, the appearances of beings and things as they are perceived in nature. Therefore, when westerners make art, they reproduce things (stones, trees, etc.) or beings (humans, animals, etc.) in paintings or sculptures (sometimes in a fantasist, imaginary or realistic way).

The West considers that the Universe – from the smallest to the largest element – is essentially material and visible. So, these are the world’s material elements which are reproduced to be continuously exhibited and publicly seen in museums, or purchased to be seen by a private person.

Example of a European art painting. We see nature clearly represented as it appears to the naked eye (the sky, clouds, greenery, etc.). This is what Westerners themselves call classical art, just as realistic Greek sculptures also classically use the definition of art.

In Africa however, sculptures, statuettes, masks and many more are not the continuation of a materialistic philosophy.

Africans consider that the Universe is composed of 3 essential elements: the Spiritual (Ba), the Energetic (Ka) and the Material (Khat). The Spiritual and the Energetic are derived from the Creator. They are the elements that animate the Material and enable it to live. The Spiritual and the Energetic therefore take precedence over the Material. The Invisible is superior to the Visible.

Therefore, when an African is making statuettes or sculptures, he does not intend to materialize things as they are visible to the naked eye in nature. He rather intends to do so for invisible things, spirits, deities, and the ancestors’ spirits.

All these objects are in reality material supports of the Invisible and have two functions: to populate the earthly world with spirits and to order the energy distribution.

In a dominant way, these supports have imaginary forms in search of the Invisible. These forms in particular are evocative of the “African art”. These masks were made at the request of the priests, who then vitalized them, that is to say, who brought the Spirit or Energy needed to inhabit the statue.
Pende and Metoko masks from DR Congo
Africa has also produced realistic materials as in Egypt. The Edo-Yoruba sculptures are the best examples during the Imperial period (Image: Yoruba sculptures from Ile-Ifé, Nigeria)
Statuette representing fertility. During the rites, God’s manifestation representing fertility was to come and spiritually inhabit the statue and assist the women in the community, so that they would continue to conceive and give birth.
The fact that present-day-colonized Africans call these statues harmful “fetishes”, shows how tragically regressive and ignorant we have become.
Fon Royal statuettes of Danhomey, made for the Vodoun cult
The Ato ceremony of the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), on 18 June 2018 at musée du quai Branly, Paris / GERARD JULIEN/AFP

All these objects are mainly used for rituals and worship. They are objects of worship and are therefore not intended to be sold or exhibited in museums as art objects.

Cameroonian Africanologist Mbog Bassong tells us more about the rationale of these statuettes and sculptures: “Sacred objects are not museum objects (…) All the power of our ancestral empires and kingdoms was coming from the spatial positioning of these objects, at the entrance of temples or kingdoms, at neuralgic, telluric or energetic places allowing to grid the social space. »

In that regard, taking African masks or traditional African statues and sculptures and hanging them up at home as if they were decoration, is like entering a church, taking a statue and placing it at home to make it a simple ornament.

By stealing or destroying these objects by the tens of thousands, often by force and after killing priests and burning houses of worship, the European and Arab colonizers had two objectives: to kill Africans spiritually, to make them ignorant of their identity and therefore exploitable; to make subsequent generations of Africans – who do not know this ancestral work – believe that they are incapable of making such beautiful things and thus lock them up in an eternal inferiority complex.

In short, masks, statuettes and sculptures are not art because:

  • They try to represent the Invisible (Spirit, Energy) and not the Visible (Material).
  • They are objects of worship and not objects intended to be exhibited and viewed.

The same can be said of music, as we explained here. Its original function is to reproduce the ordered sound of Creation. Ancient Africa, so spiritual, was very different from today’s materialistic Africa.

Nevertheless, African sacred objects are to be distinguished from the artistic works of painters and contemporary African sculptors who make sculptures and paintings, in other words, true contemporary African arts, intended to be seen and sold.

Contemporary African Art
Hyper-realistic painting of Nigerian artist Olumide Oresegun


By : Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

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