Traditional versus contemporary African art

contemporary African artcontemporary African art
contemporary African artcontemporary African art


Traditional versus contemporary African art

When you imagine African art, what do you see? Do you see tribal masks, figurine sculptures and paintings of African women carrying water on top of their heads? If so, then you seem to be stuck in the traditional African art era.

The world is constantly developing and changing with the times and trends, even in countries where trends seem to linger on longer than in others. We are all progressing into the contemporary world. So why is it that internet searches of “African art” depict them as having remained traditional into 2018?

The truth is that African art has changed.


Traditional African art

Traditional African art is pertinent to religious practices and many art pieces serve as spiritual and even hierarchical aids in an African tribe. African art, in the traditional sense, is created with societal, religious and personal status as its purpose and, therefore, plays a huge role in the way the rest of the world has come to understand African culture. It’s important to note that African art, in a traditional environment, is always created to fulfil a purpose within the tribe.

Two of the characteristics of traditional art forms that are evident in most of their pieces are:

  • The subject of a human being (or something with human-like traits) which relates to spiritual connotations or a means of depicting life and death.
  • The quality of youth for the subjects in the sculptures or paintings is there as a symbol of strength, fertility and being in the prime of life. This was also reinforced by presenting their subjects with seemingly flawless skin.

Another aspect of traditional African art that cannot be ignored are the materials with which it are created. Making use of the natural materials around them, with the handmade tools they designed, is one of African art’s trademarks. Wood, stone, ivory and brass are common materials used in the creation in the creation of African art.


Contemporary African art

Now we look towards the contemporary African art that Africa should be currently associated with in the eyes of the world.

Contemporary African art isn’t a completely separated art style from the more traditional pieces. If you take a look at the subjects, you’ll still find human subjects and an air of youthfulness in the art pieces through the vibrancy of the colours and young people. And you’ll still find things like the traditional masks and tribal designs in contemporary art, they’re just depicted in a more abstract way. When you look at the materials used in contemporary art, you’ll find pretty much anything and everything, but there are some artists who still make use of the materials around them. Maybe not all natural materials, but rather plastics and recyclable materials, for example. The connection is still there.

But, arguably, the greatest difference between traditional and contemporary African art is its purpose. Contemporary art doesn’t seek to fulfil a purpose in a religious ceremony, cater for the spirits or demonstrate an individual's status in a society. Its purpose is the same of that as most art in the modern world – to be emotive, relevant, tell a story and aid a social movement (to name a few).

Having these seemingly universal motivations behind the purpose of African art, however, does not in any way make it a product of a Westernised or universal culture. It’s still labelled African art and by viewing these art pieces you can instantly find the African roots and associations in them.


Welcoming the times we’re in

This is the direction that African art is moving in and it’s time that the world comes around and acknowledges it. We, here in Africa, don’t associate the sum of American art over the years as merely the painting of a farmer standing with his wife, farmhouse in the background and pitchfork in hand. You’re more likely to find urban and street art in the United States and everyone knows that.

But even in Africa, we need to be more conscious on how we promote the new-wave of contemporary art in our streets and curio shops. Tourists won’t know any better if all they’re exposed to are hand woven baskets, wooden figurines, beaded bracelets and tribal masks at the market stalls. We need to welcome the times we’re in and promote all aspects of African art in our countries.

And it’s not in an effort to say that traditional African art should be non-existent in today’s world or that the only place for it is in a museum. It’s to say (and let the world know) what African art has developed and progressed into: a culmination of some traditional elements in a freeflow of contemporary creativity.


contemporary African art