There are 50 countries and 1,000 languages in Africa, the birthplace of the human species and the second-largest continent on earth. The art in the African Art gallery reflects the traditional cultures found south of the Sahara Desert, with examples from as early as the 6th century CE. However, many of the objects date from much later, because African art is frequently made of perishable organic materials like wood, cloth, and plant fibers.
The art in these cultures served religious purposes. Animist religion played a central role, with belief in the presence of spirits who must be appeased through ritual dominating all aspects of society. Powerful forces were thought to be present not only in nature but also in manmade objects. Sculpture functioned as a material manifestation of religion and as a tangible tool for communicating with deities, spirits, and ancestors. Most Sub-Saharan sculptures are representations of the human body and the soul. But instead of portraying individuals, African artists sought to transmit qualities, such as age and experience, health and moderation, endurance and restraint, sophistication and nobility. Standards of beauty reflected moral standards, distinguishing the good from the bad. In fact, many African languages use the same word for “beautiful” and “good.”
For centuries, foreign scholars and collectors who were interested in African cultures viewed traditional objects as exotic artifacts rather than art, and housed them in ethnographic museums along with botanical or zoological samples. Over the past 100 years, African objects have gained recognition as art with emotional power, aesthetic qualities, and technical virtuosity. They also inspired such artists as van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani to explore new methods of representation, and so made an essential contribution to the emergence of Expressionism and to Cubism’s abstraction of forms.