Form and function in African Art, a brief examination.

Most art has both literal and figurative meanings attached to them, and if these meanings are understood, purposefully and skillfully used in the creation of a work of art the combination can convey subtle messages or sometimes bold outlooks on life that can change a nation, and even define a time period. Lately I have been rethinking the application of the literal and figurative in the context of form and function in handmade art (as some would refer to as craft). So, I’ve decided to re-examine my own approach and focus on African Art from a viewpoint of form and function.

firstly, lets us ask ourselves what makes African Art distinctively ”African”? the answers to this question are as vast as the landscape of the continent itself and cannot possibly be defined in a vacuum. However, there is a subtlety in differences with regards to particular regions and periods of their individual history. Form and function play a vital role in African art tradition and transcends the conventional appropriation of Art that is more common to Western culture. With varied modes of expression in sometimes small areas there is evidence of a much larger commitment to artistic innovation in form, expression and ensemble- what is made, how it’s made and how it is used.

Innovation in form is visible in the vast differences between art from early archeological findings prior to the twentieth centry and art being made in those same regions today, regions such as the Yoruba city of Ile-Ife. Culturally, innovation is encouraged in order to individualize differences in expression, however this speaks to a larger preference (of much of Africa) for varied forms of visual abstraction and the significance of naturalistic renderings. These bold interpretations and expressions embodied in sculpture and other forms of African art is what enticed European artists in the beginning of the twentieth century to rethink form in their work.

Artists like Pablo Picasso demonstrated this in many of his paintings in the period of 1907-1909. Other artists would follow suit and explore these modes of abstraction two-dimensionally and three-dimensionally as well in years following Picasso. The sculptural primacy of design in African art stands on its own regarding three-dimensionality, but when combined with two-dimensional art a far greater consciousness in innovation is accomplished. Art created then becomes four-dimensional (spanning time as well as height, breadth and depth) where the human body plays a role in its transcendence. This is more evident in African jewelry, masks and clothing created in a variety of masqueraded performances.

Multiplicity in Function in African art takes numerous forms. Elaborate personal decorations, sculptures, adornment of jewelry, the wearing of visually impactful masks figuratively represents the differences of the individuals. Each aspect is a performance with art, many in their ensemble become art. Great emphasis has been placed on the transformation of the human body in African art, especially regarding adornment. Ancient paintings discovered in the Sahara and other regions illustrate human beings adorned in elaborate markings and beadwork which is conceptually spiritual and the physical correspondent to a mask. Human beings are a primary component in African art, where representations of the spirit, society and traditions coalesce in meaning simultaneously.

African Goli face mask.

In Western art iconography most generally a particular meaning and function is defined. In African art however meanings are more viried, hence art created can be used for a variety of functions by different members of the society. This dynamism in art symbolism adds to the unique nature of African art, especially in the realm of craft and jewelry making or other physical adornments.

African art continues to redefine itself, even in the twenty- first century, even though some critics still question its place as ‘art’. Form and function in African art adds to its intellectual complexity, furthermore adding to its aesthetic value and contribution to the arts globally. This aesthetic African quality and vibrancy has intrigued me to embark on this new journey fusing form and function, all the while challenging the canon of “art for art’s sake” that is typically applied erroneously to African crafts. this is a journey in education about my African heritage, its impact in my work and the direct role I wish for my art to have in society, both literally and figuratively.

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