Key Concepts for Understanding African Art

The art of Africa, despite a rich history, is still largely misunderstood and underappreciated. Because of the striking differences between African and Western conceptions of social position, spirituality, beauty, and ethics, many Westerners find it difficult to empathize with African depictions of these topics. In this article, we will attempt to demystify traditional African art by outlining its core tenets and concepts.

First, it should be noted that the phrase "African art" is often used to refer to a wide variety of artistic practices from across the sub-Sahara. While there are significant differences between the traditional arts of different African countries, there are also commonalities.

Abstract Human Figures

As one of its most distinguishing features, African art is often quite abstract in its presentation. Abstract forms predominate in traditional African art. The African preference for abstraction originates in the artist's desire to convey a concept rather than merely depict a subject. African artists often alter, restructure, and reinterpret the forms of animals and humans to convey a deeper meaning or message.

Because most traditional African paintings have an ethical or religious subtext, these abstract human and animal figures often represent spirits, legendary gods, their powers, moral ideals, superstitions, etc. Since much African art is symbolic, it conveys concepts and teachings that go well beyond the superficial. Common characteristics of African Art include, for instance, exaggerated proportions in human figures, especially their heads. There is no mistaking the symbolism. In art, a king or tribal leader with a particularly large head is typically depicted as a symbol of intelligence and wisdom.

African abstraction is not due to constraints imposed by the medium or a lack of technical proficiency on the part of the artist. In fact, it was a deliberate decision made by the artist to emphasize a particular point. Most obviously, African painters often emphasize the beauty ideal that predominates in their society rather than depicting it in a naturalistic, figurative style. Large breasts and a round stomach are frequently used to symbolize a woman's fertility and her nurturing nature whenever her entire body is depicted.

Generic Physiognomy

Have you ever thought about how similar all heads are? Generic physiognomy is what artists use when they don't bother to personalize a portrait. Once a visual artist masters the fundamentals of creating a human head (eye, mouth, chin, etc.), it's not uncommon for that kind of head to be used in all of the artist's subsequent works. Instead of customizing each face, this same basic head type is repeatedly replicated. In addition to the obvious (it's simpler to paint the same face repetitively), it's thought that African painters avoided making realistic expressions because of the worry that the figures may be used as voodoo dolls to manipulate, frighten people, and bring them harm.

Dignity & Self-composure

Art from Africa often depicts serene figures representing the ideal of inner calm. People who are able to keep their cool are seen as reasonable and confident. The ideal depiction of a human being is one that is calm and unaffected by their feelings. This is why most African art and sculptures depict serious-looking people who neither smile nor frown.

To further convey a high social status, the subject should be shown from the front with no sideways movement. When you examine African sculptures, you'll see that the figures' spines are straight and their heads are held level and facing forward. An individual's official rank can be indicated by whether or not they are depicted head-on. In most cultures, a kid or a person of lower rank is indicated when a statue's head is slanted or tilted.

African artists almost never show humans in motion because they prefer the ideal of stillness. Because motion suggests labor, African painters often depict a motionless figure to emphasize the virtues of a superior creature. The qualities of grandeur and permanence include stillness, point of focus, and lack of emotion.


The human race is continually presented in a pristine state of youth. Artists in Africa seldom depict their subjects as sick or aged since those are seen as bad omens. That's why actors always play human characters when they're in their prime: young and robust. Fertility, vigor, productivity, and the capacity to work are all attributes associated with a youthful appearance. The artist will utilize other symbols, such as a beard to represent old age, while leaving the face youthful and free of wrinkles when depicting an elderly subject. Even infants who pass away are sometimes shown as adults, with the robust physique of the young person they were destined to become.


The concept of luminosity, another theme frequently explored in African art, is strongly linked to the idea of youth. Many African sculptures feature glossy, polished surfaces, which are meant to represent glowing, healthy skin. In African belief, a person's brightness is indicative of their moral character, just as physical attractiveness and health are in Western belief. According to this reading, the person's moral fiber gives off a special sheen, like a candle lit from within. Also, the inverse is true. Rough surfaces on figures are meant to convey unattractiveness and immorality on purpose.

Rank in Society

The size of the figures shown is often used as a symbol of social status in African art. That's right; the rule of thumb is that the tallest and biggest person in a group illustration is the most important and influential person there is, while the smallest person is the lowest. Hieratic or hierarchical sizing refers to the practice of depicting human figures at different scales depending on their social rank rather than their actual height. Infants and young children are an obvious exception to this rule; their small stature is a reflection of their youth and lack of social maturity.

Meet the Heart of Africa and Learn Its Culture

Some of the most important aspects of African visual culture include the following. In any case, remember that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule, especially when it comes to African art. African art is a window into the continent's psyche and soul. Exploring the depths of Africa's history would require volumes, but I hope that what I've written here serves as a good introduction. Moreover, if you add African artworks to your house or collection, you'll establish a personal connection with a people and a way of life that is both foreign and familiar to admirers of visual art from all over the world.