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The nature and function of African traditional sculpture

By Job Joy

 African sculpture takes many forms and offers huge insights into the cultures and tribal community from whence it came.

African sculptures are most often figurative, representing the human form and fashioned primarily from wood, but it can also be stylized, abstracted and carved from stone. It can span centuries and be as ancient as the advent of tools. It can also be as modern as right now, today, where it is lauded and appreciated as contemporary art form.

Traditional or tribal African sculpture typically may be religious or spiritual in nature, dealing primarily with the human form and sometimes animals or mythical objects. They show creative spirits and skills that exhibit good balance, craftsmanship, and attention to detail and finishing – an essence of design that realises the creator’s attention.

African sculpture can often be described as monumental in that the figure or form is not separated from the wood or stone from which it is carved, giving it a feel of heavy permanence.

The portrayal of the human form is not necessarily proportional but often strives to emphasize or exaggerate specific bodily characteristics that the sculptor is interested in communicating. They are often used as forms of communication between people and supernatural forces and beings.

African traditional arts are crafted by the artists and then given their power by religious practitioners who make contact with the spirit worlds of their gods and ancestors. However, their purposes are very varied; bringing fertility, rain, good harvests; warding off disease, natural calamities, evil spirits; helping with social decisions and judgments; commemorating important events, and making political statements. Sculptures can be extremely large to ensure the well-being of an entire community. But they can also be replicated in a small fashion for individuals to be used in their private homes, giving them similar benefits.

According to history, the longest recorded tradition of sculpture in Africa is figures modeled in terracotta, followed in the 12th Century by the cast-metal sculptures of the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria.

However, much of the wood sculptors found today in Africa are 20th Century. It is much rarer today to find 19th Century arts, or before, if it is not preserved in a museum, simply because of deterioration of the material through termites or rot. In general, African sculpture represents human form, occasionally animal or both, and may be spiritual in nature.

Most African sculptures were not created to be sold but rather were produced for specific roles such as to celebrate or honour an important occasion, make political comments or to represent religious ideals. Through fascination and acquisition by foreigners, these sculptures created their own marketplace in the Western art world and were thus given monetary values. African sculpture, in all its forms, relates to a myriad of social and religious perspectives and traditions and through the study of these corporal art forms, we can have insight into the origins of humanity and to the abstract forces that have shaped human perception.

Job Joy Emmanuel is a student of the Mass Communication Department, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State.


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