African Aesthetic

An explication of an African aesthetic requires an operative definition of aesthetic. Admittedly, the term evolved out of the Greek word aesthetikos, which means merely “perceptive,” but the term aesthetic is widely held to connote a philosophy of beauty. We normally speak of an aesthetic as representing the standards by which a society assigns value to their cultural productions, especially their expressive art forms, such as music, dance, theater, and the visual arts (e.g., painting and sculpture). Although many African ethnic groups do not have a specific word or term similar to the word aesthetic, the value that they place on their artistic productions—music, dance, sculpture, and masked spiritual entities—is equal to the value that other societies place on similar art forms, and thus an African aesthetic exists in practice if not in name.

The Expressive Nature of the Aesthetic

Melodic speech that comes down to us as song is probably as old as speech itself, and movement to music— dance—may well be synchronous in inception with speech and song. Visual expression reaches at least as far back as the Paleolithic age, and it is through this early recorded art form that one can plausibly point to ritual dance scenes that would also, no doubt, involve incantations or song. Furthermore, Africa's expressive arts can be identified because their character is distinctive from that of other cultures' artistic modalities. Although no exact formal philosophy of African art exists, when the practice of African art is scrutinized over time and space, it speaks volumes. Black Studies scholars have investigated ways of developing an aesthetic construct that encompasses one African art form and can also be applied to other African art forms. What follows is an examination of African artistic productions and how the many artistic practices, from the Paleolithic period on, express, represent, or signify a predilection for the unique and valued multiplicity of what is commonly held as African art.
The magnitude and diversity of prehistoric rock and cave art in Africa are staggering and almost beyond belief. The sites in North Africa, which include the Tassili Plateau, the Atlas Mountains, and others, number in the tens of thousands. In the southern portion of Africa, there are at least 100,000 sites. The oldest among the different sites date back to between 26,000 and 30,000 B. C. E. Anthropologist Mary Leaky discovered prehistoric art in Kenya and Tanzania that she assigned dates back to at least 15,000 B. C. E.; the finds at Tassili date back to at least 30,000 years. All of the investigators of prehistoric African art have expressed their amazement at its variety and distinctiveness. The Paleolithic art of different areas in Africa, whether carved into rocks and caves' walls or painted on them, reveals depictions of realistic images as well as abstracted versions. Such a variety of early expressions of art portends the multiplicity of traditional and present-day African art.

The Significant Elements

An examination of African art from this early period down through the ages reveals the embodiment of three significant elements: craftedness, originality, and spirituality. The fact that at different sites different types of images are identifiable reveals that certain stylistic norms were being practiced even during the Paleolithic period. Such adherence to an acceptable mode of creating images or scenes is a communicable craftedness. Within the various identifiable types, subtle variations appear to have been permissible, allowing for a certain amount of originality. While specific religious intentions cannot be proven or corroborated, most paleontologists and art historians agree that some, if not most, of the human images with symbols connoting natural or celestial concepts represent some form of spirituality or spiritual ritual. Thus the ability to craft the images to meet specific group criteria, but with individual variation, and yet have the image exude or suggest a certain spiritual aura follows African art's evolution and metamorphosis down through the ages. A close study of Paleolithic African art therefore establishes that even in this early age a predilection for particular expression, a predisposition for specific icons, a propensity for symbolic images with religious implications, an “aesthetic” is indisputable.
Like the prehistoric cave and rock art, traditional African art has a socioreligious function. Whereas the prehistoric depiction of animals had a function related to hunting ritual, and scenes involving humans and celestial icons had some divine or propitiation ceremonial function, anthropological field research has shown that traditional African art's function is related to one or more of life's passages—birth, initiation, marriage, eldership, death, rebirth. This need to create art for a ritual or ceremony to celebrate the rites of passage is a sociological behavior shared by most of Africa's indigenous groups. It is through an examination of certain images, icons, and symbols, as well as an unprecedented use of mixed media to create the unique concepts of African art, that one can discern a plausible connectedness of African art across time and space. This diachronic and synchronic inquiry also reveals that African art is often spiritually based, even when such art serves a cultural function rather than having been created for or used in a specific religious ceremony. That African art has continued to have a cultural function when many other cultures ceased to use art in such a fashion is indicative that there is a shared African aesthetic.

The Commemorative Functions

Examples of this continued use of art with a cultural function are the commemorative sculptures of African rulers—earlier on the monumental Pharaohs of ancient Kemet and Nubia, and more recently the Ndop of the Bakuba. Just as the Kemetians and the Nubians felt that their rulers were god-kings (i.e., rulers endowed with godlike qualities), the Bakuba symbolize Ndop's significance as Chemba Kunji. Each sculptural image is a commemorative work of art paying homage to a beloved and respected ruler by the portrayal of his physical likeness or by indicating by symbolic embellishment his attributes and contributions that enhanced his people during his reign. As the ruler, he is revered unquestionably because his ordination began with a divine ritual giving him the sacred abilities of the supreme creator. The same can be said of the images of the Oni of Ile Ife, of the Oba of Benin, and of the Bangwa of the Bamaleke.
Other examples of how different African ethnic groups share an aesthetic of a spiritually based art are the mother-and-child figures of the Asante, the Yoruba, the Senufu, the Bamana, the Bakongo, the Chokwe, and the Makonde, to name just a few. All of these mother-and-child images serve the same purpose as the earlier image of Auset holding Heru. A comparison of the religious practices of Kemetians (ancient Egyptians) and those of the Nubians and other indigenous Nilotic peoples reveals similarities. The religious practices one finds in Egypt and Sudan, one also finds in Congo and Benin. The mother figure as gestator, nourisher, and giver of life symbolizes the earth as mother and the African woman as the visual prototype. A Paleolithic rock painting of this madonna motif and a sculpture of the earliest portrayal of Auset and Heru leave no question about the Africanness of either of these mother-and-child figures symbolizing birth, regeneration, and nourishment.
The unique variations of masked figures among most African groups—such as Nimba of the Baga, Kponiugo of the Senufu, Banda of the Nulu, and so on—have their counterparts in early rock and cave art, as well as in the Kemetian panoply of sacred images that are part human and part animal (e.g., Sphinx, Anubis, Sekhmet, etc.). Many African scholars agree that a primal reason for African people art from prehistoric times forward is that it serves a survival function that involves giving physical form to spiritual meaning. African artists create a synthesis of visual elements that exemplify the special attributes of the spiritual entity being represented.

The Type Motifs

There are many type-motifs that symbolize various aspects of culture. These type-motifs may be the exaggeration of content-loaded concepts, such as enlarged breasts, oversized genitals, the pregnant stomach, or the expanded protruding navel, suggesting nourishment, procreation, or continuity of life. Such aesthetic standards become visual canons, general formulas, artistic conventions that must be followed by the artists or artisans of each ethnic group; otherwise viewers from outside of the particular cultural groups would not be able to recognize Yoruba art as being distinct from Asante art, Bakuba art as distinct from Dan art, Senufu art as distinct from Bayaka art, and so on. While the art of each group is distinct from the art of every other group, each discernible practice is nonetheless one of multiple expressions of similar cultures sharing a common origin of interconnectedness flowing from earlier rock and cave art. It is clear that this vast interconnected African art shared a beginning from which flowed similar content concerns with spiritual and religious ramifications. Through an examination of the form—medium selection, decorative motifs, design patterns—an African aesthetic becomes even more incontrovertible.
African artistic expression is older and more numerous than any other group's artistic achievement the world over. From thousands of Paleolithic rock and cave paintings to the monumental art of the Nile Valley civilizations to traditional and contemporary expressions throughout Africa and the pan-African world, a multitude of African groups have shared unique and distinct artistic idioms.
There is no separation between form and content in African art. A broad analysis of the form of Africa's art, from its masked spiritual representations to its expressive sculptural statues to its textiles and tapestries, reveals cultural productions that are complex— brightly colored with multifarious patterns and/or embellished with intricate designs. This type of expressive elegance is also exhibited in Africa's other expressive art forms, such as music, dance, and theater, as well as in different religious rituals. The richness of African music and dance has long been accepted and documented as a viable contribution to world culture.

The Aesthetic in Music

African music is distinguished from the music of other world traditions by the superimpositions of several lines of meter. Broadly speaking, the difference between African and European rhythms is that whereas any piece of European music has at any one moment one rhythm in command, a piece of African music has always two or three and sometimes as many as four rhythms. A similar correlation can be made between European and African dance, whether or not it is being performed in a particular religious ceremony or secular presentation. Take the wedding ceremony dance of the Tiv people of Nigeria. A Western researcher had to be taught to dance the dance of the Tiv to understand it. It was not as simple as she thought it would be. Having learned the dance steps, she was then taught to move her hips and shoulders in particular ways. “My hands and my feet were to keep time with the gongs, my hips with the first drum, my back and shoulders with the second.” The Tiv wedding dance was not unlike most African dance in that good dancers are expected to move one or more parts of their bodies to one or more of the different rhythms being played by different instruments of different drums.
All of Africa's significant expressive cultural modes use many dominant or simultaneously significant elements. This multidominance or simultaneity can be experienced when listening to the multirhythmic, polymetric African music; when observing the multimovements of different parts of the body of an African dancer; and when looking at African fabrics with their multiple use of color and patterns, African masks with their colorful and mixed media fabrication, and African sculptures with their intricately ornamented surfaces. Simply stated, the concept of multidominant cultural elements is a useful construct by which to measure, analyze, or describe African culture, especially its expressive art forms such as music, dance, and textile design (printed or woven), and probably their multilayered folk literature as well. The predisposition to apply colors in layers; the proclivity to use high-key sharply contrasting colors; and the predilection for use of multiple textures, mixed media, and complex design patterns and shapes is fundamental to African material culture and its visual art.



  • cave art
  • rock art
  • art
  • African aesthetic
  • dance
  • caves
  • sculpture


Further Reading

  • Asante, Kariamu Welsh. (1994). African Aesthetics. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. This is an examination of the polydimensionality of African art forms.
  • Garlake, Peter. (1987). The Painted Caves. Harare, Zimbabwe: Modus. This book concludes that there are as many as 30,000 different rock painting sites in Zimbabwe alone.
  • Lewis-Williams, David. (1983). The Rock Art of Southern Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press. This book lists thousands of rock art sites by area in different countries throughout Southern Africa.