Overview of Introduction to African Art

October 25, 1996
Carol Daddazio
Brookline Public Schools

This overview is from a series of lessons that form the basis of a discussion of African art. Students are taught that it is necessary to understand the intention of an artist as a basis of understanding any art, including African art.

Important Vocabulary:

  • Intent: Why the artist created the work, what he or she was trying to represent or convey or show
  • Encode: The meaning the artist wants to convey in this art work
  • Decode: The way an individual looks at the art and discovers meaning in the work
  • Form: How a piece of art looks, what it is made of, how it is designed
  • Content: What the artist is trying to say or convey in the art work

Through comparison of works of art from ancient Egypt to the Middle Ages in Europe, students begin to see that artists imbue their work with meaning, whether it is personal, religious, or cultural, and that and a primary goal of art is to communicate this meaning to the viewer. Discovering meaning can be confusing if we simply look at a canvas or other work of art and guess at the meaning encoded by the artist. For example, a person looking at Cezanne might inaccurately assume that his still lifes speak to a love of fruit. We know that Cezanne was interested in painting monumental shapes withweight and three dimensionality, the oranges were just the means to his goal. We, as active viewers of art, need to know the artist’s intent in terms of both the form and content of the work of art.

So, too, with African art, the viewer must understand the intention of the artist, the form, content, and meaning in order to decode or comprehend the work of art. African art spans an almost unbelievably long time and a geographic area second only to Asia in size. There are almost one thousand languages spoken and as many cultures. To speak of African art in general terms is to oversimplify a vast and rich area of human expression. Some groups have been creating art in the same way for centuries, some groups have a variety of art forms existing side by side for long periods of time, some groups have incorporated and reinterpreted art from other times and places. Factors such as climate and materials available can play an enormous part. It is essential for Western viewers, in particular, to think about what the goal of the arts was, what is the meaning this art is trying to convey.

Looking at two different art traditions will be useful. The Ife people of Nigeria made ceremonial busts of their rulers, who were called oni, to commemorate the reign of their leaders (fig. 1). These busts were used in ceremonies that celebrated the long line of oni, a line of rulers believed to stretch back to the beginning of time. These busts are made from bronze and are at once realistic and idealized in their form. They date from between the 11th and 15th centuries C.E. At the time these busts were made, the technique of bronze casting wasn’t in use in most of Europe so in this case we see artists using a sophisticated technique masterfully with startling results in terms of clarity of expression. These artistsintended to capture the faces of specific people from a specific time for the purpose of memorializing them forever. By this standard, these works are more than effective, they are powerful visions of royalty and dignity. They can be compared to portraits of our American presidents for their ability to evoke gravitas.

Now looking at picture of a wooden mask by the Tsangui people from Gabon (fig.2). This is more typical of what we think of as African art, it is stylized, not realistic. The artist who fashioned this mask had a very different intention from those who made the bronze bust. This is a mask used in ceremonies for a particular village and the mask is meant to represent the spirits of all the deceased female ancestors of the village. This is a depiction of a spirit, how could we expect it to be realistic? The goal of the artist was to symbolize these spirits, not represent each woman from the village. Thinking this mask is “primitive” or unsophisticated misses the point. The mask was intended to be abstract and vague, like a spirit.

African art is often expressive and powerful but must be understood in its own terms in order to be understood. The artist has encoded meaning, it is our job to decode this meaning to give the art its proper appreciation.

Lessons on African Art

Carol Daddazio

This is a series of lessons about art in general and forms the basis of a discussion of African art in particular. Students are taught what is necessary to know in order to understand the intention of the artist and thereby appreciate the work of art. The first lesson could last about an hour but should probably take place over a period of days. The second lesson, too, could be a series of lessons.

Important Vocabulary:

  • Intent – why the artist created the work, what he or she was trying to represent or convey or show
  • Encode – The meaning the artist wants to convey in this art work
  • Decode – The way an individual looks at the art and discovers meaning in the work
  • Form – how a piece of art looks, what it is made of, how it is designed
  • Content – what the artist is trying to say or convey in the art work Materials:
  • Art History books, including books on African art and several pictures of art from various parts of the world
  • A supply of paper and pens or crayons for students and teacher


Show examples of some art work to class and ask what the artist was trying to say in this work. For example, show a tomb painting from Egypt. Is the artist trying to paint people as they actually looked or are the poses stiff and almost impossible for real people? The purpose of many of these paintings was to provide the dead person a vision of the next world which would be remarkably like this world, only more perfect and eternal. The artist was trying to make it possible for the scene to come to life as the priests conducted ceremonies in the tomb just before the tomb was sealed. What to us might be lovely decorations were to the Egyptians a scene that would become real. Do we have this intention today when we create art?

Look at a Botticelli painting, say the Madonna Magnificent. The people in the painting are all lovely and beautifully drawn. What was this Renaissance master saying? Clearly, he is showing his devotion to the Baby Jesus and his mother, Mary. But by making the people look like people whom he saw every day, he was saying something else. He knew that the people who lived near Jesus weren’t
blonds with blue eyes. But by making the near eastern people who lived at the beginning of the Christian era look like they lived in Florence, Italy in the llOOs, he was saying that Jesus and his message wasn’t just for one time and place. He was saying that Jesus’s life has meaning for all people, even people in Florence 1,400 years later.

Show something from an impressionist and ask what the artist was getting at. For example, look at a Monet from his garden. What was the author trying to say? Students will probably think Monet loved his garden and wanted to remember it. That is true, but Monet really was interested in how light shone on various surfaces, especially water. We look at Monet’s work and say, “How pretty!” but
he wasn’t concerned with “pretty,” he was trying to capture the impression of light on flowers, trees, and water. If we just think about how “pretty” it is, we are missing a very important point.

A final and very telling example is Cezanne. In both his landscapes and his still lifes he was not very interested in the subject matter or content (the hills or pears) at all. What he was interested in was how one shape looks when it is put next to another shape. If a person thought Cezanne was a great
fruit lover, that would be a wrong impression. Cezanne was interested in shapes—rectangles, spheres, and ovals—and the fruit was only shapes to him. It would never be enough to think Cezanne liked to look at pleasant arrangements of food on a table. He wanted us to think about how the spheres looked combined with the plate, the pitcher, and the rug on the table.

The idea is that artists are giving us important messages about the meaning of their work by choosing a particular form. It is our job when we look at works of art to figure out what the artist intended when he or she created the work. We do this by looking not only at the content (what we see in the work) but also by looking at the form (how the artist decides to portray the content). Sometimes the form is more important than the content. If we don’t look at both form and content, we can’t be sure what the artist had in mind. The artist intends for there to be both form and content.


Let’s try to see if we can work with these ideas. You are going to make a work of art thinking about putting meaning in the form (how your work looks) and content (what you are trying to show). Draw a picture that tells us something about you. Maybe something you like to do, or a place you enjoy, or your favorite something or other, or an idea that is important to you. In other words, you are going to try to “encode” meaning in your work and then we are going to see if we can “decode” your meaning. We’re going to see if we can “get” your meaning. For example, I once had a student who drew many common objects scattered all around his paper and none of us could figure out what the meaning was although we tried hard. Finally, he blurted out, “Don’t you see, everything is green. That’s my favorite color.” The objects weren’t important per se, they were just a way for him to draw in green.

This can be tricky to get started but I have found that many kids are very literal and clear. There have been lots of cats and dogs drawn because they are favorite pets. Some people draw their family to show they value family highly. Some students draw sports equipment or a vacation house. Some students draw hearts as a way of saying they love life or are happy. One student drew a bleak, dark, castle because she feels alone and is scared. One girl drew water as a way of saying she felt free and peaceful when she was in the water. Give them time to think and have examples of art in books or posters around for them to see and perhaps gain inspiration.

When students are finished, have them share. Have each student ask what meaning the class decodes from his or her work. Then have the student explain what he or she was trying in encode in the work. This could take a long time, you may want to take a couple of sessions to do this. It is a fascinating exercise to see how students communicate and what they have to communicate to the group. They may be surprised at what someone else sees, maybe they didn’t intend a certain idea to come across but it clearly does.

African Art

Begin by asking them what they consider art to be. A good homework assignment would be to have each student bring in an example of what they consider to be art: a picture, photo, newspaper, magazine, book illustration, etc. They may love cartoons, super heroes, each other’s drawings, maybe even traditional art. Ask them why they enjoy this art. They may like the way it looks, it may have cool colors, it may be a subject that they really love, such as horses or athletes, they may like the super heroes themselves and like to see pictures of them. It might remind them of something else. Some may like some kind of religious art from their cultures. That may have some meaning to them. The teacher should show something he or she enjoys, talk a little about what he or she considers art and why it is important to him or her. This is a way of demonstrating that art is personal and has meaning based on what we bring to it and how well we understand it. Perhaps a chart or class list could be generated telling what people in the class consider as art and why people like it. This could remain posted and be added to as the discussion continues.

All of this leads to looking at African art. Students should now understand that looking at art is a challenging activity, and if we know nothing about the artist’s intentions we can easily misunderstand what the artist was trying to accomplish or, in other words, we may not be able to decode. They should also be aware that the reasons we enjoy or value art is personal and there can be many reasons why art is important to us. I would say this lesson should go on over a period of a couple of days. It is definitely too much for one sitting.

For this activity, you will need pictures of several kinds of African art. There are many books of African art and I have added a brief list at the end of lessons. I have chosen two examples which show some of the fantastic variety in African art. Students need to think about looking at art through the artist’s and his or her culture’s eyes, not our eyes. They need to understand that knowing the intention of the artist is critical to understanding or appreciating the work of art.

There needs to be some background here about African art. Explain, using the map, just how vast a continent Africa is. Not only is Africa large, but geographic features such as deserts, mountain ranges, and the rain forest make travel across the continent difficult. Explain that we believe life first started in Africa and so Africa would have the longest tradition of art. Explain that there are over 1,000 languages spoken on the continent and each language group had a somewhat different culture, so there would be many traditions of art, some extremely different from others. Materials for creating art were different across the continent, some materials we consider important for creating art such as marble and stone are rare in, Africa. Climate has a part in play in how art is preserved, for example, carving wood is an important tradition, but wood can rot in the rain forest’s humidity. Terra cotta (baked mud or clay) is fragile. All of these factors have an impact on what art we see and how we understand it. However, African art has many of the same goals as any other art: there is decorative art which is beautiful to look at, and art which teaches and explains the culture. Above all, this art is meant to be religious and meaningful, it speaks to what many Africans consider to be a strong connection between the world in which they live and the spirit world of gods and ancestors. Much of the art we see will be portraits of spirits.

Further, when Europeans first looked at African art, they thought it was so simple that they didn’t see the tradition or philosophy that produced it. They looked at it through their eyes and, to them, it didn’t make sense. It is so important for us to understand why the art looks the way it does and what it is trying to say.


Look at these two pictures. One is of a bronze ceremonial head. It was made by the Ife people in what is now Nigeria. It is thought to be from between the 11th and 15th centuries . The other is of a wooden mask made by the Tsangui people from Cabon (photos attached).

First, I would ask the class to guess why each of these pieces was made. They may have a better idea of what the Ife head represents. They should see it as a portrait of a man who was an oni, or ruler. I would record these ideas and/or discuss them. This should be straightforward and not very difficult for them to understand. The head, or bust, of the oni was fashioned after death and the bust was used to remember him. The bust was used during important ceremonies to remind the people that there was a long tradition of rulers and that they traced their power back to the beginning of time. The scars on the face were thought to enhance the beauty of the face in the same way that we think make up and sometimes tattoos or earrings enhance our beauty. While this is a portrait of a particular person, the face is made to be especially handsome and perfect. Ask students if they have seen a portrait of a president or other person who looked better in the painting than in real life. This is an idealization of the person. This oni represented the fact that their group was stable over time and had a long history. You could easily find a similar bust or statue from American history to compare it to, for example, Stuart’s portrait of George Washington or other presidents.

The second piece is more challenging. It is a ceremonial mask carved of wood and it was meant to be worn during a ceremony. Originally, it was covered in a white substance. This mask represented all female ancestors of the group. Many groups of people, including the Tsangui, believed that ancestors were ever-present among the living and were to be remembered at all times. Those who had died were the link between the living and the gods. The ancestors interceded on behalf of the living; it was critically important that the ancestors be pleased by the living or else they couldn’t ask the gods to help the people with favorable weather, health, or any other concern of the group. Therefore, the mask would be worn during ceremonies to remind everyone of the presence and importance of the female ancestors. This mask doesn’t present a particular woman at all, it represents all the female ancestors. The mask is of a spirit, not a woman, and so her face has been changed so that she could be any woman. The artist who made her was interested in symmetry and elegance of design, not in specific features or details. The fact that she doesn’t have a mouth might mean that she doesn’t speak in the world of the living, only in the spirit world. Her eves seem to be turned inward or almost closed, barely observing this world but instead focusing on the next world. This artist was very concerned about design and, in fact, it is a beautiful shape. The artist wasn’t trying to be realistic, how does one make a picture of a spirit? That is impossible, rather he makes a mask that reminds us of a woman, but not a particular woman.

I would follow this up by asking students to choose either style and then to represent either an accurate portrait or a picture of a spirit. It would be interesting to see if they tried to make idealized portraits or abstract ones. This could be the source of more discussion or even an art show that others could view.

Finally, depending on the age of the students, I would ask them to write about how they would tell someone to look at a work of African art that is very different from what they are used to seeing. It would be a way to evaluate how well they have understood the important points you have been making about art in general and African art in particular.

Books of Interest for the Teacher

Lifschitz, Edward, The Art of West African Kingdoms. (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.: 1987) ISBN 0-87474-611-6

Meyer, Laure, Black Africa: Masks, Sculpture, Jewelry. (Pierre Terrail, Paris, 1992) ISBN 2-87939-035-4

Vogel, Susan M., Aesthetics of African Art. (The Center for African Art, New York: 1986) ISBN 0-961-4587-1-2

Thompson, Robert F., Flashes of the Spirit.

A school or public library will have many more titles.