While African art is one of the most all-encompassing and non-definitive art forms in the world, there remain some aspects of it that have been common denominators throughout the continent and over extended spans of time. These characteristics signify the artists’ priorities, ideals and values, as well as that of the society that has moulded him or her.
The first characteristic that occurs in most sculptures and paintings is that the subject RESEMBLES A HUMAN BEING. This is significant as not all subjects are actually human. However, by assigning human characteristics to the figure, the artist ensures that his or her subjects are able to identify and thus relate to the subject and the art piece as a whole. Human figures are used to symbolise living and dead and can also be used to convey the idea of a spiritual being. Many African artists inter-morphed figures of humans and animals to create a kind of hybrid being.
The second common denominator is that of YOUTHFULNESS. A young, healthy figure, whether male or female, represents vitality, health and fertility. This was especially important in the times when African people lived off the land. Men needed to be strong and fit so that they could hunt and build, providing for their family. Women needed to be fertile and energetic so that they could care for the children and household duties efficiently.
Thirdly, the skin of the subject is generally LUMINOUS and UNFLAWED. This was achieved by polishing stone or clay, or by the use of certain paints and varnishes. Flawless skin reinforced the healthful, young appearance and further enhanced the ideology of youthful health.
The subject of the painting would often appear RESERVED, with head bowed, shoulders curled and a gentle manner. This did not represent weakness or cowering submission on the part of the subject, but a control of his or her self, perhaps amidst turmoil and stress. This self-control is perceived as a strength amongst many African cultures, a weapon that can be more powerful than an aggressive assault.
Finally, African artists place much import on BALANCE AND PROPORTION. However, this is not always achieved by having a perfectly realistic approach to depicting a human or animal subject. Rather, proportion is achieved using colour, material and balance in terms of scale. By being aware of these traits across the African art spectrum, spectators are able to interpret and understand the message being conveyed by the piece.