How African Sculpture Influences Modern Art


Many African schools of art study Western art and glorify the innovations of the “Cubists”, “Fauvists” and “Expressionists”, yet the genii of these works are rooted in African aesthetics and stylistic renderings.

Zimbabweans are no exceptions due to the fact that a significant component of tertiary art education is based on the study of the history of European and Western art.

Modernist artists such as Brancusi, Leger, Rodin, Braque and others were drawn to African sculpture because of its sophisticated approach to the abstraction of the human figure.

The works of Picasso, Vlaminck, Matisse, etc, reflected the influence of African aesthetics. Matisse is said to have encountered African sculptures at the Trocadéro Museum in France, before embarking on a trip to North Africa in 1906, which helped to influence his latter works.

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Picasso’s most significant early sculptural work, including a monumental bust, has been linked to Grebo and Nimba masks in his collection of African sculpture. The “Fang” sculpture exemplified the integration of form with function, which has created a centuries-old tradition of abstraction in African Art pre-colonial period.

The spontaneity of intuitive, ethnic art imported from Africa and other styles, which were erroneously and derogatively described as “primitive” and “barbaric”, began to be recognised as possessing great emotive power.

The art was seen to embody a more penetrating sense of form. In the West’s search for more powerful form of expressions, they became conscious of the vitality of African Art.

This powerful source of inspiration changed the entire course of modern sculpture.

“Cubism”, a movement in 20th century painting and sculpture, rejected naturalistic representational traditions of the 19th century, grew out of explorations and research into African tribal sculpture, and revolutionised contemporary painting and sculpture.

The term “cubist” was first used by the art critic Vauxcelles for the geometric simplifications of Braque’s landscapes and Picassos’ portraits.

The representational style is, therefore, abstract rather than naturalistic. It goes even further – to serve its function and typifies elements of African aesthetics that were frequently evoked in modernist sculpture. Picasso continued to sketch, sculpt and paint mask faced figures, composed as fragmented “geometric volumes” throughout the 20th century, attributing to the birth of the “Cubism” and a defining role in the course of modern art today.

The Afro-Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, who was closely involved with the “Surrealists” in Paris, painted “hybrid” figures, blending an uncanny surrealist sensibility with African figural styles with references to spirituality.

Several members of the post-war “Abstract Expressionists” were known to have collected and viewed African sculpture as their abstract styles evolved. In the contemporary post-colonial era, the influence of traditional African aesthetics and processes are profoundly embedded in artistic practices that it is only rarely evoked as such.

Bearing the above in mind, it is important for Zimbabwean school curriculums to incorporate the study of African art, its relevance and importance, as a means of self-understanding, identification and a means of intellectual progression and empowerment.

After all, the art belonged to the Mother Continent.

Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Post-Modern Art Theory and a DBA Doctorate in Business Administration in Post-Colonial Art and Heritage Studies. He is also a practising artist, designer, art critic and corporate image consultant.