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The genius of contemporary African sculptures

African art is a complex and ancient genre that has evolved over thousands of years. Most of it remains largely unchanged today, but contemporary African art is an exception. These paintings and sculptures have become truly unique in their styles and meanings. Modern African art has become a highly sought-after genre around the world – there are even websites dedicated to creating online stores for such works.

Sculpture is a form of three-dimensional art that can be touched and viewed from various directions. It is one of the defining genres of African art and has been around since the invention of organic tools. African sculptures are often figurative – they portray the human form or the unique wildlife that roams the continent. 

When foreigners think of African sculpture, they most likely think of carved face masks and stone animals. While these representations are common, contemporary African sculpture has shifted to a more abstract (and perhaps even cubist) approach. Many sculptures nowadays are simplified representations of people and animals, using geometric lines and natural curves to give a unique, stylistic character to each piece.

Modern African sculptures are still organic

The one thing that has not changed over time is the mediums used to create African sculptures. Artists still prefer organic material, such as wood, stone and bone. These mediums were used by ancient cultures for their ease of use and still today, they are the preferred mediums for many artists.

A new method of creating sculpture has emerged, however. Since the 1900s, metal and wire sculptures have become commonplace in African art. Many creators use recycled scrap metal and found objects to handcraft their sculptures. Visitors to Africa will often see metal animals, often lifelike in their size and proportions, painstakingly welded together from sheet metal and rusty scraps.

This still gives an organic feel to the works – they change over time as they age and rust. Recyclable materials, such as metal, glass and rubber, don’t degrade quickly. Therefore, the sculptures have permanence and durability, just like stone, wood and bone creations. Artists are helping the environment through their creations by giving waste a new life and purpose; they are creating something of value from discarded materials.

Each region of Africa has a unique style

There is no single style that can encapsulate African art and sculpture. Each region of the continent has its own individual style. In fact, each country can be differentiated in its approach to painting and sculpture. Art in western Africa differs vastly from that in eastern and southern Africa. However, all of these styles show impressive skill and talent.

Sculptures from southern Africa are unmistakable. There is an essence of design and balance in each work that truly reflects the contemporary evolution of sculpture. This is what makes soapstone carvings and wooden sculptures from Zimbabwe, South Africa and neighbouring countries so popular with travellers.

The techniques and tools used to create these modern works of art are genius. The artist is able to create various textures on the surface of the material, which in turn creates variations in colour and shine. A single rock or piece of wood can have many different appearances and textures as a result of the artist’s skill with tools.

Southern Africa’s oldest known stone sculptures date back to 400AD. They commonly portray mythical beings – half human, half animal – but are often easily identifiable as certain species of animal. One such example is the stone carvings of birds found at the Great Zimbabwe ruins. They hold such cultural significance that they are featured on the flag of Zimbabwe.

The genre of African sculpture is vastly complex and varied. It continues to evolve with time, yet somehow stay the same. The organic and raw nature of contemporary African sculpture makes it a desirable form of art, especially amongst tourists visiting the continent. As the styles change and become more abstract, the skill and love for creating tactile art remains the same for the artists.

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Written by Joshua Oates

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