The art of the African continent is often inextricably linked to and influenced by religious and cultural traditions. Some cultures in Africa, like the Igbo and Dogon, continue to celebrate their ancient traditions with original cultural expressions that include music, dance and unique styles of figurines or sculptures.
African culture was not always recorded through written history. Much of the continent's knowledge of its own past comes from research done by many different scholars and researchers over the years, as well as from archaeological findings.
In particular, African figurines have been invaluable in offering a glimpse into the history of African cultures and traditions. These small statues vary widely in both style and meaning depending on their place of origin and the culture that created them. They can be found in both private and public collections all over the world.
For example, cultures such as the Yoruba and Fon would often take their art forms to a higher level by using figurines in religious ceremonies. For them, these statues were not simply forms of artwork but also living objects that could help carry out ritual work. They gave life to the figures and infused them with spiritual energy and power.
This belief was rooted in its own traditions, with some groups believing that the clay used to create these statues had been alive at one point and would only truly become animated with life-giving energy when blood was added.
African figurines were most often made out of terracotta, which is a type of clay or mud with high levels of calcium oxide. They were also created out of other materials like wood, stone, copper or brass depending on the group's resources and location.
Groups in central Africa like the Bakongo people believed that their figurines were reflections of themselves. The figures would be made with hollow bodies which allowed access to inner crevices where spiritual energy could stay trapped.
In those parts of the continent, figurines were typically used as a tool to help with rituals and ceremonies. They could be placed in a home or even buried under doorsteps to bring good luck and protection from evil spirits. In some cases, they may have been used as household gods which would need to be given offerings on a regular basis.
Among some African cultures, the figures were used to depict real-world people when they died so that they could have a physical image in their place when interacting with ancestors or spirits from the other world. The object would be stored near the family altar and daily offerings were made until it eventually crumbled away or was accidentally destroyed.
In contrast, other groups resisted the idea of figurines as a reflection of themselves. The Dogon people in Mali had a negative view of figurines and were more likely to create masks instead. They thought that taking on animalistic forms would allow them to escape human weaknesses that could hold them back from attaining spiritual enlightenment. Some cultures also believed that there was a danger in having too many idols and images around. They felt this could lead to the idolatry of false gods and encourage sinful activity.
The Igbo people of Nigeria believed figurines had very specific purposes and meanings depending on the region where they were created. For example, an Ife region figure would be used as a form of ancestor veneration and an Onitsha region figure would be used for protection.
The historical art forms that the African continent is known for today was created through a variety of different cultures and beliefs. Some were made with the intention of celebrating their ancient traditions, while others were created to help preserve cultural practices and pass down important knowledge from one generation to the next.
African figurines were first made thousands of years ago and had an important role in African societies for centuries. They also gave rise to more advanced art forms like masks, carvings and sculptures that would be used for both ritualistic and aesthetic purposes.