top of page

African Art and Its Influences on Western Art

The discovery of nearly 64,000-year-old cave art proves that art has existed just as long as humans have, establishing its presence as one of the most significant components of culture. Art manifests differently in almost every culture; therefore, it serves as a tool in transmitting a society’s values to its future generations. Africa, despite being home to many diverse cultures, has unifying artistic elements that can be observed across the whole continent. Throughout history, well-known Western artists and some of the most influential art movements have drawn inspiration from art from across Africa.

Pottery, metalwork, sculpture, architecture, textile art, and fibre art are among the different mediums that define African art. In addition, wood sculptures and carvings are rather common since wood is a readily accessible material in most regions. Other materials such as valuable stones are used to make traditional jewelry that can indicate rank or affiliation to a collective. Traditional clothing uses textiles like chitenge, or kintenge, mud cloth, and kente fabric for a variety of different designs, techniques, dyeing procedures, and aesthetic and practical functions.

Religion has an undeniable influence on art. The religious norms have impacted the development of art in all forms found across the continent. Religious themes can be seen in numerous pieces of art. Whether it be emphasizing the significance of ancestors as the bridge between the physical and the spiritual realm or depicting the gods and the supreme creator, African art is heavily inspired by the presence of religion and its themes.

African art has long been labeled as "primitive" by Westerners, during and after the colonial era of the 19th and 20th centuries. The phrase had been negatively associated with underdevelopment and impoverishment. Colonization in the nineteenth century led to a Western interpretation of African art that was based on the idea that because of its underdeveloped socioeconomic situation, as a result of colonization, African art lacked technical skill. Later, notable studies on the subject were published by art historians like Carl Einstein and Leo Frobenius, which helped give African art an aesthetic value in the eyes of the Western world.

These studies revolutionized the standing of visual art. Art no longer served as a purely aesthetic medium, but also as a space for philosophical discussion, increasing its aesthetic value. A surge in interest in African art sparked in artists at the start of the 20th century.

For instance, during Picasso's African-Influenced Period, he collected African art pieces and got inspired by African art. Pablo Picasso painted throughout this period, 1906 to 1909, in a style that was greatly influenced by African sculpture, especially traditional African masks. The person on the left has physical appearance and clothing reminiscent of North Africa or Southern Asia. Picasso's native Spain's Iberian culture is portrayed in the two figures next to each other, while the two figures to the right have traits similar to those of an African mask. These masks' representation of ethnic primitivism, in Picasso's words, inspired him to "liberate an utterly original artistic style of compelling, even savage force.

A rich contemporary art scene can be found across Africa. One of the most striking aspects of African contemporary art is the incorporation of both traditional and contemporary elements. It is therefore impossible to define or categorize. Due of the focus placed on traditional art by academics and art collectors, this has been overlooked until relatively recent times. Yinka Shonibare, Zerihun Yetmgeta, Odhiambo Siangla, Elias Jengo, Lubaina Himid, Bili Bidjocka, and Henry Tayali are a few noteworthy modern artists. Westerners tend to misinterpret African contemporary art as an imitation of early 20th-century European and American cubist and totemic painters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse — when really, it’s the other way around

Drawing from how artists across Africa have utilized their creativity and personalities to portray the world,European artists have been largely influenced by the region in overcoming the dilemma they were facing between the traditional avant-garde style and the emergence of a more contemporary reality. Certainly, the region’s artwork has majorly impacted art and the notion of both, contemporary and traditional self expression all around the world.

Works Cited

“African Art - Wikipedia.” African Art - Wikipedia , 1 July 2018,

“Les Demoiselles D’Avignon - Wikipedia.” Les Demoiselles D’Avignon - Wikipedia , 6 Feb. 2008,'Avignon.



bottom of page