Historically, the art of Africa has won its own place among the great art traditions of the world. The content of African sculpture has been studied and applied to the origins of many European and Western art movements. It’s influence on Expressionism, Cubism, and Modern art has brought to light the scope of Africa’s artistic genius. The nature of African art is directly related to religious concepts of the continent. The Bantu philosophy is at the base of numerous tribal beliefs. At the center of this philosophy stands the conception of a “vital force”, a universal omnipotent energy, around which all thought and action revolve. An imperative arises; life is to be lived vigorously, for active force is existence and existence is force. “Growth of life” (Leuzinger), means that existence can become either stronger or weaker. This idea definitely suggests a continuum of existence within Bantu beliefs. To further expand the Bantu believed that there are ‘Influences upon life’ or rather one force can exert an effect upon another and ‘gradation of life’ or forces are graded hierarchically, the higher one exerting an influence upon the lower (Leuzinger). The Bantu religious consciousness is also grounded in metaphysical beliefs and the influence upon life concepts would explain the need for ritual acts to strengthen forces and restore order to life once it has been disrupted. To the African, art serves to make the invisible visible. Their approach has been noted for its emotional vigor and clarity of form. What inspires the artist is a vision which cannot be expressed purely in naturalistic forms, he co-ordinates both naturalistic and abstract and expressionistic elements into a new unity. The style is by no means primitive, rather, the development of a mature expression. The technical skill is the product of centuries of development, early pieces of art from the Nok culture, in the south Sahara of Africa, are dated from 400 BCE to ADE 200. (Bascom)
The two major categories are ritualistic art and craft art, however the category of carft or ‘applied art’ in African thought is not to be distinguished from the original stalk (A.Locke). In Africa things can be beautiful and objects of utility at the same time. The traditional art has never been divorced from the vital context of everyday life; it embodies and vindicates one of the soundest and most basic of aesthetic principles, beauty in use (A.Locke). This clearly points to the functional aspect of the art.
The African artist, though a great craftsman and technician is forgetful of self and fully projects himself into the function and tradition of the article he is working on (Locke), exerting a higher force upon a lower. It is by age-long tradition anonymous, reflecting a collective aspect to the work which is generated. The African artist is concentrating upon unrestrained variety and directness of three-dimensional effects, this goes directly to the heart of his task and thus he realizes the distinctive potentialities of sculpture. He produces work comparable in its spiritual severity. “One comes to regard their sculpture not as a distorted copy of natural form, but as a purposeful creation of mass design, with free distortion of nature shaped into highly stylized form expressing abstract design (Locke). There is a emphasis on the essential, consistent three-dimensional organization of structural planes in sequence, truth to material and achieved tension between idea or emotion; expressed through representational and abstract principles (Locke). In short creation in African art is not imitation of nature but free creative improvising on themes taken from nature to convey forcefully a selected mood or and intended idea, all of which is committed from inception to end, to the African metaphysical outlook of life.
This overview of the historical aspects of Black art can reaffirm the Cultural Nationalism that is naturally African, that the Black artist of today would achieve. The conventions of modern art may have been redefined through the times of change, yet the intention of communicating with an art that is functional, collective and committed remains basic to the African-American artist.