Introduction

In 1907, the art world erupted when Pablo Picasso unveiled a new painting that challenged the entire canon of Western art up to that point. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, MoMA) is considered the foundational work of Cubism, as Picasso broke the rules of perspective and favored angular, color-filled forms that completely rejected stuffy norms of Academic art in the 19th century. In short, Picasso brought the art world, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century and Modernism. Picasso did not create this new form of art entirely out of nothing, however. The faces of the women in his painting betray an acquaintance with African art, and particularly African masks. These items, shown at Paris’s Musee Trocadero, inspired Picasso and other Modernists, as they exist outside of the realm of the Western Art History canon.

Nkisi n'kondi figures. Congo (DRC). ca. 20th century.

African Art: Power and Spirit

African Art is something that is incredibly rich and varied, as Africa is an incredibly diverse and rich place. Some objects, however, are quite characteristic of African art in the marketplace, and are thus more sought after than others. Among these are masks and carved wooden figures. These pieces are among the most desirable works of African art, as they are quite expressive and hold spiritual significance to the traditional beliefs of many peoples. In addition to these, bronze sculptures, especially from the Edo people of Nigeria, are well-beloved. Many African artists also engage with global contemporary art, with many Shona stone sculptors making modern abstract sculptures with traditional techniques.

Antelope Mask. Kuba people, Congo (DRC). 19th - 20th century.

Masks

African masks are a very interesting category of African art. Carved wooden masks are worn during various rituals of many peoples on the continent, and can serve a variety of purposes. Usually, the idea behind a mask is to transform the wearer into someone else; this can be an ancestor, a deity, or a spirit. When the wearer puts on the mask, they take on the appearance of that figure and become that figure for the duration of the ritual or ceremony.

Dan and Senufo Twin Masks. Dan and Senufo peoples, West Africa. ca. 20th century.

Masks have historically been the most popular works of African art to sell, and as such there is a robust industry in Africa of making masks for the art market. These masks are usually able to be identified by a number of characteristics. First, if the mask does not appear to be wearable, it is likely a tourist piece. Second, if it has a carved hanging hole at the top, it is likely a tourist piece. Tourist masks still carry a monetary and artistic value, but masks made for the masquerade are more sought after. True masks can be identified by the addition of materials to the carved wood: if cowrie shells, fabric, feathers, hair, and other attachments are found, it is likely a true mask made for the masquerade.

Wood Figures

In addition to masks, carved wooden figures are also sought after. Much like masks, wooden figures hold a spiritual significance in many traditional African religions / cultures. One of the most universal ideas carried in many such sculptures is fertility. Often, a wooden figure might have accentuated features of the male or female anatomy. This is present in order to highlight fertility, and hopefully bring fertility to the place in which the figure stands. Whether this is a couple hoping for children, or a farmer hoping for a good crop yield, depends on the context of the sculpture. One example sold by Nest Egg Auctions is attributed to the Dogon people of Mali and Burkina Faso. This figure has aspects of both the male and female body, which symbolizes fertility.

Hermaphroditic Figure. Dogon people, Mali. ca. 20th century.

Figures can also be connected with traditional magic and embody certain powers. Among these are nkisi n’kondi figures. These figures, made in the Congo of Central Africa, embody the power of the figure they represent. They can be used for a multitude of purposes, but they are not simply works of art. They are to be honored and respected, and certainly not crossed.

Nkisi n'kondi figure. Likely Kuba people, Congo (DRC). Mid 20th century.

Brass Sculpture

Much like European art, bronze and brass sculpture has a special place in some African cultures. For instance, the Edo or Benin people of Nigeria are masters of brass sculpture, and have produced some of the most famed works of art on the continent. Benin Bronzes (as they are called) are considered among the finest works of cast sculpture, having a long and proud history dating back centuries. Nest Egg had the privilege of selling an example that depicts the head of an oba (or king). This beautiful sculpture is a wonderful example of the style and elegance that Edo sculptors are able to achieve.

Brass head of an oba. Edo / Benin people, Nigeria. Ca. 19th century.

Stone Carving

Stone carving is another traditional art found in Africa, and perhaps the greatest stoneworkers of the continent are the Shona people of southern Africa. The stone carvings of Shona sculptors utilize traditional imagery as well as trends from global contemporary art. Two sculptures of Mother and Child, produced by noted artists Kennedy Musekiwa (Zimbabwe, b. 1962) and Zachariah Njobo (Zimbabwe, b. 1962), use the natural contours of the stone to express the loving embrace of mother and baby. These compositions are among the most popular of Shona Stone sculptures. On the opposite side of the spectrum, a work like Freedom by Brighton Sango (Zimbabwe, 1958 – 1995), is clearly abstract. In this sculpture, Sango explores and celebrates the natural contours of the stone, and makes an engaging and brilliant work worthy of serious contemplation.

Zacariah Njobo and Kennedy Musekiwa. "Mother and Child". Shona people, Zimbabwe. Late 20th century.
Brighton Sango, "Freedom". Shona people, Zimbabwe. Mid to late 20th century.

Selling African Art at Nest Egg Auctions

African Art is incredibly popular, and has a universal appeal. The power and feeling of these works are unparalleled, and they thus have a strong presence in the art market. Nest Egg Auctions respects these artworks for their history and technique. If you are interested in purchasing a work of African art, or if you would like to sell one, please keep us in mind.

Kete Mask. Kuba people, Congo (DRC). ca. 20th century.

For More Information:

The National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. is one of the premier collections of African art in the United States. Much of their collection is online, and accessible publicly. It is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Other fine collections of African art in the United States include the African Art collection of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the African Art collection of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT.