African folk art

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African folk art consists of a wide variety of items: household objects, metal objects, toys, textiles, masks, and wood sculpture, among others.

SUDAN basket -tray, tabar of weaved natural plant fibre, coloured in different colours

Metal objects[edit]

Metal objects have many functions and meanings in Africa where forging has been regarded as an almost magical, transformative process that is likened to the creation of life itself. Ceremonial pieces, often based on utilitarian forms such as the agricultural hoe, an iwenga from the Nkutshu people of southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, were used as special-purpose currency. Not everyday money, this currency was exchanged in the course of a significant social transaction such as marriage. Utilitarian, symbolic, and decorative; cultural significance is hammered into the products of the forge with every blow.

In Senegal, metal objects are recycled as utilitarian African folk art.[1]


Pottery is made all over the continent of Africa for functional and ritual use. Pottery, along with basketry vessels, was essential to carry and store food and water. Collecting interests includes Zambian pottery with its beautifully proportioned clay bodies decorated with fine lines that form a decorative geometric pattern. Today in Zambia, most pottery has been replaced by sheet metal and plastic, materials that are more durable and less expensive but also less attractive than a handmade clay jar.[2]

During the 10th millennium BP, pottery was developed throughout the southern Sahara and the Sahel.[3]


The Shoowa people, a small population on the northwestern fringe of the Bushoong kingdom, Congo, have created visually delightful and colorful ceremonial panels that combine tradition and innovation in a complex artistic fashion. In spite of maintaining a different language and loose political ties, the Shoowa share many cultural practices with the peoples of the Bushoong kingdom.

Ceremonial Panel — 1885–1910

An early example of Shoowa textiles is the Ceremonial Panel.[4] This piece dates from 1885–1910, and is 17" × 59" (41.91 cm × 149.86 cm) in size. This ancient cloth is composed of two pieces joined across the center; and bordered by pompoms, a technique reported for textiles on the Kongo coast in the seventeenth century. The basic weave is typical for Shoowa with close warps and weft of similar thickness and even distribution. The designs are shaped by two embroidery techniques: lines of stem stitching and cut-pile. To create the plush effect, an embroiderer twists a strand of raffia into an iron needle which she inserts between the warp and weft, leaving a short tuft. After pulling the fiber strand through to about two millimeters in height, she cuts it with a narrow knife held vertically in the same hand and brushes both ends.

Ceremonial Panel — 1910–1930

A second example of the Ceremonial Panel[5] from the Shoowa people, made of woven raffia palm fiber, cut pile and linear embroidery, dating from 1910–1930, is 23" × 24" (58.2 × 59.69 cm) in size. This piece is a classic model of quality for a mid-century Shoowa cloth. It retains the major features of the late 19th century style and fine workmanship. Unlike the Bushoong, the Shoowa typically, as here, dye the foundation cloth red before embroidery and execute their designs in natural beige and dark brown. The pattern of two wide columns of interlacing is a long-standing favorite Shoowa theme. The manner in which the broad columnar outlines are formed by multiple dark and light rows of stem stitching, interspersed with tiny light and dark plush motifs, called tunjoko, is another characteristic of Shoowa style. Because of the subtle distribution of light and dark across the surface, there is a convincing sense of balance despite the asymmetry.

Ceremonial Panel — 1950–1975

A third example of the Ceremonial Panel[6] from the Shoowa people, also made of woven raffia palm fiber, cut-pile and linear embroidery, dating from 1950–1975, is 24" × 24 1/4" (60.96 cm. × 6l.28 cm.) in size. The colorful dots (diamonds, rectangles, triangles) belong to the familiar tiny tunjoko designs seen in many Shoowa cloths. However here, instead of filling in the intervals between major motifs, they become the principal designs that fill the entire cloth. Intruding upon this dot-filled ground we see a grid of squares drawn by multiple, fine, dark-and-light embroidered lines. In front of this grid two large vertical interlace designs begin at the bottom as thin curved forms and rise crisscrossing to the top.


The Museum of International Folk Art[7] in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, has an African Folk Art collection[8] that consists of household objects, toys, and textiles as well as masks and wood sculpture. An anonymous gift of over 40 pieces of pottery increased the geographic representation of the holdings. Alexander Girard donated many small figures and toys of wood while toys made from wire and recycled materials were collected for the exhibit.[9]

A recent acquisition and ongoing collecting area is metalwork from Africa. Metal objects represent a rich area for interpretation because their manufacture and use encompasses the development of technology, trade, adornment, ritual and religion, and core cultural values.

See also[edit]


  • Monica Blackmun Visonà et al., A History of Art in Africa. New York: Prentice Hall, 2001. ISBN 0-13-442187-6.


  1. ^ Recycling in the Global Marketplace Archived March 2, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.
  2. ^ African folk art illustrates the traditions, political systems and spirituality of tribal villages,
  3. ^ Jesse, Friederike. "Early Pottery in Northern Africa - An Overview" (PDF). JSTOR. Journal of African Archaeology.
  4. ^ Ceremonial Panel Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, 1885–1910.
  5. ^ Ceremonial Panel Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, 1910–1930.
  6. ^ Ceremonial Panel Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, 1950–1975.
  7. ^ Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.
  8. ^ African Folk Art Archived May 16, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Museum of International Folk Art.
  9. ^ Recycled Re-Seen Archived March 1, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Museum of International Folk Art.

External links[edit]

Shoowa Design, African Textiles from the Kingdom of Kuba, by Georges Meurant,Thames & Hudson 1986