Chapter 3: Themes in African Art

Chapter 3.9 African Art as Inspiration

African art has inspired Western artists since the early 20th century, when Paris- and Berlin-based avant-garde artists first admired what they perceived was the carvers’ “freedom” from naturalism. They, of course, were unaware that African artists were operating under the stylistic constraints of their various cultures, their abstract stylizations taught to apprentices just as naturalism was taught in European academies. Nonetheless, their fascination with African sculptural forms (accompanied by a lack of understanding and interest in their meaning) shifted the direction of Western art history (Fig. 519). Artists such as Picasso (click here) bought masks and figures from French second-hand shops, where the families of colonial officers discarded them, or visited the ethnographic galleries of the Trocadero Museum, where the Dahomean war booty was deposited. While such early 20th-century European works were not exact replicas of African art, they adopted certain formal principles of stylization without direct interest in the cultures that produced them.

Fig. 519. Two Fang masks from the former French colony of Gabon flank a sculpture by the Paris-based artist Amadeus Modigliani who was inspired by these or similar African sculptures. Left: Fang mask ngil, Musée du Quai Branly, 71.1965.104.1; M) Amadeo Modigliani, Italy. Head, 1911–1912, limestone. 25.75″ x 6.75″ x 8 3/8″ Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 62.73.1. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Cowles, public domain; Right: Fang mask, Gabon. Musée du Quai Branly, 75.14393. Ca. 1906.
Fig. 520. This book by Leo Frobenius employed patterns from African textiles and woodworking. 1922. Public domain.
Fig. 5213. Pierre Legrain (French; 1889-1929). Stool (Tabouret); ca. 1923. Wood; lacquer; sharkskin; 22 1/8″ x 21″ x 14″. Brooklyn Museum,73.142. Purchased with funds given by an anonymous donor. Creative Commons-BY.

The interest generated by African art in the early 20th century extended to furniture and graphic arts as the Art Deco movement became more popular. Books with African subject matter used modified African designs for their endpapers (Fig. 520), and designers such as Pierre Legrain adapted African seats and headrests for high-end customers (Fig. 521) who may have been unaware of their inspiration, but were drawn to their sleek lines and luxurious materials.


Fig. 522. Muses, one of six murals painted by Hale Woodruff from 1950-51 (and unveiled in 1952) in the atrium of the library of Clark Atlanta University. Its African female muse mixes characteristics of Luba sculpture and a famous Bena Lulua male figure. Single frame from Felipe Barral’s “IN THE EYE OF THE MUSES at Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries,” 2012, IGNI productions & the G channel.
Fig. 523. This Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine ad of 1923 includes clothing inspired by the Brooklyn Museum’s huge African exhibition of the same year. The model’s blouse is based on Kuba textiles from the then-Belgian Congo. Public domain.

A concurrent meaning was not always missing from this kind of stylistic mimicry and adaptation, however. African American artists, in particular, have often married African style with their own content, ranging from the self-referential to the didactic. Hale Woodruff, for example, was inspired to produce a set of murals–The Art of the Negro–at Clark Atlanta University’s library that examined parallels, convergences, and the history of the intertwining of African and European art to produce African American art. One of the murals–Muses (Fig. 522)–depicts two titular figures hovering over artists ranging from a San rock painter from South Africa to Woodruff himself. One muse is a marble-like Greco-Roman male, the other a wooden African female sculpture of ambiguous style.

Fig. 524. Howard University graduate at an intern’s luncheon with Senator Kamala Harris. Washington, DC, 2017. Office of Senator Harris. Public domain.

Contemporary artist Willie Cole uses found objects to recreate famous African artworks, benefitting from improvements in scholarship and publication numbers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Using bicycle parts, he channels Picasso’s 1942 assemblage of bike seat and handlebars to form a bull’s head, instead turning his attention to the African antelope in his Tyi Wara series that mimics the forms of Bamana masquerade crests. Some employ chairs to the same effect. Cole uses women’s high heels for additional assemblages, some of which also call to mind African sculptures.

Fig. 525. This coat made from Senufo mudcloth was sold in the United States in the early 21st century.
Fig. 526. These Lion King costumes include several references to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kuba textiles, as well as to bogolanfini mudcloth from the Bamana of Mali and hunter/warriors’ shirts worn by the Bamana and other Mende peoples. Single frame from Disney UK’s “THE LION KING MUSICAL” | London West End. Published on Jan 3, 2017.

Some American dress designers evidenced an interest in African cloth and styles in the 1920s, inspired by the first major exhibitions of African art in the United States (Fig. 523), although their impact was limited. Since the 1960s, however, inspired by publicity about the clothing of the representatives of the newly-independent Africans at the United Nations, the rise of the Black Power Movement, and youthful Peace Corps workers returning from Africa, American fashion has seen periodic trending of actual or adapted African textiles and fashion styles. These have included Asante kente cloth, which swept through a range of products in the 1990s and left its legacy in the graduation stoles of many African American students (Fig. 524), as well as Bamana bogolanfini and Senufo mudcloth (Fig. 525) styles that became popular in the early 2000s.

Fig. 527. A single frame of a Maasai woman in the 1994 Disney film The Air Up There.

Films, stage shows, and videos set in Africa have also stimulated the imagination of working on Western productions, and by the late 20th-century scholarship had enabled art directors to access a wealth of imagery from the Continent. Disney’s Broadway production of The Lion King (1997) won director Julie Taymor the Tony for both Best Direction of a Musical and Best Costume Design. Her costumes included references to multiple cultures’ textiles, clothing, and body arts (Fig. 526). Many films set in Africa relied on generic military gear for films about warfare. A few, such as the British epic Zulu (1964), carefully reproduced African period costume, or, in the case of Out of Africa (1985), Maasai dress providing a backdrop for early colonial 20th century. Kenya’s Maasai and South Africa’s Zulu have frequently added exoticism to movies (Fig. 527); they are semi-familiar tropes that have become semi-recognizable to Western viewers via their colorful beads and herdsmen’s rural lifestyles.

Fig. 528. In this single frame from Coming to America, the extra in the back wears the large torqued gold earrings of the Malian Fulani, while James Earl Jones, the king, wears a suit with the gold amulet necklaces of the Akan, as well as their talisman crown ornaments–but worn on a hat inspired by those worn by the late Guinean head-of-state Sekou Touré. Designer Deborah Landis, wife of the film’s director.
Fig. 529. Left: Single frame from the film Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), set in the fictitious country of “Nibia.” The man wears the bottle-cap hairstyle that is actually only worn by Dassanech women from Ethiopia. Right: Dassanech woman, Ethiopia. Photo by Rod Waddington, 2015. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

When filmmakers attempt the creation of imaginary African countries, their source material often veers off into lesser-known regions or becomes a potpourri of cultural elements. Coming to America (1988) was a box office hit, and its fictional Zamunda mixed elements of West, South, and East African costumes and architectures for their contemporary fantasy royal court (Fig. 528).

The considerably and justifiably less popular Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995) included outrageously inaccurate scenes that would not have been out of place in earlier, racist 20th-century movies like Abbott and Costello’s Africa Screams. Some of the costumes and makeup were based on the peoples of Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley near the Kenyan border–however, they were jumbled together with the body paint of the Surma worn with the bottle-cap coiffures of Dassenech women and feathered headdresses from another region altogether (Fig. 529). The intention of this combination is to create a “primitive” appearance without dignity in order to produce in the viewer a sense of alienation that firmly places Africans on the other side of a self-Other divide, with admiration ruled out.

Fig. 530. Left: Councilwoman from the film Black Panther, who wears the hairstyle associated with young Himba mothers along with the copal amber coiffure beads worn in Mali and parts of North Africa. Single frame from Movie Clip – Capture Klaue (2018) Marvel Superhero Movie HD, 2018. Center: Young Himba woman from Namibia with leather-wrapped ochre hairstyle worn by young wives after bearing their first child. Photo Julien Lagarde, 2011. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Right: Fulani woman with copal amber bead ornaments in her hair, Mali, early 20th c. Public domain.
Fig. 531. LeftL Ruth Carter’s costume for the councilman from the “River Tribe” in the movie Black Panther (2018) wears a lip plate worn by Mursi women from Ethiopia, a sword in a beaded sheath modeled after Owo Yoruba sheaths, beaded ornaments on his clothing derived from Yoruba diviners’ sashes, and a horned headdress of unknown origins. Single frame taken from Flicks and the City, “Black Panther DELETED SCENES, Alternate Ending + Post Credits & Missing Characters,” 2018. Center: Not all Mursi women wear these clay lip plates–but men never do. Photo Rod Waddington, Ethiopia, 2016. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0. Right: Owo Yoruba sword with ivory handle and beaded sheath, Nigeria, late 19th or early 20th c. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 91.1551. Museum purchase funded by Dr. Jules H. Bohnn, Louis Tenenbaum, H. Brock Hudson, Matthew R. Simmons, and Dr. Byron Bohnn in honor of William J. Hill, the founder of “One Great Night in November” at “One Great Night in November, 1991.”
Fig. 532. The Wakanda capitol’s cityscape references futuristic architecture of various types. Some building types are imaginative, others are based on actual structures. Top: Single frame from Black Panther (2018). Lower Left: Traditional house, Lalibela, Ethiopia. Photo by Julien Demade, 2007. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0. Lower Right: Sankore mosque, Timbuktu, Mali. Photo by Senani P, 2006. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

Black Panther (2018) is the first major film set in Africa to have an African American design team, and their research took them on pre-production trips to South Africa and Kenya, as well as library and museum forays into dress, makeup, and architectural sourcing from Mali, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Ghana, Nigeria, Namibia, Uganda and elsewhere. According to the comic book the film is based on, the fictional country of Wakanda is located at the juncture of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda, but sets and costumes reference many parts of the continent, the designers taking a mix and match approach (Figs. 530, 531, 532). Their intention, like that of Deborah Landis, the Coming to America designer mentioned above, is to emphasize the beauty and diversity of African dress. In this, they were heavily influenced by a number of sources unavailable when in 1988 when Landis worked.  The collaborative, full-color, large format photo books by Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, such as African Ark (1990), African Ceremonies (1999), Faces of Africa (2004), Dinka (2010), and Painted Bodies (2012)  provided plentiful material for visual mining, as have numerous art history exhibitions and publications.