The Influence of Colonialism on African Art

The Influence of Colonialism on African Art

July 17, 2023


African art holds a captivating history, deeply rooted in the diverse cultures and traditions that have thrived on the continent for centuries. However, the impact of colonialism, with its profound sociopolitical and cultural consequences, inevitably left an indelible mark on African art. The encounter between African and European cultures during the colonial period resulted in a complex interplay of influences, adaptations, and resistance within the realm of artistic expression. In this blog post, we will explore the multifaceted ways in which colonialism shaped African art, while recognizing the resilience and creativity of African artists in negotiating their cultural identities.

  1. Redefining Aesthetics: The European Gaze

European colonizers, upon their arrival in various parts of Africa, transported with them a rich tapestry of artistic conventions, styles, and ideals that were deeply rooted in their own cultural heritage. These colonizers, steeped in their Eurocentric worldview, encountered the diverse and vibrant artistic expressions of the African continent. However, rather than approaching these artworks with an open mind, they filtered their perceptions through the lens of their own cultural biases.

Consequently, African art was often perceived as exotic or primitive by European colonizers. This perception was largely a result of the Eurocentric notion that anything diverging from their own established artistic norms was inferior or less sophisticated. This attitude shaped the early categorization and interpretation of African art, leading to its misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

Furthermore, European collectors and scholars frequently appropriated African art without regard for its original cultural and spiritual significance. Pieces were often removed from their context and placed within European museums or private collections, where they were divorced from their intended purpose and cultural milieu. This removal of artworks from their cultural context not only deprived them of their original meaning but also perpetuated the Eurocentric narrative of superiority and dominance.

The impact of this Eurocentric perspective on African art extended beyond mere categorization and interpretation; it also influenced the collecting practices of European institutions. African artifacts were often collected as curiosities or trophies of conquest, rather than as valuable cultural artifacts deserving of respect and preservation.

As a result, the true richness and complexity of African art were often overlooked or dismissed by European colonizers and collectors alike. It was only through the efforts of later generations of scholars and cultural activists that African art began to be reevaluated and appreciated on its own terms, with a deeper understanding of its cultural, spiritual, and artistic significance.

  1. Cultural Exchange and Adaptation

During the era of colonialism, marked by stark power differentials between Africans and Europeans, a remarkable phenomenon emerged: cultural exchange. Despite the inherent imbalance, African artists embarked on a nuanced journey within the colonial milieu, delving into European artistic styles, experimenting with novel materials, and mastering techniques previously foreign to their traditions. This intricate fusion of influences birthed a new wave of artistic expression, one that seamlessly wove together the diverse threads of African heritage and European innovation.

The artistic landscape of colonial Africa became a canvas upon which these artists deftly navigated their cultural identities. Through their creations, they not only showcased a mastery of borrowed techniques but also asserted their agency in a world shaped by colonial domination. Each brushstroke, each sculpture, bore testament to the resilience and creativity of African artists, who transformed the oppressive colonial environment into a space of cultural negotiation and assertion.

This adaptive process was not merely a superficial mimicry of European styles but a profound reimagining of artistic traditions. African artists infused their creations with elements drawn from their own rich cultural tapestry, imbuing them with layers of meaning that transcended colonial boundaries. In doing so, they challenged the very notion of artistic ownership and autonomy, reclaiming their narratives from the grasp of colonial hegemony.

Indeed, the hybrid art forms that emerged from this dynamic exchange were more than just aesthetic marvels; they were manifestations of cultural resilience and defiance. Through their work, African artists forged a path towards cultural liberation, reclaiming agency and asserting their identities in the face of colonial oppression. In this way, colonialism inadvertently became a catalyst for artistic innovation, fostering a dialogue between African and European traditions that continues to resonate in the contemporary artistic landscape.

  1. Colonial Narratives and Representation

Colonialism's impact on the portrayal of Africans in art was profound and multifaceted. Throughout history, European colonial powers wielded their influence not only through political and economic means but also through cultural manipulation. In the realm of art, colonial powers propagated derogatory stereotypes and fostered exoticized images of Africans, constructing a narrative that painted the continent and its people as primitive, exotic "others" in need of European guidance and civilization. These depictions perpetuated a distorted and dehumanizing view of Africa and its diverse cultures, serving to justify and uphold the oppressive systems of colonial rule.

However, in the face of these colonial narratives, African artists emerged as agents of resistance and empowerment. They rejected the imposed representations of their identities and cultures and sought to reclaim their own agency in shaping their artistic narratives. Through their creations, these artists challenged the prevailing stereotypes, dismantled the exoticized gaze imposed upon them, and asserted their cultural pride and humanity.

In their artworks, African artists employed various techniques and themes to subvert colonial narratives and reclaim their cultural identities. They depicted scenes of everyday life, celebrated traditional customs and rituals, and highlighted the richness and diversity of African cultures. Through vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and symbolic imagery, these artworks served as a powerful assertion of African agency and resilience in the face of colonial oppression.

Moreover, African artists utilized their art as a tool for political resistance and social critique. They addressed issues such as colonial exploitation, racial discrimination, and the legacy of slavery, shedding light on the injustices perpetuated by colonial rule and advocating for social change and liberation. By challenging colonial representations and asserting their own voices and perspectives, African artists played a crucial role in reshaping the discourse surrounding Africa and its peoples, both within the continent and on the global stage.

Ultimately, the legacy of colonialism continues to reverberate in the realm of art, shaping the ways in which African identities and cultures are represented and perceived. However, through their creative expressions and acts of defiance, African artists have forged a path towards reclaiming their narratives, challenging stereotypes, and asserting their rightful place in the global cultural landscape. In doing so, they have not only confronted the legacies of colonialism but also paved the way for a more inclusive and equitable future.

  1. Expression of Resistance and Political Protest

African art, in its myriad forms, emerged as a potent instrument wielded by individuals and communities in their struggle against the oppressive grip of colonial domination. Within the vibrant strokes of paintings, the meticulous chiseling of sculptures, and the intricate weavings of textiles, lay narratives of resistance, resilience, and rebellion. Artists, drawing from the wellspring of their cultural heritage and personal experiences, crafted powerful visual stories that served as both mirrors reflecting the harsh realities imposed by colonial rule and windows into the collective aspirations for freedom and self-determination.

With each brushstroke and every sculpted contour, these artists conveyed profound messages of defiance against the dehumanizing forces of colonization. They boldly depicted scenes of exploitation, depicting the plundering of resources, the subjugation of indigenous peoples, and the erasure of traditional cultures. Through their artistry, they shed light on the injustices perpetrated by colonial powers, exposing the brutality and hypocrisy inherent in their quest for dominance.

Yet, amidst the darkness of oppression, African artists infused their works with rays of hope and resilience. Their creations served as rallying cries for unity and solidarity, inspiring individuals to stand firm in their convictions and resist the corrosive effects of colonialism. Images of strength, courage, and perseverance permeated their art, offering glimpses of a future liberated from the shackles of foreign rule.

Moreover, African art became a dynamic platform for social critique, challenging prevailing narratives and interrogating the power structures that upheld colonial hegemony. Artists utilized symbolism, metaphor, and allegory to subvert dominant discourses and expose the contradictions inherent in colonial ideology. Through their creative expressions, they confronted the notion of the "civilizing mission," dismantled racial hierarchies, and celebrated the richness and diversity of African cultures.

In addition to serving as a vehicle for resistance, African art played a crucial role in advocating for liberation, independence, and cultural autonomy. Artists became cultural ambassadors, using their platforms to amplify the voices of the marginalized and galvanize movements for change. Their works not only documented the struggles of the past but also envisioned alternative futures rooted in justice, equality, and self-determination.

Thus, African art emerged as a powerful force in the fight against colonial oppression, transcending boundaries of time and space to speak to the enduring resilience and creativity of the human spirit. It remains a testament to the indomitable will of those who dared to challenge the status quo and imagine a world where freedom, dignity, and equality reign supreme.

  1. Legacy and Postcolonial Reinterpretation

The impact of colonialism on African art reverberates through the present day, resonating in the works of contemporary African artists who actively grapple with its complexities. Through their artistry, these individuals weave a tapestry of narratives that serve to both reinterpret and reclaim the historical significance of African art in the wake of colonialism's pervasive influence.

In their creative endeavors, these artists embark on a journey of critical exploration, delving into the multifaceted layers of colonial legacy embedded within African cultural heritage. They confront the enduring repercussions of colonialism on notions of identity, memory, and cultural representation, excavating the buried histories and silenced voices that have long been marginalized by dominant colonial narratives.

Moreover, these artists serve as agents of change, wielding their creative expressions as tools for resistance against the lingering vestiges of colonial structures. Their works serve as catalysts for dialogue and reflection, challenging prevailing paradigms and advocating for the decolonization of African art. Through their innovative approaches and bold experimentation, they endeavor to disrupt the hegemonic narratives that have historically dictated the interpretation and consumption of African art.

By interrogating the past and interrogating the present, these artists invite audiences to reconsider their perceptions and assumptions about African art, encouraging a more nuanced understanding that acknowledges the enduring impact of colonialism while also celebrating the resilience and creativity of African cultures. In doing so, they contribute to a broader movement towards cultural revitalization and empowerment, laying the groundwork for a more inclusive and equitable future for African art and its practitioners.

  1. Colonial Institutions and Preservation

During the colonial era, European powers embarked on a project of cultural dissemination in Africa, establishing a network of museums, art schools, and galleries across the continent. These institutions served multifaceted purposes, acting as bastions of colonial authority, centers of cultural exchange, and sites for the collection and exhibition of African art.

Within these colonial institutions, African art was often subjected to a Eurocentric lens, framed within the context of European aesthetic and cultural values. Certain art forms and cultural practices were marginalized or even suppressed, deemed inferior or primitive by colonial administrators. Meanwhile, art forms that aligned with European tastes were privileged, often leading to the commodification and appropriation of African cultural heritage.

Despite these challenges, African artists and cultural practitioners continued to create and innovate, producing works that reflected their diverse traditions, histories, and identities. Many of these creations found their way into colonial collections, where they were often stripped of their original contexts and meanings.

In recent decades, there has been a growing movement to decolonize these institutions and narratives, challenging the hegemony of Eurocentric perspectives and advocating for more inclusive and equitable representations of African art and culture. This movement has taken various forms, from grassroots activism and scholarly research to institutional reforms and policy changes.

Efforts to decolonize museums and galleries in Africa involve revisiting the colonial legacies of these institutions, acknowledging their complicity in perpetuating systems of oppression and exploitation. This often entails rethinking curatorial practices, diversifying museum collections, and engaging in restitution efforts to return looted artworks to their countries of origin.

Furthermore, there is a push to amplify African voices and perspectives within these spaces, fostering collaboration between Western and African scholars, artists, and cultural practitioners. By centering African knowledges and experiences, museums and galleries can work towards presenting a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of African art and culture, one that reflects its richness, diversity, and complexity.

Ultimately, the decolonization of museums and galleries in Africa is an ongoing process, requiring sustained commitment and collaboration from stakeholders both within and outside the continent. It is a journey towards undoing centuries of colonial imposition and reclaiming agency over cultural heritage, with the aim of building more just and inclusive cultural institutions for future generations.

  1. Cultural Erosion and Loss

Colonialism exerted a profound and enduring influence on African art and cultural practices, leaving behind a legacy of disruption and loss that continues to reverberate in contemporary times. The arrival of European powers on the African continent heralded a period of drastic transformation, as indigenous cultures clashed with colonial agendas, often with devastating consequences for artistic expression.

One of the most striking impacts of colonialism was the imposition of European systems and values, which often marginalized or outright suppressed traditional African artistic techniques and knowledge. Under colonial rule, indigenous practices were frequently denigrated as inferior or primitive, leading to the erosion of centuries-old art forms, rituals, and craftsmanship. As colonial powers sought to assert dominance, they often disrupted established cultural practices, causing irreparable damage to the rich tapestry of African artistry.

The loss of these invaluable cultural heritage assets has left a profound void in African societies, robbing future generations of the opportunity to connect with their ancestral traditions and artistic legacies. From intricate woodcarvings to vibrant textiles, many traditional art forms faced extinction under the weight of colonial oppression, as communities struggled to preserve their cultural identity amidst the onslaught of foreign influence.

However, despite the immense challenges posed by colonialism, there has been a growing movement to reclaim and revive these endangered artistic traditions in recent years. Across the African continent, efforts are underway to rediscover and celebrate the diversity of indigenous art forms, ensuring their preservation and transmission to future generations. Through initiatives aimed at cultural revitalization and artistic empowerment, communities are reclaiming their heritage and asserting their right to self-expression.

Moreover, the resurgence of interest in traditional African art is not merely a nostalgic longing for the past but also a powerful assertion of cultural resilience and resistance against ongoing neocolonial pressures. By embracing and revitalizing their artistic heritage, African communities are asserting their agency in shaping their own narratives and reclaiming ownership of their cultural identity.

In this way, the ongoing struggle to preserve and revive African art and cultural practices serves as a testament to the enduring resilience of the continent's diverse peoples. Despite the profound scars left by colonialism, the vibrancy and creativity of African artistic expression continue to flourish, inspiring new generations to celebrate their heritage and forge a future that honors the legacy of their ancestors.

  1. Repatriation and Restitution

The discourse surrounding African art and colonialism is characterized by a multifaceted dialogue that delves into the contentious topic of repatriation and restitution of cultural artifacts acquired during the colonial era. This ongoing debate reflects the deep-seated concerns of numerous African nations and communities regarding the rightful ownership and stewardship of their cultural heritage, which they contend was wrongfully seized, often through coercive or exploitative means, during the period of colonial domination.

At its core, this issue underscores the complex intersection of history, politics, and ethics, as it forces a reexamination of the legacies of colonialism and the enduring impacts of imperialism on African societies. Advocates for repatriation argue that these artworks hold profound cultural and spiritual significance for their respective communities and should rightfully be returned to their places of origin. They view the retention of these artifacts by Western museums and institutions as a perpetuation of historical injustices and a continuation of colonial power dynamics.

Furthermore, the debate over repatriation raises critical questions about the role and responsibility of museums and cultural institutions in confronting their colonial legacies and acknowledging the harm inflicted upon colonized peoples. Many argue that museums have a moral obligation to engage in restitution efforts and actively work towards decolonizing their collections, thereby fostering greater equity and justice in the global cultural landscape.

However, opposing viewpoints also exist, with some asserting that the issue of repatriation is fraught with complexities and practical challenges. Concerns are raised about the feasibility of returning all disputed artifacts, as well as the potential loss of cultural exchange and educational opportunities that museums provide by displaying these objects to diverse audiences worldwide.

Moreover, the legal frameworks surrounding the repatriation process are often ambiguous and vary significantly between countries, further complicating efforts to address historical grievances and ensure the fair and equitable return of cultural heritage.

In recent years, there have been notable developments in the repatriation movement, with some Western museums and institutions beginning to engage in constructive dialogue and collaboration with African stakeholders to facilitate the return of contested artifacts. These initiatives represent important steps towards acknowledging past injustices and fostering reconciliation between the former colonizers and the colonized.

Ultimately, the debate over the repatriation and restitution of African artworks serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring legacy of colonialism and the ongoing struggle for justice, dignity, and self-determination in the postcolonial world. It underscores the importance of confronting historical injustices, fostering meaningful dialogue, and working towards a more inclusive and equitable global cultural landscape.

  1. Contemporary Dialogues and Collaborations

In recent years, there has been a remarkable upsurge in collaborative endeavors and vibrant artistic dialogues between individuals, institutions, and creatives hailing from African and European backgrounds. These collaborations serve as potent vehicles, aimed at not just challenging but profoundly reshaping the narratives that have traditionally enveloped African art. Their overarching goal is to propel a seismic shift towards a more comprehensive and multifaceted comprehension of the historical and cultural significance of African artistry.

At the heart of these initiatives lies a profound commitment to fostering cross-cultural exchanges that transcend geographical and societal boundaries. By weaving together diverse strands of thought, experience, and expression, these collaborative ventures represent a formidable force in the ongoing process of decolonizing artistic landscapes. They bravely confront the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that have long overshadowed the richness and diversity of African artistic traditions.

Central to the success of these endeavors is the deliberate embrace of diverse perspectives, voices, and narratives. Through the celebration of multiplicity and the amplification of marginalized voices, these initiatives actively cultivate environments of inclusivity and belonging. They serve as beacons of hope, guiding the way towards a future where artistic spaces are truly reflective of the kaleidoscopic tapestry of human experiences.

These collaborative initiatives manifest in various forms, ranging from joint exhibitions and artistic residencies to interdisciplinary research projects and academic symposiums. They provide fertile ground for the cross-pollination of ideas, sparking innovation, and pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. As bridges between continents are built and cultural barriers dismantled, these initiatives stand as testament to the transformative power of collaboration in the realm of art and culture.

Ultimately, the impact of these collaborative efforts reverberates far beyond the confines of the art world. They serve as catalysts for broader societal change, challenging entrenched stereotypes, and fostering a deeper appreciation for the interconnectedness of global cultures. In their embrace of difference and their celebration of diversity, they offer a glimpse into a future where mutual respect, understanding, and solidarity reign supreme.

  1. Celebrating African Artistic Resilience

The impact of colonialism on African art is profound, shaping its trajectory in complex and multifaceted ways. Yet, amidst the historical upheaval and cultural suppression inflicted by colonial powers, the resilience and ingenuity of African artists have endured, asserting themselves in defiance of adversity. It's imperative to recognize and celebrate this resilience, which serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of African creativity.

Colonialism, with its imposition of foreign ideologies and disruption of indigenous cultures, undoubtedly left an indelible mark on African art. It sought to subjugate local artistic traditions, often deeming them primitive or inferior to European standards. However, beneath this veneer of oppression, African artists persisted, finding ways to adapt and subvert colonial constraints.

Throughout Africa's colonial history, artists navigated a complex landscape of cultural appropriation and resistance. Some sought to preserve traditional forms despite colonial pressures, while others embraced new techniques and materials introduced by colonial powers. This dynamic interplay between tradition and innovation laid the groundwork for the rich tapestry of contemporary African art.

Today, African artists draw inspiration from a multitude of sources, weaving together elements of their cultural heritage with contemporary influences. This fusion of past and present infuses their work with a unique vitality and depth, challenging Western-centric narratives and asserting the autonomy of African artistic expression.

In galleries and exhibition spaces around the world, the vibrancy of contemporary African art is on full display. From the vibrant colors of West African textiles to the intricate beadwork of East Africa, each piece speaks to the diversity and dynamism of the continent's artistic landscape. Through their art, African artists engage with pressing social, political, and environmental issues, inviting viewers to confront uncomfortable truths and envision a more inclusive future.

In this way, African art transcends mere aesthetics, serving as a powerful tool for social commentary and cultural critique. It embodies the struggles and triumphs of a continent grappling with its colonial past while forging a path towards a more equitable and just future. As we celebrate the resilience, creativity, and diversity of African artists, we also acknowledge the ongoing struggle for artistic freedom and cultural sovereignty in a world still grappling with the legacies of colonialism.


The influence of colonialism on African art is a complex and multifaceted topic that demands thoughtful exploration and dialogue. The encounter between African and European cultures during the colonial period left an indelible mark on African artistic traditions. However, it is important to recognize that African artists actively engaged with, resisted, and transformed the colonial framework, asserting their cultural identities and shaping the trajectory of African art. By understanding the influence of colonialism on African art, we gain a deeper appreciation for its rich heritage, resilience, and ongoing relevance in the global art landscape.

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Size Guide

Centimeters (CM)

Inches (IN)

50CM x 40CM

19 11/16 in X 15 3/4 in

50CM x 50CM

19 11/16 in X 19 11/16 in

60CM x 60CM

23 5/8 in X 23 5/8 in

70CM x 50CM

27 9/16 in X 19 11/16 in

80CM x 60CM

31 1/2 in X 23 5/8 in

100CM x 80CM

39 3/8 in X 31 1/2 in

140CM x 110CM

55 1/8 in X 43 5/16 in