The Significance of Fishes in African Paintings

The Significance of Fishes in African Paintings

July 22, 2023


African paintings have long fascinated art enthusiasts and scholars worldwide, with their vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and powerful storytelling. Among the myriad of subjects portrayed in these artworks, one recurring motif stands out - the fish. This seemingly mundane creature holds a profound and multifaceted significance in African art, reflecting the continent's rich cultural heritage, spiritual beliefs, and ecological dependence on water bodies. In this blog post, we delve into the enigmatic role fishes play in African paintings and the deeper meanings they hold.

  1. Symbolism and Spirituality

In African mythology and spiritual beliefs, water is often associated with life, purity, and regeneration. Fishes, being creatures that inhabit water bodies, embody these symbolic meanings. They are seen as symbols of fertility, abundance, and good luck. In some cultures, fishes are believed to be messengers of the spirit world, connecting the living and the ancestors.

In paintings, fishes are often depicted in vibrant colors and intricate patterns, reflecting their spiritual significance. They may appear swimming freely or arranged in specific patterns with symbolic meanings unique to each tribe or community.

  1. Cultural Identity and Heritage

Fish and fishing have been integral parts of African cultures for centuries. Many communities in Africa have relied on fishing as a primary source of food and sustenance. The depiction of fishes in paintings serves as a homage to this cultural heritage and an acknowledgment of the ancestral connection to water and its inhabitants.

Fishermen and women are often celebrated in these artworks, highlighting the significance of their role in providing for the community. Additionally, fishes may be portrayed in various rituals and ceremonies, signifying their importance in the cultural identity of African societies.

  1. Metaphors of Resilience and Adaptability

Fishes, with their ability to navigate through water with agility and adapt to diverse environments, embody qualities of resilience and adaptability. In African paintings, fishes are sometimes used as metaphors to represent the strength and endurance of the people in the face of challenges and adversity. These artworks celebrate the human spirit's ability to persevere and thrive despite the changing tides of life.

  1. Environmental Awareness

With the increasing awareness of environmental issues, African artists have incorporated fishes in their paintings to draw attention to the fragile ecosystems of rivers, lakes, and oceans. As these water bodies face threats from pollution, overfishing, and climate change, the inclusion of fishes in paintings serves as a call to protect and preserve these vital habitats for future generations.

  1. Spiritual Protection and Guidance

In some African cultures, fishes are believed to possess protective qualities. They are considered guardians that can offer guidance and safeguard individuals from malevolent forces. Paintings often portray fishes as spiritual guides, guiding travelers through life's journeys or acting as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual realms.

  1. Connection to Ancestral Traditions

Fishes hold a special place in ancestral traditions and rituals across various African societies. Paintings featuring fishes may be associated with rites of passage, such as initiation ceremonies or coming-of-age rituals, where young individuals learn about their ancestral heritage and responsibilities. Fishes may symbolize the wisdom and knowledge passed down through generations.

  1. Healing and Medicinal Properties

Fishes are associated with healing and medicinal properties in African traditional medicine. Some cultures believe that certain fish species possess curative properties that can treat illnesses and ailments. Paintings may depict these healing fishes, emphasizing the deep-rooted belief in the natural world's ability to provide remedies for various health issues.

  1. Expression of Nature's Harmony

African paintings often aim to capture the harmony between humans and nature. Fishes, as creatures of water, are an essential part of this balance. Their inclusion in paintings symbolizes the interconnectedness of all living beings and the importance of maintaining a harmonious relationship with the environment.

  1. Narratives of Mythology and Folklore

Fish often play central roles in African mythology and folklore, featuring in captivating stories passed down through generations. African paintings often illustrate these tales, bringing mythical creatures and legendary fish to life. Such artworks serve as a medium to preserve cultural narratives and celebrate the storytelling traditions of the continent.

  1. Agricultural Symbolism

Fishing is not only essential for food but also contributes to agriculture through the use of fish as natural fertilizers. Paintings may depict the practice of using fish to fertilize crops, symbolizing the cycle of life, growth, and sustenance.

  1. Social and Economic Significance

Fishing communities have a unique cultural identity in Africa, and their way of life is often celebrated in paintings. These artworks showcase the importance of fishing as a significant economic activity for many coastal and inland communities, providing livelihoods and economic stability.

  1. Abstract Interpretations

In contemporary African art, fishes may be depicted in abstract and symbolic ways, offering artists the opportunity to explore new interpretations and expressions. The use of fishes in abstract art allows for creative storytelling and adds depth to the overall meaning of the artwork.

  1. Trade and Commerce

Historically, fishing has played a crucial role in facilitating trade and commerce in Africa. Coastal communities engaged in fishing activities not only for subsistence but also to establish trade connections with inland regions. African paintings may depict scenes of fishermen trading their catch with merchants, showcasing the economic interdependence between different communities.

  1. Fertility and Reproduction

Fishes' ability to lay numerous eggs and reproduce abundantly has led to their association with fertility and procreation. In some African cultures, fishes are revered as symbols of fertility and are often included in artwork to invoke blessings for couples seeking to start a family.

  1. Rainmaking and Water Rituals

In times of drought, fishes are sometimes depicted in African paintings as symbols of rainmaking and water rituals. These artworks may be used in ceremonial practices seeking to invoke rainfall and ensure the prosperity of crops and livestock.


Fishes in African paintings hold a profound significance that goes beyond their aquatic existence. As symbols of spirituality, fertility, and resilience, they are interwoven into the cultural fabric of African societies. These captivating artworks serve as a medium to communicate the region's history, values, and ecological dependence on water bodies. The enigmatic portrayal of fishes in African paintings continues to captivate audiences worldwide, inviting us to explore the depths of meaning and the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world.


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