Contemporary African Art vs Traditional Art

Contemporary African Art vs Traditional Art


When writing about traditional African art and society it is customary to write in the present tense without repeatedly indicating that only one point in time is being described.

This is known as 'the ethnographic present', a kind of fictional, unchanging world. This idea was encouraged particularly by the structural anthropologists who sought to demonstrate the way in which the various institutions in a society supported each other and maintained a social equilibrium.

It even led at times to the total failure to report on aspects of the society that gave evidence of change. In consequence, the idea has arisen that African societies and the art that they produced were unchanging until the relatively recent impact of outside influences such as Islam and the European traders and missionaries.

African art has always been subject to change, but our knowledge is still too sketchy for us to make reliable assessments of rate of change.

Nevertheless, it does appear that the rate accelerated during the twentieth century, due to the ever-increasing influx of Western ideas and technology.

Conspicuously, Islam and Christianity have in many casts undermined the indigenous belief system among the younger generations, while the attractions of life in the towns and cities have often taken the young people away from the villages.

They would normally be candidates for initiation, the practice that is one of the mainsprings of so much African sculpture (though in many societies young emigrants still return for the ceremony).


Where traditional forms continue to be employed in festivals, the identical objects are often made nowadays with a view to selling to tourists.

This has been well documented among the Central BaPendeby Z.S St Rother who also traces, through the oral traditions, some of the changes that occurred in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Size chart

Centimeters (CM)

Inches (IN)

50CM x 40CM

19 11/16 in X 15 3/4 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