When a person views African art, several themes seem to come up over and over again. These themes are representations of different things that are significant to African culture; and reveal the importance behind some of its most beautiful art.
The common themes are:
A woman and a child
A male with a weapon or animal
An outsider or "stranger"
Couples are most commonly shown as freestanding figures of relatively the same size and stature. They may be representative of ancestors, a married couple, twins, or community founders. This is representative of the importance placed on two as one. Most art of this type was developed for shrines or for positions of ceremonial honor. Sexual intimacy is rare in African carvings. This in that it is rare for men and women to display their affection publicly. The most common theme of the male and female couple is that of strength and honor; not love and intimacy.
The mother and child couple is often representative of mother earth and the people as her children. African women will generally have a very strong desire for children as well however. The strong desire that a woman has to bear children further shows the strong mother child relationship that is a vital part of African culture
A male with a weapon or animal (commonly a horse) is commonly produced to show honor to departed ancestors. Animals are rarely sculpted for the purpose of showing the inward or outward beauty of the animal; but to give status to the person. Even today, many in Africa would consider the ownership of a horse to be of greater status than the ownership of an automobile. Showing a person with a horse would then be giving great honor to them. Sometimes people are shown with animals that are not really ridden; possibly even mythical. The purpose is to show the power given to one who rides such an animal; and the wealth that they must have.
As women achieve significance through their children, men will often be honored in warfare. The one who goes into battle must have physical, emotional and spiritual energy to survive and to conquer. Thus the emphasis on weapons and the spoils of war in many African works.
A final common representation in African art is that of the stranger. In Africa, a stranger is someone from a different country or tribe. They would usually not be welcomed; and the more distorted the portrayal of the stranger, the greater the gap that is normally symbolized. Sometimes strangers; especially white foreigners; are given a form of respect based on their relatively great weaponry and other powers.
Unfortunately, much of African art comes with no explanation of the meaning intended to be symbolized when it was created. When the meaning can be discerned, the deeper understanding gained and fuller appreciation of the cultural heritage can be obtained in a more meaningful and memorable way.
Much of African culture places great emphasis on appearance and therefore on jewelry. African jewelry has been given tremendous attention for centuries. Own a useful and beautiful part of African culture now. Many pieces of African jewelry contain cowry shells. They are not only beautiful but also symbolic!
Masks are representative of many different things in African history and culture. Ancestry is very important to the African people to show honor to their ancestors. They design the masks with elaborate hair and jewelry to show great wealth and honor so their ancestors will be pleased with them and bring blessings. Ancestors are greatly to be feared if they are angered, so the people are very careful to be honoring to them at all times. Masks are greatly revered in African culture
Many masks are used in ceremonies generally depicting deities, spirits of ancestors, mythological beings, good and or evil spirits, the dead, animal spirits, and other beings believed to have power over humanity.