The human figure has long intrigued artists from all over the world and across many centuries. Likewise, African artists have held the shape, form and features of the body as their main theme. This has been a symbiotic relationship; the body has both exuded and been subject to certain features which have effectively been used to convey very specific messages and / or ideologies.
One of the ways that African artists conveyed such ideologies is the manner in which they represented a human body. Shiny skin and a fit form conveyed the fertility and vigour that was required of such rural ones in order to survive and look after one’s family efficiently. This applied for both men and women. However, a human figure will also frequently have somewhat of a belly, indicating that they are eating well and are, therefore, prosperous and healthy, not starving. In addition, a sense of self-control (a much admired quality) is conveyed with a bowed head and rounded shoulders. This indicates to cultures all over the world what the ‘perfect’ body looked like to African cultures, and how important it was, and still is, in terms of the stature and priorities of such societies.
Depiction of the human body is best expressed in sculpture. This is also the favoured medium of most African artists, so the two factors converge in perfect agreement. Sculpture is 3-dimensional, and draws the viewer in, around and through it far more effectively than a flat canvas. This invites spectators to experience the human form, explore it and interpret it with the same ‘natural’ eye of indigenous African folk, not with preconceived ideas about beauty or perfection dictated by the media.
African artists use tools such as symmetry, proportion and shock to convey messages. Therefore, while the sculpture may be symmetrical, there are frequently parts of the piece that are completely disproportional. These draw attention to the feature and convey a specific idea to the viewer without having to say a word. Likewise, animal qualities are sometimes given to the human form with the intention of bestowing some of the qualities of that animal upon the person or tribe being represented. Therefore, presenting a chief or king with a human body with distinctly lion-like qualities (claws, mane etc…) will convey the idea of royalty, strength and power to that person.
African artists have achieved the balance between focus on a particular subject, the human body, and the ability to convey a myriad messages and ideologies by incorporating aspects and elements of their lives and surroundings into each piece. It is such ability, natural and untrained, that has influenced Western art significantly.