The African peoples, particularly the traditional tribes from times past, were reliant on the land, its vegetation and the animals for their very lives. For this reason, there was an enormous insight into the defining traits of many animals, their habits and skills, as well as a healthy respect and even reverence for some of the beasts with whom they shared their territory.
Because art is a way of identifying one’s self and culture, animals became a major subject matter for African artists. The paintings, sculptures and textiles depicting animals often did so in a way that either expressed their relationship to the human beings, or symbolised something about that person or tribe. For example, wild lions were known for their courage and regal-ness. Likewise, an elephant was associated with strength and power. Therefore, associating such an animal with a certain king or warrior, the artists granted that one the same stature.
African artists favour symbolism and the abstract more than presenting a realistic form of their subject matter. So, animal qualities were sometimes bestowed on other humans or even inanimate objects to convey a specific idea about the strengths, weaknesses, dangers or benefits of such a person or thing. This may be done by giving a human the head of a snake, or the mane of a lion. It is not realistic, but it conveys more than the person’s outward appearance.
The art did not always resemble the animal in its appearance, though. Sometimes, an artist would use the bone, hair or skin of the animal to convey the same message. Since crocodiles were associated with evil spirits, masks using their features or skin were used in cleansing rituals, to chase such evil away from the village. Likewise, sculpting something from ivory automatically superimposed the qualities of the original owner, the elephant, onto the piece, even if it did not resemble an elephant in any way.
As with almost all African art, the use of animals in their creative pieces again reinforces their strong cultural roots and the importance placed upon their art. As it continues to evolve over time, this significance urges the viewer to take a deeper look and to appreciate its nuances all the more so.