East Africa is made up of many different people, cultures and languages, each with their own unique identity. Art is an expression of the personality, ideals and context of the artist as well as of the society that defines him or her. East Africa comprises of, amongst others, Mozambique, Sudan, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. This presents a truly diverse well from which artists can draw their inspiration and base their repertoire.
East Africa is best known for its beautiful beadwork. Beads are used extensively to decorate the human body and frequently represent a marital status, age, accomplishments or ability by their colours and patterns. They are draped over the body in the form of jewellery or accessories, or incorporated into clothing and even hairstyles.
Significantly, in centuries past, Arabs played a major role in the cultures of East Africa. These traded with one another in materials, weapons, textiles, consumables and even slaves. Their contact was regular and based on close relationships with one another. Therefore, the Arab influence has permeated much of the artwork in certain areas. It also influenced the religious affiliation of many of the Africans (whether willingly or forced, as was the case with slaves). Churches have, in fact, borne some of East Africa’s most exquisite artwork in the form of architectural designs as well as stone carvings. On the other side of the spectrum are the wooden masks, poles and carved forms that are used in the traditional methods of African worship, celebration or mourning.
An interesting influencing factor for East African art is the fact that many of the tribes inhabiting this area were once nomadic. This meant that everything they owned would need to be transported on a regular basis. For this reason, art was designed to be both functional and light in weight. These artists used everyday items, such as headpieces, baskets, cooking implements and clothing, and created an art piece out of them. This created a certain element of convenience and usability to East African art. This can still be seen in some modern pieces today.