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A Glipse of East African Art September 20, 2010

Filed under: East African Art — AlanaR @ 2:08 am


East Africa, including Madagascar, Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan among others, is unique in that it is comprised of countless different people, cultures, and languages. It is recognized for its remarkable geography as it is the sight of two of “the tallest peaks in Africa,” Mount Keyna and Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s second largest freshwater lake, Lake Victoria, and the world’s second deepest lake, Lake Tanganyika. Furthermore, despite it’s proximity to the equator, the climate of East Africa is distinct in comparison to other equatorial regions. East Africa is unusually “cool and dry for its latitude” due to the region’s “generally high altitude and the rain shadow of the westerly monsoon winds created by the Rwenzori Mountains and Ethiopian Highlands” (1).

The region’s “suitability for farming” made East Africa a location of interest to outside civilizations such as Arab, Portuguese, and other European peoples in the 12th and 13th centuries. The ancient trade between the various tribes in East Africa and the foreigners greatly influenced the region’s art.  One can see the influence of foreign religions (Christianity and Islam) within the architectural styles used to construct houses of worship during this time. Perhaps most notably is the Church of St. George built in the early 13th century in Ethiopia.

Since many early inhabitants of East Africa were nomadic, their art had to be functional, light weight and easily transportable. Thus, a great deal of East African art can be seen on clothing, pottery, baskets, and other daily items. In addition, East African art was seldom used for decorative purposes, but rather it was used for religious ceremonies, to promote cultural values, and to honor the dead.  In the last 40 years, African artists have shifted away from “traditional” African art and have begun to incorporate their personal freedom and creativity into their works.  Today, we can see the influences of African art on the Modern Art movements such as Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Fauvism.


East Africa is famous for their pole sculptures, which are poles carved in the shape of a human body yet have many animal features and geometric designs on them as well. A common theme in African art in general is the interrelatedness of forms as seen in pole sculptures with the combination of the human body with animal features. This coincides with the notion that spiritual forces inhabit all of nature and  therefore everything and everyone are interconnected. Pole sculptures are typically found next to graves and are associated with the ancestral world and death.

Religious influence on East African art is highly evident in many of its most recognized pieces. One of the most prominent architectural structures of East Africa is the Church of Saint George in Lalibela, Ethiopia. The last of the eleven rock-hewn churches built in Lalibela, it is one of a few monolithic structures, a type of construction specific to the city. A symbol of great history and sacredness, the Church of Saint George remains the most famous of the churches and is a common pilgrimage site to the members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian religion.

The importance of craftsmanship and function in East African art is apparent in everyday items used in their society. Since many of the early inhabitants of this region were nomadic, everything they owned (including art) needed to be easily transportable. Thus, artists began to incorporate their art into everyday items such as cooking utensils, clothing, baskets, bowls, and much more.  Art then became practical and convenient for these nomads.  Currently in East Africa, status within a group is reflected in the elaborateness of objects used on a daily basis.

A significant element of East African art is the element of functionality. Many of the ethnic groups in eastern Africa lead semi-nomadic lives. Thus, most pieces of art were created to be useful and easy to transport. For instance, this Tanzanian sculpture is also a gourd. The upper half of the sculpture, or the “torso,” is removable. When opened, a hollow space is revealed and is used to contain medicine.

Elaborate beadwork typically used to decorate an individual’s body is an integrated part of East African culture. These beads have a specific function in East African society beyond fashion purposes.  Different patterns and colors represent age, marital status, occupation and many other defining characteristics of an individual.  These beads are worn as jewelry, on clothing and sometimes in people’s hair.


We can see East African design in many modern day beaded necklaces. Although the beads on the necklaces don’t necessarily correlate to one’s age, sex, marital status, etc,  they do have a similar beaded pattern and multi-layers of beads on one necklace.

In the early 1900s, traditional African sculptures sparked the interest among European artists like Picasso. This influence lead to hybrid art forms that came to be the Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Fauvism movements. These new styles were comprised of the “highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures” and post-Impressionist painting styles as depicted in this example of a Picasso portrait (left). When compared to the African Mask (right), the form of the human facial structures have many common features.

Here is an example of African influence on modern design. These are images of some of today’s biggest models wearing designs of American fashion designers from the last couple of years. If the fabric isn’t straight from the region itself, the patterns are very apparently taken straight from African clothing.