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African Paris. Art premier primitif africain

The viewing of masks is often restricted to certain peoples or places, even when used in performance, or masquerade. African masks manifest spirits of ancestors or nature as well as characters that are spiritual and social forces. During a masquerade, which is performed during ceremonial occasions such as agricultural, initiation, leadership and funerary rites, the mask becomes the otherworld being. When collected by Western cultures, masks are often displayed without their costume ensemble and lack the words, music and movement, or dance, that are integral to the context of African masquerades. Visually, masks are often a combination of human and animal traits. They can be made of wood, natural or man-made fibers, cloth and animal skin. Masks are usually worn with costumes and can, to some extent, be categorized by form, which includes face masks, crest masks, cap masks, helmet masks, shoulder masks, and fiber and body masks. Maskettes, which are shaped like masks, are smaller and are not worn on or over the face. They may be worn on an individual’s arm or hip or hung on a fence or other structure near the performance area.


The cultures of Africa have created a world-renowned tradition of three-dimensional and relief sculpture. Everyday and ceremonial works of great delicacy and surface detail are fashioned by artists using carving, modeling, smithing and casting techniques. Masks, figures, musical instruments, containers, furniture, tools and equipment are all part of the sculptor’s repertoire. The human figure is perhaps the most prominent sculptural form in Africa, as it has been for millennia. Male and female images in wood, ivory, bone, stone, earth, fired clay, iron and copper alloy embody cultural values, depict the ideal and represent spirits, ancestors and deities. Used in a broad range of contexts--initiation, healing, divination, leadership, prestige and religious worship, to name but a few--African sculptures clearly demonstrate the central role of the arts in the African experience.

Furniture and furnishing

Furniture in Africa ranges from everyday household objects, such as headrests and stools, to objects of high social status, such as the elaborately carved chair of an important village elder or the ornamental throne of a king. In many cases, artists from particular areas produce furnishings that have a uniformity of design suited to their function. While adhering to formal and stylistic conventions, artistic creativity and personal expression are highly prized. With a unique and inventive organic style, African furniture demonstrates individual artistry and the inventiveness of African cultures.

Tools and equipment

African tools are often more than hand-held implements for toiling. Created with an obvious attention to detail, their elaborate forms and decorations add beauty and pleasure to daily tasks. Often fashioned in part as figurative sculpture, the spoons, axes, adzes, pipes, combs and heddle pulleys used in daily life are examples of the skill and creativity of African artists. Lavishly decorated tools usually serve a ceremonial, rather than functional, role.


Two-dimensional painting in traditional African art includes images of animals and human figures found on the rock art of the Sahara and in southern Africa. Geometric paintings on house exteriors can be found from west to southern Africa. However, in a museum context, traditional paintings tend to be limited to works on panels or other portable surfaces from only a few places in of Africa. Ethiopian Orthodox style icons are found in this category. These distemper on wood panels are the work of artist priests and date from the 15th century to the present day. Devotional gifts to a church, they often show images of “Mary and her Beloved Son” flanked by saints. They are remarkable emblems of faith that also document Ethiopia’s interaction with Christian art in Europe and the Near East.

Toys and entertainment

Toys and games teach valuable lessons and help serve the social functions inherent in play. Gameboards hone manual dexterity and the skills of quick perception and strategy. Puppets reinforce community values while entertaining. Dolls, many made of ephemeral materials, let girls act out the role and skills of motherhood.

Weapons and armament

African weaponry, which comprises diverse materials, techniques and forms, may be used for hunting, defense or as ceremonial objects that denote high social status. Basketry and hide shields, metal-tipped spears, decorative swords with leather sheaths and distinctively shaped throwing knives attest to the artistry of the African basket makers and metalsmiths who make weapons as well as other utilitarian objects to serve community needs. Often, the hilt or handle of the weapon is particularly well decorated and may be fashioned of carved wood, bone or ivory, covered in gold leaf or wrapped in brass or copper sheeting to further enhance its visual appeal and the status of the owner.

Musical instruments

Music is an important part of African culture. Instruments accompany the events of daily life and are prominent in public ceremonies and royal courts. The museum's collection focuses on those special musical instruments that, in attention to form and detail, are also works of art. The silent visual appeal of a massive slit gong, a delicately carved bell or whistle, or a beautifully crafted drum or harp augments the sound it creates when it is played.

Exchange media

Throughout Africa's past, a wide variety of objects--salt, shells, beads, metal ingots, local and European coins, jewelry, woven cloth, weapons and tools--have served as money and measured wealth. Utilitarian objects made of iron, copper and brass alloys, gold and silver had intrinsic worth based on the durability and value of the metals, but such objects could also be melted down and refashioned to serve other purposes. Although some types of woven cloth, glass beads, cowrie shells and jewelry were used as money, it was usually as a secondary function. A necklace, for example, used for personal adornment may have been considered a form of stored wealth, available for exchange if needed. In many parts of Africa, even with the imposition of national coins and paper money, traditional currencies continue to have a ceremonial role.

Costumes and textiles

Textiles are among Africa's most vibrant arts. Whether made locally or imported, Africans use textiles of various colors, shapes and designs for daily or ceremonial clothing, as shrouds for the dead or as furnishing fabrics for the interior of their residences. Such garments indicate a person's status and fashion flair, but may also be worn as protection from negative forces.

Both men and women weave in Africa. Though there are exceptions to the rule, narrow-strip textiles are traditionally woven by men. Broadloom textiles, by contrast, are usually woven by women. Materials include natural fibers such as raffia and bark, locally grown and spun cotton thread, locally produced and imported silk or cotton thread and a range of synthetic fibers. Dyes include natural vegetal pigments and aniline or chemical dyes.

The appeal of African textiles has spread worldwide. Ghana's strip-woven kente and stamped adinkra cloth, Mali's mud-dyed bogolanfini, factory-printed textiles from West and East Africa and other African fabrics are now popular fashion accessories both within and outside Africa.

Costume accessories

In Africa, as throughout the world, what individuals wear may communicate their age, the identities of the groups to which they belong and their status within their communities. Costume accessories include jewelry, hats, shoes, amulets and fans. The artistry of these objects is manifest in the embellishments and materials used, such as raffia, cotton, silk, glass beads, copper alloy, gold, silver and ivory.


Both men and women create beautiful containers, such as gourds, baskets, pots, wooden cups and bowls, to store and transport food and water and to hold their most valuable and useful items. Crafted in a variety of materials, many of these objects display decorative flourishes and attention to detail that mark them as prized personal possessions. Containers, such as ceramic pots or gourd bowls, may also be used in special ceremonies or become part of an assemblage of objects used in a shrine.

Books and manuscripts

Africa's long history of written languages and literacy dates to medieval times when great centers of learning were established. Beautifully illustrated, hand-written books and manuscripts demonstrate the interplay between the visual arts and language. Ethiopian Orthodox and Islamic religious texts and Ethiopian healing scrolls attest to the power of the written word to act as both narrative and design. The beauty and power of these scripts are often augmented by decorative patterns or symbolic designs created by talented illustrators and artists.

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Collection Armand Auxietre
Art primitif, Art premier, Art africain, African Art Gallery, Tribal Art Gallery
41 rue de Verneuil 75007 PARIS
Tél. Fax. : +33 (0)6 61 12 97 26
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