What is African art: how the African visual arts culture has changed

The African art culture has undergone drastic changes over the years. It has gone from being solely about masks and beaded trinkets to contemporary art with a message for society. The question of “What is African art?” is answered with images of strong, proud African people and social commentary.

It focuses on different aspects of race and personality

The post-independence phase of African art focused on the message of “We are here, and we have something to say”, but many of today’s African artists offer up a question instead: the question of “Who are we?”. The struggle with identity politics is a common one for many African artists who work in the Western world but have deep rooted traditional beliefs, and so their art reflects this.

Many of the older generations of African artists were focused on creating an identity after their independence but when looking at modern African art, one can see that the younger artists are looking to deconstruct and rethink this identity. These younger artists are looking to acknowledge in their work that each one of us is composed of many things, and race does not have to be the only defining factor.

It opens a dialogue for social change

For many years prior and after the independence of African countries, African art was seen as being tribal masks and beadwork pieces woven for tourists. This art was displayed in historic museums, not art museums, but this has changed drastically over the years.

Today’s contemporary African artists use their artwork to interpret and portray Africa’s political challenges, socio-economic struggles, rich traditions and diverse beauty. Some of these young artists use traditional African art in their work to speak on these topics, such as Kudzanai Chiurai, a Zimbabwean artist whose social commentary on a post-colonial Africa integrates traditional Zimbabwean masks in a haunting mixed-media film.

It embraces modern technology

Digital technology has been used in Africa for many years, particularly in the art community. Modern African artists use digital art techniques to create artwork that otherwise pushes boundaries, often using programs such as Photoshop to reform and recreate traditional images of Africa into more representative images.

Some contemporary African artists use video-editing software to create films or animations, playfully challenging the traditional views on African art and culture. Digital technology is often seen as something that African people are passive recipients of, but in reality digital innovations augment systems of knowledge transfer that have been in practice in abundance in Africa for some time. Modern artists have subverted this view of African people being the last to receive technology by using it in their artwork.

It has become sought after

Previously, African art was only bought as tourist souvenirs. But in modern society, particularly in the art world, it has grown in popularity. Young contemporary African artists are finding that their artwork is becoming highly popular with collectors, which has decreased the need for people to buy cheap, Chinese-made mass produced wall-art. This has had a positive impact on the economies of the African countries the artists hail from.

The art has become popular not only because emerging artists often need to accept lower pay for their work, but because of the obvious fire and passion in their work. These artists create because of an innate need to, rather than wanting to only make money from their work. Young collectors and galleries with an interest in social commentary and political work find that modern African art is an ideal choice.

It is reshaping the understanding of structure and texture

Modern African artists are known for creating magnificent social commentary pieces using mixed media. Some artists use materials that are native to their country, showing traditional cloth and materials in a different light. These artists are combining aspects of what is local to them but are commenting on global issues such as corruption, famine, political issues and more.

Combining traditional materials, such as clay, into sculptures making social commentary transforms the original connotations of African clay. It turns this simple material into something with a powerful voice and meaning behind it. Some artists reuse and recycle old pieces of junk found in their surroundings, highlighting the effects of modernisation on Africa and how this has changed what is available for use in art projects.


Contemporary African art has changed a lot since its beginnings, but the injection of traditional beliefs and cultural practices into modern pieces has stayed the same. The African visual arts community is now a firm competitor in the art world, with powerful young artists leading the way to success and recognition. African art has been transformed by pieces which address harsh topics in beautiful ways, so future collectors should watch this space for what is to come from modern African artists.

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