How were African art and religion related?

There is an eternal question: what appeared first – art or religion? Scientists in Africa have already dedicated numerous investigations to this issue. This article will through the light on how African art and religion were related.

Art and Religion in Africa

Art and Religion in Africa

Artistic and religious traditions in Africa establish the primary example of its cultural and intellectual vitality. Creative works play a significant role in communicating ideas about the relationship between the spiritual, human, and natural worlds. This fact explains that art and religion in Africa were always connected because African people could not imagine their lives without beliefs that were regularly accompanied by various traditional artworks.

Religion in Africa

Key points about connection between African art and religion

  • African people often used wooden masks to portray their ancestors or deities. People think that they channeled spirits when ceremonial dancers wore them

Traditional African masks

  • Traditional cultures in Africa contain beliefs about the spirit world. Thus, traditional and modern art such as statues, masks, and sculptures represent it passionately
  • African used almost all sculptures and statues made by local artisans to communicate with various spiritual forces
  • At present, Africans acknowledge plenty of religious beliefs. The most common religions in Africa are Islam and Christianity. In addition, over 18% of people continue following traditional African religions

traditional African religions

  • Some modern art in Africa works to reincorporate ancient mystical beliefs despite the radical reduction of native religions in Africa
  • African religion and folklore are both varied and exclusive. Islam and Christianity have already influenced them very much during the era of European colonization.

African religion and folklore

African religion and art: rituals and masks

African wooden masks often have the form of humans, animals, or mythical creatures. They are one of the most frequently found forms of traditional African art. People used these masks to show deities or signify the souls of the dead relatives. During various ceremonies for deaths, celebrations, crop harvesting, initiations, dancers worn those costumes.

READ ALSO: What is African art history?

 Dancer in traditional African mask

During various traditional mask ceremonies, dancers went into the subterranean trance. Africans thought that during this state of mind, danced communicated with descendants in the spirit world.

Dancers went into hidden trance

By the way, masks themselves often represent an inherited spirit. Most African masks are made of wood. Local artisans often decorated them with semi-precious gems, plant fibers, animal hair, ivory, pigments, and stones.

A traditional mask from Gabon

Numerous traditional African statues and sculptures also represented spiritual forces. For instance, people used Bambara statuettes, such as the Chiwara, as spiritually charged objects throughout the ritual.

Chiwara statuettes

In the Kingdom of Kongo, nkisi were objects were spirits lived. African believed that these power objects would help aid in the lettering with the spirit world.

Nkisi inhabited by spirits

Contemporary Religion and Art

Nowadays, all African countries have plenty of religious beliefs. Thus, statistics on the religious connection are problematic to come by. Islam and Christianity are the largest religions in modern Africa. Therefore, art representatives of these major religions did their best to influence religion with their artworks. According to another statistics, more than 18% of African people keep on exercising old African religions.

Modern Makonde sculptures often depict Shetani

Therefore, some modern art in Africa works to reincorporate traditional mystical beliefs despite the radical reduction of native religions in Africa.


In traditional African culture, all ideas about art and the spirit world are profoundly embedded. Traditional African art is a folk art. It reflects all the traditions, customs, and psychological characteristics of African people. African art allows understanding better the social psychology of Africans. Without such an understanding, it is impossible to define the specifics of the development of social consciousness in Africa. Thus, African art and religion are closely related in all African countries. For example, Nigeria has opened the world plenty of various cultures owing to the presence of numerous ethnic groups on its territory. Moreover, each of these cultures has new cultural and religious characteristics.

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