The historical character of African art emerges where it has to deal with with those kingdoms that, for political or religious reasons, have developed a courtly art. In these realms, the ruler is a greatly sacralized figure. Art has the purpose of distinguishing different social circles, to legitimize power. In addition, the court art is used to transmit not only dynastic but also community memory.
THE KINGDOM OF BENIN
In this regard, it is impossible not to mention the kingdom of Benin. It had its greatest expansion in conjunction with the arrival of the Portuguese. Surely, its most famous artworks are the plates and the heads. There is speculation that the heads were commemorative representations, or trophies. With the succession of centuries, the style of the heads (in brass or in bronze) has included more symbolic and decorative elements. Besides heads and plaques, African artists, commissioned by the Europeans, made other objects; you can trace in them the presence of both European and African mix. For example, there are objects, such as Afro-Portuguese saltshakers, anthropomorphic and geometric, with a blend of local elements and settlers’ figures.
THE KINGDOM ASHANTI
Concerning the Ashanti kingdom, of Ghana, it had both a leading role with the Europeans for the traffic of gold and slaves and a prominent role in the trans-Saharan caravan trade. On an artistic level, therefore, it absorbed European, Islamic and local influences. The Ashanti art focuses on the sacred power of the sovereign and the various ranks of the social hierarchy. Famous and valuable is the Ashanti, in addition to its production of geometric or figurative weights for gold, in bronze. However, the better-known and renowned artworks are the fertility dolls, called ‘akua ba’, to propitiate fertility. The styles of these dolls differ from region to region but they are recognizable by the following characteristics: spherical face, thin neck with rings, wide curved eyebrow and small pierced eyes.
THE KINGDOM KUBA
The Kuba kingdom (a name which collects twenty different ethnic groups), from Congo, had a strongly hierarchical society, founded towards 1600 by the dynasty Bushongo. The king, called ‘nyim’, was given the power to influence weather and fertility (both human and natural). Kuba art, therefore, is closely linked to the figure of the sovereign and the will to emphasize the royal prestige by means of special objects (e.g. cups for wine, boxes for cosmetics, embroidered fabrics). There are also statues of kings, called ‘ndop’, meant to transfer the power to the king’s successor, ensuring royal authority during transitional times. There are, then, masks that embody the spirits of the forest, called ‘ngesh’, which are entities placed midway between men and gods. These spirits are important as they encourage success in hunting and treating diseases.
THE KINGDOM LUBA
The kingdom Luba, also of Congo, has reached its peak around 1650; after that, it went into decline, because of the wars with the ethnic group Chokwe and the slave trade by the Arabs. Central to the Luba art is the female figure, which we can find in statues, stools, arrows. The woman is represented with full, symmetrical and smooth volumes; the face appears engrossed, as out of time.