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What Is Art?

Whatever is displayed in a museum or a gallery? A thought expressed through form? A source of calm in a chaotic world? Self-expression or autobiography? An addiction? Something that creates beauty or harmony?

The famous Plato described art as an imitation of nature but in the 19th century, photography took over that meaning and abstract art in the 20th century. So what really is art? Does art need to be beautiful? Expressive? Intellectual? Original? Uplifting?


You may have thought or heard one of the above responses. Seneca’s rendering in De Brevitate Vitae sect said; “Life is short, art is long”. This interprets to mean that man’s attempt at immortality was through Art.

African art is an expression of the varied aspects of the African lifestyle. In Nigeria, our culture is well demonstrated through art, dance, literature, folklore, music and fashion. History penned down the Nok culture who settled near the Benue River to be the earliest group to make pottery figurines and statues. These statues are the longest surviving tradition of African sculpture mainly of human subjects made of terracotta.


The Yoruba people of Ife perfected this sculpting and were seen to make astonishing realism of live size and smaller masks cast in brass and pure copper from the 12th – 15th century. The Benin’s continued this craft from the 15th century when they started making the Benin heads popularly known as the Benin Bronzes. History has it that during that time, the Portuguese supplied the Benin’s with brass which paved way for a new sophisticated craftwork of brass plaques. These craftworks were made with direct interpretations; to represent an ancestor, to beautify the King’s palace, and even sometimes, a chair for the King to sit on.

Today, African artists – be it painters, or carvers – use art as an escape from reality to represent their imaginations and the obvious realities that buttresses our culture.

Adaptations: MentalFloss | HistoryWorld | Qeturah

Written by: – The one-stop shop for Afrocentric items in Nigeria

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