Materials of sculpture through history
Throughout most of history, the purpose of creating sculpture has been to produce works of art that are as permanent as possible. So to that end, works were usually produced in durable and frequently expensive materials, primarily bronze and stone such as marble, limestone, porphyry, and granite. More rarely, precious materials such as gold silver, jade, and ivory were used for chryselephantine works.
More common and less expensive materials were used for sculpture for wider consumption, including woods such as oak, boxwood (Buxus) and lime or linden (Tilia), terra cotta and other ceramics, and cast metals such as pewter and zinc (spelter).
African art has an emphasis on Sculpture - African artists tend to favor three-dimensional artworks over two-dimensional works. Although anthropologists argue that the earliest known sculptures in Africa are from the Nok culture of Nigeria that date around 500 BC, the art of Pharaonic Africa date much earlier than the Nok period. Metal sculptures from the eastern portions of west Africa such as Benin, are considered among the best ever produced.
Art plays an essential role in the lives of the African peoples and communities across the continent. The beauty of African art is simply in meaning. These objects mean a great deal to the people and they are of significant meaning to the traditions that produce them. Their beauty and content protect the community and the individual artists, and tell much of the artists who use them. Later exhibitions of African art in the West have been able to get much detailed catalogues that attempt to cover the art of the whole continent.
Sculptures are created to symbolize and reflect the regions from which they are made. Right from the materials and techniques used, the pieces have functions that are very different from one region to the other.
In West Africa, the figures have elongated bodies, angular shapes, and facial features that represent an ideal rather than an individual. These figures are used in religious rituals. They are made to have surfaces that are often coated with materials placed on them for ceremonial offerings. In contrast to these sculptures of West Africa are the ones of Mande-speaking peoples of the same region. The Mande pieces are made of wood and have broad, flat surfaces. Their arms and legs are shaped like cylinders.
In Central Africa, however, the key characteristics include heart shaped faces that are curve inward and display patterns of circles and dots. Although some groups prefer more of geometric and angular facial forms, not all pieces are exactly the same. Also, not all pieces are made of the same material. The materials used range from mostly wood all the way to ivory, bone, stone, clay, and metal. Overall, though, the Central African region has very striking styles that is very easy to identify. With the distinctive style, one can easily tell which area the sculpture was produced in.
Eastern Africa is not known for their sculptures but one type that is done in this area is pole sculptures. These are a pole carved in a human shape and decorated with geometric forms, while the tops are carved with figures of animals, people, and various objects. These poles are then placed next to graves and are associated with death and the ancestral world.
Southern Africa’s oldest known clay figures date from 400 to 600 A.D. and have cylindrical heads. These clay figures have a mixture of human and animal features. Other than clay figures, there are also wooden headrests that were buried with their owners. The headrests had styles ranging from geometric shapes to animal figures. Each region had a unique style and meaning to their sculptures. The type of material and purpose for creating sculpture in Africa reflect the region from which the pieces are created.
The ancient art of Egyptian sculpture evolved to represent the ancient Egyptian gods, and Pharaohs, the divine kings and queens, in physical form. Very strict conventions were followed while crafting statues: male statues were darker than the female ones; in seated statues, hands were required to be placed on knees and specific rules governed appearance of every Egyptian god.
Artistic works were ranked according to exact compliance with all the conventions, and the conventions were followed so strictly that over three thousand years, very little changed in the appearance of statutes except during a brief period during the rule of Akhenaten and Nefertiti when naturalistic protrayal was encouraged.