A study of the art forms of any people must essentially take into consideration the cultural background from which the art springs.
So for a better understanding and deeper appreciation of African art it would be well to examine the basic concepts underlying it. We must therefore concern ourselves with the manifestations of animism, fetishism, magic, and mythology in the tribal civilization.
This is the belief that all objects-both ''in- animate'' and ''animate'' according to Western terminology-possess vitality or are endowed with indwelling souls. Thus animals as well as men-and earth, water, vegetation, and minerals as well as animals-are invested with souls.
The indwelling soul, moreover, is non material; it has its own thought and will.
Animism was carried over into the African's attitude toward sculpture. Both the creation of a piece of sculpture and its use in tribal rituals were based upon animism. The power of a statue or a mask was believed to be more real than that of a living being. Those who possessed the sculpture felt that they could depend on this power to protect them and promote their welfare.
The sculpture did not represent an idea, as a statue of Christ may be said to symbolize divine grace. The African sculpture is the spirit itself .
This concept, alien as it is to the rational mind, must be grasped if we are to understand and feel the force that African art radiates. An African sculptor's belief that he created life was incomparably greater in its assurance than the ''symbolic'' or ''representational'' approach of the Western artist to his work.
For centuries African animism proved durable enough to resist the religious influence and other cultural-social pressures of invaders.
Islam, for example, despite its intimate contact with the Sudanese states, left no impress on African art. The Christian missionaries, despite the effects of their medical work, similarly made little impression on animism, though political and economic change, brought about by Western rule, did initiate a breakup of African social structures.
The vitality of animism is all the more striking in that, through centuries of external pressures, it did without the aid of organized religious institutions and the teachings of great relegious leaders, such as have sustained nearby all other religions. Moreover, the African's religion lacked writing and could therefore not preserve itself in records. Traditions were handed down orally with all the consequent risks of change and loss.
The lack of writing, however, resulted in the focusing of creative energies upon sculpture making, which preserved the African's most important concepts about the world and man's relationship to it. Powerful shapes are the result, ''speaking'' in plastic language. A limitation in one field thus brought about a rare achievement in another.