Brief introduction to the Indigenous arts of the African continent and India

Indigenous art refers to the cultural expression of the native inhabitants of a region with unique traditional linguistic and historical ties to the land. It encompasses a wide range of art forms like pottery, music, dance, painting, sculpture, jewelry, textiles, etc.  There are several ins and outs that go into the evolution of any indigenous art form. The history, conquests, migrations, and temperament of the ruler and people in addition to local tradition, beliefs, and economics among so many other factors play significant roles in the process. The art and culture of India and Africa have a rich history dating back to centuries of experimentation and evolution, shaped by the migratory patterns and trade routes This article intends to briefly introduce the indigenous art forms popular in India and Africa. It aims to explore the elements of cultural representation, similarities and differences found in the art forms of both the regions and the factors that have been intrinsic to their evolution.


An Egyptian cartonnage funerary mask.
An Egyptian cartonnage funerary mask


Africa is home to over 50 countries and thousands of distinct ethnic groups, each with its unique artistic heritage. The rich geographical diversity ranging from deserts and savannas to mountains and tropical rainforests has directly influenced the materials, styles, and subjects used in African art forms. The careful study would reveal that as ancient Egypt in North Africa fostered architecture, hieroglyphics, and elaborate tomb paintings, the rich forest of West and Central Africa inspired intricate wood carvings. At one end the East African coast, influenced by Indian Ocean trade, showcases a fusion of African and Arabic art as seen in the Swahili craft, on the other end South Africa’s arid landscape prompted artisans to use stones in their craft. 

The impact of geography in the evolution of indigenous art forms becomes evident if we further explore the scenario in the Indian context. India is a small region in contrast to Africa however it has a remarkable geographical diversity, encompassing vast mountain ranges, fertile plains, dense forests, deserts, and extensive coastlines. The mountainous regions of India like the Himalayas developed a strong tradition of wood-based crafts and woolen textiles showcasing their indigenous flora and fauna like walnut wood carvings or Pashmina shawls due to their rich timber and high altitude. Similarly, the arid landscapes of Rajasthan and Gujarat fostered the craft of pottery and terracotta. The beautiful bamboo crafts are prevalent mainly in eastern India, given the dense forests in the region. The coastal areas of India like Goa and Kerala developed shell crafts or coconut-based art forms.


Dogon wall painting depicting circumcisions .
Dogon wall painting depicting circumcisions 


Similar to indigenous Indian art, the craft practiced across Africa often stems from the themes of religious symbolism, and utilitarianism as many pieces of art are created for spiritual rather than purely creative purposes. It often depicted the abundance of nature and daily life through abstract interpretations of animals, flora, and fauna and symbolic markings. For example, Madhubani painting practiced in the Bihar region of India depicts deities like Radha-Krishna from Hindu mythology. It has stylized and symbolic representations of flora-fauna and geometrical shapes reflecting the art of storytelling intrinsic to the tradition. Whereas in Africa the tradition of crafting elaborate masks has roots in ritualistic and ceremonial traditions of the region. African masks symbolize various spirits, ancestors, or deities revered by the native community. Such masks are also prevalent in the tribal regions of north-east India. This suggests that a close-knit community more often than not, follows a deep cultural tradition based on their own beliefs. 


Radha Krishna in Madhubani.
Radha Krishna in Madhubani


Dogon ancestral figure held by the Louvre, wood, c. 17th-18th century AD.
Dogon ancestral figure held by the Louvre, wood, c. 17th-18th century AD


Art critics have long characterized African art as primitive, similar to what the British colonials did with Indian art. The vast existence of native tribal communities in Africa like the Maasai tribe, known for its beadwork, jewelry , and clothing, and the Dogon tribe renowned for wooden, abstract sculptures called Dogon sculptures have paved the path for a unique artistic identity for Africa. As the Maasai beadworks and jewelries indicate the lineage or social status of the person, the Dogon sculptures represent ancestral spirits and cosmic symbols. Maasai beadwork is not merely an artwork, it conveys messages and meanings. It is used to communicate stories, mark life events, and even reflect the social or marital status of a person. Red beads, for instance, are often associated with bravery and strength, green is related to prosperity and earth whereas white represents purity and health. One of the most important beads in their collection is called ‘Esiteti’, a flat circular bead worn on the forehead, signifying a girl's readiness for marriage.


Maasai Beadwork
Maasai Beadwork


Similar to the Maasai tribes, the tribes belonging to Jhabua, Alirajpur and Dahod districts of Madhya Pradesh are also known for their extensive beadwork. In these tribes, the stature and hierarchy of women are intrinsically linked to the beadwork created and worn by them.  



The significant number of tribal communities residing in India share a similar linguistic when it comes to preserving their unique art tradition passed down through generations. The Warli tribe from Maharashtra is known for their simple geometric shapes often depicting scenes from daily life, nature, and folklore in their traditional art form. The Gond art practiced by the Gond tribe in central India exhibits a harmonious blend of vibrant colors and detailed patterns. It serves as a visual storytelling conveying their beliefs, fears, aspirations, and reverence for nature through the depiction of various elements like animals, birds, mythical creatures, or deities.

The cultural aspect has played a great role in shaping the indigenous art of both India and Africa. In India, traditional art forms like Rangoli and Kolams are made during festivals to ward off evil and welcome auspiciousness. Whereas in Africa, during funerals or special events, the masks or sculptures serve as a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds.  Both traditions use their distinct art forms to acknowledge and celebrate their shared belief in the interconnectedness of all things. The use of symbolism through motifs, themes, colors, or any art form to communicate the deep theory or belief is intrinsic to both civilizations. It reveals a rich tapestry of creativity and expression offering enclosure into the multiple aspects that have sustained both cultures for centuries.

  • Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. ‘The Tribal Arts of Africa’. Thames and Hudson. 
  • 2017. ‘Living Traditions Tribal and Folk Paintings of India’. CCRT New Delhi.
  • Duerden, Dennis.1974 ‘African Art An Introduction’. The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.
  • Okpewho, Isidore. 1977 ‘Principles of Traditional African Art’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 301-13
  • Polakoff, Claire. 1978. ‘Crafts and the Concept of Art in Africa’. African Art.




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