In sub-Saharan Africa, sculpture was and still is made and used for particular, practical purposes. In many instances it is used to mark events or stages of life, like fertility, birth, transition, death. For example, among the Yoruba in Nigeria, Ibeji twin-figurines (from ibi=first born and eji=two) are produced at the birth of someone's twins (a common occurance in this ethnic group). Among the Ashante in Ghana fertility figurines are carved, the Akuaba doll (akua=born on Wednesday and ba=child), to be worn by a young female in order to ensure her fertility. Ikenga figures embody protective spirits for worldly success and to protect the house-hold. Ancestor figures remind the people of those gone. Other carvings are used for initiation and coming-of-age rituals, for harvest festivals and celebrations, for funeral occasions.
As sculptures in African society always had a practical purpose, they were made for particular occasions only, i.e. on commission from a patron. The client and the artisan would discuss the purpose of the work and agree a price before the sculptor set to work. The client would then rely on the artist to produce a familiar form in a familiar style. For him only the object would be important, not the carver. As most sculptures in Africa have a limited life span due to the climate (humidity, dampness, heat) and insect attack (woodworms, termites), carvings had to be replaced frequently. Nevertheless, "the artist is not a passive copyist, even though one of his major responsibilities is to replace destroyed works" (from African Art in the Cycle of Life, by Roy Sieber & Roslyn Adele Walker, 1987:20). In fact, in this way he represented his generation's link with the past. In other words, "each sculpture had its particular reason for being among the people that supported it" (ibid:17).
Each culture developed its own sculptural style, which thus had a limited geographical distribution. Hence, in terms of style, most Africans would have known little of what was produced at any distance from their home areas. African patrons of sculptures make no evaluation of quality. To them all carvings associated with their culture are good and beautiful because they are accepted and consecrated in the codes of their cultures. A carver is expected to produce a sculpture in the style, size, colour and material expected of him by his clientele. Skill rather than creativity is the ability to create recognizable, acceptable variations of a shared stylistic, formal and aesthetic norm (ibid:14). Talent in a carver was recognised and if a piece was particularly well made was limited to use as an object associated with high status. Such carvers ended up working exclusively for Royal households, chiefs and the priviledged.
African sculptures only became “Art” in the Western sense of the word in the late 19th /early 20th century when artists and critics in Europe discovered it for themselves, e.g. Modigliani, Picasso, Brancusi and the expressionists. They applied it to their own work as a means of introducing new forms to break away from the established, traditional European styles, regarded by then as aesthetically bankrupt. “Studied for its formal impact on Western Art, no attempt was made, however, to discern the role, meaning or aesthetics from the point of view of the African producers” (ibid:14). As a result, only parts of the original forms have frequently been preserved, e.g. a mask without its costume, leave alone all the other associations like music, dance, drama, myths and beliefs that surround the carving. The sculptures that survive in Western collections are, therefore, often but a small part of the full object for which they were originally made, e.g. the Chi-Warra head dresses.
The issue, however, has not always been quite as clear cut. From the 16th century on, when Europeans first made trading contacts with West Africa, carvers and sculptors produced work for some traders and later, as of the 19th century, wooden carvings were sold to explorers and colonial officials who began to collect them. A particular example are the high-quality ivory carvings and bronzes produced for Portuguese traders in 16th century Benin. 19th century acquisitions, now in Western collections, had their provenances recorded as proof. Therefore, it looks that African sculptors produced figurines on commission for all kinds of clients, as long as the produced work was of a style and quality that both agreed to. From this point of view one might argue that todays carvings for the tourist trade, although not on commission, might be seen in a similar light and be regarded as a continuation of a long tradition, especially in view of the ever decreasing local market. And it has to be said, that producing art on commission was also a common method in the European Middleages. Paintings and sculptures by famous icons of the art world were produced in workshops usually on commission by the Church or wealthy merchants and the privileged.