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Definition of Ethnographic Art

Any art or artifacts created by indigenous people the world over is defined as ethnographic art. This includes art created by Native Americans, African tribes and Oceanic islanders. The most common examples of ethnographic art are masks, paintings, and carved sculptures, many of which are spiritual or religious in nature.


Ethnographic art typically has some characteristics distinguishing it from other forms of art. The subject matter of ethnographic art often deals with matters important to the people who created the art. For example, a piece of ethnographic art created by a hunter-gather tribe might depict the spirit of the hunt or the harvest. Ethnographic art sometimes also features sexual themes; reproduction and recreation paramount among them.


Ethnographic art is sometimes thought of as the original form of abstract art. This can frequently be observed in masks, sculptures, and cave paintings. Facial features of a mask, such as the eyes, nose, and ears, will have exaggerated appearance. In some cultures, mythological creatures will be suggested by combining human and animal forms. These types of artistic depictions have no representation in the real world, but rather in the imaginations of ethnographic artists.


The influence of ethnographic art can be clearly seen in the work of many famous, more modern painters and sculptors, particularly Pablo Picasso. In many of Picasso’s paintings, the faces of the subjects are very similar to masks created by indigenous cultures. An excellent example of this technique can be found in Picasso’s famous painting “Girl Before a Mirror,” both in the girl’s face and in the altered reflection she sees in the mirror.

Modern Ethnographic Art

Modern artists often incorporate ethnographic art ideas, or pieces of ethnographic art, into their own works in order to challenge the audience’s perception of what art can and should be. Many of the original techniques of ethnographic art, such as harsh geometric lines and exaggerated abstraction, can be seen in the art of today. This sort of art has sparked many debates about the relevance and value of art, and in turn increased the value, monetary and otherwise, of original pieces of ethnographic art.

Where To Find Ethnographic Art

Many museums in the United States feature large collections of ethnographic art. The Seattle Art Museum has an entire exhibit devoted to masks, textiles, and carvings of the indigenous people of the Northwest, as well as ethnographic Asian art. These types of exhibits serve to further our understanding of ancient civilizations, as well as our appreciated of art as a whole.

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