That this happened is understandable, given the demands of colonial administration, but this historical contingency cannot help in understanding the dynamic of stylistic variation in Africa.
The sense of identity that individuals and groups undoubtedly have with others, which was misunderstood as “tribe” but which is better referred to as “ethnic identity,” is something that derives from the relationship built up through many different networks: whom one can marry, one’s language and religious affiliations, the chief whose authority one acknowledges, who one’s ancestors are, the kind of work one does, and so forth.
Another misapprehension is that in the West art is created for art’s sake, while in precolonial Africa art was solely functional.
The motive for the creation of any work of art is inevitably complex, in Africa as elsewhere, and the fact that most of the sculpted artifacts known from Africa were made with some practical use in mind (whether for ritual or other purposes) does not mean that they could not simultaneously be valued as sources of aesthetic pleasure.
It is also often assumed that the African artist is constrained by tradition in a way contrasting with the freedom given to the Western artist.
But, although there are traditions of art in which the expectations of patrons demand repetition of a set form in African art, there are also traditions of precolonial origin that demand a high level of inventive originality—for example, Asante silk weaving and Kuba raffia embroidery.
Thus, some African art has value as entertainment; some has political or ideological significance; some is instrumental in a ritual context; and some has aesthetic value in itself.
There are other traditions in which a standard form can be embellished as elaborately as the artist or patron wishes.
The important point is that particular traditions encourage creativity.
First, in any African language, a concept of art as meaning something other than skill would be the exception rather than the rule.
This is not because of any inherent limitation of African culture but because of the historical conditions under which European cultures arrived at their concept of art.