Becoming Black Panther : 12 African Art Inspirations for Blockbuster Movie

Black Panther opened big this weekend filling movie theaters and Disney’s coffers. Globally thousands of people were treated to a film directed by an African-American, starring African-Americans, disaporic Africans, and Africans, set mostly in Africa.

In this Marvel tale, a king of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda is also a superhero, the Black Panther. While scenes are set in South Korea and Oakland, CA, the majority of the story takes place in Wakanda, a (fictional) African nation that never been colonized and so got to enjoy the benefits of their riches.

Wakanda is shown a remix of many African cultural looks if spliced with a cinematic techno-future-hip aesthetic. The designers drew on myriad African cultures to bring Wakanda to life. As designer Ruth Carter said the goal was to “show the world the beauty of tribal dress and move that forward in a more modernistic way.”

You can get inspired yourself by African Art at a local museum or through Metropolitan Museum of Art’s open collection initiative.

Here are 12 to get you started:

T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) settle their differences, Wakanda style.

Scarification/ Cicatrization

Seated Figure: Male, Dengese, DRC, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1978.412.520

This figure has an elaborate pattern of raised scars on his chest and forearms. Unlike Erik Killmonger whose ritual scars are earned through bad deads, African ritual scarification is usually a common, positive form of adornment.


Hair!

Natural Hair (i.e. non-chemically treated hair) was in full effect throughout the film. Glorious African hairstyles influenced much of the character design.

Headdress, Ejagham Peoples, Nigeria, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.206.266

Lupita Nyong’o’s soft, mounded look can be seen throughout Africa like on this Ejagham mask. These styles, sometimes called bumps or mounds, might have inspired by farmer’s sweet potato mounds.


Female Diviner Figure, Baule Peoples, Ivory Coast, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1978.412.391

The Black Panther’s sister, Shuri, played by Danai Gurira, wears her hair in a pile of braids upon her head. African’s women’s hair was often braided and formed into complex hairstyles — like a natural crown. While Shuri’s particular style might be a Wakanda specialty, this Baule diviner’s hair is equally exuberant.

Black Panther Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018 http://www.geekexchange.com/news/black-panther-check-out-20-new-images-from-wakanda/#jp-carousel-357663

Jewelry

Soul Washer’s Badge (Akrafokonmu), Akan Peoples, Ghana/ Guinea Coast, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1982.92

Gold was seen everywhere, including around the General’s neck and at the Black Panther’s waist at the challenge. This Akan badge is one of the many fine gold objects created on the African continent.


Necklace, Maasai, Kenya, Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.190.84

Beading is in full effect in the Black Panther costumes as well as in jewelry. Designers were inspired by the North African Touareg (with their big beads) as well as the smaller beads used throughout the continent. The Maasai jewelry was a particularly important influence like this collar made with glass beads.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018 (http://www.geekexchange.com/news/black-panther-check-out-20-new-images-from-wakanda/#jp-carousel-357656)

Textiles

Clothing designers worked with contemporary African designers and international buyers to get the looks. While the well-known wax-prints were seen cut into contemporary fashion on the streets of Wakanda, the designers drew on a wider swath of African textiles traditions.

Royal Display Cloth (Ndop), Cameroon, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999.3

W’kabi, lifelong friend of the Black Panther, led an army of boundary-protecting, rhinoceros-wrangling warriors clad in blue. W’kabi and his kin’s wraps have a rich blue background that constrasts with geometric patterns, like this indigo-dyed cloth from Cameroon.


Prestige cloth (Adinkra), Asante, Ghana, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.614.6

Brightly colored clothes are seen througout the film, like in the challenge scenes. Adinkra patterns adorn this Ghanaian prestige cloth with a rich symbolic language behind the patterns.


Prestige Hanging (Kpoikpoi), Mende or Vai Peoples, Sierra Leone, Metropolitan Museum of Art 2013.986

Double Prestige Panel, Kuba Peoples, DRC, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1999.522.15

Kuba textiles, like this one, with interlocking patterns was wrapped around the waist. These interlocking patterns can be seen on many of Lupita Nyong’o’s character’s costumes and on the Black Panther’s blue suit.


Male Figure: Court Official, Edo Peoples, Nigeria, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991.17.32

This Edo courtier stands proud with a cloth wrapped around his waist in the way that W’Kabi did at the coronation/ challenge. He also wears thick circular necklaces as many characters do, like Zuri.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER Zuri (Forest Whitaker) Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018 http://www.geekexchange.com/news/black-panther-check-out-20-new-images-from-wakanda/

Weapons

Plaque: Warrior and Attendants, Edo Peoples, Nigeria, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1990.332

The wealthy court of Benin was protected by fierce warriors holding formidable swords much like the one that Zuri carried and the swords seen at the final battle.


Seated Male Figure with Lance, Bamana peoples, Mali, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1983.600a, b

This Bamana figure of a male warrior summarizes the feeling of the movie: proud, strong, beautiful and African.

All this art should make you see, African Art forever. And, of course, Wakanda Forever.