Art of Africa

from Mr. Bowers AP Art History Courses at East Chapel Hill High School

//this article is about the art and culture of Africa[1]

Key Terms


ALTAR Edo Culture, Nigeria c. 1959

In the past hundred years African art has become popular across the world. However, these works are often misunderstood due to our lack of knowledge concerning the art of ancient Africa. While the amount we know has grown in recent years, due to an increase in studies of Africa, there is still much we do not understand. Our knowledge is limited by the fact that a vast amount of African art was made from wood and has now decayed. Because of this art historians have had to rely on traditions, oral histories and the few remaining artworks in durable materials to learn about African art.[2]


African art is made al the more important by the knowledge that humanity arose in southern Africa. Traces of art have been found dating back to 70,000years ago, suggesting modern human behavior at a far earlier date than previously thought, In addition, figurative art an animal depictions have been found dating back to 25000 years ago.

For many years, African art has been referred to as "primitive" by Western cultures. This derives from the descriptions of Africa by early European explorers, who believed themselves to be superior to Africans in every way. "Primitive" cultures have often been identified by use of Stone Age technology, lack of written histories, and failure to build great cities. Many African cultures, however, have forged iron, recorded their histories in Arabic, and built urban centers like Benin, Luanda, and Timbuktu. Until recently, many Westerners perceived Africa as one large culture, rather than many discrete peoples. They also believed that artistic styles were dictated by village elders and carried out by anonymous, fungible craftsmen, not sought-after artists. Art historians have disproved these prejudices recently. They have found evidence that clearly distinguishes between African cultures, from their artistic styles to the materials used. They have also found evidence that ties one or more artworks to specific artists. These findings show that early African cultures revered art just as much as Western cultures did, and did not view the creation of rock art or sculpture as a simple craft.

Early African Art

As Africa rose to prominence because of its expansive amounts of natural resources and precious metals and became a bustling trade center. The mingling of the indigenous peoples and foreign merchants formed a unique blend of culture and language. This in turn led to unique African art that combined traces of many native and European styles. Modern examples of African art are scarce because much was made of highly perishable materials. However, examples can be found through the few that are made of materials like rock, terra cotta, and metal. Much of its history is rooted in numerous primitive cave paintings from thousands of years ago. Many African pieces show techniques like lost-wax casting for sculpture. Also, examples of blending, abstraction and naturalism are shown. Vestiges of pigments are also apparent. Though many African pieces display similar themes, each cultural region provides its own unique feature, some more original than others.

Rock Art
Incised Ochre Plaque, Blombos Cave, South Africa, c. 70,000 BCE

Like prehistoric Europeans, early Africans painted and inscribed images on the walls or rock shelters. Rock arts could be found throughout the African continent. The rock painting ranges from abstract geometric shapes to abstract and naturalistic artworks which represents their life. Images of human figures give us information about the body decorations, mask making, and ritual performances of Africa. Mountains on central Sahara contain artworks which show the cultural development of the people and the transformation of Sahara from fertile lands to the desert that we know today. Either inscribed or painted, African rock art can be found anywhere from small shelters to massive caves, depicting everything from highly abstract geometrical designs to abstract and naturalistic human forms, including hunting scenes, domestic scenes, and dancing figures in costumes. These images vary from region to region. For example, as the lush area that the Sahara used to be dried up into the expansive Sahara Desert, the paintings changed accordingly. Also, animals changed their behaviors with the climates. This is evident in the cave painting “Cattle Being Tended,” probably from the late herding period. In the various other artworks, humans are visible exhibiting the behaviors of the era. As is visible in many cave paintings, African rock art is very naturalistic, focusing on the actions of the living beings of the time.

Cattle being tended, detail from rock wall painting, Algeria, c. 5000-2000 BCE

Earliest artworks dates back to 8000 BCE, during the transition into geological period known as Makalian Wet Phase. Artworks show hippopotamus, elephant, giraffe, antelope, and other animals which proves that Sahara was a wet grassy plain 10,000 years ago. Artworks of human contain details of clothing, body decorations, and headdresses; some people are wearing masks that cover their faces.

By 4000 BCE the climate had become more arid and animals decreased in number which caused hunting to diminish. Instead, herding became the primary life sustaining activity of Saharan inhabitants. Artworks of this period showed sheep, goats, and cattle and the daily lives of the people who tended the animals. Some scenes attempt to create a sense of depth and distance by using overlapping forms and placing near figures lower and distant figures higher. By 2500-2000BCE Sahara started to dry and great games disappeared, but new animals were introduced and are described on the rock art. The horse was brought from Egypt between 1500BCE and is shown regularly on the rock arts. Chariot riding people who have been described by Herodotus are also shown on the rock arts of this period. Around 600BCE camel was introduced to Africa from the east, and is painted or inscribed on the rock.

Saharan people have migrated to Sudan, and have brought the knowledge of settled agriculture and animal husbandry to that region. Iron technology was being developed around 1000BC in Africa and came to Sudan as well. This new technology enabled the inhabitants to make more sophisticated weapons and farming tools. At the same time larger and more sophisticated civilizations emerged around Lake Chad in central Sudan and Niger and Senegal rivers to the west.

Emergence of Advanced Civilizations

HEAD Head, Nok, c. 500 BCE- 200 CE, Terra cotta, present day Nigeria

The earliest evidence of iron technology in sub-Saharan Africa comes from Nok culture which arose in the western Sudan around 500BCE. Nok people were farmers and had a technology for refining ore. Slags, remains of furnaces, and clay nozzles to fan the fire prove that they had technology to refine ores.As the Saharan peoples migrated into the Sudan, they brought with them knowledge of ironworking, which allowed large and complex societies to develop within the Sudan.

The Nok people created the earliest known sculptures in Africa, producing terra-cotta figures of human and animals around 500BCE-200CE. Nok sculpture was found by tin miners digging alluvial deposits on the Jos plateau. Presumably floods from centuries ago had removed the sculptures from the original place and had broken the sculptures leaving only the heads from what must have been complete human figures. Nok heads, slightly larger than life size, have triangular or D-shaped eyes which are also shown on sculptures of animals. Holes on pupils, nostrils, and mouth allowed air to pass freely while the sculpture was fired. Buns of its hairstyle have small holes which might have held ornamental feathers. Others display beaded necklace, armlets, bracelets, anklets, and other ornaments. These sculptures might be representing ordinary people dressed for special occasion or it could represent people of high status, which would reflect the hierarchy in this early farming culture.

Most Nok heads had D-shaped eyes, which was a characteristic of the Nok style. They also made holes for pupils, nostrils, and the mouth, not only for decoration but for air to pass through it when firing. They were decorated with all sorts of feathers and jewelry. These figures represented both normal people and people of high status.

Human sculpture such as this was used to display prestige ornaments, such as necklaces and bracelets, and shows social stratification within the Nok society.


Roped Pot on a Stand, Igbo-Ukwu. 9th-10th century. Leaded bronze, National Museum, Lagos
Roped Pot on a Stand, Igbo-Ukwu. 9th-10th century. Leaded bronze, National Museum, Lagos

The Igbo culture was the earliest known culture to handle copper alloy and bronze casting. They were also known for their elite burial and shrine complexes. Burial chambers contained a seated king or ritual leader (called an eze), dressed well and surrounded by objects, such as elephant tusks, leopard skulls and jewelry, which symbolized his power. The shrine contained ceremonial and prestige objects made by the lost-wax technique. They included bowls, fly-whisk handles, altar stands, and staff finials. These objects were decorated with representations of natural objects with raised and banded decorations.

The Roped Pot on a Stand was one of the casted objects found in the shrine. It has a very complicated design and has been suggested that the roped pot resembles water-ot drum, which is still used in this region of Nigeria.

HEAD OF A KING Ife, Yoruba, c. 13th century, zinc brass

Ife was the most important city built by the Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria. The city was ruled by an oni, or king. Important sites in the city, like the oni's palace and sacred sites, were in paved courtyards with elaborate mosaics. The people of Ife created highly detailed terra-cotta vessels which may have been used to make liquid offerings to the earth or the gods. The Ife people followed the Yoruba tradition of creating very naturalistic portrait heads, sometimes displaying the main head in between two less detailed figures to bring it out. The Ife people produced very naturalistic sculptures that represented kings (called oni). The realism of these heads make them seem like real representations of kings but their perfection suggest that they were a bit idealized.

Head of a King is very naturalistic. It is covered with thin, parallel lines or scarification patterns. Small holes allow veils to easily be attached to it. It could also be put on a mannequin for an oni’s (name for a king of Ife) memorial service.

MEMORIAL HEAD OF AN OBA Edo people, Benin, c. 16th c, brass

Head of Usurper Lajuwa is made of terra cotta. These heads were usually placed in the shrines of dead kings. It is not known whether the head are actual portraits, for while they are realistic enough to be, they are of men of similar age and seem to represent the same idea of physical perfection, which lead scholars to believe that they could be idealized images.

WARRIOR CHIEF FLANKED BY WARRIORS AND ATTENDANTS Benin, Nigeria, Middle Period. c. 1550-1650 CE, brass

The city of Ife greatly influenced the city-state of Benin, which was located 150 miles southeast of Ife and would later become very influential. Oral histories recount that the first kings, or obas, were of the Ogiso (Skyking) dynasty, but after much misrule, the citizens sent for a new oba from Ife. They were appointed Prince Oranmiyan, who founded a new dynasty in 1170 CE.

The fourth oba of this dynasty started the tradition of metal memorial sculptures in Benin the master metal caster Iguegha. This tradition is still present today. In 1485, Benin began to trade ivory, forest products, and slaves with Portugal. They flourished economically until 1897 when British troops destroyed the royal palace and exiled the oba. During their rampage, the British discovered many shrines to former obas covered with brass heads, bells, and figures and huge ivory tusks. They seized the pieces as war treasure, destroying the shrines, and leaving modern scientists with little knowledge of the evolution of art in Benin.
However, they have pieced a theoretical chronology together. While all of the heads share coral-bead necklaces and headdresses, they differ greatly in style, and are split into 3 periods:
1. Early Period (1400-1550) – smallest, most naturalistic heads, influenced by Ife
2. Middle Period (1550-1700) – Heavier, more stylized, more beads, hidden chin
3. Late period (1700-1897) – Large, heavy, angular and stylized features, elaborate beaded crown, tall cylindrical necklaces, small images carved into the base. As Benin grew wealthier, the heads grew larger and more elaborate.
Heads played an important in African culture. They were thought to be the center of the body and the source of all knowledge. In sculpture they were always surrounded by coral, the symbol of the oba’s power because casting heads in bronze was a right reserved for the royal family. The head’s importance is clearly shown in the piece Hip Mask that represents the iyoba (queen mother) Idia. The oba of the time Esigie (also her son) commissioned it for her. Its elaborate carvings display images of the army Idia raised to help expand the kingdom, paying tribute to her.

Urban Centers

Horseman, Old Jenne, Mali. 13-15th century, Terra cotta, The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Horseman, Old Jenne, Mali. 13-15th century, Terra cotta, The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

After Ife and Benin, many other prominent African cities arose. Among these were Mbanza Kongo, Mopti, Timbuktu, and Jenné and later Manden (present day Mali). All were great trade centers and famous centers of Islamic learning. A city near Jenné named Jenné-Jeno (Old Jenné) was excavated and many terra cotta figures were found. Most notable was Horseman. The figure is shown in elaborate clothing suggesting he was fairly important. These terra cotta figures give scientists much of the information known today about African art.


Jenne was established by 300 CE and by the middle of the ninth century it had become major urban center. Islam was growing stronger as religious and economic force and incorporated trans-Saharan trade routes. In the thirteenth century, 26th king of Jenne converted to Islam and transformed his palace into first of 3 successive mosques in the city. Mosque was built of Adobe brick, sundried mixture of clay and straw and was decorated lavishly. The most impressive part of the city was the great mosque. Its eastern façade has 3 towers, the middle one containing the mihrab. The finials are ostrich eggs, which represent fertility. The walls have tall
GREAT FRIDAY MOSQUE Jenné, Mali, rebuilt in 1907 in style of 13th century original

engaged columns typical of African mosques. The distinguishing feature is the toron, however, or the wooden beams projecting from the walls. These provide permanent
support for scaffolding so the walls of the mosque can be replastered frequently. The houses r
esemble this design. Adobe walls are reinforced by buttresses and rooms open inward towards a courtyard. A flat roof provides extra living space.

Great Zimbabwe

Extensive trade network was developed along the Zambezi, Limpopo, and Sabi rivers to funnel the gold, ivory, and exotic skins to the coastal trading towns build by Arabs and Swahili speaking Africans. Between 1000 and 1500 CE trade was largely controlled by Great Zimbabwe, home of Shona people. Great Zimbabwe gets their name from dzimba dzambwe meaning house of stone. Like their name their buildings were constructed with stone. The largest building complex known as Imba Huru, the Great Enclosure is located in a broad valley bellow hilltop enclosures. It is ringed by stone wall more than 800 feet long, 32 feet tall and 17 feet thick at the base. The buildings at Great Zimbabwe do not use mortar; instead they are battered, built so that they would slope inward toward the top. Although the buildings were built on hilltops they were not used as a fortress; instead, they were used to reflect the wealth and power of the rulers. As the builders grew more skillful, later additions are distinguished by dressed stones laid on fine, even, level courses. Conical Tower is one of the structures added as the masons became more skillful.

Conicial Tower, Great Zimbabwe. c. 1200-1400 CE.
Conicial Tower, Great Zimbabwe. c. 1200-1400 CE.

The Shona people occupied the Great Zimbabwe and controlled a major part of the large-scale trade system and the ruler’s power and wealth was shown in architecture. The largest building complex in the center of the region and was called Imba Huru, or the Great Enclosure, which had a colossal wall encircling the complex and dozens of adobe and stone enclosures within. Many other enclosures were built in Zimbabwe in numerous strategic locations though none seem to be have built to serve as fortresses and in fact are have believed to have mainly built to flaunt wealth and power of the rulers. Even Imba Huru, with its thick walls, is thought to serve as a living area for rulers and their family. Over centuries, structures have slowly advanced with dressed stones and level courses and which are shown primarily in the Conical Tower (13-14) and carved structures emerges like Bird, Top Part of a Monolith (13-15) with each to represent part of their belief and as symbols of royalty. Modern studies believe the tower to have represented good harvest and prosperity and was used as a granary. Being a thirty-foot tall stonework, it well reflects the power of the Great Zimbabwe’s rulers and have even been a gift of allegiance to the country. The monoliths, or single large stones, were usually topped by a series of carved soapstone birds that may have represented messengers of the spirit world or like the crocodiles that occasionally decorated the monolith, been used as a symbol of the king’s power to mediate between the people and spirit world.

Aksum Figurine, Ethiopia, Ivory
Aksum Figurine, Ethiopia, Ivory

The Aksum civilization in the Ethiopian highlands became very important in the second century BCE because it controlled traderoutes from the center of Africa to the Red Sea. It exported ivory, gold, slaves, frankincense, myrrh, and salt, which made it very wealthy. In the 4th century CE Aksum became a Christian state. After that, gold and silver coins minted in Aksum bore a cross. The Aksumites erected granite stelae to commemorate the dead. They were decorated with architectural details. Aksum was eventually conque
Staff Finial, Kongo Peoples, possibly 17th century. Brass.

red by the neighboring Zegwe people, led by the king Lalibela. Lalibela wished to create the "New Jerusalem". He named a holy site after himself and then began to construct churches. These churches were not built above the ground, but rather carved into the living rock, so that the roof was on the same level as the ground. These churches may have been modeled on early pre-Christian Aksumite cave shrines.

The Kongo people were ruled by a king called a manikongo. The kingdom was very advanced and had a complex administrative infrastructure. In the late 1400s, the Kongo king converted to Christianity in order to improve trade relations with the Portuguese. Trade improved, bringing much wealth into the country. The influx of wealth contributed to a rise in the production of textiles, which, as in other African cultures, were very valuable and sometimes used as currency. Kongolese art began to absorb many Western influences, which were blended with traditional African imagery. For instance, Kongolese crucifixes show the figure of Jesus with African features, surrounded by his followers. The followers hold their hands together, which to Western eyes appears to be a praying pose, however, clapping hands was a Kongolese symbol of respect. This syncretism was used to bind Christianity to Kongolese culture. Another distinguished urban center was the Kongo kingdom. Their trade was defined with the Portuguese and strengthened after their kings converted to Christianity and they traded copper, ivory, cloth, and even slaves to eventually bring an expanded wealth to the culture. This wealth eventually increased production in specialty textiles for royalty. Their textiles were praised and eagerly accepted by the Portuguese as a gift and eventually, like the DecorateTextile (13-16), made its way to museums. Eventually, the Kongolese were increasingly influenced by Western ideas as suggested in Staff Finial (13-17) which reflected influences of Catholic missionaries and the conversion of their king. The Kongolese staff finial symbolized leadership and the cast brass female, which was made European in style, shows an indigenous gesture of respect through clapping. Like later art, the merged Western and traditional styles will subtly affect African art later.

Take the graded quiz here...

finish quiz by 11:59 pm Monday December 13th 2010

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  2. ^ Marilyn Stokstad's, "Art History" 3rd Edition