African Art History Essays

African art history

African art history has played a significant role in shaping the culture and history of the world. The belief that Africa is the cradle of the history of mankind is virtually unshakeable. The origins of African art history lie long before recorded history, preserved in the obscurity of time. Rock Art is centuries old, while shell beads fashioned for a necklace have been recovered in a cave in the furthest reach of the southern peninsula of South Africa that are 75 000 years old. 

A study of African art history indicates the earliest sculpture forms found come from Nigeria and are dated around 500BC. However, the lack of archaeological excavations inhibits knowledge of the antiquity of African art and the sheer disposable nature of the raw materials used in the creation of art objects means that an untold wealth of pieces have disintegrated in time.

Compounding this, as these objects were not coveted as aesthetic accomplishments by the indigenous communities who created them, no effort was made to preserve them. Often their value was negligible once their function was performed.

Foreign colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards and different values became omnipresent. A lot of African art was acquired for curious means by travellers, traders and missionaries in the century before and left the continent. Colonialists most often did not give indigenous art the merit and attention it deserved and thereby African art history was not preserved or documented.

There has been a huge emphasis on Central African art history for two reasons, one being that the communities who resided there were the most sedentary of the tribes in Africa and secondly, that they produced figurative sculptures that Western collectors could most easily identify with as 'art'; as they defined it.

The basic subject is the human figure and strong formal qualities were exhibited with strong design features creating balance and harmony. These formal design qualities combined with a powerful spirituality and expressive vigour attracted early twentieth century artists to explore new dynamics in visual art and became the birthstone for modern day abstraction.

The surge in interest in collecting African art, both tribal and contemporary, has forced scholars and investors, governments and institutions to re-examine the very essence of African art. Collections that have been inhabiting deep, dark depths of museum vaults have been moved to the forefront of African art history museums, galleries and auction houses to be observed and celebrated for the beautiful and fascinating field of art that it is. European and African researchers are studying collections not only to see how they may be used to shed more light on African art history but also to help restore lost traditions and skills in the crafts of the cultures from whence they came.

Historically, some communities were non sedentary and would have carried with them as little as possible and therefore only utilitarian objects would have been transported. Because their value was based on their functionality and their spiritual attributes, should their purpose no longer be of service to the creator and his community, they would have been abandoned.

Africa must have lost uncountable pieces of art that would have been lost on the wayside of migratory existence. 

The beginnings of African art history

Rock art is the earliest art form in Africa. 

Round headed figure
3000 BC, Niger

We know from human evolutionary science that modern Homo Sapiens began in Africa. It stands to reason therefore that Africa would contain both the oldest and greatest amount of rock art on this planet. 

The oldest images scientifically dated are in Namibia (the Apollo 11 caves) from about 24-27,000 yrs ago, yet most experts agree that Africa's rock art may date to more than 50,000 years ago. 

Giraffe engraving, Niger, Bradshaw foundation

The earliest known rock art preserved in the Saharan sands in Niger dates as far back as 6500 BC. They are carvings known as petroglyphs and depict animals like giraffes that no longer exist in that area.

From these images we learn how ancient tribes and cultures viewed their universe around them. Observing the paintings may give us insight into their thoughts, their spiritual and physical worlds.

Unfortunately, much of this valuable heritage is being destroyed; either by natural erosion as the sites come under civilisation pressure or by graffiti defacing the rock canvases.

African art history presents a world heritage we need to find a way to preserve. 


The earliest known sculptures are the remarkable terracotta pottery heads, most of them fragments of figures, from the Nok culture of Nigeria and are dated around 500 BC through to 200 AD.

They are made from grog and iron rich clay but none of them have been found in their natural settings and they demonstrate that strong abstract figural representation has existed in Africa for over 2500 yrs. 

Nok male figure, Northern
Nigeria 500BC - AD500
Jos museum, Nigeria. (The terracotta clay slip has eroded away leaving a grainy pock-marked original surface)

Their strong formal elements and expressive quality places them at the start of the African sculptural tradition. They are remarkable for their sense of caricature and have a strong sense of style showing elaborate hairdos and ornamentation. 

Nok terracottas currently occupy an important but isolated space in African art history.

By around the 1st C AD, figures of an intriguing severity are being produced in the Sokoto region of north western Nigeria. Sokoto itself is at the confluence of ancient trade routes. These figures tend to have heavier brows and are less ornamented than Nok figures, but there is undeniably a link even if we are yet to fully comprehend the connection between the two seemingly isolated cultures. 

The fired, earthen ware Lydenburg heads were found in the same named district in South Africa and it has been established that they were buried there in 500 AD making them the oldest known African artworks south of the equator. Little is known of the ancient culture that produced this group of seven heads but the careful manner in which they were buried reveals the significance and respect they had for the people who laid them under the ground.

The large furrowed rings around the neck may signal prosperity and power but it can not be known for sure. We can only speculate and place them in context with what we know about African art history. 

Terracotta sculptures have been unearthed by archaeologists in the area of Jenne in Mali and at Ife in Nigeria and date from 1000 to 1300 AD. Powerful terracotta sculptures continued to be made throughout Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Stone sculptures exist from the Kongo people and the Sherbro from Sierra Leone dating no later than the 16th C. Ivory was carved with great skill in Benin at the same time.

Metal sculptures and carvings

Brass figure Oni (King)
of Ife 14th-15th C

Cast metal is the only other material to withstand the continent's termites.

Dating back to the 9th C AD is the bronze casting tradition of the Igbo-Ukwu tribe of Nigeria. Sites have revealed cast bronze regalia as well as other works of art.

This superb tradition reached its peak with the Ife people from Yoruba, Nigeria who began to produce very fine brass and bronze castings in the 12th C and continued to the 15th C. Life size heads and masks and smaller full-length figures achieved astonishing realism and reflected a quiet intensity that was the forerunner to that quality which we now admire so much in traditional African sculpture. Sometimes they also cast in pure copper, technically much more challenging than brass. 

From the 15th C even to today, the Yoruba people in Benin created sculpted heads that today are known as the Benin bronzes but are in fact made of brass which arrived in the form of vessels and ornaments on the trade route and melted down. In both these cultures their works were often produced for their Kings and had magical powers, reflecting their beliefs and the socio-political organizations and chiefdoms which existed under the rule of a divine King or Ife.

Brass plaque
Benin, 16th
Plaques, royal court

The arrival of the Portuguese prompted Benin sculptors to produce brass plaques with scenes in relief. These plaques were nailed as decoration to the wooden pillars of the royal palace. 

Textiles and weights

These two areas of art can also give us some chronological order in trying to understand the nature and time sequence of African art history. The earliest textile remnants are found again from Igbo-Ukwu and date to 9thC AD while the Tellam caves in Mali were found with cotton and woolen cloths preserved since the 11th C.

The Akan of Ghana manufactured small cast copper and bronze gold weights from the 18th C which came in all forms, animal, human, fruits, even abstract geometric shapes. They stood as little figurines, many less than 5cm high and expressed a liveliness and spontaneity not often found in African sculpture.

19th and 20th C African wood sculptures

Wood carving remains today the primary sculptural art form of the sub Saharan continent.

African art history shows the earliest wooden sculptures from the 17th C are attributed to the Kuba, central Zaire but the earliest surviving sub-Saharan sculpture is a zoomorphic head found in 1928 in Central Angola. It is dated to the 8th-9th C and survived being buried under the water table.

The finest examples of surviving wood carving date around 1920, some collected as early as 1890 and generally gathered before 1945 while tribal art was still very much in practice. 

Influence on modern art and architecture of
African art history

At the start of the 20th C, many artists such as Derain, Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani became enthralled by African art and began to visit the Trocadero museum in Paris to gaze upon the unique forms, absorbing all that was presented before them.

These artists saw in this art a formal perfection countered by abstraction, asymmetry by balance, primitivism with sophistication of design. They responded to this raw expressive power with all their faculties, not only with sight but with imagination and emotion and experienced a mystical and spiritual encounter.

This absorption exploded in a fascination in abstraction, organization and reorganization of forms, and the exploration of emotional and psychological areas that had not been investigated before. It helped them move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art up to this point.

Now, the status of visual art was changed forever and Cubism was born, influenced by the African sculptor's simplified use of planes and forms and the rearrangement of human form that was based, in fact, on disproportion.

Picasso and the other group of avant-garde artists from the 'School of Paris' began themselves to collect tribal sculptures and artefacts that were beginning to appear in great numbers in Paris as a result of French colonization in Africa. Picasso incorporated the ceremonial masks of the Dogon tribe into his groundbreaking work like Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, (1907-1909) and the influence of his Gabon masks he acquired is also seen in his white sculpture, Head of a Woman (1929-1930).

Modigliani was singular in his adaptation of the stylistic influences of the work of the Baule tribe, from the Ivory Coast. Brancusi adopted not so much the form but the use of wood as a sculpting medium just as on the other side of the world in America, sculptors such as William Zorach and Chaim Cross rejected Rodin's cast-bronze stronghold in favour of direct carving in wood.

Matisse was influenced not only by the sculptural forms of African art but also by the handcrafted textiles he, as a member of a family of generational weavers, was drawn to Kuba cloths from the Congo, in particular, with their allover patterning became inspirational for his paper cutouts with their perspectival shifts. He noted that his impulsive use of bold colour stirred the emotions and related to the ritualistic origins of African Art.

In architecture, two new principles had radical influence on design. One was the visual effect of decorative patterning on surfaces, most notably exterior walls and the other was a new attitude to spatial environments, spaces that do not just conform to human size, to function and form but also to the psychology of human nature.

Architects such as Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer expressed themselves giving brutal form to structures and monumentalized buildings. They introduced long linear vertical lines and embellished their structures with textured murals and large bas-reliefs based on the nonlinear scaling of geometric shapes that is particular to African decoration.

African art history has had untold influence on the global art world.

All Essays


  • Abraham and David Roentgen

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    From its humble beginnings in 1742 to its closing about 1800, the Roentgen firm pioneered advancements in superb marquetry, innovative designs, visionary production methods, and forward-thinking marketing strategies.

  • Abstract Expressionism

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    The German expatriate Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) became the most influential teacher of modern art in the United States, and his impact reached both artists and critics.

  • The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 B.C.)

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    The Achaemenid Persian empire was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia.

  • Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803)

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    [Labille-Guiard] was versed in a variety of artists’ materials, had exhibited twice at the Salon de la Correspondance, was an experienced teacher of aspiring young women artists, and had cultivated a wide acquaintance among academicians…

  • The Aesthetic of the Sketch in Nineteenth-Century France

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    Viewed by Academicians and art critics as an artist’s personal reaction to a subject, the sketch was considered to be a sign of genius and originality.

  • African Christianity in Ethiopia

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    Christianity afforded the possibility of unifying the many diverse ethnic and linguistic peoples of the Aksumite kingdom, a goal of Ezana’s leadership.

  • African Christianity in Kongo

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    In parts of Kongo, Christianity was accepted not as a new religion that would replace the old, but rather as a new syncretic cult that was fully compatible with existing structures.

  • African Influences in Modern Art

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    In the contemporary postcolonial era, the influence of traditional African aesthetics and processes is so profoundly embedded in artistic practice that it is only rarely evoked as such.

  • African Lost-Wax Casting

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    While it is difficult to establish how the method was developed or introduced to the region, it is clear that West African sculptors were casting brass with this method for several hundred years prior to the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers along the coast in 1484.

  • African Rock Art

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    Rock paintings and engravings are Africa’s oldest continuously practiced art form.

  • African Rock Art of the Central Zone

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    The [rock art of the central zone] differs significantly from that to the south and to the north in that images of animals and human beings do not predominate.

  • African Rock Art of the Northern Zone

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    Many new discoveries have been made in recent years; scholars are hopeful that among these a clue to the meaning of some of the images will be found.

  • African Rock Art of the Southern Zone

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    The rock painting of this region is characterized by exquisitely minute detail and complex techniques of shading.

  • African Rock Art: Game Pass

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    For a shelter so open to the elements, the paintings [at Game Pass] are miraculously well preserved and in some places the brush marks can still be seen.

  • African Rock Art: Tassili-n-Ajjer (?8000 B.C.–?)

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    Although close to the Iberian Peninsula, it is currently believed that the rock art of Algeria and Tassili developed independently of that in Europe.

  • African Rock Art: The Coldstream Stone

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    Southern African rock paintings and engravings often combine geometric forms with images of humans and animals, in what some scholars have argued represents hallucinatory trance imagery.

  • Africans in Ancient Greek Art

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    Long before Homer, the seafaring civilization of Bronze Age Crete, known today as Minoan, established trade connections with Egypt.

  • Afro-Portuguese Ivories

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    The discovery of vast quantities of West African ivory, called “white gold” in Europe, transformed the nature of African-Portuguese trading in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

  • The Age of Iron in West Africa

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    The fabrication of iron tools and weapons allowed for the kind of extensive systematized agriculture, efficient hunting, and successful warfare necessary to sustain large urban centers.

  • The Age of Saint Louis (1226–1270)

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    At the end of Louis’s reign, 101 different craft guilds were established in the city; the university welcomed scholars and students from across Europe.

  • The Age of Süleyman “the Magnificent” (r. 1520–1566)

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    Under Süleyman, popularly known as “the Magnificent” or “the Lawmaker,” the Ottoman empire reached the apogee of its military and political power.

  • The Akkadian Period (ca. 2350–2150 B.C.)

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    At its greatest extent, the [Akkadian] empire reached as far as Anatolia in the north, inner Iran in the east, Arabia in the south, and the Mediterranean in the west.

  • Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

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    Dürer revolutionized printmaking, elevating it to the level of an independent art form. He expanded its tonal and dramatic range, and provided the imagery with a new conceptual foundation.

  • Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892)

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    Design, not structure or theory, was [Davis’] chief interest and strength. His artistic temperament and eye imbued his work with its special, imaginative quality.

  • Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography

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    Alfred Stieglitz returned to New York in 1890 determined to prove that photography was a medium as capable of artistic expression as painting or sculpture.

  • Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle

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    Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, publisher, gallerist, and impresario, made unparalleled contributions to the introduction of modern art in America and gave unequivocal support to young American modernist painters.

  • Alice Cordelia Morse (1863–1961)

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    Morse enjoyed working in many styles, while constantly adapting her designs both to complement each book’s theme and appeal to the widest audience.

  • The Amarna Letters

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    Since Egypt is outside the area where cuneiform writing developed, the Amarna Letters testify to the use of the Mesopotamian script and the Akkadian language across the eastern Mediterranean during this period.

  • America Comes of Age: 1876–1900

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    Patrons promoted an American Renaissance to beautify the city with civic monuments, grand mansions, and public sculptures.

  • American Bronze Casting

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    By 1850, the prospect of bronze casting in the United States had taken on added symbolism—a medium that reflected America’s growing confidence and ambition as a world power while at the same time proclaiming its artistic independence from European sculptural models and materials.

  • American Federal-Era Period Rooms

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    While the interpretation of American Neoclassicism differed from one Atlantic coast city to the next, it typically drew from common sources.

  • American Furniture, 1620–1730: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles

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    Furniture in the early Baroque, or William and Mary, style broke away from the solid, horizontal massing and rectilinear outlines of the preceding era.

  • American Furniture, 1730–1790: Queen Anne and Chippendale Styles

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    By the 1780s the sweeping curves of the late Baroque and the exuberant ornament of the Rococo were giving way to a renewed interest in classical precedents, which found expression in the delicate, rectilinear forms of the Neoclassical, or Federal, style.

  • American Georgian Interiors (Mid-Eighteenth-Century Period Rooms)

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    Georgian design, which was characterized by an adherence to theories of order, symmetry, and proportion drawn from classical models during the Renaissance, represented a significant departure from earlier English decorative traditions.

  • American Impressionism

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    In 1886, with a series of brilliant images of New York’s new public parks, William Merritt Chase became the first major American painter to create Impressionist canvases in the United States.

  • American Ingenuity: Sportswear, 1930s–1970s

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    Designer sportswear was not usurped from Europe, as “modern art” would later be; it was genuinely invented and developed in America.

  • American Needlework in the Eighteenth Century

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    These small bits of embroidered cloth are often all that remains to testify to the otherwise unrecorded lives of their makers.

  • American Neoclassical Sculptors Abroad

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    Florence and Rome—with their internationally cosmopolitan environments—were favored by expatriate American sculptors.

  • American Portrait Miniatures of the Eighteenth Century

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    Patronage for miniatures extended beyond the court to include the political and merchant elite, eager to own and wear such stunning small portraits of loved ones.

  • American Portrait Miniatures of the Nineteenth Century

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    [Miniatures] acquired a high finish and sharp focus, taking on the qualities of their impending rival, the photograph.

  • American Quilts and Coverlets

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    Easily portable, and certainly necessary, bedcovers might be some of the few decorative objects a woman had in her home.

  • American Relief Sculpture

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    Also executed on a domestic scale for private patrons, relief portraits and ideal subjects (drawn from history, mythology, literature, or the Bible) were considered desirable alternatives to the standard in-the-round busts or statues.

  • American Revival Styles, 1840–76

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    Nineteenth-century American architecture and furniture design was characterized by a parade of different styles that purported to take their inspiration from the design vocabulary of the past.

  • American Rococo

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    The Rococo crossed the Atlantic via three principal means: engraved designs in printed pattern books, imported objects, and immigrant artisans.

  • American Scenes of Everyday Life, 1840–1910

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    American painters recorded everyday life as it changed around them, capturing the temperament of their respective eras, defining the character of people as individuals, citizens, and members of ever-widening communities.

  • American Sculpture at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

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    For the sculptors whose works were displayed outdoors on the fairgrounds as well as in the Fine Arts Building, the World’s Columbian Exposition was a professional and aesthetic coming of age.

  • American Silver Vessels for Wine, Beer, and Punch

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    In an era when drinking water could be hazardous to one’s health, beer, wine, and spirits were considered safe and even nutritious.

  • American Women Sculptors

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    They broke new ground through their independent lifestyles and emphasis on career over marriage and motherhood.

  • Americans in Paris, 1860–1900

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    As Henry James remarked in 1887: “It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when to-day we look for ‘American art’ we find it mainly in Paris.”

  • Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World

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    Talismans that contain inscriptions with the names of prophets and religious heroes have the power to protect an individual from hardship and danger by acting as a conduit between the two.

  • Anatomy in the Renaissance

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    Italian Renaissance artists became anatomists by necessity, as they attempted to refine a more lifelike, sculptural portrayal of the human figure.

  • Ancient American Jade

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    Many American works of art in jade are green in color with widely varied tonal values.

  • Ancient Greek Bronze Vessels

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    Many more bronze vessels must have existed in antiquity because they were less expensive than silver and gold, and more have survived because they were buried in tombs or hidden in hoards beneath the ground.

  • Ancient Greek Colonization and Trade and their Influence on Greek Art

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    The ancient Greeks were active seafarers seeking opportunities for trade and founding new independent cities at coastal sites across the Mediterranean Sea.

  • Ancient Greek Dress

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    Greek vase painting and traces of paint on ancient sculptures indicate that fabrics were brightly colored and generally decorated with elaborate designs.

  • Ancient Maya Painted Ceramics

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    Ceramic vessels nourished in both life and death: they held food and drink for daily life, but also offerings in dedicatory caches and burials, which range from the simplest graves to the richest royal tombs.

  • Ancient Maya Sculpture

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    Maya sculptors celebrated the human form in a naturalistic way, portraying royal individuals as they sit, stand, hold things, and interact with one another.

  • Ancient Near Eastern Openwork Bronzes

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    Finely crafted small openwork bronzes produced in the early second millennium B.C. are among the more enigmatic objects known from the ancient Near East.

  • Andean Textiles

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    Andean weaving was among the arts practiced in colonial Latin America that retained the closest connection to Precolumbian traditions.

  • Animals in Ancient Near Eastern Art

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    Control of the natural world, as expressed by fierce animals, was a key aspect of the iconography of kingship.

  • Animals in Medieval Art

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    In addition to providing intriguing interpretations of animals, bestiaries offered tales about the existence of bizarre and loathsome creatures, many of which appeared in medieval art.

  • Annibale Carracci (1560–1609)

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    During the 1580s, the Carracci were painting the most radical and innovative pictures in Europe.

  • Anselm Kiefer (born 1945)

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    The great majority of Kiefer’s works since his emergence in the late 1960s through the 1990s refer to subjects drawn from Germany and its culture.

  • Antelopes and Queens: Bambara Sculpture from the Western Sudan: A Groundbreaking Exhibition at the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1960

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    The Museum of Primitive Art’s focus on works linked to a single cultural or ethnic group was unprecedented, and it created a standard for exhibitions of African art that endured throughout the twentieth century.

  • Antique Engraved Gems and Renaissance Collectors

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    While carved gems frequently functioned as signatures and means of identification for their owners, they were also treasured as magical amulets and used as personal ornaments.

  • Antoine Watteau (1684–1721)

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    Despite his unconventional training, Watteau was permitted to compete for the Prix de Rome at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

  • Antonello da Messina (ca. 1430–1479)

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    Antonello da Messina is, in a sense, the first truly European painter and his remarkably varied achievements raise issues crucial to our understanding of European art.

  • The Antonine Dynasty (138–193)

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    The Antonine Dynasty reflects the connections between wealthy provincial and Italian families.

  • Antonio Canova (1757–1822)

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    Antonio Canova is considered the greatest Neoclassical sculptor of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

  • Apollo 11 (ca. 25,500–23,500 B.C.) and Wonderwerk (ca. 8000 B.C.) Cave Stones

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    Until recently, the Apollo 11 stones were the oldest known artwork of any kind from the African continent.

  • Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas

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    As diverse as ancient American architectural effigies are, they all speak to an enduring tradition of capturing the essence of key structures and their associated meanings in miniature.

  • Architecture in Ancient Greece

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    Every piece of a Greek building is integral to its overall structure; a fragment of molding often can be used to reconstruct an entire building.

  • Architecture in Renaissance Italy

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    Architects trained as humanists helped raise the status of their profession from skilled laborer to artist. They hoped to create structures that would appeal to both emotion and reason.

  • Architecture, Furniture, and Silver from Colonial Dutch America

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    Despite diversity, the persistence of Dutch customs and styles remained strong into the eighteenth century.

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