What is African art history?

Do you want to learn more about African culture? Learn about African art history! How did it develop? You’ll find out everything you wanted to know about African art here!

African art history

African art is the art of traditional and primeval peoples of Africa. African art history is very authentic and unusual. There were:

  • cave paintings,
  • petroglyphs,
  • statues
  • ritual masks,
  • crafts,
  • court art objects
  • mostly pre-literate art form corresponding to tribal relation, which  have maintained here.

African Art facts:

African Art facts

1. African Art includes various regional schools, covers several historical periods and is, nevertheless, a single historical type, characterized by integrity of stylistic features, changes just little in centuries. Due to the special geographic, climatic and historical conditions, compared, for example, with a rapidly developing art of ancient Greece and Rome, the creativity of African tribes remained archaic.

various regional schools

2. Bright and original art of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa developed mainly in the western part - in the western Sudan, Guinea coast and the Congo. Here (near Niger and Congo rivers) has reached the highest blossoming artistic creativity of the African peoples. There were:

peoples of sub-Saharan Africa

  • Sculpture;
  • Painting;
  • Architecture.

3. The art of the peoples of the northern Sudanese and East Africa had another character, that was the area of ​​the spread of Islam. There were almost no sculptures and paintings, which happenned largely due to the influence of Islam and its prohibition of a human figure image.

African art history information

African art history information

Art of East Africa. Here, a lot of centuries ago on the coast of the Indian Ocean a special, local, Bantu, Indo-Arabic culture appeared. However, its impact was mainly limited to a narrow strip of coast, and it did not penetrate into the interior of the continent. The culture that is associated with Iran, India and the medieval Arab world.

However, as the northern part of the Sudan, on the east coast the artistic creativity of the local African population found its distinctive expression - mostly in folk architecture and decoration of houses with stucco geometric and floral ornaments, which was found in wood carving. So, in fact African art, especially sculpture is the art of West and Central Africa.

art of Central Africa

As a result, with numerous archaeological investigations, people slowly open the page of the past of the African continent, and it becomes clear that the roots of African art goes far back thousands of years. It turns out that African art has evolved, not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in many areas of North and South Africa (South African art history), and including the now arid, devoid of any vegetation areas of the Sahara, which at that time, seven or eight thousand years ago, were inhabited with the people engaged in hunting, cattle breeding and agriculture. In the Sahara archeologists found thousands of rock carvings and paintings of different styles created in a wide variety of periods. The oldest of them belonged to the 5th millennium BC, later - to the first centuries of our era.

art of Africa

Monuments of ancient African art have been found in South Africa. So, in the mountains Matolo in Rhodesia, in the 20-ies archeologists found rock paintings with mythological content. Among these images there were found scenes of agricultural rituals, rainmaking, the murder of the king, mourning, ascension into heaven, and many others. All these monuments were created by the peoples of high culture, who were already familiar with agriculture, like ancestors of the present inhabitants of Rhodesia.

ancient art

Finally, in the severe south of the African continent, in the Drakensberg mountains, and in the mountainous areas of South West Africa numerous paintings and drawings were found. These were very realistic and highly artistic images, which were at first attributed to ancient aboriginal population of South Africa - Bushmen. However, a detailed study of these paintings showed that not all of them were made by the Bushmen. Style, subjects and the whole character of the images were very different. Now it is clear that rock paintings in South Africa belonged to different epochs and were monuments of art of different nations. African tribal art history stopped being so mystery.

black Africa

Now we know that a lot of relatively developed cultures of early slave and feudal states rose and fell in Africa. European colonizers, during the conquest of the African continent, which began in the 16th century, mercilessly crushed the independent state of ‘black Africa’, suppressed or destroyed their original culture. However, the colonialists could not destroy the base of local African art and culture completely.

Folk art

Folk art

This ancient work of old folk of African culture was much more enduring and sustainable than the one that did not have time to fully develop and displace the actual folk artistic culture of feudal states of Africa. The most fully preserved culture was in the 19th century in those areas of Africa that were less involved in the area of ​​the ruthless and bled out entire nations with pirate slave trade, which happened in 16-18 centuries due to the ‘civilized’ powers of Europe.

The main motives of art

main motives of art

When a person looks at African art objects, he can see some elements, which are repeated again and again. These elements are the concepts that are essential to the country's culture. There were:

  • Couples
  • Woman with child
  • A man with a weapon or animal
  • A foreigner (a person with an uncharacteristic appearance)  

rock paintings

Couples were shown as free-standing figures with approximately the same height and shape. They could embody the ancestors, a married couple, the twins or the founders of the society. The basic idea was that the two became one. Most of these paintings adorn churches or places of ceremonial purposes. Intimate relationships are very rare in African works of art, because men and women tend not to give it the publicly display. The basic idea of men and women (couple) - the power and respect, not love.

A mother and baby can be a reflection of the image of mother earth and people like her children. Yet African women are very fond of children. The strong relationship between mother and a child are present in African culture everywhere.

kongo art

A man with a gun and an animal (usually a horse) serves to demonstrate respect for the departed ancestors. Images of animals are rarely made to portray the outer or inner beauty or ugliness of a beast. They are intended to identify a person's status. Even today, to have a horse in Africa means a higher status, horse ownership considers better than car ownership. When a man is pictured with a horse, it means that he must have had great respect. Sometimes people are depicted next to the mythical animals. The purpose of this image - show the power of man, who managed to pet the beast, and his wealth.

african warrior

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Women get significance by their children, and men - through the weapons. Anyone who goes to battle must have physical, emotional and spiritual energy to survive and win. For this reason, in many African cult figures were depicted as men with guns.

In Africa, the stranger is someone from another tribe or country. Usually he was not welcomed, so it symbolized the failure. White strangers may, among other things, demonstrate respect that Africans have for their weapons and power.

African culture

Unfortunately, the majority of African culture characters are not easily deciphered. This requires deep knowledge of the local cultural heritage and awareness of the entire continent.

Music in Africa

music in africa

In African music are two major types - the music of North Africa, represented mainly by Berber-Arab musical culture and music of the people living in south of Sahara. In turn, the musical culture of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa allocated a number of independent branches, such as:

  • Eastern African,
  • Central African,
  • Nilotic,
  • Cushitic
  • other African music

dancing africans

It was not recorded graphically, until recently. It remained unwritten, making it difficult to study it. The roots of African music go back to antiquity. One example of this - rock paintings depicting dancing figures, musical instruments (for example, discovered in a tomb at Saqqara cliff the image of blind harpist, referring to about the 18th century BC). However, verbal texts ancient Egyptian chants have preserved.

With the penetration of Africa, the Arabs and the Islamization of the African peoples, got the particular progress, where appeared a different kind of religious music, especially chanted recitation of the Quran and Adana (call to prayer). Some Arab musical instruments became popular, Arab classical music was widespread. Its genres, such as Nuba (vocal and instrumental), qasida , muvashshah (vocal), taxim (instrumental), and others. In some sub-Saharan African music you can meet a unique fusion, in which African elements prevail over Arab. In turn, African musical culture influenced the Arab. So, the Arab peoples got musical instruments of Tropical Africa, including a gong.

African masks

African masks

Often speaking about ancient African art history you have in mind only the beautiful and colorful African masks. However, African art - it's not just a mask, but much more. And now we will focus on a commemorative sculpture. For centuries, sub-Saharan African artists have immortalized for posterity a lot of outstanding personalities of their society in a remarkably diverse repertoire of regional sculptural idioms, sometimes naturalistic and sometimes abstract. Originally these sculptures (sculptures, portraits) served as social reference points for future generations and in order to remember some of their ancestors.

However, African art at the same time cannot be considered as a temporary abstraction of society archetypes. On a purely formal level, the function of the archetype is not obvious. Instead, we can fully trace the relationship of African creativity with real historical events that have taken place in his time on the continent. At this level, African art has a special significance.

ivory mask

The mask on this picture is made of ivory and it is one of two identical works, one of which is in the British Museum. While images of women are rare in the art of Benin tradition, these two masks have become a symbol of the heritage of the dynasty that continues to this day. The mask is manufactured (it is believed) in the early 16th century for King in honor of his mother.

In Benin, Ivory was associated with the white color and the sea god Olokun, a symbol of purity. The mask is an idealized and sensual portrait. The work takes into account the depicted object and so we see softly modeled facial features and many details such as stripes on the forehead and coral beads below the chin, where we see a number of stylized snakeheads.

Benin mask

Leaders of the Benin kingdom in modern Nigeria are derived from the ruling dynasty that began in the 14th century. The title ‘King’ is transmitted to the first child from each successive king. The first duty of each new king is to cast the portrait of his father in bronze and put it on the altar in the palace. The altar has an important place in the palace rituals and understood as the connection of the current affairs of the king with the work of his ancestors.

The idealized naturalism of this work depicts the king in his prime. Headgear is a pastiche beaded dress.

ancient african mask

Since the second half of the 16th century tradition of terracotta portrait sculpture played an important role in burial rituals and perpetuates of the memory of the dead. At that time it was the prerogative of only the nobility and the royal family. These funerary heads are of great stylistic diversity. Their sizes range from seven centimeters to ‘life-size’, and are hollow and integral, rounded and angular.


modern African art

Today the centers of traditional art are preserved only in a very few remote areas of Africa. However, the traditions are still alive. They appear not only in artisan crafts and souvenirs, but also in the work of professional artists. They helped the creation of widely known art school Poto-Poto (Congo), the work of the school-workshop at the National Gallery in Harare (Zimbabwe), the carpet workshop in Tiesse (Senegal).

colorful African art

It is manifested in the works of artists in different ways. Mostly they have received professional training in Europe (B. Envonvu, J. Sekot, etc). Although contemporary African art has emerged recently, it is still facing great difficulties - the lack of qualified teachers, insufficient number of art schools, galleries and exhibition halls, it is hard to overcome it. Starting in the liberated African countries, the transition from folk forms of creativity to a professional art leads to the addition of national art schools, which will correspond to the current level of cultural and historical development of African countries.

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