Ancient African Art

The art of Africa covers a broad region, of course, and also encompasses a wide array of art forms. According to most expert definitions, African art generally omits the art of North Africa (especially regions that border the Mediterranean Sea), Christian art of Ethiopia, and the ancient art of Egypt which are discussed as movements of their own with unique traditions. Even so, this broad grouping also represents art from prehistoric times to the present. Within this scope there are many subdivisions and important eras of African art.

African art has its origins in pre-history. Some rock art recently discovered in South Africa near the Cape may be older than 70,000 years old. The continent is home to a large body of prehistoric rock art. Traditional African art is comprised of art forms such as masks, jewelry, carvings, rock art, sculpture, textiles, metalwork, and much more. Many nations are associated with particular art forms. For example, various peoples of Mali and Cote d’Ivoire are renowned for their traditional masks and headdresses. Tanzania’s Makonde art of fine carving continues to be revered today.

Masks and statuettes make up a large proportion of African art in general. Often made from wood and decorated with pigments and other natural items like cowrie shells or ivory, these items typically played a ceremonial or even religious role for the cultures that created them. Many African artworks were created with religious and spiritual underpinnings; others might have been created with ancestors in mind. A significant body of African art could be said to represent the theme of power while others were simply created to show off the wealth of some of Africa’s royal courts.

Aside from rock art, sculpture, and masks, art forms like beadwork and textiles have played important roles in Africa’s collective arts. Jewelry has historically been important to many of Africa’s tribes for designating status or place in society. In a larger context, African art also includes oral traditions, basketry, dance, and writing systems. Africa boasts a rich folkloric tradition as well.

Africa’s traditional arts have evolved, of course, and today the continent enjoys a rich tapestry of contemporary arts. Many of the art forms build upon past traditions yet employ modern sensibilities too. Some contemporary African art exhibits global influences. Many major cities throughout Africa boast important art centers and museums that house many of Africa’s great works–from both past and present. African art is also highly collectible throughout the world.