African Art History

Early African art is often reduced to primitive rock paintings and etchings. However, the facts remain that, not only were these not the only notable pieces of art in ancient Africa, but they also played an integral role in exposing important information about the ancient people of this vast continent, including their body structure, traditions and customs. The earliest rock paintings are found in Namibia, and are dated as far back as 27 000 years. The Drakensberg Mountain Range in South Africa likewise boasts tens of thousands of art pieces in this form.

Ancient Africans made extensive use of sculpture in addition to paintings and carvings in rock faces. They used terracotta, wood, leather and textiles to create what was usually a some what abstract portrayal of humans and animals. The earliest sculptures found were created by the Nigerian people, the Nok, and are dated as far back as 500 BCE (Before our Common Era). These were made from clay (terracotta) and have humans as their main subject. However, the physical details are frequently distorted and out of proportion. This type of art emerged at the same time that the very precise Renaissance art began its climb to success, creating juxtaposition in the art world as well as in the minds and hearts of art enthusiasts.

The African art was favored by many for its bizarre nature. It exposed the faults and features of the human body by using methods of ridiculous exaggeration. This was often humorous, often haunting.

Death Mask

Using bronze as an art medium came about in the 10th century CE (Common Era). Sub-Saharan people began to use this beautiful material to create sculptures and vessels used in traditional rituals.

Between the 1300’s and the 1600’s, artists began using materials that withstood the environmental changes that has occurred since then. For this reason, many of these pieces were preserved for our study and enjoyment. Before this time, there is much mystery regarding the art, as most of it has disintegrated or been destroyed.

Realism was only really exposed in African art during the early- to mid-1900’s, when the Yoruba people began to craft more realistic representations of life out of stone, bronze and clay. In fact, so committed to realism were the Yoruba that they became famous for their life-sized human figures, made entirely out of bronze and / or clay.

African art continues to evolve and develop. As new implements and methods constantly arise, so the sculptures, paintings and even dance forms progress. These undergo a constant state of metamorphosis, granting this extensive continent a favorable reputation for its progressive, fluid art.