African Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations

African art has developed from ancient traditions. Generations before the United States and the nations of Europe became great powers, Africa had known the rise and fall of many great kingdoms. The organization, discipline, laws, and religions of these ancient kingdoms show that Africa has been civilized for thousands of years.

The continent of Africa is often divided into two parts. To the north of the Sahara desert are the peoples known as Arabs. They live in such countries as Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt.

The land varies greatly across sub-Saharan Africa. Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, and snow-capped mountains such as Kilimanjaro are in sharp contrast to dry plains and tropical rain forests. The differences in physical environment produced many different cultures. Each culture has a distinct artistic tradition.

The Functions of African Art

Much of the world's art was made for religious reasons. African art is no exception. Ancestor worship, spirits, magic, and other aspects of the religion of African peoples are reflected in their art. Art was also created for marriage ceremonies, for funerals, for honoring leaders, and for celebrations.

Nearly all African art has a function. Statues are carved to honor ancestors, kings, and gods. Masks are used in rituals surrounding boys' and girls' coming-of-age ceremonies, at funerals, and for entertainment. Jewelry, clothing, hairstyles, and body painting are sometimes used to signify wealth, power, and social status.

Carved figures are used to guard containers filled with sacred relics of ancestors. Combs, spoons, bowls, stools, and other useful items are elaborately carved and decorated. Whatever the objects are to be used for, they are made with taste and skill.

African art is not anonymous. But very few African artists are known by name. Most worked alone or in a workshop composed of a master and one or more apprentices. Their work often consisted of replacing existing objects that had deteriorated. So artists were obliged to conform to the ancient artistic laws. Yet despite these restrictions, African artists managed to express individual imagination and to employ new materials and techniques. If these innovations proved to make the art more effective, they became part of an ever-growing tradition.


In prehistoric times, the nomadic San people of southern Africa left many paintings and engravings in caves and on rock faces. These works portray human figures and animals (especially antelopes) as well as mythological symbols. They show men and women hunting, fishing, gathering food, dancing, and performing ritual activities.

Other early works of art are those of the Nok culture. The Nok flourished in northern Nigeria from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 200. The human and animal figures made of terra cotta (fired clay) that have been found in the region are the earliest known sculptures of sub-Saharan Africa. The heads of the figures are several times larger than the heads of real human beings. This is a stylistic convention that, with slight variations, can be observed in the art of most African peoples. We do not know why this convention was used in the Nok culture 2,000 years ago. But in most African sculpture the head is emphasized because it is the most vital part of the body.


Sculpture is Africa's greatest art. Wood is used far more than any other material. This means that much African art did not last, because wood is more easily destroyed than stone or metal. Because of this, there are some gaps in our knowledge of African art history.

An Early Tradition: Ifé and Benin
In the midwestern part of what is now Nigeria, two ancient kingdoms existed, Ifé and Benin. Artists in Ifé were casting metal sculpture by the A.D. 1000's. Archaeological evidence suggests that artists in Benin were casting metal as early as the 1300's. Their earliest metal sculptures date from the 1400's.

The cast-metal sculpture of Ifé and Benin was naturalistic. This means the work of art resembled the actual object it was meant to represent. For subject matter the artists used animals, birds, people, and events at the royal court. Benin artists depicted Portuguese soldiers, merchants, and other foreigners who visited the kingdom. Artists also worked in ivory, especially at Benin, where elephant tusks were carved to honor deceased kings.

Ifé and Benin sculpture represents a very different tradition from that of most other African art. In its naturalism, it is closer than any other type of art in Africa to classical Western art.

Regional Styles
Most African sculpture originated in western and central Africa. This is a vast area containing three main cultural regions: the Western Sudan, the Guinea Coast, and Central Africa. Figure carving is rare in eastern and southern Africa, except among a few peoples in Kenya, Tanzania, and Madagascar.

Many different styles of sculpture exist in western and central Africa, and even within each cultural region. Some stylistic characteristics, however, are common to all the regions. In addition to the "head-heavy" proportions described above, these characteristics are simplified forms, balanced and symmetrical design, and unemotional facial expression. Although the form of a face or figure may be minimal, details are both precise and abundant. For example, figures may have intricately designed hairstyles and body adornments such as necklaces and bracelets.

Western Sudan
This region extends from Senegal through Chad. It ranges from semi-desert to grassland to wooded savanna. Sculpted figures tend to be angular and elongated. Facial features are only suggested. Many of these figures are used in religious rituals. They usually have dull or encrusted surfaces from ceremonial offerings of millet gruel or other liquid substances that have been poured over them.

Guinea Coast
This region extends along the Atlantic Ocean from Guinea-Bissau through central Nigeria and Cameroon. It includes coastal rain forests and inland wooded grasslands. Sculpted figures from this cultural region tend to be shorter and more rounded than those from the Western Sudan region. Figures often have smooth, luminous surfaces. Much art from the central part of the region was made to honor leaders. This art included that of the Akan people (the Baule of Ivory Coast and the Asante of Ghana) and the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. In this region gold and ivory as well as wood were used to make objects of value.

The royal arts of the small kingdoms in the grasslands area of central Cameroon are bold and expressive. Colorful beadwork is used to embellish carved wood thrones and figures. The face, hands, and feet of some sculpted figures are covered with molded sheet brass.

Central Africa
Central Africa is an enormous area. It extends down the Atlantic coast from Equatorial Guinea to northern Angola and eastward through the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the Ogowe River basin region of Gabon, sculpted guardian figures are placed atop containers holding the sacred relics of deceased ancestors. Among the Kota people, guardian figures are flat metal-sheathed heads with minimal facial features set on lozenge-shaped bases. In contrast, those of the Fang people are single heads or complete figures that are more naturalistic in appearance.

The Kongo people predominate in the Lower Congo River basin. Their art displays a greater degree of naturalism than most African sculpture. Gesture and emotion are subtly indicated. Many figures depict a mother with a child on her lap. Because the Kongo were once part of a powerful kingdom, much of their art consists of items made for royalty.

The Kuba and the Hemba are only two peoples among hundreds in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have important sculptural traditions. Kuba figure sculpture portrays ancestral kings seated cross-legged. Standing Hemba figures are rounded naturalistic forms that serve to commemorate ancestors.

Eastern and Southern Africa
This cultural region extends south along the southern Atlantic coast and around South Africa to Ethiopia. Here, in Botswana and Namibia, are found the ancient rock paintings attributed to the San people of the Kalahari Desert. Figure carving is rare in this region. Instead, the art of personal adornment, including body painting, is very highly developed. So is the art of decorating useful objects, such as headrests, spoons, and stools. In Ethiopia, the art of the highlands reflects the influence of Christianity, which was introduced there in the A.D. 300's. Non-Christian Ethiopians created figurative carvings for use in their own religious worship.


Masks are supports for spirits. According to traditional beliefs, spirits are found in nature and in humans and animals. Some spirits are gods. Masks perform a variety of functions. They may be used in rites marking the transition from childhood to adulthood or to enforce the laws of society. Or they may be used to cause rain to fall during periods of drought or to celebrate gods and ancestors.

Masks are usually worn as disguises, along with a full costume of leaves or cloth. But they are sometimes used for display. They are used in masquerades. These may be performed publicly or secretly. Generally music and dance are part of the event. Masks may represent male or female spirits. But they are almost always worn by men. During the performance, a masked dancer is no longer himself. He is the spirit the mask represents.

Face masks are only one type of mask. The helmet, or "bucket," mask covers all or half of the head. Crest masks are worn on top of the head. Masks are made from a variety of materials. They may be carved of wood and painted with pigments made from plants or minerals. They may be decorated with animal skins, feathers, or beads. Artists also make masks out of paint fibers, tree bark, metal, or other materials.

Decorative Arts

For centuries, African goldsmiths have used different techniques to create gold objects. They can cast solid forms, hammer gold into shapes, or press thin pieces of gold (gold leaf) onto ready-made objects.

Goldwork prevailed in areas of Africa where gold was mined and used for trade. Gold mines were located in the modern nations of Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Ghana. Ghana was so famous for its gold that it was once called the Gold Coast. A rare and expensive material, gold was used as currency and worn by kings and important religious and political officials. It was also used to make jewelry and other body ornaments, as well as to decorate weapons.

The Akan people of Ivory Coast and Ghana used metal counterweights to weigh gold dust. Gold dust was the local currency from the 1400's to the mid-1800's. Called goldweights, the counterweights were actually miniature sculptures made of cast bronze or brass. They depict animals, plants, human beings, objects, and scenes from everyday life.

Men, women, and children wear jewelry to decorate their bodies or as a badge of distinction. Jewelry includes a variety of objects: hair ornaments, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, and anklets. Artists make jewelry from many different materials. These include gold, silver, brass, iron, and copper, carved ivory, and beads made of glass, amber, stone, or shells.

Textiles are woven on looms by both men and women. Locally grown cotton, raffia palm, and a woody fiber called bast are the most commonly used fibers. Silk and wool are also woven.

Among the Kuba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, men and women work together to make cloth. First, men weave raffia into square or rectangular pieces. Next, the women embroider designs on the cloth with raffia thread. They can also create a cut-pile effect that resembles velvet. Africans commonly wear Western-style clothing. But traditional apparel made from locally woven cloth is the proud national dress. Thus weaving remains a vital occupation in many parts of Africa.

Textile artists create patterns on textiles using various techniques. These include weaving, dyeing, stamping, painting, embroidery, and appliqué. Patterns may be plain or extremely intricate, consisting of geometric forms or figures such as animals and birds. Materials such as metallic or glossy threads may be incorporated to enhance the design. Natural or imported dyes are used to color the cloth.

Pottery is usually crafted by women. They have made vessels in different sizes and shapes for cooking, storing, and serving food and drink since time beyond memory. The smooth, symmetrical vessels are hand-formed. The mechanical potter's wheel has been introduced only recently.

Potters create designs on the surface of the vessel by burnishing it with a smooth pebble, by cutting lines in with a blade, or by making impressions with combs and other objects. The surface may also be decorated with slip, a thin wash of clay, in a different color than the clay of the vessel. The vessels are fired in the open and may be dipped in a vegetable solution to seal them. Because they are fired at low temperatures, African vessels made by traditional methods do not shatter when used over an open fire.

Some vessels are used for religious rituals or for display as works of art. Such vessels are decorated with modeled figures and are usually made by especially skilled potters.

Basketry is also a very old craft that is practiced by both men and women. Baskets are essential household objects. They are used for storage, for preparing or serving food, and for carrying objects.

The techniques and materials used to make baskets are determined by how the basket will be used. There are three basic techniques: coiling, twining, and plaiting (braiding). Vegetable fibers, such as grasses and raffia, are the main materials used. Leather, wood, or other materials may be added for both decoration and strengthening.


Although easel painting was introduced only at the beginning of the 1900's, Africans have always painted. The most ancient evidence is in the prehistoric San rock paintings in southern Africa. In Christian Ethiopia, artists illustrated Bible stories in books, on scrolls, and later on canvas.

African artists have always used paint to decorate surfaces. People painted their bodies when they participated in religious or social rituals and ceremonies, or simply to make themselves more attractive. They have traditionally painted the internal and external walls of their houses and places of worship. Sculpted figures and masks were also painted.

Until European paints were introduced, artists obtained their colors from natural sources. These included clay, plant leaves and roots, stones, and minerals.


A wide range of architectural forms can be found in Africa. The simplest houses are the beehive-shaped houses of the Pygmies of central Africa. The frames of such houses are constructed with flexible branches that are covered with large, fresh leaves. This type of temporary housing suits the Pygmies' nomadic way of life. Agricultural people, in contrast, require sturdy, permanent houses.

Houses may be built with thick mud walls or with sturdy bamboo frames. Roofs may be thatched or covered with corrugated metal. The spacious Islamic mosques in Mali are perhaps the most dramatic example of mud architecture. The royal palaces of the Cameroon grassfields are outstanding examples of bamboo-frame structures. Some reach heights of more than 25 feet (7.6 meters).

The most noteworthy stone architecture is the complex of buildings at the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa. It was constructed during the 1100's to the 1400's. It is remarkable because of its great size and because the stone walls were assembled without mortar.

Important buildings are ornamented with carved and painted doors, door frames, and posts to support the veranda roofs. Kings and other sponsors of elaborate architecture often brought specially skilled sculptors from great distances to work for them.

Contemporary Trends

The traditional art of Africa has had a great impact on modern art. In the early 1900's, European artists came into increased contact with the art of Africa. Artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse incorporated elements of African art into their works.

Contemporary Africans create art in a variety of styles. In some societies, traditional religion and social practices have prevailed (usually with modern modifications). So there is a need for sculptors to create masks for initiations and sculptures for shrines, much as their predecessors did. However, they may use modern innovations such as imported paints. Sign painters, graphic artists, photographers, and textile and fashion designers also are part of the contemporary visual art scene.

Some artists are like their counterparts in Europe and America. They are self-taught or trained at universities and art schools. They display their art at exhibitions in art galleries and museums at home and abroad. They have local and foreign patrons. The content of their art may be African or not. It may be realistic or non-representational. The choice is theirs. The African art that caused a revolution in Western art early in the 1900's continues to inspire artists all over the world, including those born in Africa.

Roslyn Walker
National Museum of African Art

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