Artworks of ancient Africa are diverse, just as its languages, cultures, and political structures. Extraordinarily talented artists developed most African art during colonialism, but now people understand better about art and apply creativity to craft most of the recent ones.
So, when people see paintings on walls (as opposed to the street), everything becomes much more evident – even if there aren’t any references with words like “ancient Africa Art,” they can recognize that the pictures as ‘art.’
In this post, we have provided readers with the highlights of the most famous ancient African arts. Read through to have a look at the aesthetic expressions created and discovered by the primitive African people.
1. Rock art
In African art, rock is the oldest discovery among others. There is a massive proportion of surviving prehistoric and historic rocks scattered across many regions of Africa today.
Before we proceed to the origin of ancient rock art in Africa, let’s, first of all, explain in brief what rock art is all about.
Rock art is a marking on natural surfaces, usually on vertical stones created by human beings. Archeologists discovered many ancient rock arts in African caves or encircled rock shelters, perhaps parietal art or cave art.
Discovery of the ancient African rock
Between 26,000 – 28,000 years ago, archeologists uncovered the most primitive scientifically dated rock in Africa in Namibia.
According to research, this oldest rock art comprises seven small, grey-brown quartzite slabs with an illustration designed in ochre and charcoal.
The discovery arises from the excavations done by W.E. Wendt, a German archaeologist, in the Apollo 11 Cave on the Huns Mountains of Southeastern Namibia.
Among the essential category of ancient African art is the sculptures. Back in primitive times, sculptures were produced both by humans and animals at times.
Common types of ancient African sculpture include wooden poles, bronze, and stone sculptures.
The medium of ancient African sculptures is historically wood and infrequently other organic materials such as terracotta, ivory, and bronze.
During the ancient time, African artists who crafted the sculptures acquired their powers from religious practitioners. These people can contact the ancestral spirit world, which they see as their gods.
Consequently, sculptures made in those days served as a medium of communication between the ancient people and the supernatural beings.
African and foreign archeologists discovered ancient sculptures in various regions of the continents. Among some of the sculptures developed in Africa some centuries ago are:
– 9th century Bronze ornamental staff head from Igbo-Ukwu
– 13th-century Terracotta seated figure from Mali
– 16th–17th century Benin plaque with warriors and attendants
– 19th century South African by sculptor Anton van Wouw
– 19th century Head of a scepter; by Yombe people
– Waga sculptures from Ethiopia
– Nok culture artifacts in Jos, Plateau State Nigeria
– Mende, Fragment of a Female Figure, Brooklyn Museum
– 1920-1940 Carved door; by Nupe people, made from wood with iron staples
– 1932 Golden Rhinoceros of Mapungubwe; 1075–1220; discovered in Mapungubwe Collection
Ancient architecture indigenous to African countries includes temples, huts (grass and reeds medium), ancient temples, tents, clay, and massive stone structures.
Ancient African architectures were conceived and produced in different geographical locations. Most of these medieval architectures in Africa still exist till the present time.
One of the most ancient architectural accomplishments globally is the Nubian architecture, resident to Africa, present-day northern Sudan, and southern Egypt, to be specific.
To mention but a few, the ancient African architectures cited in the African World Heritage include:
– Bete Medhane Alem, Lalibela – the world’s biggest monolithic church
– 7th to 9th centuries Great Mosque of Kairouan in Kairouan, Tunisia.
– Various Ancient Egyptian architecture – featuring canals, pyramids, enclosed cities, temples, and dams.
– Moroccan architecture – comprising various geographical buildings holding a long history in Africa.
– Ruins of the dry Sultanate of Adal in Zeila, Somalia
– Asante Traditional Buildings in Ghana
– Dry-laid stone structure in Sukur, in the Adamawa State
– Amazigh architecture – including the tomb of the Christian Woman in western Algeria, with features of a dome, columns, and spiral pathways.
4. Monumental art
Monument, one of the oldest types of art, is unique in ancient African art with significant ideological content.
The most renowned monumental art in ancient Africa is the Ancient Thebes, Egypt – comprising of 3 significant monuments, which are Karnak Temple Complex, Luxor Temple, and Valley of the Kings.
Although a monument may be a sculpture, it is necessary to consider it separately because African has various historical monuments constructed for symbolic or commemorative purposes.
Listed below are some of the fantastic ancient monuments in Africa
– Amun Sanctuary – Jebel Barkal in Karima, Northern State, Sudan
– Tombs in Taleex, Taleh Somalia
– Rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.
– Lalibela’s Church of Saint Goerge, Lalibela Ethiopia
– Great Mosque of Djenne Mali
– Khami Ruins Zimbabwe
– Pyramids of Meroe Sudan
– Great Mosque of Djene in Mali
Aside from the ones mentioned above, other noteworthy monuments have existed since ancient times.
Among them are the public monuments at the archaeological site of Leptis Magna in Libya, North Africa, with many others scattered across other regions.
Another significant art popular in ancient Africa was the mask, and it is probably one of the oldest artifacts in the history of African art.
The most ancient African mask in history dates back to the 12th – 15th mask of Ife kingdom, Nigeria – a realistic copper mask of the oni Obalufon with raffia attachments and strings of beads.
Other forms of masks that are of ancient values in Africa are Ligbi Mask, Biombo Mask, Kwele Mask, Dan Mask, Goma Mask, Benin Ivory Mask, Bwa Plank Mask, Kota Mask, and Baule Mask,
Dolls started in various African cultures since ancient times. The antique African dolls have essential characteristics useful for ceremonial and ritual functions involving protection and fertility.
However, the main aim of doll art is for youthful females to play with across the African constituents to guarantee fertility in them.
Majorly, the medium of ancient African dolls is wood, woven plant fiber, glass, and brass with attractive adornment. Dolls of southern Angola and Namibia are typical examples.
Examples of some ancient African dolls are:
– Ntwana beaded doll
– Ndebele dolls
– Xhosa fertility dolls worn by Xhosa women
– Hut dolls of Xesibe, Eastern Cape
– Akuabaj ritual fertility dolls from Southern Ghana
– Pondo people’s dolls amaMpondo, is a Southern African Nguni ethnic group.
Painting is one of the crucial things that describe both modern and historical African art. A description of art in Africa without the mention of “paintings” is incomplete.
Africa has the most remarkable prehistoric paintings, including the San Bushmen prehistoric rock paintings and carvings. It is in present-day South Africa, other notable ones in Botswana, and other African countries.
The ancient artists of Africa apply creativity to relate abstract visual ideas. They combined elements of language into graphic patterns to make representations of supernatural or natural phenomena.
Similar to paintings, engraving is another type of art popular in Africa. Most of the early artists of African produced great works of art using this form.
Ancient southern African rock engravings are quite remarkable while describing art in Africa. The Origins Centre in Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, houses rock engraving in Africa.
The public archival center displays a vast selection of the continent’s rock engravings.
People use these extraordinary engraved rocks for exhibitions as well as cultural and art events.
Remarkably, Blombos Cave Engravings of 70,000 BCE in the Southern Cape coastline, Cape Town, South Africa, is one of Africa’s earliest known prehistoric arts.
Others include the Apollo 11 Cave Stones of 25,500-23,500 BCE in Keetmanshoop, Namibia; and the Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings of 60,000 BCE in Western Cape, South Africa.
The art of ancient Africa comes in diverse forms. African textile is a historical document pointing to the earlier time in 5,000BC when ancient Egyptians started fabric and textile art.
African textile is as old as time, dating back to primitive cloth. It began with the art of designing and embroidering traditional fabric materials.
The oldest form of African textile fragments dates back to the 11 century, and it started from the Western parts of Africa.
For many centuries, African textile has been a great way by which Africans define and adorn themselves. Masks, sculptures, and paintings outshined the importance of African textiles.
However, in the present time, it has turned to the essential means of illumining bonds and permanence between the old and modern styles of African artistic expression.
The ancient African textile, nowadays in African communities, is glorious to behold. Olden-day fabrics depict the sophisticated forms of the African religious and social cultures with much insight into their basic concepts.
10. Wood Carving
Wood carving, an old African tradition, is credited to the ancient Egyptians as an integral part of art. It spans across centuries and continents in a diversified way.
African traditional wood carving reveals a sign of cultural authenticity with philosophical reflections in a specific visualized form.
Jewelry is a primary type of art used in ancient Africa. It has explicit uses in many significant ways geared towards showing one’s wealth and status.
Ancient African artists crafted the oldest pieces of jewelry using gems, gold, shells, and various other materials.
Last but not least in the list of popular ancient African art is pottery. Pottery is the artistic process involving crafting objects such as vessels, bowls, cooking pots, etc., using clay and ceramic materials.
Nevertheless, the ancient artists created the oldest pottery artworks by forming objects with lovely shapes adorned with fine painting details.
As enormous as the African continent, it has a diversity of visual and cultural traditions, including the stunning ancient arts made from unusual materials.
While few of these ancient artworks of Africa came from archeological discovery, most arise from the creativity of primitive African artists.
Today, African artists still apply the innovations of ancient African artists in crafting various beautiful works of art that inspire people from different parts of the world.