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African Art History

Mukta Gaikwad
African art has barely been studied which is why little is known about it. Read on to know more about its history, its beat, and its essence.
Africa has a story of its own with a diversity of culture and the vibrancy of colors. The second largest continent of the world has a legacy of art, that remains unmatched even today. The differences in societies, civilizations, its people, races and languages, stands united through art.
From the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to modern paintings, African art has captivated vast audiences. Visual abstraction, sculpting, three dimensional artworks and nonlinear scaling are some characteristics of this art form. A visual treat, African art revolves around human figures.


Until recently, it was believed that African art is a creation of the original Africans hailing from sub-Saharan Africa, which is also known as Black Africa. However, historians and art enthusiasts have now concluded that North African artworks from Horn of Africa and Egypt are also a part of this artwork since they belong to the same continent.
African art has been greatly influenced by traditional forms of art from Islamic and Mediterranean cultures. The art forms of African populace residing in Brazil, the Caribbean, and South-eastern United States is also being acknowledged as a part of the African culture.

Ancient Art

The first record of African art history is about 6000 years old from Sahara in Niger. The oldest sculptures from Nok in Nigeria dates back to 500 BC. The ancient African art comes from sub-Saharan Africa, depicting nature's bounty, animal life, visual abstractions, shapes, and lifestyle.
Pyramids and terracotta statues are some of the earliest art forms of African cultures. The Meroe civilization is known to have built the pyramid like tombs before the Egyptians. They also developed pictorial writing, which later merged with successive civilizations.
Founders, ancestors, family members, and tribe leaders became the subject matter of the African cultures and its art forms. Statues of Nefertiti and head of Queen Mother are a clear testimony to the same. The early artisans used a lot of wood and mud to make exquisite artifacts.

Contemporary Art

The contemporary African art is as recent as 1950s and 1960s. Marlene Dumas, William Kentridge, Kendell Geers, Yinka Shonibare, Zerihun Yetmgeta, Odhiambo Siangla, Olu Oguibe, Lubaina Himid, Bill Bidjocka, and Henry Tayali are some of the honored artists in the field of contemporary African art.
The African Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, was the first ever to exhibit Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art.

Traditional Art

The traditional art forms of Africa are the ones that have been popularly studied. African mask and ivory artifacts are synonymous with African art. These masks can be traced back to paleolithic age. These masks are known to be mediators between the living world and the supernatural world. During war, joy, harvesting, peace and initiations, masks were used.
The chosen one or the dancer wears this mask as a depiction of deities or holy spirits. During such ceremonies the dancers enter a deep trance, which is the time he communicates to the ancestors.
African art is slowly being recognized by a larger audience. This is also the reason why this art is influencing many cultures across the globe. The aesthetic of African art is dominated by the animal life, earthy colors, and the primitive lifestyle, which even now, are the essence of this brazen land.