Nok sculpture by Unknown
Ancient African art can be somewhat divided into regions. The art of northern Africa was heavily influenced by the Arabs after the Islam conquest. Similarly, the art of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa was influenced by Europe and Christianity. There is also the well preserved art of Ancient Egypt found in temples and burial chambers. However, what most people think of today as African art is the art produced by the peoples living south of the Sahara Desert.
The art of Ancient Africa was produced using a wide variety of materials. Unfortunately, a lot of African art was produced using wood, which has since been destroyed by time and the elements. Other materials, such as metals (like bronze and iron), ceramics, and ivory have survived.
Woman's Head in Bronze.
Photo by Daderot
African art. Photo by Daderot
One of the main elements of African art is that it is often created in three-dimensions rather than two-dimensions. For example, they used sculpture more often than flat paintings. Here are some of the primary types of art used in Ancient Africa.
Sculpture - Sculpture was one of the most important types of art in Ancient Africa. Sculptures were mostly made of people and sometimes animals. African artists often used wood for their sculpture, but they also used bronze, terracotta, and ivory.
Masks - Masks were an important part of art. They were often used together with dance to create a type of performance art. Masks were generally made of wood, but were often decorated with ivory, gems, paint, and animal fur.
Jewelry - Many Ancient African civilizations created jewelry from gold, gems, shells, and other materials. Jewelry was an important part of showing one's status and wealth.
Pottery - Ceramics were used for everyday items like bowls and cooking pots. However, some ceramics were works of art that were shaped and painted with fine details.
One of the main themes in the art of Ancient Africa is the human form. The primary subject in the majority of the art is people. Sometimes people were shown with animals or as part animal, part person. Many times the representation of people wasn't natural, but was more abstract with certain features exaggerated while others were entirely left out.
African mask. Photo by Daderot
Monumental Art and Architecture
The most famous examples of monumental art and architecture in Ancient Africa come from Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians created huge structures such as the pyramids, the Sphinx, temples, and statues (like the giant pharaohs at Abu Simbel). Other African civilizations built monumental structures as well including the giant obelisks of Aksum in Ethiopia, mosques like the Great Mosque of Djene in Mali, and the rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.
Interesting Facts about Ancient African Art
- Rock paintings found in Namibia are thought to be some of the oldest pieces of art in the world. They are estimated to be over 20,000 years old.
- Masks often looked like animals and represented the spirit of the animal in religious ceremonies.
- The abstract nature of African art had an influence on the modern art movements of Europe.
- Many times a small part of an African sculpture will be the same or similar to a larger part of the same sculpture. This is called "nonlinear scaling."
To learn more about Ancient Africa:
History >> Ancient Africa