Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Traditional African Art Collage

Traditional African Art

Started: 23,000 BCE
Traditional African Art Timeline
"Every [African] tribe is, from the point of view of art, a universe to itself....The tribe...uses art among many other means to express its internal solidarity and self-sufficiency, and conversely its difference from all others."
1 of 6
William Fagg
"Artists, writers, filmmakers are spokespersons for an entire nation, their nation, and the world."
2 of 6
"The greatest contribution Africa has made so far to the cultural heritage of mankind is its richly varied sculpture."
3 of 6
Frank Willett
"African artists are thus at present being absorbed into the cosmopolitan world of modern art, which owes its character mainly to the stimulus of traditional African art. The wheel has come full circle."
4 of 6
Frank Willett
"The potential African contribution to the art history of Africa has been ignored for far too long. Indigenous African views of the African past have yet to be fully developed."
5 of 6
Peter Garlake
"Picasso and Braque may have pioneered one of the most radical avant-garde movements in Europe during the early 20th century: Cubism. But African carvers were first to abstract reality."
6 of 6
Carolina Sanmiguel

Summary of Traditional African Art

The histories and lineages of African art are as diverse as the communities and cultures that traverse the continent. From the ornate cave paintings of South Africa's Cederberg Mountains to the abstract masks of myriad regional traditions, African art incorporates an extraordinary array of objects, materials, media, and themes. One striking aspect of African painting, pottery, and sculpture to Western viewers might be its marked difference from historical works produced in the European Renaissance tradition, with their emphasis on vanishing-point perspective and a form of naturalistic representation. Equally, traditional African art should be explored on its own termsand for the themes and motifs that unite much of it: for example, the production of objects and costumes for religious and ritual purposes.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Amongst the best-known examples of traditional African art are the striking masks produced by many cultures across the continent: from the Zamble masks of the Guro culture (located in present-day Ivory Coast), to Yoruba, Lulua, and Goma facial adornments - created by communities in Nigeria, Congo, and Tanzania. These masks often had a precise religious or ritual function, seen to take on magical properties in the context of a particular rite or event. They also had an incalculable impact on the development of modern art in Europe during the early 20th century, with Cubists such as Pablo Picasso deeply moved and influenced by their animated abstraction.
  • Traditional African art shares marked characteristics, in spite of its geographical differences. For example, many African sculptures are united by their intended function as talismans or vessels for communicating with the dead ancestors during religious events. As such, many works remind us of the close relationship between art and spirituality throughout human history; the fact that centuries-old traditions have survived in many African cultures gives us a vital window on the origins of human creativity.
  • Pottery is a key form for many African artistic cultures. Jugs and vessels were often created with a utilitarian or domestic function in mind, yet also with great attention to visual beauty and detail. The case of African pottery indicates the less rigorous boundary placed between fine art and practical craftsmanship than in the Western tradition. In fact, this approach mirrored twentieth-century Western movements such as Constructivism, again indicating the ways in which traditional African art predicts and preempts Western equivalents.
  • African art cannot be considered today apart from the controversies concerning its location in museums and galleries across the West. Works such as the Benin Bronzes - which the Nigerian government has repeatedly petitioned to have returned - were plundered by colonial empires and often sold on, hence their dispersal across Europe and North America. They therefore stand as markers of a global debate concerning the need for compensation and reparation following the violent subjugation of African societies by European states.

Overview of Traditional African Art

A diverse collection of African art pieces including sculptures, pottery, and reliefs.

The traditions of African art are rich in their variety of objects, materials, and media, including sculpture, pottery, metalwork, painting, and textiles. While artworks differ depending on geographical area, historically African art has shared some underlying characteristics - including the fact that, unlike in the Western world, objects are often created for religious, ritual, or practical functions.

Important Art and Artists of Traditional African Art

Untitled rock painting (c. 3000-2000 BCE)

Chad's Manda Guéli Cave is home to an array of painted figures and animals, including cattle and camels. This diversity of forms highlights an interesting feature of African rock art. Unlike in Europe, where cave paintings were not created beyond prehistoric times, many African cultures continued to produce this style of painting well after humans had settled in agricultural communities. Because of this, works like the above can be divided into four distinct categories, identifiable by the types of animals depicted. Early paintings tend to include wild animals such as bison and elephants, with later phases incorporating first cattle, then horses, and finally camels.

The depiction of camels in this work places it in the last category of cave paintings, helping archaeologists to date the work. The presence of human figures interacting with animals, meanwhile, confirms this piece as a product of a period of domestication, well after the earliest, hunter-gatherer phase of human development had ended. Again, this suggests that this is a later cave painting.

At the same time, the work also seems to serve as an abstract visual diary, or a series of time-stamps stretching across centuries. The fact that camels are depicted alongside, and sometimes seem to be transposed on top of cattle, supports the ideas that in many African caves paintings were not created during single phases of history. Rather, later groups of artists would have added to existing paintings with their own images, creating a remarkable graphic record of the passage of time and human development: indeed, works of African cave art provide a unique and captivating insight into past cultures in a way few other works of human creativity can match.

Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba (16th century)

This artwork is one of a pair of African ivory masks featuring the face of a woman from the African country of Benin. Exquisitely detailed, these are arguably the most important historical works of the Edo people. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, "although images of women are rare in Benin's courtly tradition, these two works have come to symbolize the legacy of a dynasty that continues to the present day. The pendant mask is believed to have been produced for...the king of Benin, to honor his mother, Idia. The oba [or king] may have worn it at rites commemorating his mother, although today such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of spiritual renewal and purification."

The details of this sculptural work are highly significant to its symbolic and communal meaning. First, the impression of scarification or tattooing on the face reflects a rite common amongst the Benin people - although the distinct facial features would have been based on the appearance of the individual, regal subject. However it is the headdress and collar that are perhaps the most interesting, as they tell a story of foreign influence. The Metropolitan Museum notes the presence of "carved stylized mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese [sailors]. Because they live on land and in the water mudfish represent the king's dual nature as human and divine. Having come from across the seas, the Portuguese were considered denizens of the spirit realm who brought wealth and power to the oba."

Features like those described show the power of much historical African art to make visual statements about influences on a particular culture or community. This can be compared to the densely allusive references that populate religious paintings of the European Renaissance, for example. At the same time, the ceremonial function of artworks like the above mark them out from the purely ornamental and symbolic value of most Western works from the same era. For this reason, traditional African art provides an alternative rubric for thinking about the very essence and purpose of art, and is of the utmost importance to all who want a better understanding of the subject at a global level.

Military Leader (Early 16th century)

This small relief plaque, measuring little more than a foot high and a foot wide, features a warrior dressed in full armor with spear in one hand and shield in the other. His direct and intense frontal gaze is barely visible under his large helmet, fastened with a chin strap. The background is notably replete with detail, including finely inscribed lines in the shape of large three-petaled flowers, or perhaps leaves.

This work is one of thousands of plaques known as the Benin Bronzes, carved in brass by artists from the Benin Kingdom - part of modern-day Nigeria - several centuries ago. These pieces show the role that art can play in communicating a political statement or as a vehicle for propaganda. The Benin people were known for their military might and relief sculptures like this were used to reinforce the impression of this power to friend and foe by depicting warriors and leading military figures alongside the king, his family, and his attendants.

While they should be treasured for their aesthetic and historical value, the Benin Bronzes also speak to a very modern predicament. According to the Ethnologisches Museum itself, these "historical 'bronzes' and ivory objects from Benin are seen as symbols of colonial collecting and their presence outside Nigeria is widely understood as a sign of colonial injustice." During the 19th century, British troops attacked Benin, bringing the kingdom under colonial rule and looting much of its artwork, including these plaques. The Benin Bronzes were amongst the array of artefacts brought back to England, from where many were sold, ending up in private collections and museums around the world. The present-day Nigerian government, alongside innumerable activists, artists, and citizens, are pressing for these treasures to be returned to their native region.

Useful Resources on Traditional African Art

video clips
Do more

Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Traditional African Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
Available from:
First published on 25 Apr 2022. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]