African Tribal Art: History & Examples

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  • 0:03 History of African Tribal Art
  • 1:13 What African Tribal…
  • 2:02 Examples of African Art
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Olivieri
Some of the most famous artists of the Western world, such as Picasso, were influenced by traditional African art. This lesson focuses on the history of African tribal art and takes a look at some well-known examples.

History of African Tribal Art

The term African art is typically used to describe traditional art from the countries in Africa located south of the Sahara desert (Sub-Saharan Africa). This means that the hieroglyphics and artifacts of the Egyptians are not included in the classification of African tribal art. The history of African art is so old that we can't put a date on it. Why? Not only because it dates back to before recorded history but also because the oldest pieces were made from things like wood that have rotted or been destroyed by termites over time. So what remains of this ancient art?

Rock art was discovered in Nigeria showing carvings that are 6000 years old. The earliest surviving textiles date back to the first century. The oldest known sculptures, dating back to between 500 BCE and 500 CE, are those of the Nok culture from West Africa. For example, take a look at this 6th century Nok sculpture made from terracotta:

Nok terracotta sculpture

So now that you've got an idea of how old some of the earliest art on our planet is, let's look at some different types of African art and see how it was important to cultural traditions.

What African Tribal Art Reveals

If you were to visit a museum, the majority of African tribal art that you would see would be masks, statues, and textiles. Today, we rely on these items to give us a real sense of what the people of Africa were like thousands of years ago. They tell us more than the words of a textbook alone can because they allow us to touch a real piece of their history. And their history is our history, right?

If we trace back the history of human life and find that the oldest bones and fossils are from Africa, then in many ways African history is the history of all humans. Without these art pieces, we would not know as much about these cultures as we do. In the same way, you can see how our modern day art could be of great importance to the societies who will live 2000 years in the future.

Examples of African Art

So let's pretend we're in a museum in the African tribal art section. What do we see? We have already said it is mostly masks, textiles, and statues, but what were the subjects? Of course their subjects weren't skyscrapers, robots, or cars. Rather, they were creating images of their own place and time. Sculptures and carvings, such as masks, were mainly of people, their natural surroundings, and animals. Textiles were mainly geometrical patterns, and the masks were primarily the faces of people, specifically ancestors. Let's talk a little more about these three examples.

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