Characteristics of Ancient African Art

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  • 0:03 Ancient African Art
  • 2:10 Medium & Genre
  • 3:04 Rock Art
  • 4:15 Metals, Ceramics, & Masks
  • 7:00 Architecture
  • 8:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Talking about ancient African art sometimes means making informed guesses based upon artistic practice studied in more recent times. Dive into this lesson and find out more about humanity's oldest artistic traditions.

Ancient African Art

The African continent is the point of origin of humanity itself, so it makes sense that it would also be the wellspring of human art. Some anthropologists have suggested that the defining quality setting human beings apart from our evolutionary ancestors is not physical, but creative. For the purposes of this lesson, we'll talk about art as any act of deliberate creative expression - not just formal painting and sculpture, like we'd expect to find in an art gallery.

Ancient people had far less access to resources than most of us enjoy in the modern world, and a great deal of their time was devoted to daily survival. Under such conditions, human creativity would rarely be about purely personal expression or basic beautification. Even personal ornaments probably had a spiritual and social function, such as Ghanaian kente cloth today, with patterns that send a social message and communicate status. Weapons and tools often had a creative embellishment, and thus, ancient art was often both expressive and functional, or having a practical use. The focus of the lesson will be sub-Saharan Africa, since geography isolated Egypt from the main continent and plugged its history into what we now consider Western tradition.

Let's first focus on some of the general qualities of sub-Saharan traditional African art, including that:

  • Ancient African visual art tends to be figurative, emphasizing the human form in three dimensions - even if that form embodies divine or supernatural beings - and functional.

  • African creative culture is highly performative, being rich in dance and music. Both are central to worship, festival, and social expression. Obviously, we have little record of these activities prior to modern times.

  • African narrative tradition is oral. In West Africa, a professional class of storytellers or historians emerged called griots or griottes. Their orations too were probably accompanied by music in ancient times.

  • The design and layout of African art frequently reveal a concept-based fractal geometry.

Medium & Genre

Okay, let's now define the artistic terms 'medium' and 'genre' before talking about some specific types used in ancient African art. In art lingo, medium refers to the material or format of the art, which generally comes down to the stuff it's made of or the means through which it happens. Watercolor, oil, pastel, rock, marble, ivory, fabric, digital photography, and clay are all types of media.

Genre indicates the category or classification of the art form: painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, drama, and jazz are all genres. Owing to resource availability and other socioeconomic factors, much traditional African art has been created with non-durable, perishable media, such as wood and other plant fiber. We'll look at some exceptions, but to a large extent, we have to speculate about ancient art through references to the more contemporary.

Rock Art

The oldest surviving examples of human creativity were done on rock or shaped from it. Engravings on ochre (also used as a pigment for body painting) from the Blombos Cave in South Africa have been dated from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, making them the oldest examples of ancient African art yet discovered. Their abstract patterns indicate higher order thinking. Blombos also yielded crafted shell beads, bone tools, and other examples of human craft and creativity.

A fancy word for rock carvings is petroglyphs, and Africa has a wealth of them, spread from Algeria to Chad to Namibia to Niger, and from Tanzania to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Libya. In Dabous in the Sahara, a life-sized pair of giraffes highlights the scope of the investment in this ancient art form. In fact, giraffe petroglyphs are almost a sub-genre of their own, being found over numerous sites, across thousands of years, and in many different styles. In addition, Laas Geel, in Somalia, is one of many sites that help trace the development of African herding and livestock domestication by providing us with vibrant visual art in the form of cave paintings.

Metal Work, Ceramics, & Masks

Metalwork is a more recent phenomenon in Africa, largely because of resource distribution, but the famous 'bronzes' of Benin (actually made of brass in many instances) challenged many European stereotypes when discovered, as did the amazing sculptures of the Yoruba in bronze and even copper, a difficult medium to work with. Various sculptures and plaques date back over 3,500 years.

The situation is similar with ceramics. African potters did not use a potter's wheel, so vessels are heavy but also fragile. Nok ceramic sculptures, made from terracotta, stand out for their stunning imagination, design and uniqueness in combined medium and genre.

Masks provide a widespread and incredibly diverse format for creative expression among African cultures. Because of their medium, however, frequently a wood base with a broad array of added materials, we mainly have more recent examples of what is almost certainly an extremely ancient art form.

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