African art history has played a significant role in shaping the culture and history of the world. The belief that Africa is the cradle of the history of mankind is virtually unshakeable. The origins of African art history lie long before recorded history, preserved in the obscurity of time. Rock Art is centuries old, while shell beads fashioned for a necklace have been recovered in a cave in the furthest reach of the southern peninsula of South Africa that are 75 000 years old.
A study of African art history indicates the earliest sculpture forms found come from Nigeria and are dated around 500BC. However, the lack of archaeological excavations inhibits knowledge of the antiquity of African art and the sheer disposable nature of the raw materials used in the creation of art objects means that an untold wealth of pieces have disintegrated in time.
Compounding this, as these objects were not coveted as aesthetic accomplishments by the indigenous communities who created them, no effort was made to preserve them. Often their value was negligible once their function was performed.
Foreign colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards and different values became omnipresent. A lot of African art was acquired for curious means by travellers, traders and missionaries in the century before and left the continent. Colonialists most often did not give indigenous art the merit and attention it deserved and thereby African art history was not preserved or documented.
Rock art is the earliest art form in Africa.
We know from human evolutionary science that modern Homo Sapiens began in Africa. It stands to reason therefore that Africa would contain both the oldest and greatest amount of rock art on this planet.
The oldest images scientifically dated are in Namibia (the Apollo 11 caves) from about 24-27,000 yrs ago, yet most experts agree that Africa's rock art may date to more than 50,000 years ago.
The earliest known rock art preserved in the Saharan sands in Niger dates as far back as 6500 BC. They are carvings known as petroglyphs and depict animals like giraffes that no longer exist in that area.
From these images we learn how ancient tribes and cultures viewed their universe around them. Observing the paintings may give us insight into their thoughts, their spiritual and physical worlds.
Unfortunately, much of this valuable heritage is being destroyed; either by natural erosion as the sites come under civilisation pressure or by graffiti defacing the rock canvases.
African art history presents a world heritage we need to find a way to preserve.
The earliest known sculptures are the remarkable terracotta pottery heads, most of them fragments of figures, from the Nok culture of Nigeria and are dated around 500 BC through to 200 AD.
They are made from grog and iron rich clay but none of them have been found in their natural settings and they demonstrate that strong abstract figural representation has existed in Africa for over 2500 yrs.
Their strong formal elements and expressive quality places them at the start of the African sculptural tradition. They are remarkable for their sense of caricature and have a strong sense of style showing elaborate hairdos and ornamentation.
Nok terracottas currently occupy an important but isolated space in African art history.
By around the 1st C AD, figures of an intriguing severity are being produced in the Sokoto region of north western Nigeria. Sokoto itself is at the confluence of ancient trade routes. These figures tend to have heavier brows and are less ornamented than Nok figures, but there is undeniably a link even if we are yet to fully comprehend the connection between the two seemingly isolated cultures.
The fired, earthen ware Lydenburg heads were found in the same named district in South Africa and it has been established that they were buried there in 500 AD making them the oldest known African artworks south of the equator. Little is known of the ancient culture that produced this group of seven heads but the careful manner in which they were buried reveals the significance and respect they had for the people who laid them under the ground.
The large furrowed rings around the neck may signal prosperity and power but it can not be known for sure. We can only speculate and place them in context with what we know about African art history.
Terracotta sculptures have been unearthed by archaeologists in the area of Jenne in Mali and at Ife in Nigeria and date from 1000 to 1300 AD. Powerful terracotta sculptures continued to be made throughout Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Stone sculptures exist from the Kongo people and the Sherbro from Sierra Leone dating no later than the 16th C. Ivory was carved with great skill in Benin at the same time.
Cast metal is the only other material to withstand the continent's termites.
Dating back to the 9th C AD is the bronze casting tradition of the Igbo-Ukwu tribe of Nigeria. Sites have revealed cast bronze regalia as well as other works of art.
This superb tradition reached its peak with the Ife people from Yoruba, Nigeria who began to produce very fine brass and bronze castings in the 12th C and continued to the 15th C. Life size heads and masks and smaller full-length figures achieved astonishing realism and reflected a quiet intensity that was the forerunner to that quality which we now admire so much in traditional African sculpture. Sometimes they also cast in pure copper, technically much more challenging than brass.
From the 15th C even to today, the Yoruba people in Benin created sculpted heads that today are known as the Benin bronzes but are in fact made of brass which arrived in the form of vessels and ornaments on the trade route and melted down. In both these cultures their works were often produced for their Kings and had magical powers, reflecting their beliefs and the socio-political organizations and chiefdoms which existed under the rule of a divine King or Ife.
The arrival of the Portuguese prompted Benin sculptors to produce brass plaques with scenes in relief. These plaques were nailed as decoration to the wooden pillars of the royal palace.
These two areas of art can also give us some chronological order in trying to understand the nature and time sequence of African art history. The earliest textile remnants are found again from Igbo-Ukwu and date to 9thC AD while the Tellam caves in Mali were found with cotton and woolen cloths preserved since the 11th C.
The Akan of Ghana manufactured small cast copper and bronze gold weights from the 18th C which came in all forms, animal, human, fruits, even abstract geometric shapes. They stood as little figurines, many less than 5cm high and expressed a liveliness and spontaneity not often found in African sculpture.
Wood carving remains today the primary sculptural art form of the sub Saharan continent.
African art history shows the earliest wooden sculptures from the 17th C are attributed to the Kuba, central Zaire but the earliest surviving sub-Saharan sculpture is a zoomorphic head found in 1928 in Central Angola. It is dated to the 8th-9th C and survived being buried under the water table.
The finest examples of surviving wood carving date around 1920, some collected as early as 1890 and generally gathered before 1945 while tribal art was still very much in practice.