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Early African Art Essay


African art history can be regarded as foundational, being the cradle of human civilization. Therefore, African art played a crucial role in developing cultural and historic landscape of the entire world. The origins of African culture dates back to the prehistoric times, starting from representation sculptures and rock art. The African studies reveal the earliest sculpture art that was discovered in Nigeria. These artifacts date back to 500 BC.

The scarcity of archeological research restrains the knowledge of antiquity of artistic forms on the continent (Looking at and Seeing African Art n. d.). At the same time, archeological discoveries point to a wide variety of raw materials that have contributed to time disintegration. Apart from the abundance of historic evidence, African history can be proud of the contributions that the Egyptian civilization contributed to its artistic heritage.

Purpose of the Research

Because the African art is mostly premised on representing visual culture of the continent, the main purpose of the research consists in defining the early forms of African art, main materials used, major influences, and the main themes explored within the established context. It is also purposeful to explore the role of the most ancient culture on the development of new artistic forms.

Main Discussion

Establishing the Temporal Frames of Early African Art

The first evidence pointing to the rise of African art refers to the development of Nok Culture shaping the ancient Civilization between 500 BC – 200 AD. Discovered in 1928, the examined artwork represents a mixed style that employed a range of iron –utilizing societies of diverse culture, undermining the claim that Nok people were distinguished by one feature.

The archeologists also state that the Nok Terracotta figurines originate from the small village located in sub-Saharan region. The historic evidence proves that the refined style of this culture is represented by the image of dignitary figurine (Nok Culture n. p.). In the Picture 1, it is possible to see the earliest sculpture, the Terracotta Nok Head dating back to 500 BC. Although the sculpture refers to ancient civilization developments, evidence of much early artifacts exists.

This is of particular concern to the oldest rock images left in Namibia caves nearly 24,000-27,000 years ago (Thebe 18). Other than that, the expert archeologists note that the African rock art can refer to much more ancient times. In order to get a better idea of the historic period, it is purposeful to consider various themes, forms, and influences represented in the rock art.

Major Themes Explored Among the Artifacts

Rock Art

The history of rock engraving and painting art is ambiguous due to the scarcity of archeological findings. Artworks on rock walls are quite vulnerable and, therefore, few rock paintings preserved up to our modern times (The Metropolitan Museum of Art n. p.). Despite this, the slabs of rocks with historic painting were found in Huns Mountains of Namibia, in the Apollo 11 Cave.

The rock stones were pained in ocher, white, and charcoal (The Metropolitan Museum of Art n. p.). Incised stones were also discovered at the Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape, in South Africa. The findings suggest that the engravings refer to the ancient history of the continent.

As it has been briefly described about, the earliest mentioning of rock art in Africa refers to prehistoric times. In particular, Sahara Rock Art is split into four periods – Bubalus period (8000-7000 BP), Pastoral Period (6000-2200 BP), and Horse Period (3,200-1,200 BP), which is divided into chariot and camel sub-periods (Saharan Rock Art n. d.).

The rock carvings of Bubalus or Archaic period lies in representing large animals, including elephants, buffalo, giraffes, antelopes, and hippos. Many of the animals depicted on the rock surface are now registered as extinct (See Picture 2: Engraving of an Animal). The Pastoral period is associated with smaller representations of animals and humans that are done with white and red ochre pigments (Saharan Rock Art n. d.).

The depiction of human looking after cattle provides evidence on the advancement in development of human activities (See Picture 3: Herdsman and Cattle). Greater accuracy in details demonstrates humans with weapons, pointing to the rise of hunting activities. Horse period introduces paintings with humans on chariots and animals (Davis 8). The main feature of this historic stage consists in representing human figures in a bi-triangular form and appearance of horse-drawn chariots and small weapons.


The earliest forms of sculpture are terracotta pottery heads originating from Nock Culture. Made from cast metal, the figurines were discovered in Nigeria, the region of the richest history of ancient sculpture in Africa (History World n. p.). The history relates to fifth century BC to depict the first sculpture artifacts, which developed into sophisticated forms 2500 years later, during Renaissance upheaval in nineteenth century and cubism movement in the twentieth century.

Textile and Weights

Textile production also contributes to understanding and time frames of African art history (Textiles and Personal Arts n. p.). The oldest textile remnants refer to Igbo-Ukwu culture found in 9th century AD whereas caves in Mali were discovered with woolen and cotton cloths in eleventh century.

The ancient themes and mechanisms of producing textile has been preserved in modern times. Specific attention requires the ornaments and themes depicted on clothing. In particular, the dominating techniques involved tie and resist dyeing, direct fabric painting, and weaving. Since the ancient times, patterns and motifs represented on clothing signify personal status and group identity of African tribes.

According to Bortolot, the textile arts were considered the markers of dominion whereas the actual process of weaving had ceremonial and mythological meaning (26). In Akan mythology, for example, the attention is given to the spider Ananse, which is regarded as the original weaver. Therefore, the weavers had to follow specific requirements and ritual during production.

Egyptian Ancient Art as Part of African Artistic Heritage

The Egyptian civilization emerged more than 5000 years ago. It rich culture is known worldwide due to the rich ancestry it contributed in production, mechanical engineering, and traditions (Tyldesle n. p.). Specifically, the archeologists and historians’ interest in pyramids was great due to the complexity of construction techniques. In fact, the first pharaohs’ tombs were constructed approximately 3000 BC (Tyldesle n. p.).

Djoser’s Step Pyramid was among the first buildings whereas the Great Pyramid of Khufu appeared a century later (See Picture 4: Djoser’s Step Pyramid). The most ancient pyramid has a stepped-like structure. The main value of these architectural memorials lies in the possibility to trace the evolutional process from prehistoric graves to the pyramids (Tyldesle n. p.). The symbolic meaning of the mastaba tombs is that of creation and it is often regarded as a way to heaven.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops was built on the Giza plateau. Its foundation is made of bedrock with a limestone quarry (See Picture 5: The Great Pyramid). The construction is distinguished with great precision, although its size is impressive (Tyldesle n. p.). The tomb of Cheops has three chambers – the Subterranean Chamber, Queen’s Chamber, and King’s Chamber – that are connected by the passageway system.

Although pyramids can tell about lives of Egyptian pharaohs whose burial chambers are supplied with symbols of privilege and wealth. However, little information is known about ordinary people who directly participated on the construction. The mystery of pyramids building is still on the current agenda.

Later Representations of Prehistoric Art in Africa

It can be stated that African art is represented through sculptures, crafts, and ceremonial masks introduced by tribal cultures, as well as African culture developed during colonial times. African art, therefore, is more associated with sub-Saharan art, North African art, and Egyptian heritage. For instance, the earlier terracotta figurines are also represented in 12th-14th century. Specific attention requires Ife (Yoruba) figurine originating from Nigeria (See Picture 6: Shrine Head, Ife, Nigeria).

The flashbacks from the ancient times were also introduced by the African architecture, which is not represented by pyramids only. In this respect, specific attention should be given to the constructions of Great Zimbabwe, Mande, Oualata, and Cameroon. The main characteristics of ancient architecture are revealed through use of granite slabs, monumental stone structures dating back to 1000-520, and massive stone masonry (Looking at and Seeing African Art n. d.).

The mud architecture is introduced in Mande with parapets and buttresses. The architecture of this region started refers to a 1700-100 B.P. The period is also known for tomb structures, minarets with towers over the roofs. Mauritanian style of African architecture is introduced by stones that are covered with adobe. Motifs reminded the Arabic strip and are now as arabesques in modern culture.


Overall, African art embraces one of the greatest achievements of humanity. In particular, sophisticated mixture of visual culture with spiritual believes introduces the main essence of African artistic heritage. Its technique introductions and artistic perfection testifies to the humanities’ creative ingenuity.

Religious and cultural beliefs also reproduced through artistic objects not only in figures and masks, but also in their application in various ceremonies and rituals. While exploring the historic evidence, including sculptures, rock paintings, figurine, statues, and masks, it is possible to explore the main themes, activities, and other important information about African culture and history.

In particular, the rock painting point to the development of African civilization, from hunting to cattle breeding. The painting involves predominantly depictions of various animals and humans. The sculptures allowed the historian to define the physical appearance of people living thousands years ago. The Egyptian civilization has also made an incredible contribution to the African artistic ancestry.

This is of particular concern to the first pyramids and the mystery of their construction. The prehistoric arts traces its further representations in later artistic forms introduced in African culture. Such perspectives are typical of architectural forms, clothing, ceremonies, and use of materials. Being the cradle of the civilization, African culture is considered to be among the richest ones because of many sub-artistic styles and influences that are still brightly represented in modern art of other cultures.

Works Cited

Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Asante Textile Arts”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Print.

Davis, Whitney. “Representation and Knowledge in the Prehistoric Rock Art of Africa”. African Archaeological Review. 2.1 (1984): 7-35. Print.

History World. . Web.

. Web.

Nok Culture. The Nok Terracotta 500 BC – 200 AD: The #1 Magnificent History of Ancient Civilization. Web.

. Web.

. Web.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. . Web.

Thebe, Phenyo. The Rock Art of Southern Africa. Web.

Tyldesley, Joyce. “Development of Pyramids Gallery”. BBC History. 2011. Web.


Picture 1: Terracotta Nok Head

Terracotta Nok Head

Picture 2: Engraving of Elephant

Engraving of Elephant

Picture 3: Herdsman and Cattle

Herdsman and Cattle

Picture 4: Djoser’s Step Pyramid

Djoser’s Step Pyramid

Picture 5: The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid

Picture 6: Shrine Head, Ife, Nigeria

Shrine Head, Ife, Nigeria
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1. IvyPanda. "Early African Art." January 10, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/early-african-art/.


IvyPanda. "Early African Art." January 10, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/early-african-art/.


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