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Art and Architecture

African Art and Architecture

African sculptures, Animal images, carving wood, African cultures, images of animals

Deeper web pages:

>  The Cultural Role of African Art

>  Materials, Forms, and Styles

>  Architecture in Africa

>  Regional Differences

>  Influence of African Art on Western Art

African Art and Architecture, works of art and architecture created on the African continent south of the Sahara. The immense Sahara acts as a natural barrier, separating African cultures to the north from those to the south. Although there has always been some intermingling of peoples on the two sides of the Sahara, differences in history and culture are pronounced. This article primarily discusses the art created south of the Sahara, a region known as sub-Saharan Africa.

The history of African art and architecture spans a vast period, beginning as early as 25,500 bc and continuing to the present. Among the earliest surviving examples of African art are images of animals painted on rock slabs found in caves in Namibia. Animal images painted on or cut into rocks and canyon walls in the Sahara date from 6000 to 4000 bc. Later Saharan rock art depicts ritual activities, herding, and food preparation. The earliest known African sculptures (500 bc to ad 200) are sculpted clay heads and human figures from central Nigeria. Many surviving examples of African art date from the 14th to the 17th century. However, most of the African art known today is relatively recent, from the 19th century or later. Very little earlier African art has survived, primarily because it was made largely of perishable materials such as wood, cloth, and plant fibers, and because it typically met with intensive use in ceremonies and in daily life. Scholars of African art base suppositions about earlier art mainly on art of the last two centuries, but they can only guess at the earlier traditions from which the recent art developed.

African art does not constitute a single tradition. Africa is an enormous continent with hundreds of cultures that have their own languages, religious beliefs, political systems, and ways of doing things. Each culture produces its own distinctive art and architecture, with variations in materials, intentions, and results. Whereas some cultures excel in carving wood, others are known for casting objects in metal. In one culture a decorated pot might be used for cooling water, while in another culture a similar pot is used in ritual ceremonies.

The major types of art produced in Africa are masks, statues, furniture, textiles, pottery, baskets, beadwork, and metalwork. Most objects that are sculpted or shaped—masks and statues, for example—are created chiefly by men and depict human or animal forms. Where two-dimensional art exists, as in textile design or painted decoration on houses, it is generally produced by women.


Chanda, Jasqueline, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Art Education, Ohio State University. Author of "African Art and Culture", and "Discovering African Art".

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