Skip to main content

19th and 20th Century African Arts: Home

19th and 20th Century African Arts

"The continent of Africa is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say "Africa". In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist." writer Ryszard Kaperscinki


Researchers do not always know the history of African artworks. Most of the information is derived from archaeology and field research in Africa. Researchers mainly interview local people on the use, function, and meaning of art objects. 

People - Humankind probably started on the continent. Hundreds of distinct ethnic, cultural & linguistic groups of people. 

Art Beyond the European Tradition

On the AP Exam you will be asked to compare, contrast or discuss artwork from Beyond the European Tradition. Ancient Egyptian and Roman settlements in North Africa developed as a result of European interaction. Those artworks are considered western. African cultures from regions south of the Sahara developed independent of European influence. The art in this unit is outside the European tradition and should be included in your study of non-western art. 

Islam was also very influential in the development of Africa, particularly on the Northern coast and the Horn of Africa. Islamic art will be studied in a separate unit. 

Map 19th - 20th Century African Art Work

Functions of Art in 19th & 20th C. African Societies

Art helped African civilizations define and create their culture. Objects were not solely created for display; it was integrated with their life and thought. Art was created for:

  • to record government action
  • to facilitate rainmaking
  • honor and venerate their ancestors
  • commemoration, healing, divination and social regulation
  • embody spirits believed to heal and give life
  • embody spirits that were capable of inflicting harm, disease or even death

Problems with Identification & Dating

  • Early art made of wood & natural fiber disintegrated in hot, humid climate.
  • Most objects unlabeled, unsigned, undated - hard to verify
  • Illegal, uncontrolled excavation and poaching

Inportant Vocabulary