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Early African Art: Home

This unit provides a chronological survey of sub-Saharan African art through the 18th century.

Early African Art

"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


Geography - Africa is 1/5 of the world's land surface. The U.S, China, Japan, and most of Europe could fit on the continent. 

3 great rivers: Niger, Congo, Nile

2 great deserts: Sahara in the north, Kalahari in the south

High, rugged mountains in the east

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 of Early African Art Work


Functions of Art in African Societies

Art helped early 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:

  • Magical, mystical, religious,reasons as offerings to ancestors or gods
  • Expression of power and wealth
  • Expression of personal identity and status
  • For use in festivals such as harvest and New Years
  • Masks for use in masquerades (parties, balls)
  • Funeral masks

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


Lost-wax casting