Art in Ancient Africa
Africa is a huge continent with art and culture everywhere you look. It has a long history of making and creating.
Lots of the art in Africa were discovered by Europeans when they colonised parts of the continent.
European artists like Picasso were very interested in African sculptures and forms. African art influenced modern art in Europe. It has always had an important part to play in the world of Art.
African art was discovered by Europeans later on but art had been made since ancient times.
You can learn about these fascinating discoveries here, including magical blacksmiths, ancient rock art, ancient figures from Ghana that have been DNA tested and much more!
What types of art was there in Africa?
Lots of African art is in three dimensions. You will find a lot of sculptures (three-dimensional art) as well as paintings from Ancient Africa.
Of course, we only know about the objects that have survived from ancient times.
There were probably many more (like textiles, cloths and wooden sculptures) which did not survive. This is because the survival of objects (material culture) depends on climate and how deep things are buried, as well as what the objects are made from.
African objects could be made from wood, bronze, terracotta and ivory. There are examples of rock art from over 6000 years ago which show that drawings, flat carvings (engravings) also existed.
There are also ancient paintings from Ethiopia and drawings on parchment from Egypt which have been preserved very well.
Life-size Giraffes: Pre-historic African Rock art
The oldest art from Africa is found on rocks and in caves. The people that lived in Niger 6000 years ago went to great trouble to draw a life-size giraffe. Imagine how long that took?
There are lots of these art works, carved into rocks or painted in Africa. They often show pictures of horses, giraffe, ostrich, sheep, cattle and other wild animals.
The British Museum in London has some photographs of this rock art in its collection online.
The oldest images we know of from Africa are from Namibia. They were made 24-27,000 years ago! Some of this art could be even older.
In the Saharan sands in Niger (which is above Nigeria), in a place called Dabous, are some ancient rock art images from as early as 6500 BC.
The oldest paint studios in the world
Cave art is found all over Africa. So, where did these artists get their paint and tools? Luckily we have a discovery that tells us.
Some 43,000 years ago, in Ethiopia, there was the oldest artists’ studio of all time! It was found in a cave in Ethiopia in 1929 by two men called Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Henry de Monfried.
Pictured above: Teilhard de Chardin
These clever scholars figured out that these caves had been used as artist studios because traces of a material called ochre were found.
It wasn’t like today when we just squeeze it from a tube. This paint was made by grinding down rocks that were full of iron in order to make a red-coloured powder.
Some researchers at the university of Barcelona and the University of Bordeaux have found that ancient cave artists would visit this cave to get a special red, orange, yellow, brown and grey coloured paint made from these ochre pigments.
There are also similar rock paint studios from South Africa that date to over 100,000 years old! Do you think we could still paint with this paint?
What other coloured dyes are there in nature that could be used to paint with?
Nok: the oldest sculptures in Africa
In 1928, a team of miners led by Colonel Dent Young made an accidental discovery that would change the way Europe viewed Africa and its art works forever.
These miners found a terracotta figure of a human head just next to a tin mine in the Kaduna State in Nigeria. In the 1940s, the archaeologist Bernard Fagg learned about these discoveries and excavated a site at Nok and Taruga in northern, central, Nigeria.
He found hundreds and hundreds of amazing terracotta heads.
The Nok culture made human heads and figures in terracotta that are the earliest forms of sculpture made in sub-Saharan Africa.
They date from between 500 BC to 500 AD and some are nearly 3000 years old! When they were first made, they were probably part of larger bodies made from clay.
The researchers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tell us that these figures were modelled from clay in a similar way to the way wood is carved.
They believe that this shows us that wooden sculptures existed then too and that these wooden sculptures influenced the way the clay terracotta sculptures were made. Of course, no wooden sculptures were found.
Why do you think that is?
Lots of museums own these objects so you can often see them on display if you are lucky enough to visit. Many were looted (stolen) from the sites.
Some are in museums in Nigeria and some are in museums in Europe and the United States.
Archaeologists found that the people who had inhabited this site also forged iron in a very sophisticated way. The people from the Nok site were the first cultures in Africa to really develop iron working.
How did Banana end up in a sculpture? Ancient terracotta figurines from Ghana
In 2010, some archaeologists from Africa and the United Kingdom found some pre-historic terracotta figurines from Northern Ghana’s Koma land. These terracotta figures depicted animals and humans and were dated from the 6th-14th Century.
The humans were thought to be ancestors. They had holes inside to put substances and were probably used for healing.
This is quite a common theme in African art, where figures of ancestors are fed with food and other substances so that the ancestors help us out in the present with our problems (like illnesses or other troubles).
These clever scholars at the University of Ghana and the University of Manchester tested the figurines for DNA and found traces of banana and pine inside the sculptures. They had to swab inside very carefully because the figures were so old.
Finding banana and pine was quite curious because these things did not grow in that area at all at the time.
Through this discovery, these archaeologists and DNA scientists realised that the people who used these figurines must have traded with North Africa, where they could get these products.
These figures must have been very important to people for them to put such special foreign substances inside.
This just shows you what science, archaeology and art can tell us about ancient cultures. It makes us wonder what other amazing discoveries are out there to find.
The magical blacksmith
Archaeologists have found evidence of very old iron works in Ancient Africa (200 BC). They noticed a curious thing. They found that these iron works were outside of the remains of the main village.
In some societies, blacksmiths were feared and kept separate from the rest of the village because their work with transforming metal was seen as a form of magic.
Blacksmiths also kept their work a secret to increase the mystery of how things were made.
Blacksmiths were seen as very powerful people in parts of West Africa for their skills in transforming materials from the ground into beautiful objects.
They made things like musical instruments, tools and weapons, jewellery and other decorations and sculptures.
If you explore iron collections in famous museums you will see that these beautiful iron objects come from all over Africa.
At the Smithsonian in Washington, they had an exhibition just of 225 iron objects that came from 19 African countries and were made by over 100 different ethnic groups.
Iron was thought to have divine powers for healing and all sorts of other magical properties.
These objects were thought to get more and more powerful with each use. When tools or other iron objects had finished one life, they were not thrown away!
They were melted down and the power from their previous use was thought to transmit into the brand-new object that the master blacksmiths had magically transformed.
African blacksmiths developed technologies to keep the furnaces just the right temperature. Africa led the way with iron age technology.
It took a lot longer for Europeans to develop these technologies. Iron age Africans developed bellows that preheated air into the furnaces to keep them between 1150 and 1200 degrees C, the perfect temperature for smelting iron.
Pretty clever stuff!
When was the first Nok sculpture discovered?
What did scholars find in the oldest paint studio in the world?
How did scholars test the figurines from Ghana?
What two substances were found in the figurines from Ghana?
How many iron objects were on display at the Smithsonian exhibition?