• Laurie Seban

Africa: Our Story

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Overview: cultural themes common in African arts: environment, gender, respect and reciprocity, ancestors, kingship/status and power materials, masking traditions and age-grade-societies, ideals of beauty, art in motion, trade and exchange, colonialism and post-colonial survivance.

Many of us think of Africa as a separate and distant place--yet according to the archaeological record, Africa is the birthplace of all of us. The earliest discovered human (a female Australopithecus aferensis skeleton nicknamed Lucy) dates back 3.2 million years, and excavations of Paleolithic sites on the continent are continuing to provide more fossils, tools, weapons and even art materials that give a glimpse into the early formation of human societies. In many ways, the continent is a macrocosm of our entire human history--the past, present, and future.

African Ethnolinguistic Groups / Environmental Regions

Africa itself is enormous, with a tremendous range of diversity. At over 12 million square miles, North America would fit into just the Sahara Desert! Its geography contains all the major biomes: arid deserts, tropical rainforest, grasslands, and coastal regions. Its people are just as diverse: over 750 million people live in Africa today, with thousands of tribal groups speaking over 1,500 different languages. The San people consist of just a few hundred people, while others like the Yoruba number over 42 million today.

Giza, Egypt c. 2600 BCE

Even though our popular conception of Africa is that of tribes, indigenous Africans have formed a vast range of societies across time. We are all familiar with the Egyptian empire, which debuted in North Africa over 7000 years ago and dominated the Mediterranean and Middle East for 2000 years. We are probably less familiar with the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, a trading partner of the Greeks whose 100 foot stela still dominate the landscape, 2000 years later. Ancient cultures continue to be discovered: when 13th century bronze and terra cotta heads were uncovered in Ife, Nigeria in 1938, Europeans were shocked by the sophisticated, sensitive naturalism of the portraiture--totally unlike conceptions of African art at the time. Nok terra cotta heads, discovered a few years later, in nearby Nok, dating to 500 BCE, are silent witnesses to an even earlier ancient kingdom. Are there more? Maybe we haven't yet excavated deep enough to discover the earliest African civilizations and societies.

left to right: Aksum, Ethiopia 500 BCE Nok, Nigeria 500 BCE Ife, Nigeria 1000 CE

A single discussion of African arts can never encompass all the history and variety of African cultures. The themes below are employed to introduce you to a small fraction of African arts, so that in visiting a museum of African arts--like the De Young in San Francisco, the Met in New York, or Quai Branly in Paris--you will be able to recognize some recurring concepts in African art and culture:

    -importance of the environment

    -gender complementarity

    -respect and reciprocity

    -reverence for ancestors

    -kingship/status and power materials

    -masking traditions and age-grade-societies

    -ideals of beauty

-art in motion

    -trade and exchange

- survivance

All these themes are not necessarily present in every African culture. But some combination of them will be, so understanding the concepts can be useful in beginning to understand a specific group. A truly thorough understanding of any culture, however, requires time, effort and expertise, so there are selected resources at the end of this reading that will help you explore further.

Keep in mind that these themes can be applied to virtually any indigenous society, and traces of them remain in our own contemporary society today. Think about examples of our ideals of beauty, the respect for elders prevalent in so many societies, or different means of giving thanks across the globe.

Note--there are a lot of new words in the names of tribes and terms used. Tribes are capitalized and if an indigenous word is being used, it is italicized.

The varied environment and the amount of resources available are reflected in the art and architecture of any society. The forested areas of West and East Africa for example, have led to spectacular wood sculpture and masking traditions. In areas where wood is not as available, items might be made from clay, textiles, metal or even grasses.

Environment can also shape the type of society. Areas with scarce natural resources, like the Kalahari in South Africa, leave few possibilities for plants and animals that can be domesticated; groups tend to be small-scale and subsit through hunting, foraging and cultivating plants. Social organization was fairly communal, with individuals playing multiple roles within the community.

Kalahari Desert Congo Forest Cameroon Grasslands

In other parts of Africa with more plentiful or dependable resources, groups coalesced in permanent settlements, or villages. Hunting was a primary form of subsistence in much of the grasslands and forested areas of Africa. In other areas, the availability of water buffalo and cattle allowed groups to settle in one place. Farmers of various crops (sorghum, millet) across Africa also settle in one place. Village societies like these tended to have some clearly defined positions, with elders/chiefs that preside over shared customs and production (like masking), in which everyone participates. Specialists like blackmiths, artists, merchants, etc. were common, as was some social stratification.

San village Dogon village Kuba village

Large-scale societies tend to occur in areas that are rich in resources, as more time can be devoted to societal organization and cultural production. And because it is human nature to protect what one has, fairly stratified societies form. The "gold coast" of West Africa, plentiful in gold deposits, is home to elaborate displays of kingship, much of it meant to reinforce status and reserved only for the elite. In West Africa, the Ashanti and Benin kingdoms numbered in the tens of thousands, with clear class distinctions and arts that reinforced status.

Environmental change is also a factor in the development of societies. Tassili, in Algeria, houses Neolithic cave paintings which show the gradual domestication of animals around 4,000 BCE and larger groups of people working together. It also shows the effects of climate change: the gradual dessication and desertification of the area has led to an entirely different environment--the Sahara Desert.

San Rock Paintings

Just as environment determined to some degree a society, our modern society is shaping today's environment. Today, global warming has contributed to the disruption of countless lifeways: across the continent, crops are no longer sustainable due to drought. In just the past few years, an unprecedented droughts resulted in the water rationing of the entire population of Cape Town. Other regions have been completely destroyed by extreme weather events--Malawi is the most recent example. Such disruptions also result in political instability in many African nations. And sadly, all of these factors have led to a growing population of climate refugees--the Brookings Institution estimates over 68 million people were displaced in 2017 alone.

Gender complementarity is clearly seen in the types of material production done by men and women, and also their respective public and private roles. Women, as child-bearers and nurturers, dominate the domestic sphere, so their works relate to food gathering, preparation, clothing, and shelter. Some, like the San ostrich vessels used to store and even cache (for months and even years) food are ingenious adaptations to the environment. Women's arts in general tend to be made of materials readily available in the environment, and worked by hand: ceramics, basketry, textiles. Some are exquisite technologies, like the tightly woven Tutsi baskets, or the raffia textiles of Kuba women. Both of these items are so labor-intensive that they are also status symbols, as only noblewomen had the time to create such work). In many cases, homes are also built and owned by women, such as the brightly painted houses of the Ndbele (made and owned by The vast variety of adornments (beaded, stitched, painted) worn by people across Africa also fit into this category.

left to right: Tutsi basket, Kuba raffia mat, Zulu beer pot, Ndeble house

In indigenous cultures across the world (and even in our own world, until recently) men tend to dominate the public sphere. They are the titular political leaders, though women usually play an equally important behind-the-scenes role. Men are also the religious specialists, presiding over ceremonies, and charged with making ritual items like masks, ancestral statues, tools and weapons. Wood, stone, bone, and metal are the primary materials used, in works that are often representative: sculpted images of people, animals, or the spirit world.

Yoruba Ose Sango dance staff Benin carved elephant tusk Fang mask

Respect and reciprocity is central to ceremony and culture. Showing respect for the spirits inherent in the natural world and reciprocating the gifts of nature ensures success in the community, in the hunt, and for the individual. Most indigenous arts are an acknowledgement of that relationship. There is an infinite variety of means to show respect and reciprocity: Igbo Mbari houses are made of earth and dedicated to the earth goddess Ala; eventually they, too return to the earth. Other items might invoke prayers in various ways. Kongo nkisi figures that are studded with iron might look frightening to our eyes, but in fact, each added element represents an invocation of the spirit that inhabits the piece, as a means of protection of the individual or community.

Igbo Mbari house                Kongo nkisi figure     

Figural sculptures are often meant to house particular spirits. Asante Akuaba are worn by pregnant women around their waist to ensure a successful birth; the round moon-like faces with arched eyebrows and straight nose represents an abstracted form of female beauty (akuaba are always female). Yoruba women wear their ibeji twins (the Yoruba have the highest twinning rate in the world). They too, embody the wish for a perfect healthy child using the Yoruba ideal of beauty: heavy lidded eyes, a wide nose, and large lips on a muscular body. If the infant or child passes away, the figures serves as a repository for its spirit. Like our own fashion magazine, there is a great deal of variety, but also some commonalities in the ideals of beauty, especially in the emphasis on large heads in proportion to the body, and muscled bodies. And of course, beautiful adornments and elaborate coiffures (hairdos) are always an important component of showing respect and reciprocity in any culture.

Asante Akua'ba figure  Yoruba Ibeji figures

Ancestors and elders are revered in many global cultures. A male-female couple 9first man/first woman) will often serve as a stand in for ancestors, as they play an important role in communication with the spirit world and protection in this world. Like the Dogon couple, they encapsulate the same local standards of beauty that one sees in other figural sculpture. The prevalence of these couples throughout Africa demonstrates the importance of ancestors.

          Zimbabwe bird Dogon ancestor figures        Kota reliquary figure     

The preservation of ancestral remains also shows that. Kota reliquary figures take many forms, but almost always are flattened metal lozenges with abstract eyes and legs, attached to a basket containing the remains of the ancestors. The reliquaries are kept in the home so that the living can protect the dead. Benin ancestral altars (see below) at the palace served a similar function, but also symbolized the power of the king as an intermediary between the living and the dead.

Kingship/status in Africa is often an extension of the reverence for ancestors. Royalty is seen as descending from the first ancestors or founders, and the sacred connection is reinforced in many accessories of power. The earliest evidence of kingship thus far are the Nok heads found in the Niger River delta (along with terracotta figures of snakes, monkeys, elephants, and rams), dating back to 500 BCE. With no writing, we don't know the meaning of those works, but there are some similarities to later art from the same area, including adornments, large eye and heads that are disproportionately large ("the eyes are windows to the soul" and the head is the home of that). The cord marking on the 13th century Ife heads, as well as the headgear are thought to be signs of kingship.

Nok head c. 500 BCE      Ife head c. 1300 CE            Benin head c. 1800  CE 


These heads seem to be the source of Benin kingdom founded around 1300 by Oranmiyan, said to be descended from the ancient kings of Ife. When Portuguese, the first Europeans to trade, with Benin, arrived, the kingdom numbered over 50,000, and they marvelled at a palace "More beautiful than Holland."The Benin palace altar housed the memorial heads of all past kings and queens, which were venerated by the current king, or bini. These heads demonstrate a remarkable quality of realism combined with important emblems of kingship. Large eyes are seen again (even today, many African kings wear a veil to protect subjects from the power of the king's gaze). Scarification (also called cicatrization) physically marked the status of royalty as well as others. Power materials like the coral bead crown and veil, the stacks of copper manila necklaces, and even the carved elephant tusk, were restricted to royal use, reinforcing sacred and political power once again.

Benin: ancestral altar with obas  palace plaque

The brass of the heads and roof finials and plaques throughout the palace were also an important status material. Made from copper and tin, the surface had a reddish sheen that was particularly prized for its association with power. Brass plaques covered the walls of the Benin palace, each one reinforcing sacred power: the oba is always in the center, much larger to reflect his power, surrounded by servants, weapons. In most African cultures, any metal, transformed from ore found in the earth into impermeable and light reflective objects, was especially prized. It was used for items of the highest value such as weapons, agricultural tools, and elite or religious items. The status of a blacksmith was usually just below that of royalty, an indication of its importance.

Belt mask of Queen Iyoba, Benin

The ivory belt mask of Queen Iyoba, also from Benin, illustrates the complexities of African art and history today. Ivory is often a prestige material associated with kingship (think of the elephant as the "king of the jungle"), and in Benin, the oba has a right to one elephant tusk from every elephant taken. The Queen Mother was one of the most important advisors to the king (always listen to your mother!!). She lived separately from the oba and communicated through messenger, but as a reminder of her wisdom, the oba wore her portrait on his belt. Each belt mask is a realistic portrait of the Queen Mother's features, but look closely at Iyoba and you will see the bearded faces of Portuguese sailors make up her hair—and in fact it was trade with Europeans that was the source of Benin wealth.

Unfortunately, Europe was also the source of Benin's eventual destruction. In 1897, British controlled the area of Benin; when they tried to unlawfully enter the Benin kingdom and were repelled, resulting in the death of a British envoy, As a result, the Benin Punitive Expedition razed the palace, appropriated the bronze heads, masks, plaques, other artworks and destroyed the power of the oba. Today, there is still a Benin oba, though he has purely spiritual power, and the items taken from the palace are scattered in museums across Europe. This is the source of a growing controversy, in terms of where these looted items belong today. In fact, the government of France sponsored a recent study, the outcome being a pledge to return thousands of items to Africa, and fund museums in Africa.

For the Asante of Ghana, kingship is expressed though the gold which is the source of wealth for Asante kings . Gold in an almost powdered form was mined along the "Gold Coast" of West Africa and a key symbol of power. Gold linguist staffs and jewelry adorn the royal court, and golden textiles like kente cloth communicate the values of the king or elite to the people.

Ashanti asantehene  finial of linguist staff                      kente cloth      

There are a variety of other media that convey power in Africa. Coral and cowrie shells associated with the power of water and water spirits, have always had enormous symbolic value. Kingship and/or wealth was later expressed with beads acquired through trade with Europe or Asia. Elaborately beaded objects, like beaded Yoruba crowns or Cameroonian stools are always emblems of prestige. 

Cameroon, Beaded Cap Kuba King (nyim) Kok Mabiintsh III c. 2000

The European replacement for shells, beads, became an important symbol of status and wealth as well. Beads, like shells, were associated with water and wealth through the European trade network. Groups like the Bamileke and Kuba created exquisitely beaded objects as a display of power. The Kuba king's regalia weighs over 150 pounds, in fact.

Figures of present and past kings convey power, too. Kuba royal figures, ndop, served as three dimensional historical documents. Commissioned to commemorate the reign of a particular king (in this case King Mishe miShyaang maMbul, from c.1760), the ndop would be accompanied by a narrative history of the king's achievements. The tablet atop his head identified him as a king, and each ruler had an individual emblem; in this case it is the drum between his kneeling legs. The downcast eyes, smooth rounded features and serene demeanor exemplify an ideal ruler.

Kuba Ndop figure                 Kuba drinking vessel                 Shona headrest 

Of course, power does have a trickle down effect; though many materials (like elephant ivory or gold) were solely the prerogative of kings, beads, metal and beautifully carved wood could also be status items for those who could afford it. A masterful Kuba drinking vessel, with smooth serene features that echo the kings ndop, above.could only have been used by someone of elite status. A headrest is a  functional object (used to elevate the head and preserve elaborate coiffures), but as a resting place for the head (and therefore the soul), headrests could be quite ornate, as the Luba example attests.

Masking traditions are seen throughout a variety of African cultures, but most closely associated with many of the small scale village chiefdoms centered around agriculture, herding, or hunting. It is in these villages that one sees masks which serve a variety of functions: to honor the spirits, maintain order, and enculturate the community. In looking at masks, one can pick out a few themes to “read.”

Many masking traditions are associated with age-grade societies—organizations that mark each life stage in a given community. In Africa, age-grade societies are common for men and women, and mark stages from adolescence, marriage, parenthood, and elderhood. At the designated age, individuals learn the rights and responsibilities that go with that particular age grade, often in seclusion. There is often a physical mark like tattooing or scarification that reflects that transition.

The Yoruba of Nigeria are the largest tribe in Africa, with hundreds of independent villages, each led by an Oni. As adolescents, men are introduced into the Poro society, while women are inducted into the Sandogo society. Yoruba boys transitioning from adolescence to adulthood are initiated into the Gelede society, and in their dance, honor the role of women in Yoruba society with dancing masks that exhibit the ideals of beauty and positive attributes a young man should look for in a future mate. The example here honors not only women, but other elements of the Yoruba world: in this case, a snake, cow and even chicken! In later life, males and females become members of the Egungun, whose dance is a mesmerizing display of whirling cloth meant to honor the ancestors at funeral rites and other ceremonies.

Yoruba: Gelede masks (first with blacksmith) Egungun dancer  

The specific age-grade societies of the Senufo and the spectacular masks that accompany each have been thoroughly documented. The young man's Kpelie exhibits ideals of female beauty along with other emblems of status; fitting as the wearers are about to embark on their own search for a female partner. The massive Kponiugo “firespitter” masks worn by adult men—the only ones strong enough to carry such weight!--are a visual representation of the power (and weight) mature men have in Senufo society. The Porpianong, massive hornbills (a type of bird) honor ancestors and represent the power and wisdom of the elders. Their large beaks point to full bellies, also an indication of the role the ancestors play in fertility of the next generation.

Senufo Poro society masks: Kpelie Kponiugo Porpianong

Age-grade or other masks might honor one specific culture hero, like the Chi Wara antelope of the Bamana tribe. A mythical antelope man (Chi wara) gave the gift of agriculture to the people, and is honored in the young men's society by paired male/female dancers wearing antelope headdresses who imitate the planting of the crops with the horns at planting and harvest ceremonies (with male/female dancers, you can also see the important role fertility plays in agriculture).

Bamana Chi Wara, Mauritanian swordfish, Bamileke Kuosi, Kuba Mwaash aMbooy

Animal transformation masks transfer the power of a particular animal to the masker, as in the Kuosi mask of the Bamileke worn by elder men, which represents the power of the elephant in a men’s society whose role is to serve a judge and protector of the community. A swordfish mask from Mauritania marks a boy's passage into adulthood with a dance in which the boys wield the "swords" of their masks like weapons.

Other masks might combine powers of multiple animals (and other entities) to transform the wearer and transfer power. The Senufo Kponiugo mask (above) combines the power of various animals (buffalo, crocodile, warthog, antelope, hornbill, chameleon) onto a single object. Woot, the mythical first king of the Kuba, is honored with the distinctive Mwaash AMbooy mask. The densely beaded surface combines the features of a man with the trunk of an elephant and the chameleon (another transformer)with parrot feathers and leopard skin. While each individual mask is different and therefore difficult to discern distinct animals, the overall power conveyed is unmistakable.

Masks and other figural sculpture exhibit specific ideals of beauty, usually women, though they are danced by men. The Sande society mask of the Mende in Sierra Leone is a notable exception. The role of women in Mende society is honored with the women themselves dancing with large helmet masks. Keep in mind that ideals of beauty vary as much as they do for us—for the Sande, beauty is in the almost closed eyes, high forehead with triangular face, elaborate hairdo, and neck rolls. The neck rolls, common in many cultures, represent the first mask emerging from the water. Alternatively, they could represent the abundance of food (and fat) that comes with an abundance of resources and luck—the same reason the Hotei / Laughing Buddha, Ganesh, or Santa Claus also have big stomachs!

Mende: Women’s Sande Society mask, dancer Social status or standing is also expressed in the scarification (cicatrization) marks seen on many African peoples and art. Like tattoos, these serve to mark social grades: from adolescence to adulthood, marriageable age, childbirth, etc. As such, they are also signs of beauty, and you can see them on many of the works already discussed. The scarification on her forehead marks the woman's entrance into the Sande society associated with fertility and womanhood; as such, the practice of female genital mutiliation was commonly practiced. This is one age-grade practice that is (fortunately!) being phased out, and a reminder of the fact that traditions are in a constant process of evolution.

Keep in mind the mask was often just a small part of the whole: the masker would be covered with cloth or raffia, the mask sometimes covered by libations, and the dance itself accompanied by music and stories-what Africanist Robert Farris Thompson referred to as “art in motion.” Just look at the difference between a Sande mask in a museum setting compared to a Sande Society dance, as women dance in their helmet , raffia covering their bodies. Sometimes, as in the Yoruba Egungun mask (the society of elders), there is not even a mask; only strips of cloth that whirl with the movement of the dancers and music. The value of a great deal of African art production lies in its use—the multi-media performance and interaction between the object and the people. An object on a wall, pedestal, or screen, stripped of its trappings and frozen in place, gives only a small glimpse of its power and meaning.

Trade/exchange across the continent has been instrumental to the formation of culture. Pyramids and sphinxes at Meroe show the influence of Egyptian culture. Aksum was founded as a Christian kingdom in the 5th century. The ancient cities of Timbuktu in the north of Africa and Zimbabwe on the Indian Ocean were centers of well established established trade routes over a thousand years ago. The arrival and spread of Islam in the 8-9th century defined North and East Africa to a large extent, as religious beliefs transformed the culture and introduced new arts, like the iconic mosque at Djenne, in Mali. Christianity became a dominant force in Ethiopia as early as the 1st century CE, and in the Congo by the 17th century.

The materials of transcontinental trade have also shaped many cultures and usually represent prestige: the Chinese silk brought in by Islamic traders is the foundation of the iconic Asante kente cloth. Beads and copper introduced by Europeans became a status material that enlivens a whole range of objects today. Europeans themselves even show up in the hairdo of Benin Queen Iyoba!

The slave trade is of course the most tragic result of trade and exchange, and its effects are still being felt--and seen--today.1619 marks beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the forced movement (and genocide) of an estimated 10 million Africans. Yet the history of diasporic arts shows how much they retained, and the arrival of African peoples into the Americas transformed the cultures they touched. The Santeria traditions of the Caribbean are based on Yoruba traditions. The textile traditions of Akan people travelled across the Atlantic, as slaves took scraps of fabric and turned them into story quilts. The Fon quilt below was made for the l, depicting King Glele as a lion devouring his enemies. Harriet Powers, a former slave, used the same process in her Biblical story quilts.

Fon textile from Dahomey Harriet Powers quilt, America 1886

As the slave trade waned in the 19th century, European colonization of Africa stripped the continent of its resources during the process of European colonization. Over 10 million Congolese died under Prince Leopold of Belgium, who held entire families hostage to encourage work production of men in the rubber plantations. To save bullets, his soldiers cut off the hand of any reluctant men. In the photos below, note that Leopold and the colonial overseers are wearing pith helmets. In African arts, the pith helmet becomes the symbol of the European colonist.

European artists mined African and other indigenous arts for inspiration in the development of modernism. Ironic that the cultural appropriation of African culture took place at the same time the continent and people were being ravaged by colonialism--there is no hint of the violence done to Africans in Pablo Picasso's seminal Desmoiselles d'Avignon, for example, yet the African masks the artist used were chosen for their seeming "barbaric and shocking" qualities. Some, like Picasso or Henri Matisse borrowed the geometric planes in their process of abstraction. Artists like Paul Klee used them as source of inspiration in a return to simplicity, while others like Emil Nolde took them on in their escape from modernity.

Survivance--the creative adaptations and evolutions in the face of such massive changes-- is always present in indigenous culture. Since then African and other indigenous arts have been appropriated by European/American (North Atlantic) artists in their own quest for originality and creativity in the modern world. "Traditional" arts continue to show superb craftsmanship, whether sculpted, woven or beaded. But new forms can surprise, delight, and continue tradition as well: mass manufactured "kewpie" dolls might serve as Ibjei twins or

Kane Kwei (Gan), Cocoa Pod Coffin 1970 Yoruba Ibeji/kewpie dolls

In Ghana, Seth Kane Kwei adapted the Gan tradition of carved wooden coffins to a growing urban African audience. Today, his coffins carved into cocoa pods (like the coffin below) and other foods, chickens planes, and even hightops are used in Nigeria and displayed in museums across the world.

Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare's Girl on Globe (2011) is an apt illustration of African arts today. An anonymous "Lucy" skips across a globe, her colonial style dress made from what looks like African print. That cloth, synonymous with West African culture, is actually a European import based on Indonesian textiles (also a European colony). Shonibare dresses his headless mannequins in that cloth as a symbol of the complex interaction between colonizer and colonized--and globalization. Our Lucy, descendant of the first Lucy, not 2.5 million years old, balances on a heat map which shows the warming global climate. Yet still she dances.

Yinka Shonibare's Girl on Globe (2011)

Additional resources:

The Smart History site features a selection of essays, organized by area and theme, including video tours:


The Met Museum has an extensive series of essays written by curators on Africa which can be searched by region or theme:


University of Iowa has an excellent series of topic essays on specific African arts:


African Arts is a quarterly journal with articles on prehistoric to contemporary African arts:


The New York Times sponsored 1619 project has transformed our understanding of slavery, American history and race relations. If you are interested in reading further, it is linked here:


Nka, the Journal of Contemporary African art:


For more on how the climate crisis impacts indigenous cultures:


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