Over the centuries, Ancient African Art has developed immensely. Ancient Africa is referred to as the cradle of the world according to historians. Civilization and the start of humankind started in Africa. However African art history played a key role in shaping the world’s culture. It was strongly believed that African art was present before history and most of these arts may be lost in that time. Much art history were lost in time. Dating back 20,000 years in Namibia in the Kalahari, rock paintings are the earliest form of ancient African art while others such as the shell beads for necklaces date back as far as 75,000 years. Dating back to 55 B.C, the earliest form of sculptures were from Nigeria.
Africa, a large continent with diverse countries and cultures, is a continent which art cannot be sensed as one because of its history which experienced the rise and fall of multiple empires. African art is usually refers mainly to the Sub-Saharan Africa art. Art works in the African collection disclose the diversity of sub-Saharan cultures and traditions. African visual art forms are termed to pottery, architecture, metal work and sculpture. The Northern part of Africa art is not always included in the African art because of its difference and the art of that area was an Islamic art. The Arabs influenced the North Africa art after the Islamic conquest. The Ethiopia art was also different from the Indigenous Africa art. This work of art varied from regions to regions. Ranging from sculpture which is common among the West African, masks used for ritual ceremonies trending in different regions and to metal works found in different areas. African art had an influence on European modern artists in their interest in visual abstraction rather than realism.
However, variety of materials such as metals which bronze and iron, ceramics and ivory which were used in producing art works survived over the centuries while art works produced with wood was subjected to ruins. For instance, Ancient Egyptians made gigantic structures like the pyramids which are famously known, the Sphinx, temples and Abu Simbel Pharaonic statue.
Around 1840, the colonizers who visited most Sub-Saharan countries forcefully took away most artifacts there. Till this very moment, most contemporary African art is held in countries abroad, such as France and England. African’s efforts to repossess their artifacts have remained futile.
Ancient African Art is unique for many reasons which includes materials, craftsmanship, and Subject. There are some misapprehension of what African art connote thereby reducing it to the Europeans concept. One is that in the Western art is produced for nothing but art’s sake, while in the precolonial Africa, art was functional. The creation of small figurines were popular among the Sub-saharan Africa. More sculptures and masks have been found in Africa than paintings. At Daima near Lake Chad, some small figurines made from fire clay which dates back to 5th century BCE were excavated. Those discoveries proves the early history of sculpture in sub-Saharan Africa. Though African sculptures are mostly made from woods, however other medium like copper alloys, iron, ivory, unfired clay, pottery and sometimes stone was employed in the creation of Sculpture.
The main subject in the art of Ancient Africa is the human form which is the people. Most times the art representation of the people was abstract. The ancient visual arts are figures which focused on the three dimensions of the human form, mind, body and the supernatural. Most of these figures are head-to-body ratio which have indepth meaning. Most times work of arts represent people in an unnatural way while others parts of the human body were left out and some certain features were exaggerated. The head stand out of the other proportions of the body. African’s perspective on the head emphasize that it is not only the major sense organs but an individual’s nature and destiny.
For instance West African cultures developed bronze casting for royal heads like the famous Benin Bronzes, to decorate palaces This occurred around 12th–14th centuries In the Bini town of Benin City, Edo State, as well as terracotta or metal. Terracotta pottery heads is the earliest forms of ancient African sculptures. Naturally rich clay Figures mostly known from Nigeria’s Nok culture date back to 500 B.C. to 200 A.D.
The African art serve also as an agent of religion. As mentioned earlier, African art in areas like Ethiopia depended on Europe and Christianity while the northern part of Africa relied on Islam. African art works are not meant to be displayed in a museum but they were placed in shrines , on communal altar and worn as regalia or in a masquerade. Masks which are an important concept of art in ancient Africa have animals resemblance and animal spirit are often represented by mask in religious ceremonies. African masks were not only worn during ceremonies, they were worn to accompany dance. For instance, Dogon dancers in Mali wore Kanaga. These masks are worn in funerary rites to honour dead relatives. It is also used to guide their spirits ancestor’s realm.
West African figures are used in rituals and are often adorned with materials placed on them for ceremonial offerings. The Mande-speaking peoples make pieces from wood with flat surfaces and arms and legs looking like cylinders shapes. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Central Africa’s sculpture is the heart-shaped faces that display some patterns of dots.
Finally, Ancient African art however has played a vital role in shaping the world’s culture and history. 20th centuries like Derain, Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani saw the abstraction in Africa’s art and absorbed this concept thereby helping them moved beyond naturalism and changing the status of visual arts in the world.