Classical Art of sub-Saharan Africa


In Africa, particularly in the areas of the Niger and Congo river basins, a number of artistic cultures have been identified between the 12th and 16th centuries, adding to older, existing ones. All expressed themselves in original
ways and are particularly known for their classically perfect sculptures.


For a long time, Europeans believed the culture of sub-Saharan Africa to be static. It was not considered possible that the various extant styles of sub-Saharan African art could be the result of an evolutionary process based on individual creative talent and the spread of cultural information. The precarious conditions of conservation, the climatic factor, and the perishability of materials prevented the survival of many of the works that could have testified to this stylistic evolution. The majority of works in wood that have been preserved do not date from before the 19th century.



Wood and metal Kola nut container, idom of Benin, Nigeria, late 19th tury. Institute of Arts, Detroit.

The Ancient Civilizations of West Africa

Historians and archaeologists are now attempting to reconstruct the past of Africa's sub-Saharan regions, piecing together the scant references that constitute the history of African art. Information is sparse: the geographical distribution of finds from the ancient kingdoms lacks continuity, and the map of Africa shows a continent still largely unexplored archaeologically. Research tends to focus on what seems to be the richest region for ancient artefacts, the Niger river basin, which crosses the modern republic of Mali, part of the republic of Niger, and the federal state of Nigeria, ending in the delta that flows into the Atlantic Ocean.


Terracotta head from the Hafin Dinya site near Nok village, Nigeria, 500bc-ad200. National Museum, Lagos. This sculpture was recovered in 1954. buried under a thick layer of alluvial deposits.
Broken at the base of the neck, it may originally have been part of an impressive, full-sized figure.

Terracotta figurine, Sao culture, Lake Chad, C.500BC. Musee de I'Homme, Paris. This piece is an ancient example of Sao culture, which appeared in about 500bc and lasted until ad1600.


Sao Pottery

The so-called Sao culture (the name was apparently a derogatory expression used by Islamic invaders to denote the native "pagans") appeared in the vicinity of Lake Chad between 500bc and ad 1600. The Sao buried their dead in huge jars, set vertically in the earth and sealed with an inverted bowl, the base of which protruded above ground level. Various bronze ornaments and much pottery ware, including figures of ancestors and human figures with animal faces, have been discovered in connection with these graves. The human images have been identified as masked people, but were possibly representations of mythical heroes. Sao culture seems to have reached its peak between the 10th and the 16th centuries, a period to which more than 15,000 pottery finds, some still to be fully interpreted, can be dated.



To begin the so-called lost-wax technique, a wax model is made of the object to be cast, and this is then covered with clay. When it is put in the fire, the clay casing bakes and the melted wax runs out through small channels. Molten metal is then poured into the clay mould through the same channels, filling the space left by the wax. Once the metal has cooled, the clay casing is broken open and the sculpture removed. As the beautifully sculpted bronze head shown below illustrates, this refined technique produces finely-detailed works of great craftsmanship — usually associated with much later metalwork. The technical procedures and items of equipment used to craft metal and clay were probably the independent invention of an already existing alloying and casting technology. Until the early 16th century, Benin sculptors used predominantly "gun-metal" - an alloy of copper, tin, and zinc -suggesting both local and trans-Saharan sources of raw material. From the 16th century onwards, brass was used, obtained via trade with Europeans, who at the time were travelling down the West African coast.

Bronze head, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 23 cm (9 in) high, early 16th century.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.



Cultures of the Lower Niger Basin

The most ancient and important tradition of African plastic art outside the Nile Valley originated in the regions that correspond to present-day Nigeria. More information exists on the artistic past of Nigeria than any other part of the African continent. What emerges is an artistic development spanning 2,500 years and dating from at least the middle of the first millennium bc. Although there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of this period, it is still possible to date some of the fundamental phases that help to determine the history of Nigerian art. The earliest of these phases is the Nok culture, dating from 500bc to AD200; there is later the style of the Ife kingdom, reaching its peak between ad1200 and 1400; and the style of the Benin kingdom from 1400 to 1900. There is documentation, too, of independent artistic development in the styles of the Igbo-Ukwu (ninth to tenth century) and the Owo (15th century). Examination of common stylistic elements suggests that some of the artistic forms that developed in Nigeria were descended from the Nok culture or, at least, from an artistic tradition of which the Nok is the only known manifestation. No archaeological finds have yet been attributable to the millennium separating the Nok and the Ife cultures. Ife art shows a gradual evolution from the rigid naturalistic style of the classical period to increasingly stylized forms that originated two major currents: the art of Benin, extending until the present, and the various modern styles of Yoruba art.



Copper and zinc head of an Oni (king), kingdom of Ife, Nigeria, 31 cm (12 in) high, 12th-15th century. Museum of Ife Antiquities. Ife

Nok Art

The Nok culture takes its name from a mining village situated on the high central plain of Nigeria, where the most ancient Nigerian sculptures known to date were excavated in about 1950. These small pottery sculptures, or fragments of other almost life-size sculptures, consist of both human and animal figures. In the stylized human figures, the head is represented geometrically as a cylinder, cone, or sphere, often decorated with an elaborate hairstyle. The nostrils, pupils, mouth, and ears are for the most part indicated by a groove, while the lines that describe the facial features - particularly those depicting the eyes -are cleanly and precisely-carved; the stylized mouth and beard often project from the rest of the face. To produce such large, nearly life-size figures in potter)' must have required particular skill, and in common with all sub-Saharan African pottery, open fires instead of kilns were used for firing the items. The Nok culture flourished from 500bc to ad200, and it is within this period that we find the earliest evidence for a tradition of pottery sculpture in West Africa. The stylistic differences found within the Nok region mean that we cannot be sure that we are dealing with a single artistic-population, and the evidence is not sufficient to conclude that the Nok culture is directly ancestral to other, later Nigerian forms.

Terracotta head, Nok culture, Nigeria, 36 cm (14 in) high, c.500bc.
National Museum, Lagos.




Bronze ceremonial vase, Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria, 32.3 cm (12.5 in) high, ninth to tenth century. National Museum, Lagos.

Ife Art

Ife art, which flourished between the 12th and 16th centuries, was discovered in 1910 by the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, at a time when Nok art was still unknown. It baffled Western critics, who resorted to citing Egyptian or Greek influences to explain this gracefully naturalistic art form that was quite unlike any of the examples so far discovered on the African continent. Subsequent finds at Ife revealed some decidedly African features, such as the accentuation of the size of the head in relation to the rest of the body, and demonstrated how far removed Ife naturalism was from the classic European tradition. For centuries, Ife was an important city-state of the Yoruba. Its importance was due in part to the creation myth of the Yoruba, which tells how the supreme god Olodumare is supposed to have sent 16 minor divinities to create the world and found the various Yoruba kingdoms. One of these lesser deities was Oduduwa, founder and first king (Oni) of Ife. Although it is impossible to date the beginning of Ife artistic development, it was clearly established prior to ad1200 and was producing bronze objects for the kingdom of Benin by the end of the 15th century. It can, therefore, safely be assumed that Ife art reached its apogee between these two dates. The Ife style is visible in one of the nine copper-alloy sculptures found in the village of Tada and on the small island of Jebba along the Niger river; the local Islamic population worshipped these statues in the conviction that they had been brought there by Tsoede, the mythical hero who founded the Nupe royal dynasty. In 1969, the sculptures were transferred to the National Museum, Lagos. The true origin of the "Tsoede bronzes" remains a mystery. They appear to be derived from at least two different stylistic centres - Ife and Owo, for example. It is feasible, however, that they may come from another important centre of production that has not yet been identified. Examination of the alloy (which is mainly copper with the addition of tin) leads to the conclusion that these are works that were made before any contact with any European culture.

Brass statue of an oni (king), kingdom of Ife, Nigeria, 47 cm (18 in) high, 12th- 15th century. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos/

Pottery head of a woman, kingdom of Ife, Nigeria, 12.5 cm (5 in) high, 12th-15th century. National Museum, Lagos.

Copper mask of the Oni Obalufon, kingdom
of ife, Nigeria, 33 cm (13 in) high,
12th- 15th century, Nationai Commission
for Museums and Monuments, Lagos.


Bronze ornamental plaque, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 45 cm (17 in) high, c. mid-17th century.
Berggruen Collection, Geneva.



Bronze ceremonial vase, Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria, 32.3 cm (12.5 in) high, ninth to tenth century. National Museum, Lagos.


Igbo-Ukwu is a small village in southeastern Nigeria, in the region now inhabited by the Igbo people. Excavations here have brought to light a number of bronze objects, the first of which were unearthed accidentally during the course of digging work to install an underground tank. The bronzes found fall broadly into three categories: a repository of ceremonial objects: articles found in a burial chamber of a high-ranking member of society; and items discovered in a well, including a splendidly decorated vase with ceremonial insignia. All of the objects found, made of an alloy of copper, tin, and lead, showed complete mastery of the lost-wax casting technique. A characteristic element of the Igbo-Ukwu style (ninth to tenth century) is the detailed and delicate surface decoration of objects, featuring tiny figures of insects and small animals, and the addition of fine wires arranged to emphasize the shape of the piece. The vase illustrated is enveloped in a stylized woven net, possibly inspired by the type of net that vxould have been used for carrying containers. This is a style unique to the African continent, and nothing is known of its provenance or subsequent development. Although there is no similar style in the same area today, scholars maintain that the descendants of the ancient culture of Igbo-Ukwu are the Igbo people who still live in the region.




Copper seated figure in the Ife style, Tada. Nigeria, 53.7 cm (20 in) high, c. 12th-14th century. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos.


One of the most mysterious works of African art, this seated figure matches the Ife style but was found together with the so-called Tsoede bronzes in the village of Tada, on the banks of the Niger. It is distinguished from all other Ife sculptures by its complex asymmetrical position, virtually unique in African sculpture, which generally favours a frontal or symmetrical position. The sculpture is also unusual for the proportions of the head and other body parts, which resemble that of a real human body. In other figures from Ife, the head measures about one-quarter of the total height and the legs are markedly smaller.



Bronze statue of a warrior on horseback, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, 47cm (18 in) high, mid-16th century. Institute of Arts, Detroit.

The Kingdom of Benin

Oral tradition relates that when each king (Oba) of Benin died, his head was dispatched to Ife for burial, and a brass head was sent from Ife to be placed on the altar of his ancestors. Towards the end of the 14th century, however, the Oba of Benin requested the Oni of Ife to send a foundry worker to teach his people how to produce their own commemorative heads of the sovereign. In reality, the oldest bronze heads of Benin are somewhat different from those of Ife. This is probably explained by the fact that when the technique of casting was introduced, the Benin style was already mature. Benin art continued to evolve until 1897, when British soldiers ransacked and destroyed the Nigerian city. A treasury of brass and ivory objects was recovered from the palace before it caught fire, and this found its way to England, where the treasures were later dispersed among various museums in the West. Benin art is conventionally subdivided into three stylistic phases. The early period is prior to the changes in Benin art that resulted from European trading in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and the middle period spans the 16th and 17th centuries. Together, these two periods include the works that Europeans regard as being of greatest aesthetic value. In the late period, which dates from the 18th century to the British conquest, there was an increase in the size of the objects produced, and in the standardization of style.

Rounded bronze vase with decorative handles, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria,
22.5 cm (9 in) high, mid-17th century. National Museum, Lagos.
The striking decorative figures have been finely created in bas-relief.




Court Art

The art of Benin was the art of the royal court. Artists in Benin City were organized into guilds, such as those for brass smiths or wood sculptors. The members lived and worked within particular areas of the city. Their artistic output was tightly controlled by the king (Oba), and the objects they produced, whether brass castings for royal shrines or other artifacts for the palace, were solely for the use of the Oba, who was seen as a divine figure. The courtyard verandahs of the royal palace of Benin were built of mud-brick and wood, and were supported by massive wooden pillars. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these were decorated with rectangular cast brass plaques commemorating battles and documenting court ceremonies. This kind of documentation is more common in Africa than is usually recognized. On some of these plaques, there is an attempt to imitate Western-type perspective, possibly copied from conventional rectangular book illustrations.


Bronze statue of a warrior, possibly Owo style, Nigeria, 115 cm (44 in) high, 14th-15th century. National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos.


Owo (Nigeria) was another of the many city-states of the Yoruba people. Geographically situated between Benin and Ife, Owo seems to have played a transitional cultural role between these two civilizations. Objects found in Owo, which probably date from the 15th century", display clear affinities with the late art of Ife and that of Benin. Stylistic comparisons suggest that the technique of bronze casting must have travelled from Ife to Benin by way of Owo. The woman's head shown below illustrates how the Owo artists could use terracotta to produce work as fine as the metal objects more usually associated with them.

Terracotta head of a woman, Owo culture, Nigeria, 17.4 cm (7 in) high, 15th century.
National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Lagos.




Leopard, kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, ivory with copper inlay, 47 cm (18 in) high, late 19th century. Property of Her Majesty the Queen, British Museum, London. The figure of the leopard is recognized as one of the symbolic representations of the Oba, or king.

Ivory was used in Benin for much of the king's ceremonial apparel, including bracelets and even the handles of fly swatters. Heavily decorated elephant tusks, up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) long, were fixed to the bronze heads that were kept on the altar of the royal ancestors. Salt cellars, spoons, trumpets, and other objects were commissioned by the Portuguese in coastal Sierra Leone, Benin City, and the kingdom of Kongo. Indeed, the earliest African art objects documented by a European collector were the Kongo trumpets, or hunting horns, dating from 1560. in the inventor}' of the household of Cosimo the Great, first grand duke of Tuscany. Closely resembling the horn shown below, these may have been a gift to the Medici popes, or may have been brought into the family by the Grand duchess Eleanor of Toledo.

Ivory hunting horn, kingdom of Kongo, Kongo-Portuguese style. Angola, 63 cm (24 in) high, 14th-17th century.
Museo Preistorico ed Etnografico Lulgi Pigorini, Home.


Terracotta seated figure, culture of the inner Niger Delta, Segou style, Mall, 44.3 cm (17 in) high, 12th-16th century.
Musee Barbler-Mueller, Geneva.

Cultures of the Inner Niger Delta

The region of Mali, situated at the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers, is known as the inner Niger Delta. It is dominated by a vast alluvial plain crossed by a network of waterways, above which rise strips of land that are spared during times of flooding. This land has been populated for many centuries and signs of human settlement and ironworking date from as early as the second century bc. Today, traces are emerging of some of the many riverine cultures that constituted the ancient empires of Ghana and Mali. Since 1978, many hundreds of sites have been uncovered, and a wealth of pottery sculptures dating from between the 12th and 16th century have been excavated from them. Ranging in height from 30 to 60 centimetres (11 to 23 inches), these items include human or animal figurines moulded in clay and decorated with rough engravings. Variations in type are attributed to diverse styles in the centres of production, for example Bankoni/Segou and Djenne. The Djenne style is characterized by markedly elongated heads, with huge eyes, heavy eyebrows, and a mouth form that juts out powerfully from the rest of the face. Hair, drapes, ornaments, and scars are roughly incised or stamped, producing the effect of a successful blend of modelling and carving.

Terracotta figure of a warrior,
Djenne style, culture of the inner Niger Delta, Mali, 38.1 cm (14 in) high, I3th-14th century.
Institute of Arts, Detroit.


This figure forms part of a group of about 800 soft stone sculptures found in woodland near the village of Esie. Nigeria. They include male and female figures, mostly seated, with tall, elaborate hairstyles and necklaces. The ancestors of Esie's present-day inhabitants are said to have found the sculptures already in situ when they arrived in the area at the end of the 19th century. The origin of the figures is explained by a legend about a group of foreign visitors turned into stone.

Stone figure from the village of Esie. Nigeria, 70 cm (27 in) high, pre-1850. National Museum, Esie.



Afro-Portuguese Ivories

Among the first African objects to reach Europe were fine ivory carvings imported by Dutch and Portuguese merchants during the Renaissance. They are commonly referred to as Afro-Portuguese ivories because they are thought to have been commissioned by the Portuguese from native African artists. In fact, they are recognizably African, but embellished by certain motifs derived from European iconography: hunting scenes, Portuguese heraldic subjects, and Latin inscriptions. It seems that African craftsmen created objects for their earliest Portuguese customers that had originally been made for their own use, modifying the forms and ornamentation to suit the tastes of their clients. Three styles of Afro-Portuguese ivories have been identified, attributable to three distinct areas of production. The oldest ivories are in the Sapi-Portuguese style, from Sierra Leone between the late 15th century and early 16th century-. They were made by artists erf the Sapi (Portuguese Capes) population, at the behest of the first Portuguese merchants. Characteristic of the style is the representation of the human head, which resembles that of certain ancient stone sculptures found in Sierra Leone - a vestige of a forgotten local culture. Another typical feature is the gracefulness of the relief decoration, which leaves much of the surface free. It appears that from the mid-l6th century. Afro-Portuguese ivories no longer came from Sierra Leone but from the kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria) and were made there by local artists. This is the so-called Benin-Portuguese style. The ivories in the Kongo-Portuguese style were made by artists of the ancient kingdom of Kongo (in the north of modern Angola). The style is recognizable in only a very few objects, almost exclusively hunting horns.


Ivory salt-cellar, kingdom of Benin. Bini-Portuguese style, Nigeria, 19.2 cm (7.5 in) high, first half of the sixth century. Ethnic Museum, Ambres. The skill of the local craftworkers was recognized by the Portuguese.

Ivory salt-cellar, Sapi-Portuguese style, Sierra Leone,
43 cm (16 in) high, late 15th-early 16th century.
Museo Preistohco ed Etnografico Luigi Pigorini, Rome.


Ivory trumpet or hunting horn, Sapi-Portuguese style, Sierra Leone, 63.5 cm (24 in) high, late 15th-early 16th century.
Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection of African Art, Los Angeles.

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