African art history has played a significant role in shaping the culture and history of the world. The belief that Africa is the cradle of the history of mankind is virtually unshakeable. The origins of African art history lie long before recorded history, preserved in the obscurity of time. Rock Art is centuries old, while shell beads fashioned for a necklace have been recovered in a cave in the furthest reach of the southern peninsula of South Africa that are 75 000 years old.
A study of African art history indicates the earliest sculpture forms found come from Nigeria and are dated around 500BC. However, the lack of archaeological excavations inhibits knowledge of the antiquity of African art and the sheer disposable nature of the raw materials used in the creation of art objects means that an untold wealth of pieces have disintegrated in time. Compounding this, as these objects were not coveted as aesthetic accomplishments by the indigenous communities who created them, no effort was made to preserve them. Often their value was negligible once their function was performed.
Foreign colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards and different values became omnipresent. A lot of African art was acquired for curious means by travellers, traders and missionaries in the century before and left the continent. Colonialists most often did not give indigenous art the merit and attention it deserved and thereby African art history was not preserved or documented.
There has been a huge emphasis on Central African art history for two reasons, one being that the communities who resided there were the most sedentary of the tribes in Africa and secondly, that they produced figurative sculptures that Western collectors could most easily identify with as ‘art’, as they defined it.
The basic subject is the human figure and strong formal qualities were exhibited with strong design features creating balance and harmony. These formal design qualities combined with a powerful spirituality and expressive vigour attracted early twentieth century artists to explore new dynamics in visual art and became the birthstone for modern day abstraction.
The surge in interest in collecting African art, both tribal and contemporary, has forced scholars and investors, governments and institutions to re-examine the very essence of African art. Collections that have been inhabiting deep, dark depths of museum vaults have been moved to the forefront of African art history museums, galleries and auction houses to be observed and celebrated for the beautiful and fascinating field of art that it is. European and African researchers are studying collections not only to see how they may be used to shed more light on African art history but also to help restore lost traditions and skills in the crafts of the cultures from whence they came.
Historically, some communities were non sedentary and would have carried with them as little as possible and therefore only utilitarian objects would have been transported. Because their value was based on their functionality and their spiritual attributes, should their purpose no longer be of service to the creator and his community, they would have been abandoned.
Africa must have lost uncountable pieces of art that would have been lost on the wayside of migratory existence.
The Beginnings of African art history
Round headed figure
3000 BC, Niger
Rock art is the earliest art form in Africa. We know from human evolutionary science that modern Homo Sapiens began in Africa.
It stands to reason therefore that Africa would contain both the oldest and greatest amount of rock art on this planet.
The oldest images scientifically dated are in Namibia (the Apollo 11 caves) from about 24-27,000 yrs ago, yet most experts agree that Africa’s rock art may date to more than 50,000 years ago.