Major Time or Stylistic Periods
8000-500 BCE Sahara Rock Art
500-200 BCE Nok
200 BCE-Present Djenne
600-1100 BCE Ghana Empire
Mid-Seventeenth Century Islam Introduced
800 CE-Present Ife
9th-10th Century Igbo Ukwu
1000-1500 CE Great Zimbabwe
1170 CE-Present Benin
1250-1450 CE Mali Empire
1465-1591 CE Songhay Kingdom
Important Historical Events
2300 BCE Egyptian envoy, Harkhuf, lands in Nubia (Egyptian relations with the rest
of the African continent continued through the Hellenistic era and beyond).
1000-300 BCE Phoenicians and Greeks founded dozens of settlements along the
Mediterranean coast of North Africa to extend trade routes across the Sahara to the
peoples of Lake Chad and the bend of the Niger River (when the Romans took
control of North Africa, they continued this lucrative trans-Saharan trade).
600-700 CE Expanding empire of Islam swept across North Africa, and thereafter
Islamic merchants were regular visitors to sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic scholars
chronicled the great West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. West African
gold financed the flowering of Islamic culture.
East Africa had been drawn into the maritime trade that ringed the Indian Ocean,
and extended to Indonesia and the South China Sea. Arab, Indian, and Persian
ships plied the coastline. Swahili evolved from centuries of contact between
Arabic-speaking merchants and Bantu-speaking Africans. Great port cities such
as Kilwa, Mombasa, and Mogadishu arose.
1400 CE Europeans ventured by ship into the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast
of Africa. They rediscovered the continent firsthand.
The mountains of the central Sahara (primarily in
the Tassili-n-Ajjer range of southern present-day
Algeria) contain images that span a period of
thousands of years. They record not only the
artistic and cultural development of the peoples
who lived in the region, but also the
transformation of the Sahara from a fertile
grassland to the vast desert we know today.
The earliest images of Saharan rock art are
thought to date from at least 8000 BCE, during
the transition into a geological period known as
the Makalian Wet Phase. At that time, the
Sahara was a grassy plain, vivid images of
hippopotamus, elephant, giraffe, antelope, and
other animals incised on rock surfaces attest to
the abundant wildlife that roamed the region.
Cattle Being Tended
Rock Wall Painting
Algeria (5000-2000 BCE)
Saharan Rock Art
By 4000 BCE, the climate had become more arid, and hunting had given way to
herding as the primary life-sustaining activity of the Sahara’s inhabitants. Among
the most beautiful and complex examples of Saharan rock art created in this
period are scenes of sheep, goats, cattle, and of the daily lives of the people
who tended them.
By 2500-2000 BCE the Sahara was drying and the great game had
disappeared, but other animals were introduced that appear in rock art. The
horse was brought from Egypt by about 1500 BCE and is seen regularly in rock
art over the ensuing millennia.
Around 600 BCE the camel was introduced into the region from the east, and
images of camels were painted on and incised into the rock. The drying of the
Sahara coincided with the rise of Egyptian civilization along the Nile Valley to the
east. Similarities can be noted between Egyptian and Saharan motifs, among
them images of rams with disks between their horns. These similarities have
been interpreted as evidence of Egyptian influence on the less-developed
regions of the Sahara. It is just as plausible, however, that the influence flowed
the other way, carried by people who had migrated into the Nile Valley when the
grasslands of the Sahara disappeared.
Saharan Rock Art
Nigeria (500 BCE-200 CE)
Some of the earliest evidence of iron technology in sub-Saharan Africa
comes from the Nok culture, which arose in the western Sudan (present-day
Nigeria) as early as 500 BCE.
Nok people were farmers who grew grain and oil-bearing seeds, but they
were also smelters with the technology for refining ore. Slag and the remains
of furnaces have been discovered, along with clay nozzles from the bellows
used to fan the fires.
The Nok people created the earliest known sculpture of sub-Saharan Africa,
producing accomplished terra-cotta figures of human and animal subjects
between 500 BCE-200 CE.
Nok sculpture was discovered in modern times by tin miners digging in
alluvial deposits on the Jos plateau north of the confluence of the Niger and
Benue rivers. Presumably, floods from centuries past had removed the
sculptures from their original contexts, dragged and rolled them along, and
then deposited them, scratched and broken, often leaving only the heads
from what must have been complete human figures.
Characteristics of Nok Sculpture
The triangular or D-shaped eyes (also appear
on sculpture of animals).
Holes in the pupils, nostrils, and mouth allowed
air to pass freely as the figure was fired.
Each of the large buns of its elaborate hairstyle
is pierced with a hole that may have held
Other Nok figures were created displaying
beaded necklaces, armlets, bracelets, anklets,
and other prestige ornaments.
Nok sculpture may represent ordinary people
dressed for special occasions, or it may portray
people of high status, thus reflecting social
stratification in this early farming culture.
Nok is evidence of considerable technical
accomplishment, which as led scholars to
speculate that Nok culture was built on the
achievements of an earlier culture still to be
Nigeria (500 BCE-200
Reconstruction of a Burial Chamber
Painting by Caroline Sassoon
The earliest known evidence for copper alloy or bronze casting in sub-Saharan Africa
is found at Igbo-Ukwu in eastern Nigeria. This evidence dates to the 9th and 10th
Igbo-Ukwu is also the earliest known site containing an elite burial and shrine
complex yet found in sub-Saharan Africa. Three distinct archaeological sites have
been excavated at Igbo-Ukwu—one containing a burial chamber, another resembling
a shrine or storehouse containing ceremonial objects, and the third an ancient pit
containing ceremonial and prestige objects.
The burial chamber contained an individual dressed in elaborate regalia, placed in a
seated position, and surrounded by emblems of his power and authority. These
included three ivory tusks, thousands of imported beads that originally formed part of
an elaborate necklace, other adornments, and a cast bronze representation of a
leopard skull. Elephants and leopards are still symbols of temporal and spiritual
leadership in Africa today.
Ethnographic research suggests that the burial site is that of an important Nri king or
ritual leader called an eze.
Characteristics of Igbo-Ukwu
The second excavation uncovered a shrine
or storehouse complex containing
ceremonial and prestige objects. These
copper alloy castings were made by the
lost-wax technique in the form of
elaborately decorated small bowls, fly-
whisk handles, altar stands, staff finials,
Igbo-Ukwu’s unique style consists of the
representation in bronze of natural objects
such as gourd bowls and snail shells
whose entire outer surface is covered with
elaborate raised and banded decorations.
These decorations include linear, spiral,
circular, and granular designs, sometimes
with the addition of small animals or
insects such as snakes, frogs, crickets, or
flies applied to the decorated surface.
Some castings have brightly colored
Roped Pot on a Stand
Igbo-Ukwu (9th & 10th century CE)
Cast in several parts, assembled using
sophisticated metalworking techniques
Bronze (Leaded brass) bust of Ife ruler
900-500 (1100-1500 A.D)
Mustache and beard or beaded veil may
have been attached to the holes around
the mouth, chin and jaw.
The naturalistic works of sculpture created
by the artists of the city of Ife, which arose
in the southwestern forested part of
Nigeria about 800 CE, are among the
most remarkable in art history.
Ife was, and remains, the sacred city of
the Yoruba people. A tradition of
naturalistic sculpture began there about
1050 CE and flourished for some four
centuries. Although the ancestral line of
the current Ife king, or oni, continues
unbroken, the knowledge of how these
works were used has been lost.
When archaeologists showed the ancient
sculpture to members of the contemporary
oni’s court, however, they recognized
symbols of kinship that been worn within
living memory, indicating that the figures
•Modeling of the flesh is remarkably sensitive,
especially around the nose and mouth.
•Lips are full and delicate, eyes are similar in
shape to those of modern Yoruba.
•Face is covered with thin, parallel scarification
•Head cast of zinc brass using lost-wax method.
Characteristics of Ife
Holes along the scalp apparently
permitted a crown or perhaps a beaded
veil to be attached. Large holes around
the base of the neck may have allowed
the head itself to be attached to a wooden
mannequin for display during memorial
services for a deceased oni.
The artists of ancient Ife also produced
heads in terra-cotta. They were probably
placed in shrines devoted to the memory
of each dead king.
Scholars continue to debate whether the
Ife heads are true portraits. Their realism
gives an impression that they could be.
The heads, however, all seem to
represent men of the same age and
embody a similar concept of physical
perfection, suggesting that they are
Child of Obatala (creation divinity). The
sculpture probably depicts a ritual
specialist indicated by the bead on his
forehead and the skull pendant.
Memorial Head of an Oba
Benin, Early Period
16th Century CE
Ife was probably the artistic parent of the great city-state of Benin, which
arose some 150 miles to the southeast. According to oral histories, the
earliest kings of Benin belonged to the Ogiso, or Skyking, dynasty. After a
long period of misrule, however, the people of Benin asked the oni of Ife for a
new ruler. The oni sent Prince Oranmiyan, who founded a new dynasty in
1170 CE. Some two centuries later, the fourth king of Benin decided to start
a tradition of memorial sculpture like that of Ife, and he sent to Ife for a
master metal caster named Iguegha.
Benin came into contact with Portugal in the late 15th century CE. The two
kingdoms developed cordial relations in 1485, and carried on an active
trade, at first in ivory and forest products, but eventually in slaves. Benin
flourished until 1897, when, in reprisal for the massacre of a party of trade
negotiators, British troops sacked and burned the royal palace, sending the
oba into an exile from which he did not return until 1914.
The British invaders discovered shrines to deceased obas covered with
brass heads, bells, and figures. They also found wooden rattles and
enormous ivory tusks carved with images of kings, court attendants, and 16th
century Portuguese soldiers.
The British appropriated the treasure as war booty making no effort to note
which head came from which shrine, thus destroying evidence that would
have helped establish the relative age of the heads and determine a
chronology for the evolution of Benin style.
The Benin heads, together with other objects, were originally placed on a
semicircular platform and surmounted by large elephant tusks, another
symbol of power. All of the heads include representations of coral-bead
necklaces and headdresses, which still form part of the royal costume. Benin
brass heads range from small, thinly cast, and naturalistic to large, thickly
cast, and highly stylized. Many scholars have concluded that the smallest,
most naturalistic heads with only a few stands of beads around the neck
were created during an ‘Early Period’ (1400-1550 CE), when Benin artists
were still heavily influenced by Ife.
Heads grew heavier, increasingly stylized, and the strands of
beads increased in number until they concealed the chin
during the ‘Middle Period’ (1550-1700 CE).
Heads from the ensuing ‘Late Period’ (1700-1897) are very
large and heavy, with angular, stylized features and an
elaborate beaded crown. During the ‘Late Period’, the
necklaces form a tall, cylindrical mass. In addition, broad,
horizontal flanges, or projecting edges, bearing small images
cast in low relief ring the base of the Late Period heads. The
increase in size and weight of Benin memorial heads over
time may reflect the growing power and wealth flowing in the
oba from Benin’s expanding trade with Europe.
At Benin, the head is the symbolic center of a person’s
intelligence, wisdom, and ability to succeed in this world or to
communicate with spiritual forces in the ancestral world. All of
the memorial heads include representations of coral-beaded
caps and royal costume.
The art of Benin is a royal art, for only the oba could
commission works in brass. Artisans who served the court
were organized into guilds and lived in a separate quarter of
the city. Obas also commissioned important works in Ivory.
Representing iyoba (Queen Mother)
Ivory, Iron, Copper
Examples of Benin Art
Middle Period Late Period
Plaque: Warrior Chief Flanked
by Warriors and Attendants
Middle Period (1550-1650 CE)
Brass, 14 ¼” x 15 ½“
Hundreds of brass plaques once decorated the
walls and pillars of the royal palace of the
kingdom of Benin. Around 900 of these plaques
were found located in a storehouse by the
British during the 1897 Punitive Expedition.
They illustrate a variety of subjects including
ceremonial scenes at court, showing the oba,
other court functionaries, and Portuguese
Modeled in relief, the plaques depict one or
more figures, with precise details of costume
and regalia. Some figures are modeled in such
high relief that they appear almost freestanding
as they emerge from a textured surface
background that often includes foliate patterning
representing the leaves employed in certain
This particular plaque features a warrior chief
in ceremonial attire. His rank is indicated by
a necklace of leopard’s teeth, and coral-
decorated cap and collar. He also wears an
elaborately decorated skirt with a leopard
mask on his hip. The chief is depicted
holding a spear in one hand and an eben
sword held above his head in the other hand.
The warrior chief is flanked by two warriors
holding shields and spears, and two smaller
figures representing court attendants. One
attendant is depicted playing a side-blown
horn that announces the warrior chief’s
presence, while the other attendant carries a
ceremonial box for conveying gifts. The
scene recounts a ceremony of obeisance to
the oba. The warrior chief’s gesture of raising
the eben sword is still performed at annual
ceremonies in which chiefs declare their
allegiance and loyalty to the oba by raising
their sword and spinning it in the air.
•Made from cotton, animal and grass fibers.
•Woven cloth made on narrow and
•Motifs and patterns of cloth produced by a
variety of techniques, such as resist dyeing,
tie dyeing, weaving, and direct painting on
•Cloth indicates status, personal and group
•Often done to beautify, complement, and
enhance the body.
Cotton cloth dyed yellow and hand
painted with mud by women.
Found in Mali.
Resist dye technique.
Cotton is painted with
cassava starch and
dropped in indigo dye.
The areas covered with
cassava remain white
and uncovered areas
are dark blue.
Woven by men on a narrow
Found among the Asante in
Ghana and associated with
Both silk and cotton are used.
Woven from sheep wool.
Made on horizontal looms by women.
Motifs are similar to geometric designs women
tattoo on their faces and hands.
•The body can be transformed
in both temporary and
permanent ways: painted,
tattooed, scarified and marked
in a variety of ways.
•The adornment of the body
indicates status, personal and
•Often done to beautify,
complement, and enhance the
body, sometimes for spiritual
Nuba Body Painting
Nuba peoples are found in
southern Sudan and are
Painting primarily done with
yellow and red ochre but
white and black are also
Practiced by men and
colors and designs reflect
membership in particular
age grades and family.
Designs inspired by nature
and contain characteristics
of local plants and animals.
Fulani Women, West Africa
earrings worn by
women are an
indication of wealth
They reflect the
importance of gold in
Found in the
Republic of the
from cowrie shells
leather, and iron
Found in northern
White turban and clothing
influence of Islamic
designs from North
Yoruba Ruler (Oba)
Wears a beaded crown
with beaded veil.
Veil protects viewers
from the power of the
He holds a beaded staff
Birds on crown
represent the mystical
powers of women and
the ruler's authority.
•To explore how the built
environment (architecture) shapes
and expresses/reflects the ecology,
culture, and history of various
•To demonstrate the variety of
architecture that exists on the
•To identify the diversity of material
used in the creation of African
Herring Bone Designed Wall
south of the
Consists of a
series of walls and
Mud architecture with
parapets called toron
Found throughout the
Mande world, Mali,
Burkina Faso, and
Date from 1700-100
B.P (1300-1900 A.D).
tombs of religious
leaders as well as
minarets that tower
above their roofs.
Mosque at Timbuktu
Mosque at Jenne
Tomb of Askia
Found in Mauritania.
Architecture made from
stone and covered with
Houses have two stories,
flat roofs and interior
Exterior walls painted
with red ochre and doors
and windows decorated
with curvilinear patterns.
Interior of rooms painted
white with red motifs.
Motifs inspired by the
Arabic script and referred
to as arabesques.
Painted by Soninke
Interior courtyard of house.
View of central courtyard.
Made by the Bamileke
peoples in Cameroon
Houses constructed from
palm reeds, bamboo, leaves
Wood used to create
wooden sculptures that
adorn the exterior of the
Mats woven from vegetable
fibers used to create
moveable partitions inside of
Thatched roofs, no windows,
low doors, raised threshold.
Bamileke architecture detail with sculptures
Stokstad, Marylin, Art History, 2008,