Skip to main content

African Art

The best books, eBooks, articles media and open access resources for the art of Africa.

Focus on Benin Mask

Benin Mask

Early Visual Art

Visual, performing, and literary arts of sub-Saharan Africa. What gives art in Africa its special character is the generally small scale of most of its traditional societies, in which one finds a bewildering variety of styles. The earliest evidence of visual art is provided by figures scratched and painted on rocks c. 3000 BC. Pastoral cultures in the east emphasize personal adornment; sculpture predominates in the agricultural societies in the west and south. Clay figurines found in Nigeria date to 500 BC. Metalworking was practiced from the 9th century AD. Sculptures in stone, ivory, and wood date from the 16th-17th centuries; some of the finest wood sculptures date from the 20th century.

Architecture and Music

Architecture dominates the arts of the north and of the eastern coast, where Islam and Christianity exerted their influence; important work includes magnificent mosques built of mud and rock-hewn churches. Perhaps the most distinctive features of African music are the complexity of rhythmic patterning achieved by a great variety of drums and the relationship between melodic form and language tone structure. Without this the text of a song is rendered meaningless; but, even in purely instrumental music, melodic pattern is likely to follow speech tone. Dances are realized in radically different styles throughout Africa. Movement patterns often depend upon the way in which environmental, historical, and social circumstances have been articulated in working, social, and recreational movements. Often there is no distinction between ritual celebration and social recreation. 


The masquerade is a complex art form employing many media; masquerades may entertain, be used to fight disease, be consulted as oracles, initiate boys to manhood, impersonate ancestors, judge disputes, or execute criminals. The mask is essentially a dramatic device enabling performers to stand apart from their everyday role in the community. The content and style of urban African theatre are influenced by both African dramatic traditions and Western theatre. The literary arts of Africa-especially its oral traditions-are immensely rich and varied. They include myths, praise songs, epic poetry, folktales, riddles, spells, and proverbs. Written literatures have existed for several centuries in Hausa, Swahili, and Amharic. In the 20th century, written literatures in other African languages also developed, alongside those in English, French, and Portuguese.

From CREDO African Arts: Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Art & Art History Guides

Home Access

""It's true, you can access most COM Library resources at home! COM Library’s catalog, and the thousands of eBooks and articles in our databases can all be accessed off campus. Just login with your COM ID# and last name.

More on Home Access