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Ancient Africa


African Nok sculpture
Nok sculpture by Unknown
Africa is a large and diverse continent. Its history is filled with the rise and fall of numerous civilizations and empires. As a result, the art of Ancient Africa is varied and diverse. However, there are some common themes throughout much of African art that we will discuss on this page.


Ancient African art can be somewhat divided into regions. The art of northern Africa was heavily influenced by the Arabs after the Islam conquest. Similarly, the art of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa was influenced by Europe and Christianity. There is also the well preserved art of Ancient Egypt found in temples and burial chambers. However, what most people think of today as African art is the art produced by the peoples living south of the Sahara Desert.


The art of Ancient Africa was produced using a wide variety of materials. Unfortunately, a lot of African art was produced using wood, which has since been destroyed by time and the elements. Other materials, such as metals (like bronze and iron), ceramics, and ivory have survived.

Bronze sculpture of an African Woman's Head
Woman's Head in Bronze.
Photo by Daderot

African soldiers in bronze
African art. Photo by Daderot
Three Dimensions

One of the main elements of African art is that it is often created in three-dimensions rather than two-dimensions. For example, they used sculpture more often than flat paintings. Here are some of the primary types of art used in Ancient Africa.

Sculpture - Sculpture was one of the most important types of art in Ancient Africa. Sculptures were mostly made of people and sometimes animals. African artists often used wood for their sculpture, but they also used bronze, terracotta, and ivory.

Masks - Masks were an important part of art. They were often used together with dance to create a type of performance art. Masks were generally made of wood, but were often decorated with ivory, gems, paint, and animal fur.

Jewelry - Many Ancient African civilizations created jewelry from gold, gems, shells, and other materials. Jewelry was an important part of showing one's status and wealth.

Pottery - Ceramics were used for everyday items like bowls and cooking pots. However, some ceramics were works of art that were shaped and painted with fine details.

Human Form

One of the main themes in the art of Ancient Africa is the human form. The primary subject in the majority of the art is people. Sometimes people were shown with animals or as part animal, part person. Many times the representation of people wasn't natural, but was more abstract with certain features exaggerated while others were entirely left out.
Traditional African Mask
African mask. Photo by Daderot

Monumental Art and Architecture

The most famous examples of monumental art and architecture in Ancient Africa come from Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians created huge structures such as the pyramids, the Sphinx, temples, and statues (like the giant pharaohs at Abu Simbel). Other African civilizations built monumental structures as well including the giant obelisks of Aksum in Ethiopia, mosques like the Great Mosque of Djene in Mali, and the rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.

Interesting Facts about Ancient African Art Activities

To learn more about Ancient Africa:

Ancient Egypt
Kingdom of Ghana
Mali Empire
Songhai Empire
Kingdom of Aksum
Central African Kingdoms
Ancient Carthage

Art in Ancient Africa
Daily Life
Traditional African Religions
Slavery in Ancient Africa
Cleopatra VII
Shaka Zulu

Countries and Continent
Nile River
Sahara Desert
Trade Routes

Timeline of Ancient Africa
Glossary and Terms

Works Cited

History >> Ancient Africa

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