Ancient African Art - Nok figures to Congo pots
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Ancient African Art

clay statue of a woman
Nok statue from West Africa
(modern Nigeria, ca. 500 BC-200 AD)

May 2016 - By about 800 BC, more trade all across Africa, and between Africa and other continents, made many Africans richer, so they could afford to create works of art. In West Africa, the Nok people (in modern Nigeria) made clay statues, some small and others life-size. These statues - like a lot of art all over the world - probably belonged mainly to rich people, and they showed rich men and women doing rich people things like wearing fancy clothes and jewelry, having fancy hairstyles, carrying weapons, and riding horses.

Meroe cylinder
A bronze cylinder made in Meroe,
with people in a Roman style (1st c. AD)

In East Africa, also, people had more contact with traders from the Arabian peninsula and from India, beginning especially after 200 AD, when sailors developed better understanding of the monsoon winds and regular trips between India and East Africa began. Indian art surely influenced East African artists, just as Indian clothing and architecture influenced East African clothing and architecture, but we have little left from this period.

a white man and a dark-skinned one wrestling
Mosaic from Gigthis with two
pankratiasts fighting (modern Tunisia, ca. 300 AD)

All across North Africa, from Egypt and Sudan to Morocco and Mauretania, people did more trading than anywhere else in Africa, and they were much richer. They liked to show off how rich they were with marble statues, big tombstones, bronze vases like this one from Sudan, and fancy colorful mosaic floors like this one showing wrestlers, from Tunisia.

wall painting of a person wearing robes
Church of Raphael (Dongola, Sudan, 800s AD)
Classic Kisalian pot
Upemba pot from the Congo, ca. 1000 AD

Even as far south as Central Africa (modern Congo), African people were beginning to become richer from trade, and African artists were beginning to produce more art. In Central Africa, beginning around 400 AD, the Upemba people formed a complex chiefdom and then a state organized around the Congo River. Upemba hand-made pottery vases and bowls are distinctly recognizable, with their sharp carinations (turns) and incised decoration.

Learn by Doing - African art project
More about Medieval African Art

Bibliography and further reading about African art:

Or check out this article on African art in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More about medieval African Art home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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