Medieval African Art History
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Medieval African Art

painting of two riders on an elephant
Two men riding an elephant, in an Indian style
(Asbi, Ethiopia, ca. 1000-1200 AD)

By the Middle Ages, nearly all of the people of Africa were trading and getting richer, and making more complicated pieces of art to show off their new wealth. They were also interacting with people from all over Asia and Europe, and with each other, and experimenting with mixing different artistic traditions.

Ethiopian manuscript
Book from Aksum showing a saint
with the Roman emperor Honorius (about 1400 AD)

In Kush and Aksum (modern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eretria), many people converted to Christianity about 300 AD. But even though they were Christians, like the Romans, these people also traded a lot with India. Their images are a mixture of their own ideas with Roman, Indian, and Islamic art.

Tiye stele
Grave stele from Tiya (ca.1200 AD)

But at the same time East African people who remained traditional believers were carving stone stelae as grave markers in a much more African style, showing off their independence from foreign influences even though they were only a little further south.

Twa rock painting
Twa rock painting, ca. 500 AD? (modern Zambia)

Very few traders had reached South Africa in the Middle Ages. In Zambia, people painted rock art onto the walls of caves as they had already been doing for thousands of years. This painting, probably done by Twa women, would have been used in coming of age ceremonies for girls. Even further south, the San people painted rock art onto the walls of caves as they had already been doing for thousands of years. They painted hunting scenes and religious ceremonies.

Djenne figurine
Djenne figurine from West Africa (ca. 1450 AD)
Tada sculpture
Copper sculpture from West Africa
(Tada, Nigeria ca. 1300 AD).

In Central Africa, the Luba Empire formed about 1300-1400 AD, and developed their own artistic styles.

And further north in West Africa, people got richer with more and more Islamic trade across the Sahara desert, as the people of West Africa bought salt with their gold and slaves. Rich West African people patronized artists who molded increasingly realistic bronze and brass sculptures.

Learn by doing: African art
More about African pottery
More about Islamic art
More about Medieval Africa

Bibliography and further reading about African art:

Or check out this article on African art in the Encyclopedia Britannica (unfortunately there's not much on early African art though).

More about African music
More about African pottery
More about Medieval Africa
More about Islamic Art
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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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