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The History and Development of African Sculpture

Updated on April 5, 2014

The sculpture of Black Africa, developed by tribes in West Africa and central Africa, has a vitality and expressiveness that make it highly esteemed. Most of it is carved in wood, although terra cotta, ivory, and metal were also used. Because the ancestor cult was important to most tribes, many figures and masks commemorated ancestors or served as ritual containers of their power as spirits. Other sculpture represented deities or mythological beings or denoted rank.


The Baulé people of Côte d'Ivoire made commemorative ancestor figures and ritual deity and ancestor masks. Both types are naturalistic but not representational. By their rhythmic shaping and proportion, refined surface planes, and lyrical flow of outlines, they are, rather, the sculptor's creative interpretations of nature. Baulé human masks are often similar expressively to their carved human figures, but their animal masks are often nonnaturalistic.

Yoruba, Ife, and Benin

The tribes of Nigeria produced outstanding sculpture in a variety of media. The Yoruba carved naturalistic wooden figures and masks for ceremonial rites that honored their many nature gods. These carvings depend on life-forms or genre subjects, expressed in an emphatic, sculptural style. Mass and volume are equally stressed. Shapes are clearly defined, ample in scale, and complexly related, proportioned to lead the eye to the enlarged head. Yoruba sculptures are far more often painted than those of other African tribes. Colors are arbitrary, accentuating the expressive parts.


From the Yoruba kingdom of Ife (11th–19th century) come superbly modeled, idealistic heads in terra cotta and in bronze. According to tradition, the sculptors of the kingdom of Benin (13th–18th century) acquired the art of casting bronze from Ife. Using the lost-wax process, the royal Benin workshops made small figures in the round, reliefs, and hollow heads. The heads, some from the 15th century, were placed on the altar of the oba, or king. They had carefully defined surfaces, and into the open tops of some were fitted elephant tusks carved in spiraling bands from the base to the tip with realistic representations of the oba and court life. The early bronzes of Ife and Benin are remarkably close in quality to those of ancient China or Renaissance Italy.



The Ashanti of Ghana also worked in metal. In contrast to the idealized forms of Ife, their small bronze figures for weighing gold dust are impressionistic. They depict genre subjects, fantastic birds and animals, proverbs, religious subjects, and geometric forms.


The stylized sculpture of the Bambara tribes of Mali include large and small female figures and distinctive stylized antelope masks. The masks refer to the Bambara belief that in ancient times the Creator dispatched to earth a fabulous antelopelike animal to teach the people agriculture. Attached to basketry caps, the masks were worn by men in ritual dances at the sowing and harvesting seasons.

Cameroon and Congo

The sculpture of tribes in central Cameroon includes human and animal forms carved as masks, figures, or posts flanking doorways. Their forceful style relies on rough-textured, vigorous forms, which are large, often massive, and emphatically defined, rather than on fluid, decorative surfaces. Figures have dramatic forms and often contorted poses, which convey a sense of movement.

In the Congo, sculpture of the Bayaka and Basonge tribes somewhat resembles that of Cameroon. Forms are dynamic and stylized but without the vigor and scale of Cameroon sculpture.


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