African Sculpture
Guide to History, Characteristics of Wooden, Bronze Sculptures from Africa.

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Wooden African Sculpture from Mali.
Seated Female Figure (15-19th century) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
A magnificent example of so-called
primitivism/primitive art.

African Sculpture


Pole Sculpture in Wood
Pole Sculpture in Ivory
Magic Figures
Other Figures
Benin Bronze Sculptures
History of Bronze Sculpture in Benin
Yoruba Sculpture
Ife Portrait Heads
African Stone Sculpture

Benin Bronze Statuette (c.1500)
Maternity Figure, possibly of the
Goddess Orisa Ibeji. An exquisite
example of bronze sculpture
from Africa.

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.


The centre of African art lies in West Africa, the region stretching from Senegal eastwards to Lake Chad. Beyond the Niger, artistic inspiration is limited to applied art and crafts and some ornamental decorative art. The Benue joining the Niger forms the border of another region of sculpture stretching eastwards and south-eastwards and embracing Angola and the Congo basin. Thus the whole area can be divided into two spheres: the Sudan sphere round the Gulf of Guinea, and, the Congo sphere which lies to the east and south-east of it between the Atlantic and the great Lakes. To the south of Tanzania and in Mozambique lives the Makonde tribe, an isolated group of plastic artists. The Bantu tribes of South Africa, who are highly developed both mentally and physically, show considerable artistic talent, but their plastic art is poor compared with that of the Congo basin and the West. Their best wood-carving comes in the form of headrests, and occasional animal figures of interest. It is however the work of the western region which has made the African famous as a sculptor in wood. Wood sculpture is the classical tribal art of Africa. To some people Benin bronze sculpture represents even finer work, but it would probably be wrong to consider these as purely African, because the technique of bronze casting is believed to have been introduced from abroad. (See also: Prehistoric sculpture.)

African Bronze Statuette (19th-century)
Fertility Figure from Ghana.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

For more information about
prehistoric art from the
Paleolithic, Mesolithic or Neolithic
periods, see: Stone Age Art.
For details of later eras, see:
Bronze Age and Iron Age Art.

Pole Sculpture in Wood

The principal merit of African wood sculpture has been defined by the English art critic Roger Fry as complete plastic freedom. African artists really conceive form in three dimensions and seem to have no difficulty in getting away from the two-dimensional plane. There is a simple explanation of the ease with which sculptors in Africa have grasped the round and hence cylindrical form of the human body. It lies in the material and in the technique imposed by it. The sculptor starts with a section of tree-trunk - a round block of wood. If the construction is simple, the block of wood remains clearly recognisable as a cylinder. The classical examples are the roughly fashioned ancestor figures of the Bari, and the colossal pole sculptures of the Azande, both in the Eastern Sudan. If further cubic forms, similarly arrived at are applied to this basic cylinder, the result is an almost geometric style. The trunk is one solid cylinder, the arms are smaller cylinders running parallel to the body, and the head is strongly stylised. Geometric-style abstract sculpture of this type have been produced in their highest artistic form by the Babe tribe in Western Sudan.

The style is by no means confined to Africa; the same development is found in American Indian art (notably of the northwest USA), Oceanic art, as well as that of Siberia and Indo-China. The principle of pole sculpture is also applied to masks. In the nature of things the mask is always half-cylindrical, and the artist has so little opportunity to elaborate this half-cylinder that it remains the predominant form. This style was developed by tribes like the Hopi Indians in North America. In Africa, masks of this kind are to be found in the Ivory coast and in the Nilotic region.

Pole Sculpture in Ivory

It is obvious that cylindrical pole sculpture can develop from any long-shaped material, not necessarily from wood. An excellent variant is the ivory elephant-tusk. It is clear, too, that if an artist wants to retain the unity of a slender unbroken line in his sculpture, working from a single block without the addition of any other piece, he will not be able to portray any detail exceeding the limits of the original cylinder. From this arises a further characteristic of African sculpture - its lack of proportion. There is a wooden African sculpture currently on display (2011) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for instance, comprising a horse and a rider. But in comparison with the rider, the horse is so small that some people might think it was meant as a caricature, except the artist had no such intention. It was simply that within the limits of his tusk he had no means of making the horse large enough to be in proportion to the rider, and since he was principally concerned with the rider, the size of the horse did not trouble him.

Not all African wood sculpture is based on this principle. The round block can be more extensively elaborated into a progressively more realistic form which has no resemblance to the original shape of the material. Sculpture of this kind is found in the parklands of the Cameroons, through the whole of the Congo region, and in the east among the Makonde tribe.


The forms of African masks are extraordinarily varied. Some are purely realistic, others rigorously stylised. The majority are highly coloured but this is not unique. There are very few people in history who left their sculptures unpainted. Figurative Greek sculpture was often painted, chiefly on the eyes and mouth, to give a realistic appearance. Egyptian sculpture, Buddhas from Gandhara, and the figures of divinities in ancient Mexico were all painted. In Africa the colour ranges from the simple black statues and masks in the hinterland of the Cameroons, to the brilliant yellows, reds, whites and blues of the Nigerian figures and the Yoruba masks. On the Ivory Coast the Atutu cover the most precious of their statues with gold-leaf. Sometimes the sculptor himself does the gilding, sometimes he passes the work on to a specialist. One artist, who made only ungilded sculptures, said that if he ever had two sons he would teach one carving and the other gilding so that they could co-operate.

In many parts of Africa, indigenous art is on the decline, but in areas like the Ivory Coast it is still flourishing. It is even undergoing further development - not through European influence, but through the inventiveness of the artists themselves. Generally speaking, the capacity of west African tribes as craftsmen is not high, and their productivity is small. Their practical ability as sculptors and goldsmiths is therefore all the more striking.

Magic Figures

The Atutu, unlike other African tribes, have neither social distinctions nor social prejudices. They greatly appreciate true skill in any form. Among these tribes, too, many figurines come in the form of religious art. The Atutu are not ancestor worshippers, but they have a certain number of ancestor figures. These are carved at the time of a man's death, the body serving as a model. When the statue is completed the soul of the dead man is supposed to enter into it for a period, after which it passes into the beyond. In the meantime the ancestor figure is used as a fetish. If someone is in trouble, the village magician whose advice he asks may recommend him to have a fetish made. To the carver this is a job like any other. To make the fetish effective the owner must bring it an offering. It is usually sufficient to sprinkle it with flour or even white chalk; but in special cases a fowl may be killed. If it proves ineffective, the fetish has no value and may be destroyed; if however it proves effective, it can be used again for other purposes. A barren woman will sometimes have a magic doll made representing a child, and carry it round on her back to bring home to her body that she now wants a child like that. The Atutu have other wooden dolls, and other similar works of folk art, carefully carved and ranging from 3-inches to 8-inches in height, which have no magic or religious, significance, but are used as toys by adults as well as children. There are also occasional carved portraits, made by order of the person represented, and given to his friends as souvenirs. See also: Pre-Columbian art (up to 1535 CE).

Other Figures

Among the southern Atutu tribes there is even something which might be described as "art for art's sake." These people make a number of carved objects which have no practical use and no religious significance - solid wooden vessels, models of signal horns, and carved animal figures. On feast days, the owner fetches his fine art treasures out of his strong-room, lays them out on the veranda and contemplates them affectionately.

Among some tribes of French West Africa, especially the Baoule and Habe, rigidly stylised figures are predominant, while the parkland of the Cameroons is distinguished by large realistic ancestor figures and dance masks, some of them larger than life size, astonishingly animated, and usually blacked over with soot. The various tribes of the Congo have developed a realistic type of statuette and mask side by side with their stylised, almost geometric carving. Their statuettes and miniature masks in ivory are often of great beauty. The most artistic tribes in the Congo are the Bayaka, the Bakuba (where carving of ceremonial objects is a privilege of the aristocracy), the Baluba, and in the south the Vatchivokoe.


Benin Bronze Sculptures

Between the Ivory Coast and the Congo lie Ife, in the Yoruba country, and Benin, in Southern Nigeria, where African sculpture has reached its highest level. Benin was visited in the fifteenth century by John Alfonso d'Aveiro (1485-86), and subsequently by several Portuguese, Dutch and English travellers. A few ivory objects made their way to Europe, but it was only with the British conquest in 1897 that the bronzes were discovered, and that Benin art in general became known to a wider circle.

The bronzes are of two kinds. There are figures - either life-size human heads or models of animals or human beings - and there are relief sculptures of complete scenes, animals, human beings and mythological or magical symbols. The male heads seem somewhat stiff on account of the high neck decoration. The faces are bare of human traits, and almost impersonal. The general effect is interesting rather than beautiful. The women's heads on the other hand are more individual. The decoration on the neck is so slight as to be almost unnoticeable, and the hair is trained upwards in a high horn-like style. The principal ivory products are large elephant tusks carved in relief, goblets and tankards decorated either in relief or open-work, and armlets and other ornaments in the same style. The goblets and tankards are often European in shape, usually after the style of Renaissance art, and there is no doubt that they were carved from European patterns to the order of Portuguese travellers. Other pieces are purely or predominantly African. European soldiers and merchants in sixteenth-century dress appear occasionally on the bronze plaques.

The headdress and the rings round the neck of bronze heads, represent the traditional coral decoration still worn by the kings or obas of Benin. Coral beads were an important part of the crown treasures, and when a ruler ceased to wear them it was a sign of bad financial policy. Chief Egharevba reports that Ahenzae, the great-grandson of Oba Orhogbua lost his wealth in this way. He was only sixteen when he came to the throne; and his inexperience was exploited by self-seeking courtiers. The long-stored treasure of the former kings was wasted, and the royal coral beads were gambled away in games of dice with Osuan.

History of Bronze Sculpture in Benin

According to Bini tradition, brass-casting was introduced into Benin by medieval artists from Ife (Uhe) under Oba Oguola in about 1280. The Oba wanted works like those imported from Ife to be produced in Benin itself. He therefore sent to the Oghene of Uhe for a brass-smith and Igue-igha was sent to him. Igue-igha was very clever and left many designs to his successors and was in consequence deified and is worshipped to this day by brass-smiths. The practice of making brass castings for the preservation of the records of events was originated during the reign of Oguola. Oba Esigie (c.1504) encouraged and improved the brass work, and it is generally recognised that the art of Benin reached its prime in the sixteenth century. Ivory and wood carving were introduced by Oba Ewuare the great (c. 1440), while ivory flutes (akohen) were invented sometime after 1735 by a man called Ereoyen.

The bronzes are produced by what is known as the cire-perdu (lost-wax) process. A model is made - usually of clay - and covered with a layer of wax. If the object is very small the model is entirely of wax, A thin metal tube is attached to each end of the waxed model, and the whole encased in a lump of soft clay. When the clay has hardened, the molten metal is poured into the upper tube through a funnel. It runs down into the interior, filling the space occupied by the wax, while the melted wax flows out through the lower tube, hence the name lost-wax. When the metal has cooled the shell of clay is carefully broken and removed. The surface of the bronze is invariably rough, and has to be finished off with chisel and file. In cases of bad craftsmanship, holes may be left where the metal did not entirely fill the cavity. The clay in the interior is usually burnt quite black with the heat, and can be dug out comparatively easily.

This technique has been recorded in many books, and there is a set of models in the British Museum showing various stages of the work. It is the method used in all West African bronze and brass industries. The great brass pipes, decorated with human and animal figures, produced by some tribes in the park lands of the Cameroons are made in this way; so are the miniature brass figures which have been used by the Ashanti as gold weights (mrammuo) since at least 1760. The cire-perdu process is not exactly the same everywhere but it is known in most parts of the world. In Asia the chief centres are India and the Malayan archipelago. It was also practised in ancient Egypt, and in the old civilisations of Central and South America. See: Oldest Stone Age Art (Top 100 works).

It is clear from the date of the earlier Benin bronzes that the Bini practised this art before the arrival of the Portuguese, so that the theory that it was first learned from European sources is ruled out. There is another theory that it came by a roundabout route from India; there is no reason, however, to reject the tradition that bronze casting was introduced to Benin from Ife. The question therefore is where the Yorubas learnt the technique.

Yoruba Sculpture

There is a vast difference between the ancient art of the Yorubas and their present-day work. Modern Yoruba art consists chiefly of wooden figures and masks. With its striking polychrome paintings, it is certainly very decorative, but it is on a lower artistic plane than the old classic stone sculpture in stone, terracotta and bronze. The old carvings in hard stone such as quartz and the old bronze castings are distinguished by an astonishing fidelity to nature, absolutely correct proportions and a lack of conventional features. The technique was excellent and the figures show a marked sense of beauty.

It is probably centuries since work of this kind was produced at Ife, but the antique masterpieces have never been forgotten. Bronze heads still stand in the palace of the Oni. On certain festivals they are removed by the priests and carried to the shrines. Dozens of beautiful terracotta heads were kept in a shrine outside the town until only a few years ago, when they were all stolen or broken. In Ife there is still a ram's head in granite, almost life-size, and ceremonial stools carved in single pieces from solid pieces of quartz. But it is the terracotta sculpture (and bronzes) which show the art of ancient Ife at its best. Even the Benin heads cannot compare.

Ife Portrait Heads

It is only recently that these most beautiful of all African sculptures have been known in Europe. There were comparatively few bronze heads known even in Ife until early in 1938, when seven high-quality examples covered with green patina were unearthed during the digging of foundations for a house, and four more at another site. Some of these have tiny holes symmetrically arranged round the lower half of the face; it is not known whether these were formerly filled with paint to represent tribal marks, or used for fixing hair for a beard as in the wooden masks of Japanese art and that of Northwest America. Other heads have furrows representing the vertical stripes which are still used as tribal marks among the Yorubas.

African sculpture exerted a not inconsiderable influence on painters such as Andre Derain (1880-1954), Maurice De Vlaminck (1876-1958), Picasso (1881-1973), and Matisse (1867-1954), most of whom were greatly stimulated by the expressionistic features of the primitive statuettes and masks that arrived in Paris from French colonies in the African subcontinent. Indeed, several began to visit collections of ethnological artifacts, and purchase objects for themselves.

The age of the Ife heads has not yet been conclusively ascertained, but since it is practically certain that the bronze art of Benin was derived from Ife, there is some data to work on. They first came from Ife to Benin about 1280, after which it must have taken some time for this crude art to develop into the masterpieces which we know, so that the bronze art of Ife cannot have reached its zenith till the thirteenth century at the earliest.

Although both in terra-cotta and bronze the ethnic characteristics of the models are well portrayed, the works resemble the sculpture of ancient Greece or Egyptian art, rather than the culture of black Africa. The anthropologist Frobenius considered a connection with the Mediterranean sphere, and Sir Flinders Petrie in his book on ancient Egypt remarks that if any of the Ife heads had been excavated in the foreign quarter of Memphis, they would have been accepted as larger examples of the local-type. He adds: "The Memphite work cannot have come from the Niger, it is too close in touch with Persia and India; but the idea, and even the workmen, may have come from Egypt to West Africa."

Meanwhile, the Yorubas have a tradition that they came from the east, from Upper Egypt, and it has been suggested that they were originally not Africans at all, but became intermingled with the negroes later.

On the other hand, objects of ancient Egyptian origin have been found all over Africa. The curved ceremonial knives of the modem Azande in the borderlands of the Sudan and the Northern Congo are derived from the ancient Egyptian sickle. Head-rests, musical instruments, and even certain customs and beliefs show the signs of Egyptian influence. "It is not plausible," says Wilfred D. Hambly, that a civilisation like that of Egypt existed as a self-contained unit. Egyptian caravans penetrated far into the Sudan; Egyptian ships sailed to the land of Punt; a region generally identified with the Somali coast.

Further detailed research is necessary, however, in order to prove that all the various elements pointing towards Egyptian origin have actually been derived from that source. Meanwhile, all that we know about the chronology of Ife and Benin bronzes suggests a much more recent date for the highest development of Ife portraiture in bronze. It may be that Egyptian influence came through terra-cotta rather than through bronze. More excavations in Nigeria right throw new light on this interesting question.

African Stone Sculpture

There are other examples of ancient African art in harder and more durable materials than wood. In some parts stone sculpture has been found which is entirely different from Ife sculpture. There are stone heads in the Northern Congo in the region of the river Uele, and in 1934 no less than 765 figures and heads were discovered in a clearing among oil palms, one and a half miles from Esie, in Ilorin province, Nigeria. They show a great variety of types, physiognomies and tribal marks. A number of the tribal marks are still in use to-day. In the majority of these carvings the features are sufficiently individualised for them to be considered as portraits; their naturalism, however, is naive and typically. African. It is primitive art at its best.

Examples of African tribal sculpture can be seen in the best art museums in Africa, Europe and America.


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