Unit 6 Overview
With more than 3,000 different ethnic groups and 2,100 languages spoken on the continent 🗣️, Africa is extremely ethnically diverse, and we can see this through its art. Unlike in Europe, where art styles vary by nation or region (Central Europe, Western Europe, etc.), African art can look completely different in neighboring villages because of religious, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic dissimilarities. Be sure to keep this in mind 🧠 as we take our first look into the history and works of unit 6!
Contextualization (AKA the Historical Background) 🌍
As mentioned earlier, African art is very localized, and this is because of the continent's geography. Places like the Sahara Desert 🏜️, Atlantic and Indian Oceans 🌊, and mountains ⛰️ acted as natural barriers and made it difficult for artistic traditions to spread to new regions before the invention of traveling technologies (planes ✈️, trains 🚂, etc).
Before the Scramble for Africa
divided Africa among European colonizers, the continent was made up of powerful kingdoms 👑, where many of these works were made. The majority of these empires practiced traditional African religions, however, some of them were exposed to Christianity and Islam and blended those beliefs with their traditional ones (syncretism
). To this day, many Africans still practice these traditional religions and their blended forms, although the majority now practice Abrahamic
ones (mainly Christianity and Islam, but also Judaism to a lesser extent). As you can see, religion is an important theme in this unit, so be sure to take notes on all of that ⬆️
During the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, European colonizers split African lands between themselves, and most of the continent went under their rule. Imperialism (expanding a country's power to a new place through force) existed in Africa for less than a century, until the nations gained independence in the mid-to-late 20th century. So, now that you know a little about Africa's history, let's get into the art!
Architecture 🇿🇼 🇲🇱
There are two examples of African architecture in the AP Art History subset, Great Zimbabwe and the Great Mosque of Djenné.
During the Kingdom of Zimbabwe's late Iron Age, Great Zimbabwe acted as its capital city, the residence of its ruler, a trading center, and a granary (a place where grain is stored 🌾), showing its importance. Material-wise, Great Zimbabwe is a significant African monument because of its use of ashlar masonry, a construction technique where identically-sized stones are held together with a bonding agent called mortar. Ashlar masonry is hard to master, which is why most other African architectural works, including the Great Mosque, are made of mud or adobe ( ⬅️ which comes with its own set of challenges). What makes this building even more impressive is the amount of material that artists needed to use to build its eight hundred foot-long walls, which makes it the largest building constructed in early African history.
Image Courtesy of Biznews. Aerial view of Great Zimbabwe
The Great Mosque was first built in the thirteenth century and was rebuilt in 1906. The mosque is replastered every year before the rainy season begins 🌧️ because it is made from adobe (a type of mud brick), which can ruin the building if wet. Using a material like adobe is a continuity in African art, since the majority of buildings are made from things that are naturally occurring.
Although the creators used a traditional medium, its exterior is uniquely decorated compared to other African works of architecture. Many African mosques have toron (protruding poles) on their outside walls, but most have fewer than the Great Mosque of Djenné does. The artists also placed ostrich eggs 🥚 on the building, which is a unique characteristic of this building. These examples show how the creators of this work both represented and deviated from artistic traditions.
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). The Great Mosque of Djenné
Sculpture 🇳🇬 🇬🇭 🇨🇮 🇸🇱🇨🇩 🇨🇲 🇬🇦 🇦🇴
Although sculptures look different across Africa because of the continent's artistic and cultural diversity, there are certain similarities across all of the ones in the AP Art History subset.
Unlike the Greek statues from Unit 2
and the moai of Unit 9 🗿, African sculptures are small and portable, which made it easier for people to bring them to rituals. This makes sense, since many of these works were used in coming of age, ancestor veneration, and other religious and cultural ceremonies.
The sexual organs of humans are sculpted disproportionately large to emphasize the importance of fertility. We also see this characteristic in the unit 1 work Tlatilco Female Figurine ( ⬅️ great example of a connection between different units).
African artists began carving their medium without sketching it out beforehand ✏️, which shows an incredible level of skill.
The majority of sculptures are made from wood, ivory, metal, or a combination of the three, since these materials have symbolic meanings in traditional African religions and cultures. Ivory was a sign of status, and metal represented strength, which makes sense since most royalty sculptures are made from the material.
The heads of human sculptures 👱 are extremely large, while their bodies are thin, which makes the figures look unbalanced and unrealistic. This is unlike the Greek statues of unit 2, which put an emphasis on realistic-appearing human forms ( ⬅️ another cross-unit connection).
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0). Ndop (Portrait Figure)
Image Courtesy of LibGuides. Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife (Opo Ogoga)
Summary of the Works
|Great Zimbabwe||Zimbabwe||Granite||c. 1000-1400|
|Great Mosque of Djenné|| Djenné, Mali||Adobe||c. 1200 (rebuilt 1906-1907)|
|Wall Plaque from Oba's Palace||Nigeria||Brass||16th century|
|Golden Stool (Skia Dwa Kofi)||Ghana||Gold over wood||c. 1700|
|Ndop (Portrait Figure) of King Mishe miShyaang maMbul||Mushenge, Democratic Republic of the Congo||Wood||1760-1780|
|Power Figure (Nkisi N'kondi)||Democratic Republic of the Congo||Wood and metal||late 19th century|
|Portrait Mask (Mblo)||Côte d'Ivoire||Wood and pigment||late 19th-early 20th century|
|Female (Pwo) Mask||Angola||Wood, pigment, fiber, and metal||late 19th-early 20th century|
|Bundu Mask||Sierra Leone||Wood||19th-early 20th century|
|Ikenga (Shrine Figure)||Nigeria||Wood, metal, and beads||19th-20th century|
|Memory Board (Lukasa)||Democratic Republic of the Congo||Wood, metal, and beads||19th-20th century|
|Aka Elephant Mask||Cameroon||Wood, woven raffia, cloth, and beads||19th-20th century|
|Reliquary Guardian Figure (Nlo Bieri)||Gabon||Wood||19th-20th century|
|Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife (Opo Ogoga)||Ikere, Nigeria||Wood and pigment||1910-1914|
And that's unit 6! Hopefully, this guide comes in handy as you study for the AP Art History exam in May. Happy studying, art historians 🖼️!