Africa’s art materials

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African art predates written history. From tens of thousands of years before recorded history people in Africa have been creating various works of art utilizing different materials. This is not particularly surprising given that the modern homo sapiens originated from Africa. The oldest art in the world was a shell necklace found in the Cave of Pigeons in Taforalt, eastern Morocco. This shell necklace is also the oldest example of abstract art in the world (1)

Next, shell beads were found in a cave at the southern peninsula of South Africa, dating back to 75,000 years ago. The earliest rock art in the world is from the African continent; it dates back to 73,000 years ago, and was found painted into the surface of the Blombos cave in South Africa, 30,000 years before any other continent.

Elsewhere in Southern Africa, there were also images found in the Apollo 11 cave of Namibia dating from 27,000 years ago.

From later times, in Niger, there are African rock art dating back more than 6,000 years old[1]. Also, there are the ancient Egyptian paintings and artifacts.

There is no doubt arts originated from Africa, even today pieces of African arts are proudly displayed in every popular museum around the world.

This article focuses on the various materials of African arts.

A lot of traditional African artworks have been lost to time because they were made from perishable materials. The most damage is caused by the effect of climate and damage by biodegradation. Majority of wooden African art items found in the museums today were no more than a hundred years old before they were collected and expertly stored.

These African artworks focused on the needs of the creator or to serve a function; because of this, priority was accorded to the creative process, the object itself could always be replaced. Popular materials used were wood, Ivory, Stone, metal, clay and fiber. Of course, African artworks were not restricted to these materials.


Early African artists used pigments for painting as far back as 73,000 years ago. The paintings are still found today on rocks throughout the continent.

The earliest painting discovered in the Saharan region was found to have been done around 8,000 B.C.

Pigments are applied to sculptural works, architectural structures, and even the human body.

Earlier African artists used naturally obtained pigments like ocher and indigo, but today various types of paint is used by artists to create art.

The different colours of paints used by artists often have meanings; white clay known as kaolin that is popularly used across Africa signifies spirituality and is it is applied on the body.


Clay is among the most plentiful African art materials. Terracotta works are among the earliest surviving Sub-Sahara pieces from the continent dating back to the 8th millennium B.C. The earliest terracotta works that have remained intact were figures known as Nok; other works include vessels and figurative objects. In Africa, many of these terracotta works were used for important rituals, particularly in funerary functions.

Making of ceramic vessels of clay in Africa is a highly developed technique and is mostly carried out by women. State of the art vessels are hand-molded by seasoned potters, without the aid of a potter’s wheel. Even in present-day, traditional methods of production is still practiced by potters, although some artists have introduced new technologies in their work.

Figurative Terracotta Object

Clay is the most basic material in Africa, hence the reason why it is very highly developed all across the continent. Not only is it used for producing works of art, but it also serves other purposes like a building material and for decoration purposes. A good example is the Great Mosque at DJenne, Mali, which was originally built in the 13th century, between 1200 AD and 1,300 AD. The mosque is the largest adobe structure in the world and a proud achievement of African architecture.


Most African sculptures south of the Sahara are made from readily and easily obtainable materials like wood, clay or stone. Wood, however, is far from being a durable material. It is highly susceptible to damage from termites, and over time, the environment. Although not all, a good majority of wooden artifacts produced by Sub-Sahara Africa in the custody of the Europe date no earlier than the 18th century. Wooden artifacts last longer in arid climates like western Sudan. Because such climes are bereft of moisture, wooden artworks of up to 200 years can still survive.

Wooden Sculptures From Western Sudan

The age of such wooden works of art is determined by radiocarbon analyses. Radiocarbon analyses is used to calculate the age of organic materials like bone, wood, and shells by calculating the radioactive decay of the carbon content and only works when the item is over 200 years old.

African wooden sculptures are often carved from a single piece of wood using traditional tools like the adze and occasionally a knife for the finer details. Some finished sculptures are smoothed and shined; some are painted with local pigments while some are encrusted with other organic materials.

In western Nigeria the sculpting process is divided into four stages; ona lile, aletunle, didan and fifin. In the first process ona lile the sculptor wets the freshly cut wood to facilitate carving, and then he blocks out the wood with an adze. The second stage aletunle involves refining the main form into smaller forms like the hands, ears, hands, and eyes. In the third stage, the carving is smoothed and then finally in the last stage the fine details of the sculpture is then carved using a knife; this is the fifin stage.


In Africa, there is evidence of iron smelting technology and forging dating back to 2,200 BCE – 1,800 BCE, which were employed mostly in producing farming tools and also weapons. Some Africa societies skipped the Bronze age and went straight to the Iron age due to the rarity of Copper in some regions of Sub-Sahara Africa.

Metalworks in ancient Africa was regarded as a powerful and very important skill, and blacksmiths were respected. Iron was often associated with the gods because it is thought to be powerful. In sub-Saharan Africa, iron working is a highly ritualized process likened to the process of life creation.

Cast Bronze Artwork

Metals used in African arts are mostly gold and copper alloys, which are primarily bronze and brass copper alloys.

These metals were considered precious and were used for works that demonstrate wealth and power, and were often cast. Casting was not the only way metals were used. Some metals were hammered into sheets and used to encase other materials like wooden objects; this way the costly metal could be saved and the visual effects of the work was still effective.

Another technique is the lost-wax casting; this is an important and ancient technique in Africa dating back to the 9th century AD. Although similar to that used in Europe it was developed independently in Africa without any external influence or input long before the technique was employed by Europeans. The lifesize cast metal sculptures of Ife attest to this fact because it was created between the 12th and 13th centuries at a time when European artisans could not deploy the technique at such a huge scale.


Ivory only obtained from the tusks of elephants is a symbolic, luxury and prized material. Its value stems from the qualities it possesses like strength, density and smoothness coupled with its availability, and demand.

Works carried out with ivory very often symbolizes leadership, strength, and power in many African societies.

Carved Ivory Sculpture

In some societies like the ancient Benin kingdom its use was exclusive to royalty, and artisans that worked on ivory constituted a separate category known as Igbesamwan, which were of higher social status; they lived and worked in their own separate quarters.

In the Lega society of the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC), ownership of ivory was restricted to the highest members of the political hierarchy known as the Bwami association. In other societies and cultures, its white colour is associated with purity and spirituality.

Artists that carve wood can also carve ivory, and they both follow a similar process. Although freshly obtained ivory is easier to carve because of its more oily nature.


Fiber may not have been as popular as other materials like wood and clay, but it was extensively used in Africa. Clothes were produced from locally sourced fibers like cotton, palm leaves, wool, raffia palm leaves, silk, and bark, as well as occasional imports of rayon, which were woven on looms.

A Fiber Cloth

In West Africa men normally weave long and narrow strips of cloth on horizontally oriented looms. While women produce wider lengths of woven cloth on a vertical loom. The woven textiles are then decorated to make beautiful pieces. Decoration can be done using various methods such as dyeing, painting, printing, stamping, and embroidery.

Beautiful artworks like hats, baskets were also produced using reeds and grasses as sources of fiber.

Pounded bark was used as cloth in Africa, and although it might have been the earliest form of cloth in the continent (dating to 70,000 BCE), it continues to be produced by some groups in central Africa.


Stone is the oldest form of art material known to man. Stone arts are almost indestructible, dating back to tens of thousands of years. The enormous stone structures in Egypt, Ancient Kush, Zimbabwe and Aksum are good examples of its usage on a monumental scale. And its use is often associated with permanence. Its usage varies from place to place. While in places like Egypt there are many large-scale stone sculptures, its use in sub-Saharan Africa is not as widespread as wooden works.

A Stone Sculpture

Because of its tough and hard nature stone might not be the easiest material to work with. Stones come in different textures ranging from the lowest like soapstones, alabaster to mid hardness like limestones and sandstones to harder stones like marble, travertine to the hardest stones like granite and basalt columns.

There are many other art materials used for arts by Africans such as beads and animal hides.

Beads can be comprised of different materials; there are beads made of seeds, shells, corals, glass beads and even bones.

Animal hides because of their strength and durability are often used to create things like shields and cloth items. In eastern Nigeria, animal skin can be used to cover wooden objects; a technique peculiar to the people of that region.

In more recent times, materials like concrete and photography are used in Africa today.



1 “Discovery Of The Oldest Adornments In The World”. 18 June 2007. Retrieved 10 August 2012.

  1. New Giraffe Engravings Found. The 153 Club.

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Africa’s art materials

by Editorial Team time to read: 7 min