Humans first evolved in Africa, walking upright about five million years ago and making the first tools about two and a half million years ago using the opposable thumb. The British Museum collection includes objects dating from this time, but also represents historic and contemporary societies across the continent.
Long before contact with Europe, several African states, including ancient Egypt, Aksum, ancient Ghana, Mali, Songhoy, Ile Ife, and the Benin kingdom, became well known in different parts of the continent. Brass works from Ile Ife and from Benin are among the most famous objects in the Museum collection. Other states, such as the Asante Confederation, the Bakuba and Buganda developed later.
The centralized government systems of these kingdoms were based on the exclusive authority of the ruler, or king, whose power was often justified through religious ideology. They were the only ones who had the power to break social rules and to take human life and could delegate it to selected dignitaries.
If many of the kingship systems have now vanished, some have succeeded to survive in modern states, still playing important social, cultural and political functions in regions such as Asante, Benin and Bakuba. Many other African peoples live outside of centralized kingdoms. These include the Nilotic peoples of the Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia, the Koi/San of Southern Africa and the Tuareg of the Sahara.
Contemporary art, both for the art market and for the indigenous market, thrives. Ancient skills in ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and sculpture continue to flourish. The past century has seen the development of new art forms such as the printed cloth known as kanga in Eastern Africa, wax prints and fancy prints in Western and Central Africa. Recycling of manufactured goods—whether clothes, tires, tins or weapons—provide an easy source of raw materials of endless variety.
Woven textiles and other fabrics are embedded in the culture of Africa. Often decorated with brilliant colors and intricate designs, they are available in almost every part of the continent. The designs and the slogans printed on them represent a subtle and complex form of communication.
© Trustees of the British Museum
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- Why were there so many kingdoms in Africa instead of more democratic societies? "Humans first evolved in Africa" and hunter gatherer groups tend to be quite egalitarian, so why did they start following kings?(4 votes)
- There are many reasons why a group adopts (or is forced to adopt) one system of government over another. I mean, while one might say hunter-gatherer groups are egalitarian onto themselves (an interesting generalization), what about rival groups, resource scarcities and security? There are a few factors which one can imagine which drive people away from democracy. And, who's to say that there never was a democracy in place? Consider Plato's Five Regimes: aristocracy -> timocracy -> oligarchy -> democracy -> tyranny, where "->" means "changes to." If democracy quickly degenerates into tyranny in a given society, we may not even know it ever existed.(7 votes)
- What was the oldest civilization on the African continent?(5 votes)
- Could you do more on South Africa, please?(4 votes)
- South Africa didn't have a main culture except for the San and Zulu so the British Museum doesn't have much to go on art wise. But yes, some more on South Africa would be nice.(4 votes)
- They say that the first humans were from Africa, and they spread out all over the world. So, why is it they say that only certain groups of people have African origins?
Thank you!(5 votes)
- You ask, "why is it they say that only certain groups of people have African origins?"
I ask, "who are the "they" who are making this comment?"(1 vote)
- Do some museums still have some woven textiles, and other textiles? Or are they still finding some in Africa, and early civilizations?(2 votes)
- Discoveries are made everyday, so you can imagine what sort of amazing finds there are. Ancient Egyptians made paper from papyrus and rope from hemp. They even prepare their dead by wrapping them in bandages. So whenever you look at a mummy you will still see the handiwork of a priest from thousands of years ago.
I've also been to a few museums featuring Native American artifacts, and they display baskets, rugs and shoes, among many other textiles. It's fascinating how they were preserved so sell using their ancient techniques.(4 votes)
- Who named Africa I mean come on I myself is a African but I know that my country couldn't had been name by us we were slaves(2 votes)
- 1. It was named by Romans, who used the name "Afri" to describe everything below the Mediterranean sea. This name was adopted by all European languages.
2. Africa did have slaves, and Europeans did enslave Africans, but I think you underestimate the power and prosperity of Africa. It had powerful empires like the Ghana Empire and the Mali Empire. Mansa Musa was an African Muslim that was extremely rich. He scattered so many gold coins on his journey to Mecca, he hugely devalued the currency in cities such as Alexandria.
Mansa Musa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musa_I_of_Mali
Empire of Mali: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mali_Empire
Great Zimbabwe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Zimbabwe(3 votes)
- What art from the art of Asia or Africa which is more intelligence?(0 votes)
- Where can we get real facts about the contributions the art world benefited from due to Alkebulon, Mis and the earliest art discovered?(3 votes)
- I think the purpose of art is to enjoy it and study and reflect on what this art meant to the people who created it, rather then how future generations would benefit from it.
However, the author does state that newer generations are being influenced by the old ways of creating everyday materials.
"Ancient skills in ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and sculpture continue to flourish."
The internet is such a spectacular place to find all kinds of African art. So look around and maybe you'll be able to find out more information. :)(1 vote)