Africa: The Cradle of Art and Innovation

Discover stories of African creativity with Dr Tammy Hodgskiss

Origins Centre

Archaic Homo sapiens, Homo heidelbergensis skull casts (2006) by VariousOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Africa is the birthplace of humanity

Archaeological, genetic and fossil evidence shows that our earliest hominin ancestors evolved in Africa about 7 million years ago. Around 1.8 million years ago our earliest ancestors started to move beyond the bounds of Africa to populate parts of the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Around 300 000 years ago, modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, and over time moved into the rest of the world.

Engraved ostrich eggshell on display at Origins Centre (2006) by Replica engraved ostrich eggshell fragments created by Cedric Poggenpoel, with John Parkington.Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Celebrating African creativity

The beginnings of imaginative expression originated in Africa. Engraved items, natural pigments and shell beads older than 80 000 years have been found in Africa. 
These ancient artworks stand as testament to the claim that the continent holds within it some of the earliest forms of human creativity. 

Musical Embellishment I (2018) by Moses UnokwahTerra Kulture

Tracing the evolution of art, and creativity is extraordinary. Today, contemporary African artists are setting a new agendas for artistic expression. Here are some examples of the depth and breadth of African creativity told at African museums and galleries.

Sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli (2006) by Marco CianfanelliOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Africa is the cradle of humankind

Humankind originated in Africa and over time moved outwards to all areas of the world. Africa is steeped in creativity that dates back thousands of years. It preserves a magnificent rock art record that spans the prehistoric era right up until the 19th century. It could be argued that the world's first artists were Africans. 

Niger Delta Apocalypse by Dele jegedeThe Centenary Project

Pioneers in paint and colour

Africa has some of the earliest evidence of the use of earth pigments. Evidence includes engraved ochre nodules and ochre processing areas and tools at sites such as Blombos Cave in South Africa or Porc Epic in Ethiopia; the extensive processing of ochre at sites such as Sibudu in South Africa or Twin Rivers in Zambia; and the extensive mining of shiny bright red ochre in Eswatini.

Origins Centre Stone Tool display and text (2006) by Origins CentreOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Africa took innovation to a new level

Africa yields the earliest forms of technology - stone tools made by early hominins - through to some of the first known compound and bone tools. Today archaeologists study these tools to determine the cognitive evolution of early hominins.

Head and Torso of a Female Figure (500 BC - AD 200) by NokThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Telling stories through art

The kingdoms of Ife, Nok and Benin are examples of how societies expressed their beliefs through artistry. Terracotta and iron sculptures found in present day Nigeria provide evidence for one of the earliest African centres of ironworking and clay figure production. The Nok terracottas date to as early as 500 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.

'The Crying Cows', Algeria.British Museum

Phenomenal Rock Art

Africa has an extraordinary variety and some of the oldest rock art on earth! 
Did you know that Africa also has more rock art than any other continent? The Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) estimates that 30 countries in Africa have rock art totaling between 10 and 20 million images.

Game Pass, South Africa.British Museum

“Africa’s rock art is the common heritage if all Africans, and it is more than that. It is the common heritage of humanity. As populations increase and vandalism and theft of Africa’s rock art are on the rise, this irreplaceable resource is highly threatened. It is time for Africa’s leaders to take a new and more active role. We must save this this cultural heritage before it is too late.” - Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General 2005

Bamileke Elephant Mask, Cameroon by Angela Fisher & Carol BeckwithAfrican Ceremonies

Ritual and Tradition

All people on the African continent bring their own unique culture, vision and energy to their ritual and traditional fashions. These fashions, garments and cosmetics have powerful meanings and mark important life events and rites of passage. The diverse  rituals, styles, colours, music and ceremonies make “Africa a powerhouse of creativity and never-ending source of design inspiration”.

[Placeholder] The ‡Khomani San (2020) by Julie GrantOrigins Centre

The art of storytelling and oral history

There is a rich tradition of oral storytelling throughout Africa. Storytelling was the basis of knowledge sharing and learning, ethics, history and experience. Stories taught values to children and transmitted lessons of wisdom, cultural and historical knowledge.

Threads of Knowing: The Future (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Storytelling - through words, gestures, singing and facial expressions - is an art which provides entertainment, imagination, and teaches important, memorable lessons about life. 

Oga at the top (2013) by Obinna MakataOriginal Source: African Artists Foundation

Post-colonial reclaimations

Important social and political questions are raised through art - issues around representation and identity in post-colonial Africa, changing traditional value-systems and Afro-centric artistic processes.

Many Came Back (2005/2005) by El AnatsuiThe Newark Museum of Art

Africa is an epicentre of contemporary art

Today, African artists, musicians and creatives are reaching global recognition. This includes Nobel prize winners like Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer and celebrated artists like El Anatsui and Ben Enwonwu. 

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