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African Art in the Pre-Colonial Era

Long before Europeans arrived in Africa and began establishing trade outposts and colonies, there were a number of flourishing and great African civilizations. The history of ancient Africa as described by Henry (2007) is complex and filled with the stories of any number of great civilizations that flourished and then disappeared. Unfortunately, as art historians like Helen Gardner (1962) have suggested, much of African art tends to be characterized as primitive, produced by tribal people who favored animistic religions and whose artistic productions were relatively limited in comparison to their European peers. Nevertheless, pre-colonial African art was dynamic, expressive, and culturally as well as aesthetically significant.

Gardner (1962) says that early African civilizations, including that of Meroe and Benin and the Ivory Coast, worked in such varied materials as painting, bronze castings, ivory and wood carvings, and textile manufacturing. Gardner (1962, p. 400) describes the sculpture of these ancient African civilizations as follows:

Every part in a typical, fully realized statue functions as an element in plastic design; an embodiment, a repetition in rhythmic varied sequence, of some theme in mass, line, or surface.

Yet another great African civilization was located in Nigeria. Bahn (1996) points out that Nigeria in the years before Christianity and throughout the first 1,000 or more years after the birth and death of Jesus Christ, was the locus of a thriving artistic colony. Finely crafted heads, statutes, and decorative plaques in wood, terracotta, and bronze, some of which dated from the first millennium BCE were found by European colonizers when they invaded the country. Stone tools were common throughout most of pre-colonization Africa and unlike Europe, sub-Saharan Africa had no Neolithic or Bronze Age. Bahn (1996, p. 179) stated that "in many places the Stone Age lasted until the introduct...

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