The History Of African Art

West African art is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. Artists from several countries and tribes within West Africa have produced art galleries that circulate contemporary pieces intermixed with original traditional artwork like ceremonial masks and statues. 

European and American museums, galleries, and collectors have grown in their appreciation of African art over the last several years in particular, but when did West African art start, what is most popular? And how can you tell if you are buying an original piece? 

When did African art make its early appearance?

African art began to make its early appearances around the 13th century from Nations:

  • Ghana
  • Burkina Faso
  • Ivory Coast
  • Guinea
  • Nigeria
  • Sierra Leone
  • Republic of Benin
  • Mali
  • Senegal
  • Togo

However, each tribe has a rich history since that time of authentic African art, much of which has grown in the last century. 

For example:

  1. Ivory Coast has hundreds of thousands of tribal members who have helped African carvings, including face masks and statues, re-emerge throughout the 19th century, increasing awareness and popularity. 
  2. Guinea has seen regional artistic designs for things like headdresses and masks since the 17th century. 
  3. Nigeria has some of the most well-known West African art since the 15th century, including Benin plaques, Yoruba statues, Edo masks, and more. 
  4. Ghana has seen an infusion of African art since the 17th century when the Asante kingdom was officially formed, and this has resulted in kente textiles, Akan statues, and goldwork. 

What does West African Art symbolize?

West African art can symbolize many things. Masks, metal, stone, textiles, and other productions serve different purposes depending on the tribe.

For example, masks can be carved to represent spirits, the spirits of ancestors with features that look similar to a loved one who is deceased, or carved to look like animals in order to embody animal features and characteristics.

In religious ceremonies, some members might want to merge with the spirits of ancestors or other gods and do so by wearing artistic West African masks so that their bodies may serve as vessels for whoever is carved into the mask. 

Dolls and statues have been historically carved to represent male or female gods and characteristics when given as gifts at major milestones like coming of age ceremonies like Senufo sculptures or Kono helmet masks. 

Some West African art is decorated to celebrate harvests or significant events throughout tribal history in which case the artistic elements might embody symbols for abundance, for gods or goddesses of creation, or of actual crops.

What are the most popular West African tribes that produce art? 

The Guerre tribe, or Krahn, from Liberia and the Ivory Coast, are known for stylistic masks. Masks created by the Guerre tribe were historically used for social contexts, made with tubular eyes and gaping jaws that juxtaposed gentler facial features found in other artwork. Unlike other tribes, their artwork centered on masks passed down through generations rather than on statues or other artwork. 

The Fang tribes of Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon also produce wood carvings, including sculptures and masks. They tend to work with ebony wood, relying on geometric patterns and abstract designs for the facial features. Traditionally, these masks were used for decoration and religious purposes, and they were designed to embody the spirit of people or animals. Some of the most well-known are those that actually hold Ngil heads, the skulls of ancestors decorated with patterns and thought to possess unique abilities linked to the dead.

The Namji tribe from Cameroon is known for their beaded artwork. This tribe popularized the work of wooden dolls, often crafted from rosewood and decorated with shells and beads. These are traditionally given as gifts during major social and personal milestones, like coming of age. Unlike mask making, which, in many tribes, is an exclusively male endeavor, these dolls are typically carved by females. 

The Yoruba tribe in Nigeria produces artistic textiles. With indigo-dyed cotton, the fabric is uniquely stitched in such a way that the colors only soak into specified areas, leaving the opposite areas cotton-white. These textiles can be used ornamentally but are typically thought to provide protection for those wearing them. 

The Asante tribe in Ghana is also known for producing artistic textiles, as well as baskets, wood carvings, and gold art. The baskets, in particular, are distinguished because they have unique patterns with vibrant colors. These baskets were traditionally used to carry goods to and from markets and are still employed locally today. However, the unique weaving techniques employed by this tribe, along with different colors and geometric patterns, make them a popular piece of display artwork.

What is the importance of West African Tribal Art?

West African tribal art is not only beautiful but it is historically important as a representation of many cultural aspects. 

Tribal Textiles

Tribal textiles include patterns, colors, and symbols that are tied to specific spiritual beliefs or to the powerful characteristics and magical abilities of certain spirits, animals, or gods.

Tribal Masks

Tribal masks include cultural representations of spirits or characteristics used in religious ceremonies. The techniques, patterns, details, and organic added material found on these tribal masks can represent naturalism, magical abilities, ancestors, even emotions.

Tribal Statues

Tribal statues and other artwork are important because they symbolize powerful beliefs in supernatural forces. Within each tribe, different artwork might be used to incorporate ancestors and tribal traditions or represent tribal history.

What type of art is West Africa known for most?

West Africa is most known for its traditional, ceremonial masks. These are hand-carved masks used during specific ceremonies with religious connotations. In addition, many tribes in West Africa are known for statues and textiles.

Why are authentic West African art pieces expensive?

There are several reasons why authentic West African art pieces are expensive.


The first is authenticity. Many of the techniques used by West African tribes have been passed down over hundreds or thousands of years from one generation to the next. Using handheld tools and techniques, these processes take time. 


Historically, men and women creating West African art would spend hours every day working on small pieces for upcoming ceremonies or milestones that were only needed a few times in a given lifetime.

The reproduction of these authentic West African art pieces using the same techniques also takes time. A single mask or statue carved from a piece of wood might take several weeks to complete, contributing to the cost.


The materials will also contribute to the expense. Sculptures and masks might be carved from more expensive wood like Ebony or Rosewood with added organic and inorganic materials such as:

  • Feathers
  • Shells
  • Horns
  • Beads
  • Porcupine quills

All of the materials added to a unique piece of West African art might need to be wildcrafted from the local area or made by hand.


The provenance, or where a piece of art comes from, can add to the cost. Where a piece comes from might have higher popularity throughout the world of artistic collections, meaning that it's subsequently worth more. However, the provenance also means that it might cost more to ship or import directly, adding to the cost.

How to know if you have an original piece or a duplicate

There are several ways you can know whether or not you have an original piece or a duplicate. Be advised that when buying authentic or original pieces of African art, you can either purchase:

  1. An antique, which is an original piece that is significantly older and was used by a tribe in the past or
  2. An original creation that uses the same techniques by the same tribe members but was handcrafted more recently

In either case you can verify the authenticity by way of the condition of the item itself, what materials are used, and the documentation that comes with it.


The first is documentation. This might be one of the most important and easiest ways to know if you have an original piece. Authentic original artwork will come with documentation that links it to the artistic lineage with information like:

  • Who the artist was
  • Where it came from
  • What it represents

Documentation might also include government documents for pieces shipped from West African countries, which, along with other certificates of authenticity, will confirm the originality of the piece.


African art uses unique materials and geometric patterns. Some of the textiles mentioned above, for example, use unique Indigo dye so you can tell whether the product is original based on the geometry and the staining. Many of the materials will have uniformity but be very clearly done by hand with small imperfections. Recreations or duplicates are often mass produced and won't have such imperfections.


The second is the condition. Most West African art is carved from wood whether it's a mask, statue, or a doll and in this case you can make sure that the wood looks the same on both sides. 

When a traditional statue, doll, mask, or even textile is handled a lot, oils from the skin will transfer, and over time, they will transfer in a regular pattern indicative of how the object was held. If an object was used in ceremonies, it might also absorb sweat where, again, it was held or worn.

This discoloration and hue is a natural occurring phenomenon that is sometimes replicated in fake pieces. Artificially reproduced masks might have an unnatural polish on the front facing side and a less polished reverse which could indicate that it was stained to look like a certain type of hardwood like ebony instead of actually crafted from a piece of hardwood. 

How to care for West African ceremonial masks and art

Caring for your West African ceremonial masks and artwork involves a few simple steps.

  1. Keep hand carved masks in a temperature controlled environment if possible or maintain a very similar temperature indoors so that the wood or other materials don't dry out and crack over time.
  2. Avoid placing your West African ceremonial masks and art in direct sunlight, as this can damage the color and cause them to dry and crack. 
  3. If there are other organic and non-organic materials like beads, raffia, porcupine quills, or feathers, place your ceremonial mask or artwork on a shelf or other unit for display so that it doesn't get handled regularly.
  4. Use a soft duster or paintbrush to periodically remove dust and debris from all of the crevices and other surfaces.
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