African Pottery History


The history of African pottery is diverse in nature. Each piece of pottery is directly influenced by the region, language, religious beliefs, and culture of the artist as well as European and colonial cultural forces. The history of the pottery was handed down verbally from one generation to the next.

Earliest African Pottery

  • The earliest known pieces of pottery made in Africa were found in Nigeria in the village of Nok. The terra-cotta pieces date to 500 B.C. The subject matter was the human body and head. The design was abstract, consisting of strong formal elements with a complete disregard for the proper size and position of the human anatomy. The design work of these sculptures place them in the early, if not beginning, stages of pottery development.

Subject Matter

  • Heads and human figures are the longest surviving tradition of African terracotta pottery. Some of the earliest terra-cotta heads and human figures were found in Lydenberg and Ife. The heads found in Lydenberg date to the sixth century. They are crude and chunky in design. The heads and human figures found in Ife are more refined in design, with a more formal artistic quality.

Gap in Pottery History

  • Between the periods of 200 A.D. and 14th century, there is virtually no physical evidence of African pottery. Archaeologists believe this is because between these two time periods the people used only perishable items for their sculptures. The mediums used during the gap period included wood, leather, plant fibers and textiles. These artifacts have disintegrated over time.

Egyptian Influence

  • African art displays symbolic meaning. Archeologists believe this is due to the Egyptian influence over the art of the entire continent for more than 3000 years. African pottery from this time period evokes the meaning placed in life after death and pays tribute to mythical gods and goddesses.

20th Century African Art

  • The introduction of a variety of tools to the African people evoked new ways of creating artwork. Terra-cotta sculpting is deep rooted and still used today. Some of the most significant terra-cotta work of the 20th century was done by the Yoruba people of Ife. Life-size terra-cotta sculptures were created between 1910 and 1930. These pieces of pottery have caught the interest of art lovers. Other mediums used for sculpting during the 20th century include bronze and natural stone.

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