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Africa: arts and cultures

Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier

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 centralised 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 centralised 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, tyres, 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 colours 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.

The African galleries at the British Museum include objects relating to both ancient and contemporary cultures, as well as exploring contemporary issues. The Tree of Life is a powerful memorial to war, while other displays look at the subject of facing HIV/AIDS in Tanzania.

Image caption: Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier
Benin, Nigeria. 18th century AD

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